The anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s death is on 3rd, 13th or 16th September, depending on how you want to define ‘anniversary’ and deal with the discrepancy between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Since Cromwell died, an awful lot of rubbish has been written about him. The fact that he became Lord Protector in the 1650s has made him a prime target for Whiggish Great Man history. Almost anything that he did in the first half of the 1640s, no matter how banal, can be turned into a sign of future greatness. In an old post I argued that Cromwell was a successful cavalry commander, but not much more so than Sir William Balfour. This post uses only contemporary eyewitness sources to show what we can and can’t know about Cromwell’s cavalry tactics in the First Civil War.
(I’ll be referring to W.C. Abbot’s edition of Cromwell’s letters and speeches, which isn’t very good, but the new one isn’t out yet.)
Cromwell started his military career as a captain of a horse troop in the Earl of Essex’s army in 1642. He probably arrived late at the battle of Edgehill and didn’t do much once he arrived. If he had been there at the start, he would probably have used whatever tactics his superiors told him to use as he wasn’t in a position to question their authority. Cromwell’s first known action in charge of cavalry was at Grantham in May 1643, by which time he was colonel of a horse regiment in the new Eastern Association army (at this time commanded by Lord Grey of Wark). Cromwell wrote about his experience of battle almost immediately, in a letter sent to Sir Miles Hobart (Abbot, i, 230):
God hath given us, this evening, a glorious victory over our enemies. They were, as we are informed, one-and-twenty colours of horse troops, and three or four of dragoons.
It was late in the evening when we drew out. They came and faced us within two miles of the town. So soon as we had the alarm, we drew out our forces, consisting of about twelve troops, whereof some of them so poor and broken, that you shall seldom see worse. With this handful it pleased God to cast the scale. For after we had stood a little above musket-shot the one body from the other and the dragooners having fired on both sides for the space of half an hour or more, they not advancing towards us, we agreed to charge them, and, advancing the body after many shots on both sides, came on with our troops a pretty round trot, they standing firm to receive us; and our men charging fiercely upon them, by God’s providence they were immediately routed, and ran all away, and we had the execution of them two or three miles
First note that Cromwell emphasises how poor his own side was, and attributes the victory to God. This is a standard puritan trope, and it makes Cromwell’s writing problematic as a source of military details. We can tell surprisingly little about Cromwell’s tactics from his own writing, because he doesn’t seem to have regarded them as very important compared to God’s providence.
What we can tell from the letter is hard to reconcile with the standard narrative of progress from caracole to shock charges. Cromwell says that before the decision to charge, only the dragoons were firing and not the cavalry. This is one more example of something that isn’t a caracole by any definition. The royalist cavalry stayed where they were and let the dragoons do the shooting. Again this is similar to Ramsey on the parliamentary left at Edgehill and Goring on the royalist left at Marston Moor. These tactics were available to both sides throughout the war, and their success varied. In this case there’s no mention of difficult terrain. The phrase ‘after many shots on both sides’ could mean that Cromwell’s men fired their pistols during the advance, but it’s very ambiguous. It could just as easily be reiterating that there had been lots of shooting before the charge.
This is the only eyewitness account of any battle that I know of that explicitly mentions the pace of Cromwell’s charge. As with Atkyns, there’s a chance that this only refers to the start of the advance and that the charge got faster later, but that’s just speculation. The important thing is that we don’t have any similar evidence for any of Cromwell’s other battles, and we know from Atkyns that even when sources give definite paces, practice can vary from battle to battle. What Cromwell’s troopers were supposed to do at the end of the charge isn’t clear, because the enemy seems to have run away immediately, and Cromwell doesn’t tell us what his orders were.
Cromwell’s next recorded cavalry fight was at Gainsborough on 27 July 1643. Contemporary letters give three slightly different versions of this battle, two authored solely be Cromwell, and one jointly written with two other officers, not all written on the same day. I’ve only quoted parts of these, relating to the biggest charge, but there were other things going on before and after this.
