Tuesday, 22 October 2013

A Female Soldier - Mother Ross

Supporting King James

Battle of the Boyne
When James II was driven out of England, following the Glorious Revolution he took his cause to Ireland, supported by the troops and cash of the king of France, Louis XIV. Many of his former subjects rallied to the cause, among them the father of one Christian Cavanagh.
‘The Battle of the Boyne put an end to all my father’s hopes for King James; for his army was there defeated, and he, with the rest of the shattered troops, trusted their safety to the swiftness of their horses’ heels, rather than to the strength of their own arms.’[i]
For his support of the former king, the Cavanagh family lost all their not inconsiderable property[ii]. Christian refused an offer from her mother’s first cousin, informing him that he could do better than marry a penniless woman. But Christian inherited a public house in Dublin from an aunt and was able to run the business prosperously. She attracted the attention of one of her servants, a Richard Welsh, who was able to successfully press his suit upon his mistress.
The Loss of a Husband
According to Christian the Welsh’s lived happily together for four years, having two children and another on the way. Richard Welsh then disappeared one night with 50 livres[iii] in his pocket. His wife assumed that he was dead and the money stolen.
It was a year later that Christian received a letter from Richard, claiming that he had been carried off and gotten drunk by a friend, Ensign C-m. He had found himself on a recruiting vessel, ready to take fresh fodder to fight in King William’s wars on the continent.
‘I was not sensible of what was doing upon deck. In the interim, the wind sprung up fair, the captain set sail with what recruits were on board, and we had so quick a passage, that we reached Helvoet Sluys[iv], before I had recovered from the effects of the liquor.’[v]
Richard, finding himself penniless in a foreign land, had been forced to sign up to fight in the English army, now involved in the Nine Years War against the expansionist policies of Louis XIV.
A Trip to the Continent
Christian Welsh aka Christopher Welsh
Being slender and of a similar size to her husband Christian decided to dress in one of her husband’s suits and make her way to the continent to be re-united with her husband. Her two elder children were left in the care of her mother and the youngest was placed with a nurse.
‘I cut off my hair, and dressed me in a suit of my husband’s, having taken the precaution to quilt the waistcoat, to preserve my breasts from hurt, which were not large enough to betray my sex.’[vi]
Christian informed the recruiting officer that her name was Christopher Welsh and she was enlisted in Captain Tichbourne’s company of foot.
One of Christian’s first duties, upon arrival in Holland, was to stand guard at the door of the Elector of Hanover. Shortly thereafter Christian was involved in the fighting at the Battle of Landen, on 29th July 1693. The Allied army was forced into retreat; Christian was wounded before the fighting began and it took two months to recover from the graze from a musket ball.
Duke of Berwick
During the summer of 1694 Christian was taken prisoner during a foraging expedition. The former Queen Mary arranged for the English prisoners to be well treated and given an allowance, food and drink. The prisoners were visited by the Duke of Berwick[vii], who tried to persuade them to swap sides and fight for the French.
After nine days Christian was freed in an exchange of prisoners; she had considered the possibility of declaring herself to her cousin, Captain Cavanagh who was fighting for the French and visited the prison on a number of occasions. Believing that discovery of her identity would hamper her search for her husband, Christian did not approach her cousin, who did not recognise her amongst the prisoners.
The Duel
The winter of 1694-5 was spent at Gorcum[viii], and Christian paid court to a burgher’s daughter. She later came to regret this masquerade as the poor girl fell in love, seeing Christian as a potential husband. A sergeant of the same regiment also had designs on the poor girl and attempted to rape her.
The young woman asked Christian to avenge her honour and the sergeant and Christian set to. Christian wounded her superior.
‘The first thrust I made, gave him a slight wound in his right pap, which had well-nigh done his business. He returned this with a long gash on my right arm…..but before he could recover his guard, I gave him a thrust in the right thigh, about half a span from the pope’s eye.’[ix]
When the duel was stopped Christian was taken off to prison. She passed a message on to the burgher, whose daughter’s honour she had been defending. Within four days the burgher managed to get a pardon from King William and Christian was discharged from the regiment.
La Fille du Regiment
Lord John Hays
Almost immediately Christian re-enlisted into Lord John Hays’ regiment of Dragoons. When the army broke winter quarters Christian’s regiment was sent to fight at the Siege of Namur. King William invested the town, but not before Marshal Duc de Boufflers had quartered himself and seven regiments in the town[x], which capitulated on the 1st September 1695.  
Duc de Villeroy
In attempt to divert William from Namur the French, under Marshal Duc de Villeroy, had bombarded Brussels to no avail. The Namur garrison marched out on 5th September;
‘The garrison, which still consisted of five thousand one hundred and sixty eight men, marched out at the breach, with drums beating, matches lighted, colours flying, six pieces of cannon and two mortars, through a lane of thirty battalions of our troops.’[xi]
Seige of Namur
During the siege of Namur the French had captured the towns of Diense and Dixmunde and had refused to ransom the garrisons. In return Boufflers was arrested, his incarceration was short as Louis agreed to release the two garrisons in return for Boufflers’ release.
Christian’s regiment went into winter quarters at the Boss where, when visiting a brothel with fellow officers, she was approached by one of the denizens of the house[xii]. When Christian refused to have sex with her, the female had her revenge by claiming, having given birth a short time later, that she the child was Christian’s. Rather than expose the impossibility of this claim Christian agreed to fund the baby, which died within a month of being born.
It does not appear that Christian was involved in any fighting after that and, following the Peace of Ryswick signed on 20th September 1697, she was discharged and returned to Dublin, still dressed in male garb. Arriving home Christian discovered that, having been absent a lot longer than planned, she owed the nurse looking after her youngest child a lot of money that she did not have. In the circumstances, having ascertained that the family were well, Christian decided not to reveal herself.
Back to War
Christian took a job in Dublin, while husbanding what capital she had. When the English joined the War of the Spanish Succession in May 1702[xiii], Christian again joined up to fight. William III had recognised Louis XIV’s grandson Philip as the new king of Spain, but Louis’ ambitions went beyond a Bourbon hegemony in France and Spain and this was unacceptable to the English.
Queen Anne
William’s death[xiv] in March 1702 did not stop the English fears of France overrunning the whole of continental Europe. Queen Anne’s ministers Sidney Godolphin and James Churchill, Earl of Marlborough[xv], were able to persuade her to declare war. Churchill was given command of the joint Anglo-Dutch army, beating the claims of many rivals.
‘As the only general who could command the respect of them all, Marlborough was given command of the British, Dutch and hired German forces of the Grand Alliance at a salary of £10,000[xvi] a year.’[xvii]
Although relatively inexperienced[xviii], he was the husband of his monarch’s bosom friend Sarah Churchill. It was fortunate for his country that he turned out to be one of England’s most successful generals.
Duc de Boufflers
Christian Davies joined her old regiment, Lord John Hays’ dragoons. She was involved in the battle of Nijmegen. The fighting covered the retreat of the Dutch army, following an attack by Boufflers’ troops. Christian was among a number of dragoons who put to rout a superior force of French cavalry.
‘We….put them to the run, with a considerable loss on their, and very little on our, side. I had here the good fortune, though in the thickest of the engagement, to escape without hurt, and to be taken notice of by the officers.’[xix]
A detachment of troops besieged Venlo, which capitulated on 23rd September. The French were pushed back to Maastricht; the Allies appearing before the town of Liege on 14th October and carried the attack on 23rd. Christian picked up some booty in the sack of the citadel.
‘I got but little of the plunder……a large silver chalice, and some other pieces of plate, which I afterwards sold to a Dutch Jew for a third part of their value.’[xx]
The troops were quartered at Venlo and Christian was one of those chosen to escort the Earl of Marlborough along the banks of the Maas. During the march the soldiers took possession of five pigs and Christian got into altercation with a Corporal Taylor over one of them. He struck at her with a knife and cut the sinews of her little finger, while she hit him with her pistol, knocking out one of his eyes.
While in winter quarters Christian recommenced her somewhat dilatory search for her husband, but of him she found no trace.
Mother Ross – Daniel Defoe, Oakpast Ltd 2011
Queen Anne – Edward Gregg, Routledge and Kegan Paul 1980
The Marlboroughs – Christopher Hibbert, Penguin Books 2002
Marlborough – Richard Holmes, Harper Perennial 2009
Marlborough – JR Jones, Cambridge University Press 1993
William and Mary – John van der Kiste, Sutton Publishing 2003
William and Mary – Henri and Barbara van der Zee, The History Book Club 1973

