August 23, 2008

Simon How or Howel

On 31st May 1688, Simon How or Howell (the Old Bailey records record both names) was sentenced to death. When we inquire why, we find this note in the records

Simon How , of the Parish of Stepney , in the County of Middlesex, was Indicted for Runing from his Colours, he being entertained as a Soldier in the Regiment of the Right Honourable the Lord Dartmouth; in which Regiment he continued for about the space of two Years and upward, and Received the Kingspay ; But in February last sented himself, and was taken in Rosemary Lane, The Prisoner did not deny his going away, said he was poor, and had Money oweing him f the Company, he being a Suttler, or Seller of drink to them. So upon the whole, the Evidence being plain against him that he Received the Kings pay, though not positive of his Receiving the Press Money he was found Guilty , &c.

How was sentenced to death for desertion. There are a couple of things of interest to note here. The first is the date- 1688. In 1688 James II was deposed by William III, he was deposed because of what his opponents saw as his Catholic tyranny. William was the stadtholder of Holland- and in November of 1688 mounted the last successful invasion of England. What is interesting about this note in the Old Bailey records is a simple thing- it is what it does not say rather than what it does say. We often presume that armies in the advance of war are made of ideological zealots and that desertion is an ideological action. That isn't true. How deserted because he was poor and the Company owed money to him that they would not pay, one presumes he thought that there were better markets for the drink he was selling- including markets who would redeem their debts. Ideology seems to have played no part- and James's courts were zealous in prosecuting people for political treason- this seems to have played no part in How's desertion and demonstrates that it is wrong to assume that desertion or indeed participation from and in an army are always ideological actions.

The second thing that is interesting here is How's job. We all often assume that armies are made up of people who are provided for by the state- the British army in Iraq are provided with everything they need (sometimes to a lower degree than they or we might wish!) by the state. Private contractors contract with the MoD to provide them with other services. The world of the pre-modern army was completely different. Firstly this army did not exist for a long time- James's army had been built up over the previous couple of years- it was not the permanent organisation that modern armies are and so didn't have the permanent logistical aparatus or contractual provision that modern armies have. Secondly this army was more like a marching market- behind it came a great deal of people who provided services from sex to drink. Some soldiers like How got involved in the trades and sold on to other men. Whenever we think of pre-modern armies, we are wrong to assume that they look like and behave like modern armies- despite having the same name, they were completely different organisms.

The case of Simon How therefore provides us with a lot of evidence to challenge what we think today about armies. His case suggests that we should not assume that armies are ideologically disposed to fight for their cause- and his case was not uncommon (my favourite is a soldier who in the English civil war fought for the Irish Catholic Rebels, the royal army in Ireland, the Scottish Presbyterians, the royal army in England and finally the New Model Army of Oliver Cromwell). There is a last thing that it reminds us of- that pre-modern justice was a blunt and yet very cruel instrument. How fled the army because there was a reasonable chance that noone would find him- once he was found though, death was his reward for being unable to sustain himself as a soldier.