The First Civil War

It is one of the curiosities of history that both sides in the English civil war asserted that they were fighting in defence of the law and against arbitrary government. For the King could justifiably argue that parliament in 1642 had become arbitrary. Though many of its members had left it, it passed far-reaching ordinances, for which it claimed, with little or no justification, the full force of law: it snatched the control of the militia from the Crown; it soon began to levy taxes without royal assent. In its Nineteen Propositions it had invited the monarchy to deprive itself of practically all its traditional rights. Pointing to the many loyal subjects who had come to join him in the north of England in the summer of 1642, King Charles I was able to maintain that parliament by no means represented the nation, and that he himself stood out as the champion of the silent masses.

Was it, then, a class war? most historians tell us that it was not, and certainly it is true that among those who took part in it were families divided against themselves: brothers or cousins fought upon opposite sides; the magnates in a number of counties contended against each other. An analysis of the membership of the Long Parliament shows, as Dr. Tawney recently pointed out, that “the two parties appear . . . to be economically and socially much of a piece”. The only difference indicated by the statistics of membership is that those who became Royalists were on the average younger than those who supported parliament in the war. An American historian, Professor Paul Hardacre, has written: “The diversity of elements which went to form his [King Charles I’s] party includes pointing to any single touchstone by which the Royalist can be recognized. No one creed, no one incentive, led men to identify themselves with the royal interest. Antiquity of family could not be relied on; indeed, as far as the lords were concerned, Charles drew his main backing from the families ennobled by James and himself, the members of families elevated to the peerage before 1603 being about evenly divided.”

On the other hand, as Dr. Tawney has also observed, membership of the Long Parliament was not necessarily a mirror of the country, and one cannot ignore the evidence of intelligent men like Edward Hyde and the Reverend Richard Baxter, who were alive at the time, that certain sections of the community, notably the “yeomanry” and the weavers, were pretty solidly opposed to the King. Many other testimonies can be brought together to sustain the view that on the one side a large part of the nobility and wealthier landowners were Cavaliers, while many merchants and citizens in the ports and boroughs (where grievances over the King’s “arbitrary taxation” – especially ship money and impositions – had sunk deep) favoured the parliamentary cause when the war began. London came to support parliament, and its well-trained militia formed the nucleus of the parliamentary armies. The navy, recruited in the ports, opted for parliament, and the only one of the bigger ports not under immediate parliamentary control, Portsmouth, surrendered at an early stage of the war. Parliament, by its influence over the City of London and the outposts of the kingdom – the true centres of business whose temper was, on the whole, Puritan – therefore had the larger financial resources; while the Queen only succeeded with difficulty in buying one shipload of arms from abroad. Although the measure of support made available for King and parliament varied from county to county, a survey of the social outlook at the beginning of the civil war does not conflict with the opinion that the motive force of the revolution was the desire of an expanding middle class for greater political power or that the Puritan attitude to religion furnished its inspiration.

The King hoped to enlist in his cause the traditional jealously of the north of England for the most prosperous south, and that was why he first went to Hull and then to York in search of assistance. But his main strength was found in the western midlands and the west of England, though Yorkshire, under the leadership of the rich and influential Earl of Newcastle, was largely Royalist until  1644. From the beginning the King had a recognizable strategy, which was to rally his supporters in the north, the west, and the south-west, keeping open such communications as he could with the Continent from which he hoped to draw arms, and direct a converging threat upon London once the parliamentary armies weakened or grew tired.

The parliamentary leaders certainly had no clearly worked out military plan. John Pym, an astute political strategist, was no organizer of victory like Carnot in the French revolutionary wars, and seems to have depended upon the third Earl of Essex, his commander-in-chief, for all operational decisions. Essex, a melancholy man, was no enthusiast. Like most of the peerage, whose own order was bound up with the monarchy, he did not wish to humiliate the King or compel him to surrender upon the field of battle. It was not until Pym was dead and the powers of the Earl of Essex reduced that the tide turned for the parliamentary side.

