The 350th anniversary of the death of Oliver Cromwell is coming up soon (even if you’re pedantic enough to commemorate it on 3rd September Old Style it’s not that far off!) so Ted Vallance is organizing a one-off Cromwell themed blog carnival. It’s probably no surprise that I’ve decided to look at Cromwell’s early career as a cavalry officer in the First Civil War. Cromwell is more famous for becoming commander of the New Model Army, and then Lord Protector. Although these things didn’t happen until much later they have seriously skewed perceptions of Cromwell’s military career from 1642-46. For a long time there was a strong Whiggish tendency to look for signs of future greatness in his earlier actions (much as I love C. H. Firth he was one of the major offenders here). This hasn’t been helped by Cromwell’s own self-mythologizing or parliamentarian/Independent propaganda in the Thomason Tracts. I’m going to try to disregard all that and compare Cromwell as a cavalry commander with one of his contemporaries, Sir William Balfour. By 1644 Cromwell and Balfour had similar rank and responsibilities, but Balfour didn’t go on to be Lord Protector and so has been largely forgotten.
[I wrote this off the top of my head and never got round to checking all the facts or putting in references. It doesn’t matter too much because it’s mostly just about my personal opinion, but be aware that some of it might be wrong. The best source for Balfour is Edward Furgol’s article in the DNB]
Perceptions of Cromwell’s early military career have been very heavily influenced by two famous but non-contemporary quotes.
First, this generalization from Clarendon:
And that difference was observed shortly from the beginning of the war, in the discipline of the king’s troops, and of those which marched under the command of Cromwell, (for it was only under him, and had never been notorious under Essex or Waller,) that, though the king’s troops prevailed in the charge, and routed those they charged, they never rallied themselves again in order, nor could be brought to make a second charge again the same day: which was the reason, that they had not an entire victory at Edge-hill: whereas Cromwell’s troops, if they prevailed, or though they were beaten, and routed, presently rallied again, and stood in good order, till they received new orders.
Too many people have taken this as objective truth even though Clarendon is notoriously unreliable. He only ever witnessed one battle (Edgehill) and never saw Cromwell in action. He was also very hostile to Prince Rupert. In fact the situation Clarendon describes only happened at Edgehill and Naseby. Royalist cavalry did re-form for a second charge at Hopton Heath, Roundway Down, and Marston Moor. Furthermore Malcolm Wanklyn points out that the cavalry charge which Cromwell directed against the royalist foot at Naseby was carried out mainly by reserves which had not been engaged with the enemy horse. Sir Charles Lucas did the same thing at Marston Moor, and Sir William Balfour did it Edgehill.
Second, this from Cromwell himself (from Carlyle’s letters and speeches):
At my first going out into this engagement, I saw their men were beaten at every hand; I did indeed, and desired him that he would make some additions to my Lord Essex’s army of some new regiments; and I told him I would be serviceable to him in bringing such men in, as I thought had a spirit that would do something in the work. This is very true that I tell you, God knows I lie not. Your troops, said I, are most of them old decayed serving men, and tapsters, and such kind of fellows ; and said I, their troops are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons, and persons of quality : do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be enabled to encounter gentlemen that have honour and courage, and resolution in them?
We should be suspicious of this because it actually comes from a speech made in 1657. The main purpose of the speech was to explain why he didn’t want to be king, but there’s a strong element of self-justification. Malcolm Wanklyn recently showed that Cromwell told self-justifying lies about the Second Newbury campaign after the event. I think this speech falls into the same category. It certainly isn’t true that Essex’s cavalry were “beaten at every hand” even early in the war. There isn’t much surviving evidence of the social status of cavalry troopers on either side. Essex’s troops certainly did contain some servants, but they also contained some gentlemen. Cromwell’s apparent admiration for the qualities of gentlemen and their sons here is directly at odds with another famous quote from a letter he wrote in 1643:
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.
This isn’t intended to be lazy iconoclastic revisionism. I think Cromwell was good at his job, but other men had similar jobs and were also good at them. Sir William Balfour, an experienced professional soldier, was appointed Lieutenant-General of Horse in the Earl of Essex’s army in 1642. He was also colonel of a horse regiment and captain of a troop of heavily armoured cuirassiers (if the folk etymology that I discussed here carried any weight then Balfour’s men would have had more right to be called Ironsides than Cromwell’s). Balfour was officially subordinate to the General of Horse, the Earl of Bedford, but it’s generally reckoned that Bedford was more of a figurehead and that Balfour did the real work. In any case, Bedford deserted to the King in 1643, and although he changed his mind and returned to parliament he wasn’t trusted with a military command again. Eventually Balfour succeeded him as General of Horse. Cromwell had no military experience at the outbreak of the First Civil War, but like many other MPs, peers and their sons, he was made captain of a horse troop in Essex’s army.
