The victory of Cromwell


In the middle of November 1643, parliament announced itself to be the supreme power in the land by authorizing the use of a ‘great seal’ to replace that of the king; on one side were the arms of England and Ireland while on the other was engraved an image of the Commons sitting in their chamber. One of their most important members, however, was no longer present. John Pym had been the key strategist of the parliamentary cause; he had been the quiet revolutionary, playing his cards largely behind the scenes, exploiting temporary setbacks or victories, and in some part controlling the mobs of London. Cautiously and slowly he had maintained the direction and impetus of the movement against the king.

His death from cancer of the lower bowel only reinforced the divisions and factions at Westminster, where some wished for an honourable settlement with the king and others demanded total victory. Disagreements were also evident in the royal court at Oxford, where questions of immediate tactics and general strategy were furiously debated; some wanted an attack upon London, for example, while others favoured the capture of the south-west. One of the king’s courtiers, Endymion Porter, remarked that God would have to intervene in order to cure all the divisions between the royal supporters; as is so often the case, the most bitter fights were between those on the same side.

At the end of January 1644, Charles summoned a parliament of his supporters at Oxford to which came the great majority of the Lords and approximately one third of the Commons. There were now two parliaments in the country striving for mastery. The ceremony for the opening of the Oxford parliament took place in Christ Church Hall, and in his customary address the king said that ‘he desired to receive any advice from them which they thought would be suitable to the miserable and distracted condition of the kingdom’. He had also taken the precaution of bringing over from Ireland some of the regiments of the army he had dispatched to extirpate the rebels.

In the following month the Westminster parliament established a ‘committee of both kingdoms’. In one of the most important circumstances of the war 20,000 Scots had already, in the middle of January, crossed the border to support the parliamentary cause; after prolonged negotiations with their English allies, they had come to defend the common Protestant faith in the form of a ‘solemn league and covenant’ between the two nations. It had been voted by parliament at the beginning of February that this covenant should be taken and sworn by every Englishman over the age of eighteen; the names of those who refused to take the oath would be sent to Westminster. A new committee, composed of English and Scottish representatives, would manage the direction of the war; among its members were the earl of Essex and Oliver Cromwell.

The advantage lay now for the first time with parliament. In a battle at Cheriton in Hampshire, the royalist forces were overwhelmingly defeated; the parliamentary cavalry was now more than a match for its royalist counterpart. Oliver Cromwell himself had been promoted to become lieutenant-general of the ‘eastern association’, where he began to form the cavalries of seven counties into a coherent fighting force. With its command of London and many of the significant ports, in any case, the financial resources of parliament were far greater than those of the king. Charles had armies of approximately half the size of those commanded by his enemy. Many people, on both sides, recognized that his cause would suffer the more the war was prolonged.

In the early summer of the year two parliamentary armies, under the command of the earl of Essex and Sir William Waller respectively, advanced upon Oxford in order to hold the king in a vice of their making. The king managed to make his escape with 7,000 men and, on 6 June, fled to Worcester. He had also received news that his forces in York were besieged, and wrote from Worcester to Prince Rupert ‘in extreme necessity’. Charles urged his nephew to ride to the relief of York in order to save the cause.

Prince Rupert arrived outside York, in the last days of June, only to find that the forces of the parliamentary besiegers had made a tactical retreat. Animated by bravado or by faith in his strategy he pursued his enemy to Marston Moor, in the north of the country, for what might have been a final confrontation. The parliamentary soldiers, wearing white handkerchiefs or white pieces of paper in their caps, were the stronger force; they were the first to charge, from the advantage of higher ground, and their sudden onslaught scattered the royalists. An eyewitness, Arthur Trevor, wrote that ‘the runaways on both sides were so many, so breathless, so speechless, so full of fears, that I should not have taken them for men’.

In what was the largest battle ever fought on English soil, 4,000 of the king’s troops had been killed, and his army had disintegrated. In a letter to his brother-in-law, Valentine Walton, Cromwell said of the enemy that ‘God made them as stubble to our swords’. Prince Rupert, in a spirit of mockery rather than admiration, dubbed the victorious commanders as ‘Ironsides’. The cities of York and Newcastle surrendered. It was a notable victory for parliament and, at least in retrospect, it marked a turning point of the civil war.

The victory of Cromwell at Marston Moor lifted him to eminence in parliament no less than on the field of battle. One of his most notable opponents, the earl of Clarendon, admitted that he possessed ‘a great spirit, an admirable circumspection and sagacity, and a most magnanimous resolution’. He was resolute and fearless, and thus a fitting adversary for a king.