The first big battle of the civil war was fought at Edgehill in the midlands on 23rd October, 1642, and Essex, who had suffered himself to be strategically surprised before the action, afterwards withdrew on London, allowing the King to occupy Banbury and Oxford. Within three weeks. Prince Rupert, the King’s bold young nephew, was menacing the capital at Turnham Green. But the parliamentary command, directed by a Committee of Safety, threw all its resources into a desperate defence of London, and the Royalist army recoiled. The failure of the King to win a decisive victory in the autumn of 1642 proved fatal to him, for time and money were on the side of his enemies.

The King had first hoisted his standard at Nottingham on 22nd August. Even before that, Oliver Cromwell had been assigned to military duties. He had been sent into his own constituency of Cambridge to seize the arsenal in the castle and to prevent college plate from being dispatched by Royalist sympathizers to the King. Not only was he successful in this, but he helped to place the whole of Cambridgeshire at parliament’s disposal. At the same time he formed a troop of cavalry, with his brother-in-law, John Desborough, as its quartermaster. After his troop had been blooded at Edgehill, it returned to the eastern counties to become the nucleus of a cavalry regiment. Cromwell thus became a colonel in January 1643. He was appointed a member both of the Eastern and Midland Associations of counties organized for war purposes: the former including Cambridge, the latter his birthplace of Huntingdon. By the early spring he was energetically collecting men, money and weapons, including cannon, at Cambridge. His soldiers were largely freeholders or “yeomen”, and he laid stress upon the need to have religious men or “men of a spirit” under his command. He later became known as “Old Ironsides” (Prince Rupert is said to have invented the nickname), and his regiment as the Ironside Regiment.

Though Cromwell was over forty when the first civil war began, it was the call of military duty that gave him his chance first to reveal fully to his fellow countrymen the dynamism of his character. War enabled him to exert his power to command in a way that had never been open to him in peace. “You see . . . how sadly your affairs stand,” he was writing to the commissioners in Cambridge less than a year after he had raised his first troop. “It’s no longer disputing, but out instantly all you can. Raise all your bands: send them to Huntingdon; get up what volunteers you can; hasten your horses.” here is the accent of the future successful general, who knew exactly what he wanted done.

In battling for money and supplies his enthusiasm must have been infectious. “Lay not too much upon the back of a poor gentleman, who desires, without much noise, to lay down his life, and bleed the last drop to serve the cause and you. I ask not your money for myself . . . I desire to deny myself; but others will not be satisfied; I beseech you hasten supplies.” That is another letter with an authentic note of urgency written at the beginning of the same summer. “He wept,” it was reported on another occasion, “when he came to Boston and found no moneys. . . ” His authority was sustained by passion.

He had an assurance in himself that derived from his Puritan faith. “He seldom fights,” noted one of the chaplains, “without some text of Scripture to support him.”He is said to have been found all himself on the eve of the battle of Marston Moor wrestling in prayer with his Bible in front of him. It was the fusion in him of the practical officer – worrying over his soldiers’ pay, organizing their food and transport, always looking for a prompt move to bring him to grips with the enemy – with the inspired Puritan, conscious of the righteousness of his cause and certain that God would win his battles for him, which invoked the trust of his men. But there was little of the remote or frightening commander about him. He had, wrote Richard Baxter, “vivacity, hilarity, alacrity”; both in his official letters and in his written orders he was sharp and to the point. He was, observed the Scotsman, Robert Baille, “universally loved as religious and stout”.

In forming, training, and arming his regiment, Oliver Cromwell was in his natural element. As John Buchan wrote, “this was perhaps the happiest stage of Oliver’s life” and he married “the precision of a man of affairs with what he now felt to be a natural genius for war”. though he proved himself to be a superb strategist, notably in the Preston and Worcester campaigns, and was revealed in the battles where he commanded as a tactician of ability, it is right to say that Cromwell’s genius as a soldier, as with that of most other great generals, was above all as a trainer and organizer. It is sometimes remarked that in the civil wars, God was upon the side of the big battalions. But it was the quality not the quantity of Cromwell’s men that enabled him to win battles against the odds at Preston and Dunbar, and in teh opening phases of the war it was it was his Ironsides who conveted the eastern counties into a secure and fortified base, while much of the rest of the country outside London was being won over by the Royalists.