Cromwell, Edward Ayscoghe and John Broxholme to Speaker Lenthall, 29 July 1643 (Abbott, i, 241):
Some of the Lincoln troops began to advance up the hill; which were opposed by a force of the enemy; but our men repelled them, until all our whole body was got up the hill. The enemy kept his ground; which he chose for his best advantage, with a body of horse of about three regiments of horse, and a reserve behind them consisting of General Cavendish his regiment, which was a very full regiment. We presently put our horse in order; which we could hardly do by reason of the cony-holes and the difficult ascent up the hill, the enemy being within musket-shot of us, and advancing towards us before we could get ourselves into any good order. But with those troops we could get up, we charged the greater body of the enemy, came up to the sword’s point, and disputed it so a little with them, that our men pressing heavily upon them, they could not bear it, but all their body ran away, some on the one side of their reserve, other on the other. Divers of our troops pursuing had the chase about six miles.
Cromwell to Sir John [Wray?], 30 July 1643 (Abbot, i, 243):
The enemy being upon the top of a very steep hill over our heads, some of our men attempted to march up that hill; the enemy opposed; our men drove them up and forced their passage. By that time we came up, we saw the enemy well set in two bodies, the foremost a large fair body, the other a reserve consisting of six or seven brave troops. Before we could get our force into order, the great body of the enemy advanced; they were within musket shot of us when we came to the pitch of the hill. We advanced likewise towards them; and both charged, each upon the other. Thus advancing, we came to pistol and sword’s point, both in that close order that it was disputed very strongly who should break the other; but our men pressing a little heavily upon them, they began to give back, which our men perceiving, instantly forced them; brake that whole body, some of them flying on this side, some on the other side, of the reserve. Our men, pursuing them in great disorder, had the execution about four, or some say six miles, without much ado.
Cromwell to Deputy Lieutenants of Suffolk, 31 July 1643 (Abbot, i, 245)
When we all recovered the top of the hill, we saw a great body of the enemy’s horse facing us, at about musket-shot or less distance, and a good reserve of a full regiment of horse behind it. We endeavoured to put our men into as good order as we could, the enemy in the mean time advancing towards us, to take us at disadvantage; but in such order as we were, we charged their great body, I having the right wing. We came up horse to horse, where we disputed it with our swords and pistols a pretty time, all keeping close order, so that one could not break the other. At last, they a little shrinking, our men perceiving it, pressed in upon them, and immediately routed this whole body, some flying on one side, others on the other of the enemy’s reserve; and our men, pursuing them, had chase and execution about five or six miles.
All three accounts generally agree with each other, but sometimes they use different language or focus on slightly different things. It’s clear that both sides charged, and there’s no mention of either side firing before or during the charge. This seems to have been down to circumstances: Cromwell’s men hardly had time to get into order at the top of the hill, and the royalists were apparently trying to get at them before they were ready, so firing at a distance wasn’t the best option for anyone even though it was available. Neither side turned and ran during the charge, so it went into close combat, which lasted for some time, just like the fight between Byron and Waller at Roundway Down. Two of the letters mention pistols and swords being used in close combat, but the other only mentions swords. The eventual rout is also similar to Byron’s account of Roundway Down. That and Cromwell’s letters both imply horses pushing against each other during the melee.
Later in the day, the whole of Newcastle’s army arrived, and Cromwell’s force retreated. The first letter’s description of this action includes an example of firing on the move, which should have gone in the caracole post, but I missed it (although it’s very similar to the example from Aldbourne Chase). The rearguard under Edward Whalley and Captain Ayscoghe faced the enemy ‘and dared them to their teeth in at least eight or nine several removes, the enemy following at their heels; and they, though their horses were exceedingly tired, retreated in this order, near carbine-shot of the enemy, who thus followed them, firing upon them’ (Abbot, i, 242).