He had not distinguished himself in early life and seems happy to have farmed the flat land of the south-east midlands. He once declared that ‘I was by birth a gentleman living neither in any considerable height nor yet in obscurity’. He was one of what were called the ‘middling sort’. Yet even in that enviable condition he was not free from superstitious terror, and in his first years of married life he consulted a London physician who recorded in his case-book that Cromwell was ‘valde melancholicus’; by this he meant that his patient was nervous or depressed to an abnormal degree. Another doctor had suggested that he suffered from hypochondria and indeed, under stress or nervous excitement, he would sometimes fall ill.

His religion was the most important aspect of his character. His depression of spirits may have been the context or the catalyst for the sudden revelation – we do not know when it was vouchsafed – that he was one of ‘the elect’. The blinding light of God’s grace surrounded him, and he was transformed. He wrote to his cousin, Elizabeth St John, that ‘I live (you know where) in Mesheck, which they say signifies Prolonging; in Kedar, which signifies blackness; yet the Lord forsaketh me not’. The reference is to the 120th psalm: ‘Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, that I dwell in the tents of Kedar!’ This scriptural allusiveness and simple piety are at the heart of Cromwell’s faith.

He knew that he had been saved by the grace of God, and the certainty of redemption lay behind all of his judgements; he believed implicitly in the power of divine will to guide the actions of men. He waited on providence. He prayed for a sign. He wrote that ‘we follow the Lord that goeth before’. He sought for the divine meaning of the events occurring around him and saw all things in the context of the eternity of God. Since he had a private sense of what he called ‘true knowledge’ or ‘life eternal’, he was impatient of religious debate and doctrinal niceties. What did they matter before the overwhelming power of God? He once said that ‘I had rather that Mahometanism were permitted among us than that one of God’s children should be persecuted’.

His first years in parliament were not particularly auspicious; he was regarded as a forceful and impetuous, rather than elegant, speaker whose manner was sometimes clumsy or unprepossessing. But together with his family connections at Westminster – the puritan party was in some sense a wide circle of relatives – he fought steadily and assiduously for the parliamentary cause. He was adept at committee work, and was blessed with an acute understanding of human character. Yet he professed not to have been ambitious on his own behalf but rather for the cause he had chosen.

Cromwell was of singular appearance. The London doctor whom he had consulted noted that he had pimples upon his face. These seem to have been supplanted by warts on his chin and forehead. His thick brown hair was always worn long over the collar, and he had a slim moustache; a tuft of hair lay just below his lower lip. He had a prominent nose and one or his officers, Arthur Haselrig, once said to him that ‘if you prove false, I will never trust a fellow with a big nose again’; his eyes, in colour somewhere between green and grey, were described by Andrew Marvell as being of ‘piercing sweetness’. He was about 5 feet 10 inches in height and, according to his steward, John Maidstone, ‘his body was well compact and strong’; he had a ‘fiery’ temperament but was very quickly settled, and was ‘compassionate . . . even to an effeminate measure’. He was often boisterous in company, with a taste for rough country humour; there were times indeed when, according to Richard Baxter, he displayed too much ‘vivacity, hilarity, and alacrity, as another man hath when he hath drunken a cup too much’.

Like his opponents he thoroughly enjoyed hawking and the pursuits of the field; he also liked to play bowls. He had a great love of music and one of his colleagues, Bulstrode Whitelocke, recalled that ‘he would sometimes be very cheerful with us, and laying aside his greatness he would be exceeding familiar with us, and by way of diversion would make verses with us and everyone must try his fancy. He commonly called for tobacco, pipes and a candle, and would now and then take tobacco himself; then he would fall again to his serious and great business.’

That great business was, at the latter end of 1644, to drive the war forward until the king surrendered; in this purpose, however, he was not supported by other parliamentary commanders. The earl of Essex and the earl of Manchester, in particular, were in favour of some accommodation with Charles; it was suspected by some, therefore, that they were less than zealous in their military offensives. Manchester used to say that it was easy to begin a war, but no one could tell where it would end. He was in command of the eastern association, with Cromwell as his lieutenant-general, and the earl’s desire for peace led to a complete breakdown in trust between the two men. Manchester in particular had an impatient dislike of sectarians and what he called ‘fanatics’, among whom he placed Cromwell himself.

At a council of war the following exchange took place.

Manchester: If we beat the king ninety and nine times yet he is king still and so will his posterity be after him; but if the king beat us once we shall all be hanged and our posterity made slaves.

Cromwell: My lord, if this be so why did we take up arms at first? This is against fighting ever hereafter. If so, let us make peace, be it ever so base.

Cromwell had already written to his brother-in-law that ‘we have some among us much slow in action’.

