Saturday 17 September 2022

The New Model Army

When does a revolt become a revolution? That is one of the questions raised by a book I have just finished:

Gentles, I., The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution, 2022, Yale, New Haven.

This is actually the second edition of Gentles’ 1992 book on the New Model Army, which took the story to 1653 and the end of the major fighting. In the preface, Gentles admits to having had to condense some parts of the original to add new material on the succeeding eight years, and also update the whole in the light of thirty years of extra research.

The result might disappoint the purely military wargamer but is of great interest to many more general historians and, indeed, wargamers, although Gentles himself bemoans the lack of military history writing and research about the civil wars. Still, his ideas on what made the New Model Army such a formidable fighting force are of interest. As he observes in the epilogue, what really matters to a fighting force it its morale, the spirit of the army. Here the early New Model Army was streets ahead of its opponents, whoever they were, at least until the mid-1650s.

It is rather interesting to read different books about different aspects of the English Civil Wars are find them pointing to the same period. James Scott Wheeler, in The Making of a Great Power, points to the legislation passed by the Long Parliament in early 1645 as definitive for the creation of the financial apparatus to fund the New Model Army and future wars. Gentles points to the same period as the key to turning the English Civil War into a revolution.

Prior to the creation of the New Model Army, and even to some extent afterward, there was a clash on the Parliamentary side between the war and the peace party. After a lot of parliamentary shenanigans, the war party won got their army and the commission they required for Sir Thomas Fairfax as commander. The key point in the commission was that it did not include a clause requiring the protection of the king’s majesty and person. Gentles argues that this meant that those who framed and forced through the commission meant to end the war by defeating the king’s party, whether it cost the king his life or not. That, he says, is the moment when the rebellion became a revolution.

The early campaigns are rather skated over. Naseby gets a few paragraphs and the south-western campaign a bit more but not much. This is interesting and possibly is where the cuts in the book occurred because I would have thought that the tradition and expectation of victory that Naseby, Langport, and the rest brought were important in convincing the army and its commanders that God was really on its side. Still, the later campaigns get more coverage, with Preston, Ireland, Dunbar, and Worcester being given sizeable chunks as well as maps.

There is a fair bit about politics and the army, of course. The interplay between the radicals, mostly junior officers with some senior support, and ordinary soldiers, particularly cavalry troopers is fascinating if verging on the bonkers. The Putney debates, the influence of the Levellers, Pride’s Purge, and all the usual suspects are present, including the trial and execution of the king. The problem was that no one really, except a few radicals, wanted to execute the king. Cromwell had a shrewd idea that chaos could be the result and it would be very difficult to secure a settlement without the king, but no one trusted him anymore. Charles seemed to think that would protect him. It rather ensured his son’s ultimate succession.

There is plenty of interest in the book. The expedition which landed up in capturing Jamaica gets a bit, emphasizing the organizational chaos and complacency that led to the debacle. If you start to think God is on your side, sometimes the concept of preparation gets rather lost. Unfortunately, while the government of Ireland and Scotland post-conquest get a fair bit of coverage, the Dunkirk expedition does not. There is, I suppose, only so much room in the book.

The fundamental problem for the New Model Army in the government in the 1650s was the cost of the armed forces. They were the guarantor of the regime and to Godly Cause, but were hideously expensive and, if unpaid, the army took free quarter which made it very unpopular in the country. In the end the Protectorate was bankrupt, as was the reconvened Rump Parliament in 1659. The general in Scotland, George Monk, who had reasons for not being a fan of the Rump, carefully bided his time until support for the army and the Junto of senior officers had ebbed away and then intervened decisively. Gentles is of the opinion that Monk had decided what his aim was earlier than many historians think, and certainly earlier than Monk himself admitted.

Monk’s political abilities enabled the Restoration without, as Richard Baxter observed, so much as a bloodied nose. The army acquiesced and was mostly disbanded, although it did get arrears of pay. The rank and file, it turned out, did not much care for the Good Old Cause, but they did want their pay. The radical officers had managed to alienate pretty well everyone, and the grandees of the Wallingford House Junto dithered indecisively until it was decisively too late.

Everyone, it seems, underestimated Monk. It goes to show that if you can manage that, you only have to be averagely competent and you take everyone by surprise, I suppose. If the grandees, particularly Lambert and Fleetwood had managed earlier, more decisive action, things might have turned out differently. Lambert headed a bigger force than Monk’s and tried to stop his advance. Morale, again, was the key. Lambert’s men deserted. As Gentles observes, this was not the New Model Army of the late 1640s or early 1650s, but a different, disliked, underpaid and under-resourced force. The army for the Caribbean under Venables was the scraping of it. No wonder it performed rather poorly. Perhaps the writing was on the wall then.


  1. This seems to prove last week's post. Having the financial ability to pay and supply your troops seems essential for any army.

    1. I wouldn't disagree, but it took a radical change in outlook, financial, military and political, to achieve. Whether anyone planned it as such is a bit moot, of course.

  2. Thanks for the review/summary. This has got me thinking about the link between the ad hoc nature of the republic. Was the deficit of agreement as to its legitimacy and the unaffordability of a large enough army to keep the peace?

    1. Thank you. More or less yes, I think. Put in a bit of extra religious radicalism, in the sense of the 'Godly' being the ones with the right to rule and the fact that the execution of the king was unpopular and there was a focus of opposition in the person of Charles Stuart, and then add a bit of aggressive expansionism and you have a fairly unstable situation. After all a recent book about the Protectorate was subtitled 'the search for stability'. It never really found it.