There was a lull during the winter of 1642. Operations usually ceased during the winter because the English roads were so poor that the troops could not move along them when the weather became bad. But in 1642 both sides still had hopes of peace, though terms submitted to the King in Oxford, where he had now taken up his headquarters, were fierce and out of tune with the military facts. Already Sir Ralph Hopton, commanding an army composed chiefly of Cornishmen, was achieving successes for the King in the west of England, while the Earl of Essex, who had occupied Windsor and Reading, confronted the King without daring to attack him. Meanwhile Queen Henrietta Maria had managed to collect her convoy of arms and landed them at the small port of Bridlington on the Yorkshire coast. Here in Yorkshire a polite campaign was being conducted between the Royalist Earl of Newcastle and the Parliamentarian Lord Halifax, who had found sustenance in the clothing towns of the West Riding, while Hull, still in Parliamentary hands, incommoded the rear of Newcastle’s army. Thus the general position was that the Royalist controlled much of the north and west of England (except for Hull, Gloucester, and Bristol), there was stalemate in the Midlands, while the Parliamentarian forces held London and the Home Counties and the east of England. If the Queen could bring her supplies to her husband in Oxford and if the eastern Association, where Cromwell was, could be neutralized, the Royalist might, in theory at least, be able to carry out a three-pronged movement upon the capital. such a plan, if it were seriously contemplated, was, however, quite beyond the capacity of the communications and transport system of the time. Still its possibility was enough to alarm Westminster.

During April, Prince Rupert occupied the agreeable village of Birmingham, and retook Lichfield, thereby clearing the way for the Queen’s passage south-west from Yorkshire to Oxford. Cromwell had wanted to make a riposte by attacking Newark, a strategic town in Nottinghamshire upon the River Trent, the fall of which would have seriously unsettled the Earl of Newcastle and ruined the Queen’s journey. But although he beat a small Royalist contingent at a skirmish in Grantham, the forces in the area were too weak to assault Newark, and the scheme fell through. Meanwhile, Lord Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas, won a battle at Wakefield, but on 30th July they suffered defeat on Adwalton Moor. On 13th July the King’s army at Oxford won a victory at Roundway Down over Sir William Waller, who had been harassing Hopton in the west, and a fortnight later Bristol surrendered to Prince Rupert. Everywhere the parliamentary cause was abashed.

John Pym and his colleagues in London took strong measures to recover the initiative. They opened negotiations for an alliance with the Scottish Covenanters, and they formed a new army in the Eastern Association, under the command of the Earl of Manchester, with the aim of assisting the Fairfaxes in Yorkshire. Cromwell’s talents were recognized by his being appointed governor of the Isle of Ely and one of Manchester’s principle lieutenants. Aroused from his habitual cautiousness, the Earl of Essex in September fought a drawn battle with the King’s main army at Newbury, and Gloucester, which had long been besieged by the Royalists, was relieved. Nevertheless the King, always an optimist, had enjoyed a good year. Before it was out Pym, scheming to the last, was dead; Cromwell’s cousin, John Hampden, was killed in a skirmish, and the Earl of Essex had been irritated to the point of foolishness by the creation of Manchester’s army in virtual independence from his own.

It was obvious that new men and a new administration were essential if the King were not speedily to be restored to his old position. Cromwell himself was to be one of the new men. The younger Fairfax and Sir Henry Vane, the Treasurer of the Navy, were others. In February 1644, parliament set up a Committee of Both Kingdoms to run the war in conjunction with their new Scottish allies; Cromwell was appointed a member. A little earlier, he had been promoted lieutenant-general of Manchester’s army, which, by dint of determined recruiting, was brought up to a strength of 15,000 men – less than a division in modern terms but a sizeable force for those less-ferocious times.

Although the pattern of the war had virtually compelled the English puritans to accept the Scottish Presbyterian alliance, Cromwell felt more than doubtful about its wisdom. For Cromwell never was nor would be a Presbyterian, and he had no wish to substitute a Kirk staffed with elders for the old Church where the bishops ruled. He realized, of course, as King Charles I did later, than the majority of the English Puritans were Presbyterians, but during the years immediately before and after the outbreak of the civil war a large number of Puritan sects had been forming which rejected the view that the Church must be closely ruled by the State. They insisted that individual congregations had the right to choose and pay for their own ministers, and that the congregation should be the real unit in worship. These Christians held a variety of doctrines, and it is not easy, in spite of all the research that has been done in modern times, to sort out their exact relations and policies.