The argument between the two military commanders came to a head after an inconclusive battle with the king at Newbury, where it seemed that Manchester had deliberately held back his army. He is supposed to have said to one of his colleagues, who urged instant action, that ‘thou art a bloody fellow. God send us peace, for God does never prosper us in our victories to make them clear victories.’ It was now believed, by Cromwell and others, that Manchester had become a traitor to the cause.

Towards the end of November Cromwell came into the Commons in order to denounce Manchester; the earl’s ‘backwardness of all action’ and his ‘averseness to engagement’ sprang from his unwillingness to prosecute the war ‘to a full victory’. He was therefore questioning his loyalty. Three days later Manchester returned fire, in the Lords, and charged his opponent with insubordination and slander. Cromwell was accused of saying that he hoped for a day when there would be no peers left in England. The ‘peace party’ on the parliamentary side now considered a move to impeach Cromwell for treason, but was persuaded that it was not wise to do so. A single sheet of print was found in the streets of the city attacking Essex and Manchester with the words ‘Alas poor parliament, how art thou betrayed!’

On 9 December Cromwell pressed home his advantage. He told the Commons that ‘it is now a time to speak, or forever hold the tongue. The important occasion now is no less than to save a nation out of a bleeding, nay almost dying, condition which the long continuance of war hath already brought it into, so that without a more speedy, effectual and vigorous prosecution of the war . . . we shall make the kingdom weary of us and hate the name of Parliament’. He realized that only a clear victory over the king would decide the issue.

The eastern association had already informed the ‘committee of both kingdoms’ that local contributions were not enough to maintain an army, and the committee therefore decided ‘to consider of a frame or model of the whole militia’. This was Cromwell’s opportunity. It had become time to reorganize the various armies on a different basis, and for Cromwell the most obvious model was that of his own regiment of ‘godly’ men. He had said that ‘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’.

Immediately after Cromwell’s speech another member of the Commons, Zouch Tate, rose to suggest a thorough reorganization of the army. It was first necessary to dismiss such fractious and incompetent commanders as Essex and Manchester. So Tate, no doubt in collaboration with Cromwell, proposed what was called ‘a self-denying ordinance’ by means of which no member of either house could take on a military command or an official place in the state. This removed at a stroke the noble earls. In theory it also removed Cromwell but it was widely and correctly believed that an exception would be made for such a successful military leader. The whole business might therefore be seen as an enterprising bid by Cromwell for sole command.

It may be worth remarking that this session of parliament was the one that abolished Christmas. The traditional festival was deemed by the Commons to encourage ‘liberty to carnal and sensual delights’ and instead the day was to become one of fast and penance.

Cromwell had told his colleagues that until ‘the whole army were new modelled and governed under a stricter discipline’ there would be no certain or ultimate victory. So the force became known as the New Model Army, known to its enemies as the ‘New Noddle’. It was effectively a standing army from which all aristocratic commanders had been displaced; no English army had ever before been so constituted. It was to be organized on a national basis, and financed by a new national tax; the morale of the soldiers would therefore be maintained by consistent payment. It was to be professional, disciplined and purposeful. Its commander, known as ‘Black Tom’ for his muddy complexion, was Sir Thomas Fairfax, who had previously been in charge of parliament’s northern army.

It was an amalgamation of older regiments rather than a new army, but it was designed to be a more stable and coherent force drawn up with the sole purpose of defeating the king in battle. That is why Essex and Manchester had been removed from any military command. The commission given to Fairfax made no mention of the old provision that he was bound to preserve the king’s safety on the field of battle. New muskets, swords and pistols were manufactured; the coats of the infantry were of red cloth, becoming the standard uniform for the next 200 years.

Some of its officers believed in a religious mission for themselves and their soldiers; Cromwell’s regiment, for example, considered itself to be a ‘gathered Church’. ‘Go now,’ one preacher declared, ‘and fight the battles of the Lord!’ It is unlikely that the rest of the army shared that godly purpose, but they may have been animated by the zeal of their more pious fellows.

But what was now meant by the godly? Cromwell and his colleagues favoured the Independent cause in religion, effectively espousing toleration in England; the earl of Manchester and his supporters had adopted the Presbyterian cause with no room for other sects or groups. In this endeavour they were supported by their Scottish allies. Even while parliament was debating the arrangements of the new army, the Book of Common Prayer was abolished and a puritan Directory of Worship took its place; this new text was to be delivered to the people by means of a national Presbyterian system. That system was not destined to last for very long.

One of the great expositors of the Book of Common Prayer was now led to the scaffold. On 10 January 1645, Archbishop Laud was taken from the Tower to the place of death on Tower Hill. He told the people assembled there that ‘this is a very uncomfortable place’. As he knelt for the executioner, he prayed aloud for ‘grace of repentance to all bloodthirsty people, but if they will not repent, O Lord, confound all their devices’.

