Children at war- ‘And when did you last see your father?’

Many of you will recognise this painting; it is called ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ and was painted by William Frederick Yeames in 1878 (oil on canvas). It is a painting which I have always found fascinating as there is so much going on. With the deftly painted depictions of people and emotions you can’t help but be drawn into the story, in fact I have seen this work of art used by school teachers as an introduction to the topic of the English Civil War. So, what exactly is going on here, and how does it fit into this period of our history?

The scene depicts events in a Royalist household when a young boy is questioned about when his father was last at home. The house has obviously been captured by Parliamentary forces as can be seen by the central figure lounging in a chair – he wears the military clothing of a Roundhead cavalry officer, including long riding boots and orange sash.

The young boy and the females are all dressed in Royalist style; the young girl who is crying appears to be next in line for interrogation whilst the mother, and possibly elder daughter, watch.  The man with his arm around the shoulders of the young girl is carrying a halberd which identifies him as a sergeant; it is likely that his role was to arrest the family and bring them before the Parliamentarian questioners. Amongst the other characters in the painting are a clerk who is making notes and bringing the air of a courtroom to the proceedings, and two Puritans (wearing the tall black hats and white collars) who appear stern and obviously pleased to have another dangerous Royalist within their grasp.

Most people believe that this is a fictional scene although John Adair, who wrote ‘By the Sword Divided’, says that it depicts what happened to the family of Bulstrode Whitelocke whose house at Fawley Court near Henley was ransacked by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces during the war. I suppose we will never know whether this painting is a depiction of a real event or pure fiction, but for me at least that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the quite accurate glimpse which it gives into a conflict which tore England apart in the seventeenth century, dividing people on grounds of politics and religion. It is interesting to note that although the painting depicts a frightening time for the Royalist family it is not overly aggressive. One can almost imagine the sergeant has placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder to comfort her, and the lead questioner appears to be leaning sympathetically towards the little boy. But that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, or the conflict which the child faces. A young boy in his position would have had the ideal of honesty instilled into him from an early age, and he would know that he should not tell a lie. Yet, on the other hand, to tell the truth might put his father’s life in danger. What should a small boy do? How would he respond to such pressure?

My admiration for this beautiful piece of art, and the way it fired my imagination as to ‘what happened next’, led to my writing a particular scene in The Cavalier Historian where the young hero of the novel is questioned about his father’s whereabouts as things begin to look increasingly bleak for the followers of the King…

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