The man on horseback

The New Model Army, created in 1645 against a backdrop of missed opportunities and military stalemate, almost immediately won the war for parliament and went on to intervene in the political settlement. Understanding how and why that happened is central to understanding how and why the English revolution happened. This new and expanded edition of Ian Gentles’s study of the New Model Army (first published in 1991) will be required reading for serious students of the period.

In 1647, long after the war had effectively been won, peace negotiations were deadlocked. A Presbyterian faction in trying to break the stalemate parliament by (among other things) disbanding the Army, an essential prelude to restoring political normality. They wanted to do this, however, without first paying soldiers’ arrears of pay or granting them indemnity from prosecution for things done under arms. Soldiers would also be liable for conscription for service in Ireland. This prompted serious unrest among the soldier. A system of “agitators” (meaning representatives rather than troublemakers in seventeenth-century English) was established, liaising with a new General Council of the Army. This produced collective agreement not to disband until the soldiers’ demands were met: disbandment would have left them with no leverage on arrears and indemnity, or collective resistance to conscription.

The creation of agitators caused a potential and sometimes actual tension with commanders such as Oliver Cromwell, who had their own political priorities and were having to make compromises with other political interests. In effect the Army had declared itself an independent political actor – no longer simply a military tool in the hands of parliament, it was now a corporate political interest making demands of parliament. With hindsight it can seem a short step from this to other political interventions. Whether it was actually a short step or not, this is what the Army went on to do. Having tried to thrash out its political position at the famous Putney debates, it took custody of the king and oversaw a purge of parliament that allowed him to be put on trial and executed, followed in short order by the declaration of a republic. Thereafter it underwrote successive regimes, but also played a critical role in their downfall, notably in 1653 (when a Commonwealth was replaced by a Protectorate under Cromwell) and 1660 (when Charles II was invited to return from his travels).

Meanwhile, it had achieved a brutal and decisive conquest of Ireland, and a slightly less brutal but no less decisive conquest of Scotland, setting the terms for their subsequent position in the Union: a historic achievement particularly clearly in the contrasting views of the man who became its leader and tried to maintain its unity – Cromwell – in England (democratic hero) and among Irish opponents of the Union (tyrant and conqueror).

Understanding what the Army was up to is therefore important to most interpretations of the causes and course of the revolution, and to the origins of the United Kingdom. Christopher Hill saw it as a radical body, in which ordinary men discussed politics around the camp fire, creating a fertile breeding ground for new ideas about democracy and religious freedom. That view was challenged in particular by Mark Kishlansky, who argued that the Army was primarily interested in its honor and material interests – it was not “an agent of revolution” if that implied a consciously radical intent.

Against this historiographical background, Gentles offers careful analysis of the formation of the Army, the genesis of the officer lists, the roots of its military successes and its political role from 1647 onwards. He makes a careful case for the importance of radical politics, particularly hot Protestantism, both for how the New Model Army was put together and why it was so effective in battle; This is balanced against acknowledgment that it was also more effectively equipped, supplied and paid than previous armies. Gentles goes on to analyze how its political character shaped its subsequent interventions and the conquests of Scotland and Ireland. The first edition covered the period to 1653; the new one takes the story to 1660, paring down core analytic chapters to make room for three new ones. The book is driven by these analytic and interpretive questions: readers should not expect vivid evocation of the fighting or of moments of political drama.

In much of his work Gentles has expressed a distaste for the revolution, or at least for the cost in lives and property that parliament’s victory exacted. While he gave more space than Kishlansky to radical ideals in explaining the success and politics of the Army, he did not in the end approve of the price of those victories imposed on their countrymen. Here, his conclusion on these issues is rather muted, which is a shame given his position in the field. In parting he notes that the New Model Army has been admired for defeating absolutism and advancing the cause of democracy and law reform; but also for planting the seeds of an enduring popular suspicion of standing armies and puritans. It is not clear, however, which of these views he shares and which he is merely reporting; nor how they relate, for example, to the Army’s role at various points in the 1650s in sustaining “naked military dictatorship”.

It was a detachment from the New Model Army that finally ended the siege of Basing House in 1645. In telling the story of that siege, a heroic military effort on behalf of the king, Jessie Childs is not at all concerned with these analytic issues, or with passing historical judgements. Instead, she wants to evoke the experience of the war, to understand the texture of the conflict for those who made it or were caught up in it, and to throw light on seventeenth-century life more broadly.

Childs is a prizewinning author who writes with fluency and has a good eye for evocative detail. She seems relatively uninhibited by the thought of academic historians looking over her shoulder, and consequently willing to fill in atmospheric detail in a slightly speculative way. But this license extends only to scene-setting: the book is rooted in the source materials and is the product of extensive reading and research.

That research is put to the service of consummate storytelling, tracing the lives of people whose fates intersected at Basing House – a London apothecary and a firebrand preacher, for example. It brings to life the passions and suffering of people who, together, made one of the most painful episodes of a bloody and destructive war. Along the way it casts light on the medical history of the war – what care and treatment was available – and on the ideas through which people made sense of it: God’s providence or the movements of the stars, for example. It evokes not just the siege, but the social and mental world in which it occurred.

Childs wants us to remember the war, to be more conscious of it, and this highly readable account may bring many readers to that awareness. Quite reasonably, she eschews the thickets of historiographical dispute in favor of a lively, clean and clear story, but she is perhaps a little ungenerous to the academic scholars who have helped to frame the subject in this way. Barbara Donagan, for example, another independent scholar and the doyenne of this approach to military history, barely warrants a mention in the notes.

Readers should not expect an explanation of why all this happened, or what it meant for the future of England, Britain or the world (although there are brief asides about empire and the origins of the British slave trade). The message seems limited to the observation that England rose from the ashes, as it was to do after the Great Fire in 1666. That is not a criticism so much as an observation about the divergence of trade and academic history. The main purpose of academic writing is to provide and update the raw material for university training in analytic and interpretive skills. That seems to have pushed academic writing further and further away from a trade audience interested in more evocative writing (although there are academic currents in the direction of understanding subjectivity, emotion and experience). The trade and broadcast audience, by contrast, seems to have lost interest in the analytic purposes of history, at least aside from the longue durée or in relation to the recent past. We still seem to think we can learn lessons from the failure of the Weimar Republic, if we properly understand it, but not, for example, that a clear understanding of the seventeenth-century origins of the British state and its empire might help us think about its current functionality. These excellent books, covering closely related subject matter, come from separate worlds.

Michael Braddick is Professor of History at the University of Sheffield. His most recent book is A Useful History of Britain: The politics of getting things done2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post The man on horseback appeared first on TLS.

Leave a Comment