Cromwell himself, for instance, was known as an Independent, but different explanations of the world are given. In a recent book Mr. Yule suggests that the Independents while requiring autonomy for each congregation did not believe in complete separation from the Church, as did The Brownists and Separatists, sects that are often equated with the Independents. all of them at any rate claimed “liberty of conscience”. “seperatism”, Dr. Haller says, “was the extreme expression of the religious indiviaulism of Puritan faith and doctrine” which levelled all before God. Possibly it is fair to describe Independency as an attitude of mind rather than a doctrine, and as such it appealed powerfully to Cromwell – who is sometimes said to have been a “spiritual anarchists” – and to his mystical friend, Henry Vane. Therefore when negotiations for an agreement or covenant between the English and Scottish governments were under way, Cromwell and Vane exerted all their influence to prevent the imposition of an exclusively presbyterian Church upon England and to ensure toleration for the sects. They were aware of the dangers of this alliance, while Cromwell himself, convinced of the quality of Manchester’s army, which was largely composed of Independents and sectarians, was by no means convinced that so high a price had to be paid for Scottish aid. He believed, in faact, that the English Puritans could compel the King to come to terms with the English parliament without any outside help. The events of 1644 underlined that belief for him.

The Scottish army, over 20,000 strong, after leaving home in deep snow, entered England in January 1644, and King Charles I was at once thrust upon the defensive. But during the year the fortunes of war swayed to and fro. The Scots moved in a leisurely manner, and for a time Newcastle (now a Marquis) was able to hold them up north of Yorkshire. But meanwhile Sir Thomas Fairfax had dashed from Yorkshire into Cheshire and beaten a Royalist force which consisted partly of soldiers landed from Ireland (where King Charle I’s Lord Lieutenant had concluded an armistice with the Catholic rebels); soon after Prince Rupert had likewise dashed across England and relieved Newark, which was under siege by the Parliamentarians. In the same month Sir William Waller had defeated his old friend and foe, Hopton, in Hampshire, the Earl of Sussex had advanced upon Oxford, and the Earl of Manchester was preparing to reconquer Lincolnshire. After his return from Cheshire, Sir Thomas Fairfax inflicted a defeat upon the Royalist governor of York at the Battle of Selby. This defeat, as much as the pressure of the Scots, obliged the Marquis of Newcastle to withdraw into Yorkshire and shut himself up in the county town. Thereupon the Scots came south, joined up with the Fairaxes, and made ready to besiege york. A message was sent to the Earl of Manchester inviting him to come over from Lincolnshire and share in the siege of what was considered to be the capital of the north.

Manchester’s army, having stormed Lincoln, arrived to take part in the siege of York on 3rd June, after Oliver Cromwell had gone forward with a cavalry screen. york was an excellently fortified city with a strong garrison, and was extremely hard to assault with the weapons of the time. Even though the besieging armies now amounted to some 30,000 men, the Marquis of Newcastle was able to defy them while he appealed to the King for rescue. Prince Rupert was ordered into Lancashire to collect reinforcements and then use every means in his power to save York. When, towards the end of July, the besiegers learned that Prince Rupert was coming, they raised the siege and moved west in a vain attempt to intercept him, and York had been relieved without a shot being fired.

The question now was whether a battle should be fought. Undoubtedly Prince Rupert who, even with the aid of the tired defenders of York, was numerically inferior to his enemies, could have avoided fighting if he wished; but his spirits were high, he believed that his foe was demoralized, and that his King wished him to undertake a battle; and he persuaded the Marquis of Newcastle to go along with him. thus, after some marching and counter-marching, the two armies confronted one another on Marston Moor, a few miles west of York, on 2nd July 1644.

The battle of Marston Moor was a dramatic struggle. On paper, Cromwell’s side had all the advantages, superiority of numbers (27,000 against 17,000), higher ground, the initiative, and the opportunity for surprise. But it lacked a co-ordinated command, and the three armies – Manchester’s on the left, the Scots in the centre, and Fairfax’s on the right – failed to combine. Since, moreover, according to the military practice of the time, infantry was concentrated in the centre with the cavalry on the wings, some troops of Scottish horse were intermingled with the armies on the wings, and had to accept orders from unknown Englishmen. Further, all the three commanding generals, Manchester, the Earl of Leven at the head of the Scots, and Lord Halifax – made their own dispositions, and when the battle started fought more or less independently. The Royalists, on the other hand, had only one commander in Prince Rupert, and had the advantage of being attacked in their prepared positions behind a ditch defended by cannon.