[i] Mother Ross - Defoe
[ii] Mr Cavanagh had been a maltster and brewer, employing twenty servants
[iii] To pay for the beer purchased for the public house
[iv] In the province of South Holland
[v] Mother Ross – Defoe
[vi] Ibid
[vii] James II’s illegitimate son by Arabella Churchill, the sister of the Duke of Marlborough
[viii] In the province of South Holland
[ix] Mother Ross – Daniel Defoe
[x] Bringing the total of defenders to 14,000
[xi] Mother Ross- Daniel Defoe
[xii] Who was in the later stages of pregnancy
[xiii] The war between France and the majority of the continent commenced in July 1701 when Prince Eugene of Savoy, leading the Austrian forces, invaded the Duchy of Milan
[xiv] Queen Mary died in December 1694
[xv] Churchill was made Duke of Marlborough in December 1702
[xvi] In 2011 worth £1,340,000.00 using the retail price index or £18,500,000.00 using average earnings www.measuringworth.com
[xvii] The Marlboroughs - Hibbert
[xviii] He had never commanded a large army in the field
[xix] Mother Ross – Daniel Defoe
[xx] Ibid


  1. This is a great one! Well researched and reads like a novel. Thanks a lot for sharing, Helen.

  2. A brave woman to go looking for her husband like that, an imposture far bolder than any fiction writer could make up!