Winter in Windsor part 2: poor excuses or double standards?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:28 am, 19 December 2011]

Previously I wrote about how Henry Marten criticized the Earl of Essex for keeping his army in winter quarters at Windsor in December 1642. It took a whole post just to establish what Marten (probably) said. But did he know what he was talking about, and was the criticism fair?

Henry Marten had no military experience before the outbreak of the First Civil War. That didn’t automatically mean that he was going to be inept. Oliver Cromwell had no previous experience of war either, and he turned out to be very good at it (as I pointed out here, not a super-special genius, but he could hold his own against professional soldiers of similar rank). Marten seems to have been strongly opposed to the monarchy and the House of Lords from very early in his political career, and in 1642 he was a very active supporter of the parliamentary war effort. He used his inherited wealth to pay spies, which along with his extravagant personal spending eventually bankrupted him (Barber, Revolutionary Rogue, 4-5, 36, 39-40). His first military command was as governor of Reading but he abandoned the town without fighting when the King’s army approached in November 1642 (Waters, Henry Marten, 17). This fact alone makes it look a bit hypocritical of him to complain about Essex not fighting, but that wouldn’t undermine the point if it was a good argument.

Marten’s basic facts were correct: there was action in Yorkshire and Devon while Essex’s army was inactive at Windsor. But he wasn’t comparing like with like. Most of the forces which were fighting in the north and west were very new. Cornwall wasn’t secured for the King until the Cornish rising in early October, and Hopton’s first (failed) attempt to invade Devon was only made in November (Stoyle, Soldiers and Strangers, 40, 43). Lord Fairfax, Parliament’s commander in the West Riding of Yorkshire, had agreed to a neutrality pact in September and didn’t start raising his army until October. Newcastle’s ‘popish’ army didn’t invade Yorkshire until 1 December (Hopper, Black Tom, 26-8, 36). These forces were only just starting their first campaigns when Essex had finished his. Parliament had started raising its main army in June 1642 and appointed Essex as general in July. He set out with the army in September, advancing to Worcester and fighting a cavalry skirmish at Powicke Bridge. On 23 October Essex’s army fought the King’s main army at Edgehill in the first major battle of the First Civil War. After a few days of rest at Northampton, Essex rushed his army south to block the King’s approach to London. He arrived just in time, and although some of his infantry were wiped out by Prince Rupert at Brentford, the main body of the army linked up with the London Trained Bands at Turnham Green. The King decided not to fight when the weight of numbers was against him and retreated to Oxford. It was only after this that Essex settled at Windsor. His army had been on campaign for three months, fighting battles before the northern and western forces had done anything, or even before they existed. A period of rest and recovery in a safe place was probably necessary.

Even when they were completed, the armies fighting in Yorkshire and Devon were significantly smaller than the main armies in the Thames Valley. The best recent calculations put both armies at Edgehill at similar strengths with about 10,000 infantry and 2,500 cavalry each (Graham, ‘Earl of Essex‘, 282, 288-9). They also had large artillery trains. Newcastle’s army was the most comparable, but at 8,000 men in total was still only 2/3 the size. The remaining forces were even weaker. Hopton’s Cornish army was only 3,000 strong, and Lord Fairfax had only 2,000 men (Stoyle, Soldiers and Strangers, 43; Hopper, Black Tom, 36). Moving and quartering were much easier with a small army than with a big one, especially when rain made the roads muddy and cold made it more necessary for soldiers to sleep indoors. Transporting heavy artillery was a particular problem if there was too much mud. So why not leave it behind? Essex and the King had both made their winter quarters in strong defensive positions. Essex’s headquarters were at Windsor castle, and the King was at Oxford, safely situated between two rivers. If either army advanced it would need heavy artillery if the other wouldn’t come out and fight in the open. Since advancing, especially with an artillery train, was very difficult it made sense for both armies to stay in their winter quarters and prepare for the next year, which is what they did. It’s also possible that Essex’s army was suffering from desertion and shortages of money and horses (although the jury is still out on Parliament’s financial situation after Edgehill), but even without that there was no good reason to expect the army to advance in the middle of winter.

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