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Vestry Men

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  • Vestry Men

    I was watching a documentary DVD I bought on the '45 and Culloden. Narrated by Brian Blessed, it had animated maps, "4th wall" accounts of contemporary letters by actors in costume and re-enactments of key moments and battle-scenes (including clips from "Chasing The Deer").

    One interesting account told of the use of "Vestry Men" by the British Army. I had never heard of them before and don't remember seeing them mentioned in John Prebble's "Culloden".

    According to a recent publication "Of rather more dubious utility however were the wretched Vestry Men drafted into the ranks of regular regiments. Unlike their rebel counterparts most of King George’s soldiers were volunteers, but at the height of the emergency in 1745 two acts were rushed through Parliament encouraging magistrates to press-gang ‘all able-bodied men who do not follow or exercise any lawful calling or employment’. For each reluctant recruit thus delivered over to the army £3.00 sterling was paid into their parish Vestry account for the upkeep of any dependants left behind. Popular prejudice notwithstanding the army was actually fairly particular about where it found its recruits and viewed these shabby conscripts with a distinctly jaundiced eye. All of them were discharged as soon as their services could decently be dispensed with and in the meantime they were allotted all the dirty jobs such as battlefield clearance and burial details, and prisoner handling – with unhappy results."

    It was mooted on the DVD that it was the vestry men who were detailed to sweep the battlefield and deal with casualties. However, what isn't clear is was it only Vestry men who carried out the slaughter of the wounded and burned down the croft with the fugitives inside etc and how much leeway there was in the orders they were given.

    Or is it a case where all the blame for the brutality is heaped on them by apologetic historians so the army's good name isn't sullied, much in the same way the SS was blamed for the German military's excesses when in fact the Army was often involved too.

  • #2
    I'm currently reading "Paths of Glory" about the career of General Wolfe who was a junior officer at the battle of Culloden. The book gives one or two interesting insights into the battle and its aftermath from contemporary sources including a staunchly pro-government and obviously biased historian, Andrew Henderson. Even he doesn't dispute however that "Cumberland's soldiers stabbed some of the wounded men....and a party meeting others at Culloden house brought them forth and shot them". He tries to justify it however by saying that the troops had been told that the Jacobites had orders to take no prisoners. Wolfe himself is quoted as saying "as few prisoners were taken of the highlanders as possible." My subsequent reading of his life and career suggests he was quite humane by 18th century standards yet he obviously had no sympathy at all for the Jacobites and if his mentality is typical then it suggests to me that atrocities were committed by a large number of Cumberland's men rather than any specific element such as the Vestry men.
    "Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men."

    - Martin Luther King Jr.


    • #3
      The story seems to be that the Army got rid of their Vestry Men as soon as they could after the end of the 45.

      So who carried out the relentless, repressive measures in the Highlands in the years following Culloden ? It appears they can't pin it on the Vestry Men. So - was it Hessians and Badeners ? Or British Army (minus Vestry Men ?)