The Old, Old, Very Old Soldier

I keep coming across super-centenarians at the moment, and in the oddest of contexts. For example, 23 October 2018 is the 376th anniversary of Edgehill, the first significant battle between the opposing sides in the English Civil War.

Old Powick Bridge over the River Teme. (Credit: John M.)

A month earlier, on 23 September, the Royalist cavalry under Prince Rupert of the Rhine had routed Parliamentarian forces at the battle of Powick Bridge near Worcester, during an unexpected and accidental encounter caused by startling carelessness on both sides – but only [sic] about 1,000 soldiers on either side were involved, and the casualties were limited, as the Parliamentarians retreated very rapidly and were not pursued, Prince Rupert having on this occasion decided to behave cautiously rather than with the recklessness for which he is best remembered.

This almost contemporary battle painting is by the charmingly named Palamedes Palamedesz (born in London in 1607, died in Delft 1638).

Edgehill was a different matter, involving the main forces of both sides, with Charles I in personal command of his army and the earl of Essex at the head of the Parliamentarian forces – and the numbers were very much greater: 12,400 on the king’s side and about 15,000 on Parliament’s. The latter had about 2,800 more foot-soldiers, the former sixteen cannon to Essex’s seven.

There are many famous stories about the battle (of which the result was tactically inconclusive). Sir Edmund Verney died attempting to defend the royal standard, which was later recaptured by Lieutenant Colonel Robert Welch, whom Charles knighted on the spot.

Sir Edmund Verney by Sir Anthony Van Dyck, c. 1640. (Credit: the National Portrait Gallery)

The  royal children, Charles, prince of Wales, and James, duke of York, and their escort were almost captured.

William Harvey, discoverer of the circulation of the blood, is absorbed in study while his charges, the two young princes watch the battle: an imaginative reconstruction by W.F. Yeames, 1871.

And the freezing cold of the night of 23 October reduced the fatality count, as blood congealed rapidly and fewer of the wounded therefore bled to death.

Another fact about Edgehill – assuming of course that it is a fact – is that William Hiseland (Hasland, Haseland?), aged 22, fought at it. Hiseland was born on 6 August 1620 in Wiltshire, and is described as having joined the army at the age of thirteen (presumably as a drummer-boy or officer’s servant). He remained loyal to the Crown, and it is therefore not surprising that as an able-bodied young man he was found in the Royalist army at the outset of the war. What is altogether extraordinary is that he also fought in the battle of Malplaquet, Marlborough’s most bloody victory, at the age of 89, and emerged unscathed, retiring with the rank of sergeant.

 At the end of the Civil War, Hiseland seems to have kept his head down and returned to Wiltshire. However, he appears again fighting for William III in Ireland, and later still in Marlborough’s army during the War of the Spanish Succession. At Malplaquet, on 11 September 1709, he served with the Royal Scots, and gave rise to another legend – that the regiment had both the oldest and the youngest soldier in the army in its ranks, as one Private McBain fought the entire engagement with his three-week-old son in his knapsack. His wife had apparently handed the baby over just before the battle, declaring that she would follow the colours no more …

Part of a sequence of paintings by Louis Laguerre celebrating Marlborough’s victories: ‘The Battle of Malplaquet, 1709: The English Dismantling French Defences in the Wood’. (Credit: the National Trust, Plas Newydd)

As to Hiseland’s (even) later life, according to an account by W. Cunnington ‘from a note left by the late James Waylen’, published in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine in 1896, the duke of Richmond and Sir Robert Walpole, ‘in consideration of his long services, each allowed him a crown [5 shillings, 25p] a week for some time before his death’. At some point he entered the Royal Hospital at Chelsea as a Pensioner, but had to leave upon his marriage at the age of 103 (two previous wives had predeceased him). On the death of his third wife, he re-entered the Hospital, and died there on 6 February 1733, at the age of 112.

William Hiseland, In-Pensioner, by George Alsop (fl. 1719–30). (Credit: the Royal Hospital, Chelsea)

The Hospital holds his portrait in its museum: the inscription reads ‘William Haseland the Pentiner of Chellsea Coll: did on ye 1 of August 1730 sit for this Picture who was then 110, and in perfect health’.

Hiseland rests in the Hospital burial ground, beneath this inscription, transcribed in Cunnington’s article:

A Vetran if ever Soldier was
Who merited well a Pension
If Long Service be a Merit
Having served upwards of the Days of Man
Antient but not Superannuated
Engaged in a series of Wars Civil as well as Foreign
Yet not maimed or worn out by either
His Complexion was fresh & florid
His Health hale & hearty
His Memory exact & ready
In Stature He exceeded the Military size
In Strength He surpassed the prime of Youth
and What rendered his Age Still more Patriarchal
When above one Hundred Years Old
He took unto him a Wife
Read Fellow Soldiers and Reflect
That there is a Spiritual Warfare
As well as a Warfare Temporal
Born vj of August 1620 Died vij of Feb. 1732 Aged 112

(The year is given in ‘old style’, where 25 March is the first day of the new year: so by modern reckoning, 1733.)

In this plan of the burial ground, published in 1927, Hiseland’s grave is no. 46.

Precisely what moral lesson his fellow soldiers were supposed to derive from reading this epitaph is unclear.  However, his survival – in one of the most dangerous of occupations – for more than three times the normal life expectancy for the period certainly earned him the right to remembrance.


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3 Responses to The Old, Old, Very Old Soldier

  1. Liam Sims says:

    I love hearing about these long-lived people, and how easy it is to connect to generations which seems far earlier than our own. A letter printed in The Times of 9 Sep 1933 from Martin Routh, noted that, having been born in 1846, he had met his great-uncle and namesake Martin Routh (b. 1755), who himself as a young man had met a woman who had seen Charles II. In four generations (admittedly 80 years ago) you’re back to the seventeenth century! Martin Routh is also astonishing to my mind as someone born in 1755 who lived long enough (d. 1854 aged 99) to be photographed:

    Liked by 1 person

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