Balfour commanded the cavalry reserve at Edgehill and used it to good effect. Both of Essex’s cavalry wings ran away when they were attacked by the royalists, but all of the royalist horse, including the reserves, chased them off the field and failed to return. Meanwhile, Balfour and Sir Philip Stapleton (commander of Essex’s lifeguard – a troop composed entirely of gentlemen) turned the battle around by charging the royalist foot. What was nearly a disaster for parliament turned into a draw, thanks to Sir William Balfour and his “decayed serving men and tapsters” who were “beaten at every hand”. Cromwell played little part in this battle because he arrived late, through no fault of his own. Cavalry often had to be quartered over a wide area so that they could feed their horses, and by the time Cromwell had received his orders and arrived on the field there was not much that he could do. He acted competently by keeping his men in order and observing the situation, but there was no opportunity to do anything spectacular.
Cromwell started to gain the attention of the press in 1643. By this time he had been promoted to colonel of a regiment in the army of the Eastern Association. However, the victories which his legend was founded on were not very big or important. He successfully beat up enemy quarters at Grantham, but this was a fairly routine operation for cavalry and not something which signified a military genius at work. Although Cromwell won a tactical success at Gainsborough it had no operational value: he was forced to withdraw immediately afterwards because of the arrival of Newcastle’s whole army. In the face of overwhelming numbers he was right to retreat, and his gradual withdrawal using part of his force to cover the retreating parts shows that he knew what he was doing, but again this is something that any competent cavalry officer would have been able to do. Winceby was a bigger tactical victory, and at the operational level helped with the Eastern Association’s reconquest of Lincolnshire, but was not really in the same league as Roundway Down, Marston Moor, or Naseby.
Balfour played little part in the campaigns of 1643 as he was away, but the performance of Essex’s cavalry was by no means completely inadequate. The army was seriously short of money and horses, which limited Essex’s options. The skirmish at Chalgrove in June 1643 is often seen as a disaster for the parliamentarians, but that’s just because John Hampden was mortally wounded there. If he hadn’t been present the engagement would be much less well known. Essex’s cavalry were beaten but it was nowhere near as disastrous as Roundway Down or even Lostwithiel. The pressure from Rupert’s cavalry and the weakness of his own army, particularly the cavalry, persuaded Essex to retreat to Great Brickhill. However, Rupert didn’t have things all his own way. Earlier, on 26th March, Arthur Goodwin, a colonel of horse in Essex’s army, took out a force of cavalry to raid the countryside around Oxford. He drove away many horses and other livestock and returned to Aylesbury unopposed. This was how cavalry raids were supposed to work. Beating up quarters was a hit and run operation designed to do the maximum damage with the minimum risk. Rupert probably didn’t intend to fight a pitched battle when he set out to raid Chinnor on the night of 17th June. Although they ultimately lost, Essex’s cavalry managed to catch him and make him fight before he could get away. In August, Essex’s army was reinforced and sent to relieve Gloucester. On the way back they had to fight their way through the royalist army at First Newbury. The cavalry had mixed success in this battle. They successfully repulsed the first two royalist cavalry charges but were driven off by the third, leaving the infantry to face the enemy horse unsupported.
1644 was the year when Cromwell became really important as a soldier. Promoted to Lieutenant-General in the Eastern Association army, he was second in command to the Earl of Manchester and in charge of the army’s cavalry. Meanwhile Balfour was back and had been promoted to General of Horse under Essex, but his and Cromwell’s responsibilities would have been similar because Manchester didn’t have a General of Horse. In March 1644 Essex sent Balfour with a large force of cavalry to reinforce Waller’s army (Essex and Waller did manage to co-operate sometimes), helping to defeat Hopton’s army at Cheriton. This battle doesn’t tend to get as much attention as Cromwell’s victories, but it was another occasion when parliamentarian cavalry beat royalist cavalry.