The battle did not began until early evening, after the Royalists had given up expectation of being attacked that day. Cromwell was in charge of the cavalry on the left, and after a temporary check overthrew the opposing Royalists. Prince Rupert, discarding the advantage of his unified command, had taken control onthis wing and, when he was defeated there, was too late in resuming command to save the day. Yet velsewhere the battle had gone well for  his side. In the centre the Scottish infantry had suffered considerable losses, and on the right the Yorkshire cavalry had been repulsed. After his own victory, however, Cromwell rallied his cavalry, and led them across the battlefield to the aid of his right wing. This was the crucial move with the hall-mark of genius upon it. Not only did he reverse the fortunes of the day there, but subsequently he went tirelessly to the help of the infantry, inflicting crippling losses upon Newcastle’s stubborn foot soldiers.

Thus the battle was won largely by a comparatively small group of highly trained cavalry – the men Cromwell had raised in the eastern counties. Cromwell’s talents shine clearly across the years. For only an officer of extraordinary character could have kept such control over his men and over the battle when all three of his commanding generals had given it up for lost. From that moment Cromwell himself was recognized as an outstanding soldier, an amateur who had made good.

But Marston Moor was not one of the decisive battles of history. For meanwhile the Earl of Essex had abandoned the siege of Oxford and marched away to seek glory in the west of England, only to suffer humiliation at the battle of Lostwithiel, while Sir William Waller, left behind in Oxfordshire, had been defeated by the King three days before the battle of Marston Moor, after they had occupied York, make any concerted attempt to follow up their victory. The Scots marched back to Newcastle; the Fairfaxes to Scarborough; and Manchester to Huntingdon. Cromwell, who still had only a secondary voice in affairs, chafed at the inaction, and did not scruple to criticize his superior officer in private letters. Scottish Presbyterian named Major-General Laurence Crawford, who had won the confidence of the Earl of Manchester. Crawford had insisted that junior officers ought to adhere to the Covenant, an insistence singularly out of place in an army largely manned by Independents. Cromwell stoutly objected, and Manchester had to take his two subordinates up to the Committee of Both Kingdoms in London to resolve their differences. The committee told its general to stop quarrelling and to get on with the war. Eventually Manchester linked up with Sir William Waller, and confronted King Charles I, who had returned in October from his successful excursion into the west, and a battle was fought at Newbury. On the whole, the King had the better of it, and when winter brought the campaigning season to a close, the victory of Marston Moor had been largely nullified.

It was obviously high time that parliament and the Committee of both Kingdoms, which directed strategy, undertook some serious thinking. Three campaigning seasons had gone by and final victory was not yet in sight. The Scottish army, though it contributed substantially to the victory of Marston Moor, had not compelled the Royalists to sue for peace. Indeed, King Charles I had found a military genius to reinvigorate his cause in Scotland in the Marquis of Montrose, whose astonishing victories with a handful of men had discouraged the Scots in England from moving too far away from their frontier. The King was still unshaken in the whole of the west and in Wales, and his defensive-offensive strategy, based on Oxford, had paid dividends. The Parliamentarians, for their part, since the death of Pym, were divided among themselves. Their principle commanders, the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Manchester, were lethargic by nature and numbed with anxiety to come to terms with the King if they possibly could. Among the Puritans, the Presbyterians and Independents bickered with each other, and the Scottish Commissioners in London were not averse from stirring up trouble between them. Critics outside the House of Commons were saying that its members found lucrative offices for themselves, and were as often as not profiteers from the war.

