Ian Gentles on The New Model Army

Margaret Willes

Ian Gentles is the author of The New Model Army and he discusses the force that overcame the Royalists.
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Ian Gentles, The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution is an updated edition of your earlier title, but it’s almost a different book – just how much has changed?

The first edition has been condensed to about half its original length. It assimilates much new research, particularly on the Levellers and army politics (by David Scott, John Rees, Rachel Foxley, Philip Baker, Elliot Vernon, Jason Peacey and others), as well as important new work on the army’s military history by James Scott Wheeler, Glenn Foard, Andrew Hopper, Malcolm Wanklyn, Ismini Pells and others). The new edition adds chapters on the Protectorate (1653-9) and the Restoration (1659-60). It adds substantial new material to the chapters on Ireland and Scotland, making extensive use of the recently published correspondence of Cromwell’s son Henry, to illustrate the army’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Protectoral regime. For Scotland it illuminates the role of Robert Lilburne and George Monck in bringing that nation to heel, using a previously undeciphered manuscript to add vividness to the narrative of Glencairn’s uprising in 1654. It also provides an in-depth, shocking account of the New Model’s disastrous expedition against the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispaniola, from which Oliver Cromwell never recovered his confidence. Finally, it provides a detailed, and significantly different interpretation of the army’s role in the Restoration, explaining how that epochal event was brought about without bloodshed.

With the Parliamentarian army of the first few years of the war led by aristocrats, was it inevitable they’d be pushed out by the more ‘middle-class’ leaders such as Cromwell?

The Battle of Marston Moor

It was by no means inevitable. It was in fact a near thing, achieved only by a combination of political subtlety and ruthlessness on the part of Cromwell and his backers in both Commons and Lords. The Lords held out bitterly against their expulsion from the leadership of the army until well after the New Model had taken the field.

You mention the Battle of Marston Moor in 1644 was ‘almost’ the greatest battle on British soil. Which battle is and why?

The bloody battle of Towton (1461), involving 50,000 soldiers, which resulted in the overthrow of the House of Lancaster (Henry VI) by the House of York (Edward IV). The battle of Marston Moor involved fewer soldiers, and a lower death toll.

How much of Oliver Cromwell’s success was down to his own brilliance, and how much down to the New Model Army?

Cromwell at Naseby, by Charles Landseer

The New Model infantry sometimes played a brilliant role, especially at sieges like Bristol and Tiverton, where they showed breathtaking courage. However, they were mostly conscripts, many of whom deserted at the first opportunity. The average cavalry trooper by contrast, came from a higher socio-economic class. As Cromwell boasted, he was someone who ‘knows what he fights for and loves what he knows’. The cavalry’s role was critical in the New Model’s many victories. Great credit is also due to Oliver Cromwell who, along with Thomas Fairfax and Philip Skippon, welded the army together into an effective fighting force characterized by very high morale. He worked hard at all times to ensure that his men were well supplied, well armed, and well fed. He rarely risked his men’s lives needlessly, and his unerring battlefield sense meant that his men felt safe under his leadership. To all these qualities was added his superb skill as a political general. A ‘man of quick and subtle parts’ (Whitelocke), he outwitted his political enemies, and made sure that the New Model was better supported financially than any of the other parliamentary armies.

After the ‘First Civil War’, the army put forward the ‘Agreement of the People’ in 1647 which was a radical new constitution, but how much was this radicalism driven by the army’s lack of pay?

Very little. As I show, the army was virtually paid in full for the sixth months before April 1647, when it became politically militant. Although dissatisfaction with parliament’s failure to guarantee that its sizeable arrears would be paid was an important factor, the army’s political discontent was very much driven by its unhappiness with the religious and political policies of Parliament, and Parliament’s attacks upon its honour.

How influential were the Levellers in the army?

The Levellers were very influential, despite what some other historians have said. As early as March 1647 they hitched their wagon to the New Model Army, regarding it as their main hope for achieving their programme. The Leveller leaders spent a good deal of time at army headquarters in the mid-summer of 1647 striving to politicize it. In October and November they virtually won over the Council of the Army, with the exception of the conservative Grandees, to back the Agreement of the People. A year later, when the army was desperately in need of political allies, the Levellers got it to adopt the Agreement of the People with the sole proviso that it be approved by Parliament. The decisive falling out between Leveller and army leaders did not occur until the spring of 1649, and even then many officers remained supporters of Levellerism, which they labelled ‘The Good Old Cause’, up until the eve of the Restoration.

Just how radical was the NMA, since it was willing to accept the return of their great enemy’s successor in 1660?


For most of its history it was very radical. That is why at its founding the Lords did everything in their power to replace one-third of the officers with more conservative nominees. That is why the higher officers in England, Ireland and Scotland had to work assiduously to silence the voices of radicalism in all three nations throughout the 1650s. That is why General Monck had to proceed with the utmost caution and secrecy in his negotiations with the king in 1659-60. If his officers had really known what he was up to they would have risen up against him. In 1660 at least 30 per cent. of the officers quit the army, thereby surrendering all hope of recovering their very substantial arrears, solely because they would not recognize the king. They remained republicans to the end.

How much of the NMA’s ‘DNA’ remained in the British Army in later years of the 17th century, including the huge success enjoyed by the Duke of Marlborough?

Not very much. While a significant number of New Model soldiers remained in the army after 1660 (for example, as the Coldstream Guards under General Monck), the army as a whole was under a cloud, for having brought Charles I to the scaffold and set up the 11-year republic that followed his execution. The armies of William II and Marlborough were thoroughly royalist in complexion, not coloured by any nostalgia for Oliver Cromwell’s army.

Ian Gentles is the author of The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution, published by Yale University Press.