Next we come to Marston Moor. This was one of Cromwell’s finest hours. The Eastern Association horse went head to head with Prince Rupert’s cavaliers and won. Unfortunately the ensuing rivalry between English and Scots, and Presbyterians and Independents, led to Cromwell’s contribution being overrated by his friends and underrated by his enemies. But even if he had left the field to get a wound dressed, and even if it was Leslie bringing in the reserves of Scots horse who tipped the balance, Cromwell had still done a good job. Wanklyn points out that being able to reform the cavalry for a second charge might have been a consequence of the fact that they were already at a standstill after a long hand to hand fight. It should also be remembered that Goring also re-formed his men for a second charge – otherwise Cromwell would have had no more cavalry to fight against! And Lucas kept the reserves out of the chase and directed them against the allied foot, just like Balfour had done at Edgehill and Cromwell would do at Naseby. Nevertheless, Cromwell did what a Lieutenant-General should have done and played a major role in the victory (whereas the generals of the three armies had left the field and played little part in turning things around).
The triumph of Marston Moor makes an obvious contrast with the disaster of Lostwithiel. While getting his army cut off on the Fowey peninsular didn’t do Essex’s reputation any good, it did give Balfour an opportunity to enhance his. Essex slipped away on a boat, the infantry and artillery surrendered, but the cavalry escaped. Balfour led them through the royalist lines and all the way back to Hampshire. Of course wars aren’t won by retreats, but this was an impressive achievement which deserves more recognition.
In the autumn of 1644 the armies of Essex, Manchester, and Waller concentrated at Newbury, probably hoping to destroy the king’s army once and for all. This was the first time that Cromwell and Balfour had operated together since Edgehill, but now they were roughly equals. Both were assigned to Waller’s force which was to march around the royalist position and attack from the rear. Second Newbury turned out to be a disappointment, and the ensuing recriminations have given an even more distorted view than the rivalry over Marston Moor. Therefore it’s very hard to say what went wrong or whose fault (if anyone) it was. What seems reasonably certain is that Cromwell’s cavalry didn’t achieve much on the day, while Balfour had better success on the other wing. But ultimately the attack failed to achieve enough before darkness fell, and the royalists escaped. Wanklyn hints that Cromwell and his cavalry were in a position to detect the escape but failed to do anything. I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt as it might not have been obvious that the whole royalist army was escaping, or that letting them go would have been a bad thing. After a hard and indecisive fight, it might have seemed attractive to give the enemy a golden bridge. Whatever really happened, it now seems fairly clear that Cromwell lied about many things afterwards and that these lies have distorted historians’ interpretations of the events.
The outcome of the dispute was the Self Denying Ordinance and the creation of the New Model Army. When it came to selecting a cavalry leader for the new army, parliament had a problem. Everyone who had held the rank of Lieutenant-General or General of Horse was either barred from serving or declined to serve. Fairfax was to be General of the army. Cromwell, Sir Arthur Haselrig, and Sir Philip Stapleton were MPs. Balfour and John Middleton were Scots. Sir Richard Grenville had deserted to the king. The Earl of Bedford was a peer, and had deserted to the king, and was possibly never any good in the first place. Of the experienced foreign mercenaries who had been Commissary General or Quartermaster General, only Vermuyden made it into the New Model, and he resigned before long.
The post of Lieutenant-General was left open until June 1645 – at Naseby Cromwell wasn’t even officially a member of the New Model at all. He was granted a temporary exemption from the Self Denying Ordinance and was sent by the Committee of Both Kingdoms to reinforce Fairfax with some cavalry raised in the Eastern Association. He arrived just before Naseby and was given command of the right wing. His attack routed the royalist Northern horse, and he still had enough reserves in hand to attack the royalist foot. Weight of numbers and the experience of the troopers must have given him an advantage, but his experience and leadership qualities probably counted for something. Ireton on the left also outnumbered Rupert, and his men were no less experienced than the veterans in Cromwell’s first line, but he had only been appointed Commissary General that day. He had never commanded a whole wing before, and until the formation of the New Model had probably never commanded a regiment in a battle.
Overall Cromwell and Balfour were both unusual. They achieved a rank and level of responsibility which few men held. They were both good at their jobs, but neither had a perfect record. Cromwell did well at Winceby, Marston Moor and Naseby, but less well at Second Newbury. Balfour did well at Edgehill, Cheriton, and Second Newbury, but was out of action in 1643. Cromwell deserves a reputation as a good soldier, but he was not unique, and his military record did not make it inevitable or obvious that he would become Lord Protector. Sir William Balfour had an equally good military record and deserves more attention.