Cromwell was not only furious with the failure of the high command to follow up the victory in Yorkshire, but was determined to prevent the Scots from fastening their Kirk rule upon England, replacing old priest with new presbyter. In November 1644 he made a speech in the Lower house, openly condemning the conduct of his commander-in-chief whom he bluntly accused of “backwardness in all action”. Manchester naturally tabled counter-charges, and the Presbyterians played with the idea of indicting Cromwell as an “incendiary”. In the end, common sense prevailed and, laying aside recriminations, the Commons decided to form a “new model army” and to introduce  “self-denying ordinance”, whereby members of both Houses should lay down their posts and commands and leave the waging of the war to non-political soldiers. Who exactly was responsible for planning there far-reaching resolutions is not clear, but unquestionably Cromwell was foremost among those who favoured them. After some months of manoeuvering they were accepted by the Lords, and Sir Thomas Fairfax was appointed to organize and command the New Model Army. Essex and Manchester reluctantly resigned their commands, and other generals, including Cromwell and Waller, were required to lay them down after forty days, though they might be recommissioned. On the face of it, Cromwell’s military career was over, and he was statesmanlike in his acquiescence. Still, the reputation he had won at Marton Moor and elsewhere was hard to forget, and he may well have felt that unless the war now went astonishingly well, his chance might come again. And so it proved.

Cromwell had nothing to do with the formation of the New Model Army, but since it contained a high proportion of men who had been recruited originally in the Eastern Association, it included many Independents who were of the same frame of mind as himself. While it was forming. Cromwell and Waller, as a last service, led a cavalry expedition to the west of England, and when Cromwell returned he was ordered to do all he could to disorganize any attempt by the King to leave Oxford to join Montrose in Scotland. Cromwell’s period of command was extended for the purpose, and at the end of May, after he had successfully carried out his mission, he returned to Cambridgeshire preparatory to relinquishing his commission and retiring into civil life.

The war now suddenly flared up to its climax. The New Model Army had failed to distinguish itself in an early campaign in the west, but the sack of Leicester by the Royalist after a surprise attack from Oxford, provoked the Parliamentarians, and Fairfax was given a free hand to seek battle. The King, who had havered over his next move, was cornered with his army north of the village of Naseby in Northamptonshire on 14th June 1645. Before the battle, Fairfax had sent for Cromwell, inviting him (with the approval of the House of Commons but not of the Lords) to take the vacant post of Lieutenant-general in the New Model Army, which rejoiced at his return.

The battle of Naseby proved to be a conclusive victory for parliament. Fairfax himself originally commanded the cavalry of the Parliamentarian right, and after success had been won there, handed over to Cromwell and went across to rally his infantry in the centre. Cromwell, as at Marston Moor, by keeping his troopers fully in check, was able to come to the aid of the infantry, and Prince Rupert having, as he often did, overrun the field and lost control on the opposite wing, after a three-hour contest, the Royalists gave in, two men out of every three surrendering upon the field of battle. They had been outnumbered, outfought, and demoralized,

In July the Scottish army came as far south as Hereford, and Fairfax, accompanied by Cromwell, moved his army into the west to deal with the only substantial Royalist force left intact. This army was beaten at the battle of Langport on 10th July, and soon afterwards Prince Rupert surrendered Bristol. By the middle of the following year the first civil war was over. The King fled in disguise from Oxford and surrendered to the Scottish army, which was now at Newark, and Oxford capitulated to Fairfax on 24th June 1646. Before that, Cromwell had finally laid down his commission and gone to London to resume his parliamentary duties. Though Fairfax, an exceptionally capable and much-liked commander, had led the way to final victory, even the Scots, who hated him, recognized that Oliver Cromwell was the heor of the war.

During the war not only had Cromwell proved himself to be a leader of men, an incisive administrator, and tactician who thought swiftly upon the field of battle, but he also suddenly showed himself to be a statesman. nothing reveals his change of character and control over his temper better than the speech he made first advocating the “self-denying ordinance” which, by securing the command of the New Model Army for General Fairfax, helped to bring victory to the Parliamentarians after their many early failures. In that speech Cromwell had said that now was the time to speak or for ever hold the tongue. He urged that the nation had to be saved from “a bleeding, nay almost dying condition”, and that all further delays in military action must be avoided lest the country wearied of the war and came to hate the very name of parliament. In asking his fellow members of the house of Commons to forget their squabbles among themselves and to sacrifice their own private interests for the public good, he struck a note of patriotism with the words “our Mother Country”. In a later speech he assured the same members from his own soldiers would gladly fight and die in the cause for which they had enlisted. His trust in his men, as in the nation that they were making, was the counterpart of their confidence in him. It was one of the secrets of his strength, and explains why no other officer of statesman was ever able to overthrow him.