The New Model Army

Ian Gentles

The New Model Army fought beyond the borders of the three kingdoms.
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The New Model Army takes on board a great deal of new research – by Phil Baker, Rachel Foxley and John Rees among others — on the Leveller movement, with whom the New Model was in close contact throughout its fifteen-year history. When in the 1650s the soldiers referred nostalgically to ‘The Good Old Cause’ they essentially meant the Leveller programme: a radically expanded franchise, republicanism, freedom of religion, the abolition of tithes, justice for the poor and law reform. Although Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton and other higher officers were dismayed at the radicalism of the Levellers, their creed infected a large segment of the army, the junior officers in particular. I show how the other leading authority on the New Model Army, Mark Kishlansky, was mistaken in his assertion that the Levellers had only a slight influence in the army.

The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution completes the history of the New Model by adding the last seven years (1653-60), which were omitted from the first edition. It covers the tortured, sometimes tempestuous relationship between Oliver Cromwell and his officers, many of whom were highly critical of the Protectorate and its supposed betrayal of the Good Old Cause.

George Monck

The book also deals with the army’s military exploits, beyond the well-known ones of the civil wars. A major royalist rising led by the Earl of Glencairn in 1654 was expertly dealt with by Colonel Thomas Morgan and General George Monck, the army’s second most gifted commander after Cromwell himself. Newly arrived as commander-in-chief of Scotland, Monck relied heavily on Colonel Morgan and his brigade. Their coordinated strategy was to deprive Glencairn’s forces of food, wear them out with repeated marches and counter-marches,, then trap him between their forces and compel him to fight. By the time that happened, they had reduced the royalist horse from 3000 to 1200 demoralized men. Then (19 July) Monck gave Morgan the job of delivering the coup de grâce. The royalists were scattered and nothing more was heard of Scottish resistance for the rest of the Interregnum. The story is enhanced by a hitherto unused volume of newly-deciphered manuscripts.

The next important military engagement turned out to be the greatest disaster imaginable. Cromwell believed that delivering a body blow to the Spanish empire would weaken popish power and advance the cause of international Protestantism. The only one of his advisers to oppose the expedition to Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti and Dominican Republic) was General John Lambert, but he was overruled. An army of 2500 soldiers was recruited; however, they were of very poor quality, many of them the offscourings of the streets and prisons of London. They were also badly equipped and under-provisioned. Their food was mouldy before they even arrived at their destination. Landing on the south coast, 30 miles from the capital Santo Domingo, they began a gruelling march under a sun so intense that the sand scorched their feet through their shoes. Their commanders had not thought to supply them with water; before long soldiers were collapsing from thirst. Some men drank their own urine or begged their comrades to urinate into their mouths. It did not require much effort for the much smaller Spanish defending force to drive off the invaders. After this great humiliation the commanders decided to go for a consolation prize by overruning Jamaica. The devastating failure of the expedition to Hispaniola was Cromwell’s greatest setback, and shook him to the core of his being. For several days he retreated to his closet to seek the Lord’s explanation.

The book devotes major attention to the collapse of the Protectorate and the restoration of monarchy in 1660. In contrast to other historians, I argue that General Monck had decided quite early (October 1659 or before) that the only answer to England’s intractable political problems was to invite back the king. The gigantic challenge he faced was to get a recalcitrant New Model Army to agree.  So masterful was his political generalship that when at last he did make public his royalism, the adherents of the old leaders (Fleetwood, Disbrowe and Lambert) were in no position to resist the overwhelming public tide in favour of monarchy. As one observer put it, Monck tamed the army and welcomed back the king without anybody suffering so much as ‘one bloody nose.’

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