William Hiseland: The Super-Centenarian Soldier

File:William Hiseland.jpg

William Hiseland, portrait at the Royal Hospital of Chelsea Museum, painted by George Alsop, August 1730

One Sunday morning, on the 23rd of October, 1642, two armies of roughly 15,000 men each gathered on the field of Edgehill, outside the small village of Kineton (south Warwickshire, England). This was the first serious engagement of the English Civil War between those loyal to the king, Charles I, and those who sought to overthrow him, backed by the might of Parliament. The war would go on to be the bloodiest (in terms of the percentage of the population killed) in English history. It would end in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the English Republic that would rule for 11 years until the return of monarchy under Charles’ son, Charles II.

Occupying the high ground of Edgehill was the Royalist army, a mish-mash of professional soldiers and mercenaries (many of them Scots and/or Germans), commoners, and English nobles. Among those gathered under the King’s banner was a twenty-two year old man from Wiltshire called William Hiseland. William, a soldier since age of 13, had been one of many country lads to flock to the King’s side after the outbreak of the Civil War. Support was largely split between those who lived in the major cities who generally supported Parliament and those who lived in the countryside who largely owed their loyalty to the King. The lines were, of course, much more blurred than this and the War would become famous for splitting family loyalties; brother would fight brother over the issue of royal prerogative.

The battle of Edgehill would end in a stalemate. Both sides retired for the night and had to endure a freezing cold night (which ironically saved many of the wounded as the cold congealed their wounds). On the following morning the two sides reassembled for battle but both sides had lost their appetite for bloodshed and elected instead to race down to London which the King intended to seize in order to forcibly disband Parliament. This would have been a harrowing experience for the  young William who had just survived his first large-scale engagement and had to sleep in the deep cold, with the enemy only a few meters away. Yet William would go on to fight many more battles over his long, bloody career.

William would serve on the Royalist side for the entire civil war, which would end nine years later on September 3rd 1651, less than one month after his 31st birthday (which was August 6th). After the war, William, like most of the lower ranks of the Royalist side, was permitted to return home. He would live peacefully throughout the entire period of the Republic (a time which has come to be known rather condescendingly as the interregnum) and he was doubtlessly one of the many people who rejoiced at the return of the king in 1658, on the death of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who had ruled since the deposition and execution of Charles I. All of the instigators of the Charles I’s execution we hanged; in the case of Cromwell, his body was exhumed, put on trial and hanged.

Charles II’s reign was one of famous extravagance, the party that came after years of puritan rule under the Republic. Yet the celebrations would come to an end when Charles II died without a legitimate son. The throne passed to his brother, James II, who was a Roman Catholic. For the heavily protestant Parliament the idea of having a Catholic as the head of the Church of England was a step too far, they feared a reunion with Rome. Instead of instigating another civil war Parliament elected instead to pick another king. They sent an invitation to the Dutch Stadtholder, William, Prince of Orange (see The Year the Dutch Ate Their Prime Minister) who seized his chance to be king by invading and quickly overthrowing James. This overthrowing of James II came to be called the Glorious Revolution and it was now that William Hiseland would return to military service and fight in a battle that is still heavily ingrained in the memory of the Irish.

Following his deposition in 1688, James II intended to regain his Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland by invading Ireland with the help of France. The result was what became known as the Williamite War in Ireland. James, as a Catholic, had the support of the majority Catholic population of Ireland with the exception of the Protestants in the north (a polarization that still exists to this day). William Hiseland joined the forces of William of Orange to fight in Ireland despite being 69 years old. William would see action several more times in this war, most notably at the Battle of the Boyne (a battle that is still celebrated by the Protestants of Northern Ireland). James’ defeat at the Battle of the Boyne signaled the end of his attempt to regain the throne and confirmed Protestant British rule over Ireland until the 20th century.

The Williamite War in Ireland ended in 1691, William Hiseland was now 72 years old, well beyond retirement age by modern standards. However, this was still not to be his last conflict. In 1709, at the astonishing age of 89, William was once again called upon to fight. This time it was the War of the Spanish Succession, a war that aimed to prevent a union between France a Spain through a French inheritance of the Spanish crown (the same method used by Charles I’s father, James I, that had led to the official union of Scotland and English into the United Kingdom in the Act of the Union, 1707). William was called to serve under John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough (and ancestor of Winston Churchill), a military genius who revolutionized 18th century warfare. The war would end in French defeat, breaking the hegemony that France (ruled by the Sun King, Louis XIV) had held over Europe for centuries.

William’s last battle would be the largest he had yet faced. On the battlefield of Malplaquet more than 161,000 men gathered for one of the greatest battles of the war. William would would serve with the Royal Scots regiment in the thick of the fighting. It was joked that the regiment fought with both the oldest and youngest men on the field for besides the 89 year old William Hiseland, a certain Private McBain fought the battle with his three week old son strapped to his back. The battle was incredibly bloody with 32,000 men killed or wounded on both sides. Yet William survived, was granted the rank of Sergeant and allowed to go home.

In recognition for more than 80 years of military service to the Crown, from Edgehill to Malplaquet, William Hiseland was given a pension of two crowns a week and was made and in-pensioner of the Royal Hospital of Chelsea. However, William would not stop here. At the grand age of 103 he got married (presumably to a woman many years his junior). His marriage forced him to move out of the Hospital, which, until 2011, was reserved for men only. Astonishingly he would outlive his wife who died when he was 112. William moved back to the Hospital but he would not be widowed long. On February 7th 1733 William Hiseland died having lived an extraordinary life that oversaw much turmoil and change, both in England and the rest of Europe. He, being born within living memory of Queen Elizabeth I, had lived to see the end of the Stuart Dynasty in England (1714), the dynasty he had served at Edgehill, and the beginning of the Hanoverian dynasty that rules Britain today. An inscription on his tomb in the Royal Hospital burial ground reads:

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
Ancient 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 6th of August 1620 Died 7th of Feb. 1733 Aged 112


One comment

  1. James Macmillan-Scott · · Reply


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