Essex lamented the old man’s death. ‘Is this’, he asked, ‘the liberty which we promised to maintain with our blood?’ The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that ‘it was done for the entertainment of the Scots’. It had been a year of much blood.

There was now very little intention of compromise on either side, but some brief negotiations took place at Uxbridge in February 1645. The two parties divided the town, with the parliamentary team in one inn and the royalist delegation in the other. Nothing was achieved, of course, but the king was still sanguine about his chances. Despite the disaster at Marston Moor he had not yet been decisively defeated, and he believed that the divisions in the opposite party between Independents and Presbyterians would work to his advantage. He was calm and indomitable, sustained by his belief that no one could touch the Lord’s anointed. His commanders, and his forces, were still a match for those of parliament.

He had also received welcome news from Scotland where his principal supporter, the earl of Montrose, had already won notable victories over the Scottish covenanters. ‘Give me leave’, Montrose wrote to him, ‘with all humility to assure your majesty that through God’s blessing I am in the fairest hopes of reducing this kingdom to your majesty’s obedience.’ This in turn rendered the covenanting army in the north uneasy, distracted by the argument that they should withdraw from England and return to fight for their home territory. Charles was firmly persuaded that the fortunes of battle might still be with him.

The new campaign opened in the spring of 1645. At the beginning of May the New Model Army, under the command of Sir Thomas Fairfax, was about to begin the siege of Oxford. In the course of this action he received another message from Westminster. Charles had summarily taken his army into the east midlands, where he stormed and sacked the parliamentary town of Leicester. Fairfax now decided to follow him, with Oliver Cromwell as his second-in-command.

The great confrontation could no longer be delayed. On 14 June the two armies were in the fields outside the village of Naseby, in Leicestershire, where the parliamentary army had a large advantage in numbers. When the parliamentary forces made a tactical withdrawal to reach higher ground, Prince Rupert mistook the movement for a retreat; so with his cavalry he made for the enemy. Cromwell managed to beat them back, and then charged the royalist infantry. The king’s soldiers resisted for a while but, under the combined assault of Fairfax and Cromwell, they fell apart and fled. They were pursued by the parliamentary troopers for 14 miles before they reached the safety of Leicester.

Naseby was a devastating defeat for the king. His infantry had been destroyed and 5,000 of his men, together with 500 officers, had been captured; his arms and artillery had been taken. The women of the royalist camp were treated with great ferocity; those from Ireland were ‘knocked on the head’ – killed is another word – while those from England had their faces slashed with daggers. Oliver Cromwell, after the battle, declared that ‘this is none other than the hand of God, and to Him alone belongs the glory’. Clarendon concluded that at Naseby ‘the king and the kingdom were lost’.

For the king, indignity was heaped upon dismay. Among the wagons captured after the battle was one that contained all of his private correspondence. When the king’s cabinet was opened, it revealed the extent of his dealings with the Irish Catholics in search of troops; it also disclosed his plans to use French, or Swedish, soldiers for the sake of his cause. It could now be asserted that the New Model Army was truly a national army ready to defend England, and at Naseby it had decisively proved its worth. It had also demonstrated that the Independent cause was now the strongest. Cromwell himself was the man singled out for future glory and, according to Bulstrode Whitelocke, he began ‘to grow great even to the envy of many’. Yet many also believed that God was with him.

Most of the king’s supporters and councillors believed that his case was desperate, and that he must yield to necessity by negotiating with parliament. The king himself on occasions feared the worst and, in a secret letter to his son, wrote that ‘if I should at any time be taken prisoner by the rebels, I command you . . . never to yield to any conditions that are dishonourable, unsafe to your person, or derogatory to royal authority’. Yet he refused to have ‘melancholy men’ about him; he chose to entertain himself with sports and pastimes. He wandered about the country between Hereford, Oxford and Newark; these were three of his last remaining fortresses in his kingdom.

Prince Rupert, whose rashness may have cost Charles the battle of Naseby, now hurried on to Bristol; he needed to make that city safe against an enemy army that might descend upon it at any moment. From there he wrote to a colleague that ‘his majesty hath now no way left to preserve his posterity, kingdom and nobility, but by a treaty’. When he was shown the letter the king was incensed. In his reply he wrote that in his role as a soldier or statesman ‘I must say there is no probability but of my ruin’; yet as a king and a Christian he knew that ‘God will not suffer rebels and traitors to prosper’.

This was not necessarily so. At Langport to the south of Bristol, on 10 July 1645, the New Model Army, fresh from its victory at Naseby, decisively defeated the royalist army of the south-west; the cavalry of the king had been destroyed, and his last hope of winning the contest seemed to be over. Cromwell exulted. ‘To see this,’ he said, ‘is it not to see the face of God?’

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