Thursday, 15 January 2015

The Civil War

Among the books I have consulted, the following have been especially useful: 
Barry Coward, The Stuart Age. England 1603-1714 (Longman, 2nd edition, 1994)
David L. Smith, A History of the Modern British Isles 1603-1707. The Double Crown (Blackwell, 1998)
Austin Woolrych, Britain in Revolution (Oxford University Press, 2002)
John Wroughton, The Longman Companion to the Stuart Age 1603-1714 (Longman, 1997)

The period between 1640 and 1660 is the most momentous in British history. It saw a series of dramatic events, all of them with major constitutional implications:

  1. The creation of the New Model Army and the rise of religious and political radicalism within the Army
  2. The trial and execution of the king and the setting up of a republic (the Commonwealth)
  3. The brutal conquest of Ireland
  4. A series of parliamentary experiments that saw the dissolution of the Long Parliament and the establishment of Cromwell as Lord Protector
  5. The growth of religious dissent in the 1650s.

The commanders

In July 1643 the earl of Essex was commissioned Captain General of the Parliamentarian armies. He was a cautious commander who believed that the war should be ended with negotiation with the king. The royalist cavalry was commanded by the king's nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. He was the most energetic of the royalist commanders and in November 1644 he was appointed Captain General of the royalist army.


During the war, the Westminster Parliament found that it had almost to invent a government as it went along. The two-chamber Committee of Safety acted with reasonable efficiency as a national executive. Until his final illness, it was dominated by John Pym. His most notable contribution to the parliamentary victory was financial. County committees were made responsible for tax collection. On 22 July 1643 the excise tax was introduced This was a purchase tax on a very wide range of (initially) home-produced consumer goods. Based on Dutch models, it was charged first on beer and ale, strong waters (spirits), cider and soap, but was later imposed on a wide range of imported goods. The tax was always unpopular, but it was too useful to be abandoned and it remained the bedrock of the English taxation system.

The Scots alliance

Pym died at the end of 1643. His last contribution to the Parliamentary cause was to set in motion an alliance with the Scots. On 17 August 1643 the English commissioners and the Scots and signed the Solemn League and Covenant in which Parliament agreed to establish a Presbyterian system in England in return for military help.  Like Charles I, both sides wanted to unite the two countries in a common religious system – something that disgusted those who wanted genuine freedom of religion.

The Scots alliance proved its worth in the parliamentary victory of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644.

The Eastern Association

The most effective of the parliamentary armies was the Eastern Association under Edward Montagu, 2nd earl of Manchester. In August 1643 it was empowered to impress 20,000 men in order to tackle the dire problems faced by the parliamentary armies in eastern England. Like Essex, he favoured a negotiated settlement with the king. 

In January 1644 Manchester and his cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, pushed through Parliament a financial ordinance increasing by 50% the monthly assessments levied on the individual counties of the Eastern Association and putting the money in the hands of a committee at Cambridge under Manchester’s control. With a much more secure financial basis, Manchester began to choose his officers for their ability and military experience rather than their social standing, creating for the first time a truly professional army, now totalling 14,000 men.

Manchester and Cromwell divide

In the post mortem after Parliament’s failure to follow up its victory Newbury in October 1644, Manchester said, 
‘If we beat the king ninety-nine times, he will be king still and his posterity, and we subjects still; but if he beat us but once we should be hanged and our posterity be undone.’ 
Cromwell replied, 
‘My lord, if this be so, why did we take up arms at first? This is against fighting hereafter. If so, let us make peace, be it never so base’.
This signalled an open quarrel between Cromwell and Manchester over military strategy. Was Parliament to press for negotiations with the king or go all out for a decisive victory?

The creation of the New Model Army

In 1645 the parliamentary victory came remarkably quickly due in large part to the creation of the New Model Army

The origins of the New Model Army went back to the Commons debates in November and December 1644 when Cromwell launched a daring attack on his superior, Manchester. On 9 December he told the House 

‘If the army be not put into another method, and the war more vigorously prosecuted, the people can bear the war no longer, and will enforce you to a dishonourable peace'.

The New Model Army Ordinance of 17 February 1645 merged some of the existing armies into an army of ten cavalry regiments of 600 men each, 12 infantry regiments of 1,200 men and one regiment of 1,000 dragoons (infantrymen on horseback). This army
Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-71)
would have undisputed first call on Parliament’s resources.  The over-riding criterion was military efficiency not political or religious complexion. Sir Thomas Fairfax, one of the few senior commanders who was neither a peer nor a member of parliament, was appointed commander-in-chief.  

On 3 April Parliament passed the Self-Denying Ordinance, which made it illegal for any member of the Commons or Lords to hold an army command. The principal motive was to expel Essex and Manchester from the army.  On 2 April they resigned their commands. Cromwell also offered to resign but was allowed exemption. In June he was appointed Lieutenant-General.

The significance of the New Model Army

Samuel Cooper's portrait of
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)
It is possible to exaggerate the importance of the New Model Army; it was made up of men from the existing parliamentary armies, and it contained a proportion of unwilling conscripts. Even at full strength it accounted for less than half the men under arms in England. However, it offered regular pay, supported by fixed taxes on the counties. It was the first English army to wear uniform: red coats faced with blue (Fairfax’s colour) and grey breeches.  It contained a larger proportion of ideologically committed soldiers and officers than any other army that had taken the field.  It was also led by commanders with a good sense of strategy - they never engaged with the enemy unless their own forces were much greater in number. Although it was led by 'gentlemen', it was more meritocratic than any previous army.

Cromwell said 

'I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.'
On 14 June 1645 the New Model Army won its famous victory at Naseby, near Market Harborough, a battle that has been described as the most important on English soil since Hastings. Less that three hours after it began the king was in flight, his infantry was scattered, his guns destroyed, and his treasure and baggage-train taken. 1,000 royalists were killed, but the New Model Army lost no more than 200. It had become a confident, disciplined fighting force. 

The end of the war

Naseby was followed up by further parliamentary victories in both England and Scotland. On 5 May 1646 Charles gave himself up to the astonished Scots at Southwell near Newark. However, he had great hopes of being able to pay on Parliament’s divisions. On 24 June Oxford surrendered and the first Civil War was over. 

On 23 March, 1646, Sir Jacob Astley and his force of 3,000 men had been defeated at Stow-on-the-Wold. He told his captors, 

‘You have done your work, boys, you may now go play if you will not fall out among yourselves.’  
His words were prophetic. Had the English fought simply to give victory to the Scots? And now that the war was over, what was to be done with the Army?

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