Marching to the beat of their own drum: The Drummers' Story

Although their primary role wasn’t to carry weapons and launch into the opposition, drummers were a vital part of any regiment during the English Civil War. The drummer was a non-commissioned officer, reflecting their importance and status in the army rather than the ‘drummer boy’ of later periods. They were a key method to indicate a ‘parley’ between opposite commanders and as protected, as anyone on a battlefield could be, by a gentleman’s agreement that saw attacks on drummers as ‘bad form’.

One of the primary aims of the drummer was to communicate orders. On a battlefield, in among the gunpowder smoke, bodies and shouting, it could be almost impossible to hear an order. The sound of the drums could cut through this noise and soldiers recognised the orders being given by the drum patterns or ‘calls’ and could respond accordingly. An example of this could be the ‘battaile’ call; this was the order that a pike block should advance, whilst ‘charging their pikes’ (holding the point towards the enemy) and try push through the enemy defences. If necessary, the pattern could change to order the soldiers to retreat, rally and reform. This was a far more effective form of communication than an officer shouting and hoping that the soldiers heard!

William Barriffe in his pamphlet Militarie Discipline commented that ‘… the Drum is the voice of the Commander’. This was just as true off the battlefield as one the battlefield. Drummers would be the ones to play the ‘Calls to Arms’ to signal to soldiers that they were expected to form up in preparation to march. The sound of drums, much like of the battlefield, would echo around the camp, ensuring that the orders were clearly communicated.

Drummers were also in charge of discipline in the army and indicating a beat and tempo that foot soldiers should march to. Ten years prior to the outbreak of the English Civil War, King Charles I had lamented the poor discipline among troops in his 1632 warrant in which he accounted part of this problem to the drummers. Marching as a unit could help to restore this discipline. Many of the drummers played the ‘English March’ as a way to help soldiers keep step and different nationalities had variations which made them easily identifiable e.g. the Dutch March, the French March. Although some drummers did trying to include their own ‘flourishes’ which, whilst technically banned, did help to relieve some of the monotony of the march.

In our re-enactments and battle displays, our drummers perform a similar function. They give the ‘Call to Arms’ to warn us that we need to form up ready for the display, give us a good beat to march to and are a vital way to communicate during the displays themselves. However, unlike the drummers of the English Civil War, they have some more modern ways of learning the drum patterns and have developed a set of mnemonics to help them learn and remember the drum calls.

The Sir Thomas Tyldesley Drum Corps Mnemonics*

Call to Arms: La-ven-ders’ blue, dilly dilly! La-ven-ders’ blue.

Preparative: Bas-tard, bas-tard Crom-well’s a bas-tard, yes, he, is!

English March: I have got a drum. I have got a drum. I’ve got a drum with a pikeman’s head in it.

Battaile: Oh no, I’ve lost my bra! Bet-ter-get-an-oth-er-one-and-put-it-on-quickly

*not historically accurate!

I was delighted to be invited to the Tyldesley drummers’ virtual drill session. Take a look at the video to meet some of our drummers and see what I learnt!

Find out more about the Tyldesley's drummers here and information for anybody interested in taking part in a reenactment with us.

Further reading: Norris, J. (2012). Marching to the Drums: A History of Military Drums and Drummers. The History Press