History Extra logo
The official website for BBC History Magazine and BBC History Revealed

Did Roundheads and Cavaliers really dress so differently?

The English Civil War invokes images of elaborately dressed Cavaliers against the practically armoured Roundheads. But is this accurate?

'The Battle Of Naseby, 1645', (c1850). (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)
Published: February 20, 2014 at 3:33 pm
Try 6 issues for only £9.99 when you subscribe to BBC History Magazine or BBC History Revealed

In a word, no. The idea of gaily dressed Cavaliers in plumed hats doing battle with helmeted Roundheads is a Victorian misconception.


Armies in the Civil Wars of 1642–51 were dressed in exactly the same way and any cavalryman, Roundhead or Cavalier, offered the opportunity of wearing a helmet, breastplate and thick leather coat would have jumped at the chance.

Until the establishment of Parliament’s New Model Army whose soldiers were uniformly clothed in red, infantry regiments were clothed in whatever colour uniform their colonels chose for them. As a result there were regiments on both sides wearing the same colour coats – red, blue, green and white- and this could lead to considerable confusion on the battlefield.

The armies tried to get round this in a variety of ways. Cavalrymen were given coloured scarves or sashes to wear. These were normally red for the Royalists, tawny orange for the Parliamentarians. An army might adopt a ‘field sign’ to distinguish its soldiers – maybe a bit of greenery stuck in the hat – and was usually given a ‘field word’ – a simple phrase to shout out as a kind of password.

Obviously field words were hardly secret, field signs could be swiftly removed (the Parliamentarian general Sir Thomas Fairfax avoided capture by doing this at the Battle of Marston Moor) and at the Battle of Cheriton in 1644 both sides took to the field with something white in their hats as a field sign and shouting out ‘God with us’ as a field word!


This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine


Sponsored content