Cromwell was involved in a bigger battle at Winceby in Lincolnshire on 11 October 1643. This was a joint operation involving Cromwell in command of the Eastern Association cavalry (the association was now under the Earl of Manchester since Lord Grey had been sacked) and Sir Thomas Fairfax with his Yorkshire cavalry, against part of Newcastle’s northern army. Reliable details of the fight are quite hard to find. Cromwell doesn’t appear to have written anything about it himself, and as he lost his horse during a charge, he missed some crucial parts of the fighting. Fairfax’s memoirs don’t describe the action in much detail. The most detailed source is an anonymous pamphlet published in London (Thomason Tracts E.71). As it describes events from several different points of view, it probably isn’t a straightforward transcript of one eyewitness’s report. But for what it’s worth, this is what it says about Cromwell’s cavalry charge (pp. 6-7):
both they and we had drawne up our Dragooneers, who gave the first charge, and then the horse fell in. Collonell Cromwell fell with resolution upon the enemy, immediately after their Dragooneers had given him the first volley, yet they were so nimble, as within halfe a Pistoll shot they gave him another; his horse was killed under him at the first charge, and fell downe upon hime, as he rose he was knock’d downe againe by the Gentleman that charged him, who we conceive was Sir Ingram Hopton; but afterward he recovered a poore horse in a Souldiers hand and mounted himselfe againe. Truly this charge was so home given that the enemy stood not another, but were driven back upon their owne body that was to second them, and put them into disorder, our men charged all in with him, and then they ranne for it
Another problem with this source is that it uses the word ‘charge’ in ambiguous ways. When the dragoons ‘gave the first charge’, it probably means that they fired their muskets, but other uses of the word do seem to mean rushing into close combat. If this account is accurate, the royalists seem to have used the same defensive tactics as at Grantham, letting their dragoons do all the shooting. The dragoons firing twice during the charge could be interpreted in different ways. If they had time to reload then the charge was slow and/or started a long way off; but it could also mean that the second rank fired and the nimbleness was to do with countermarching in a short time rather than reloading. It seems that at least some of the royalists counter-charged after the second volley, taking advantage of the casualties and disruption caused by the musket fire. There doesn’t appear to have been a long fight at close quarters, although the account isn’t very detailed here and it’s not clear how long it was before Cromwell was remounted or how far he was involved in the melee. There’s no mention of pistols being fired at all in this source. A letter from royalist officer Sir William Widdrington was intercepted and published in London (Thomason Tracts, E.71). It doesn’t give many useful details of the battle, but the list of casualties in the postscript mentions that ‘Master Portington is shot through the Arm, and Master Wheeler through the thigh’ (p. 4). This may or may not be evidence of use of pistols in close combat. It’s worth noting that writers from La Noue onwards recommended shooting in the thigh, and that arms and thighs were particularly vulnerable points for arquebusiers because they were only covered there by buffcoats, which probably gave some protection against sword cuts, but not pistol shots.
At Marston Moor in July 1644, Cromwell (now holding the rank of lieutenant-general) commanded the whole of the allied left wing, consisting of all the Eastern Association cavalry, and some Scots cavalry under David Leslie. Again, Cromwell didn’t describe this action in much detail himself. The best description comes from Leonard Watson, the Earl of Manchester’s scoutmaster (Thomason Tracts, E.2, pp. 5-6): ‘Crowmels own division had a hard pull of it: for they were charged by Ruperts bravest men, both in Front and Flank: they stood at the swords point a pretty while, hacking one another: but at last (it so pleased God) he brake through them, scattering them before him like a little dust’. This was another long fight, like Gainsborough and Roundway Down. As I’ve speculated before, cavalry at this time were probably so well protected that it was hard for them to hurt each other with their swords. This would account for the time it took to decide cavalry combat if neither side ran away. John Barratt attributed it to cavalry getting better (Barratt, Cavaliers, pp. 35-36), but I don’t see any progress or decline through the First Civil War. Any outcome was possible at any time. There doesn’t seem to be any way to predict whether cavalry would run away or stand and fight. The same tactics had different results at different battles. I don’t see any evidence to support the idea that Cromwell’s tactics were in any way innovative or unusually successful. The victories I’ve dealt with so far represent a very small sample which isn’t a reliable basis for statistical generalizations, and the first two at Grantham and Gainsborough were fairly small skirmishes (and Gainsborough ultimately resulted in retreat from a superior force, so not that much of a victory). More often than not, Cromwell charged the enemy instead of staying on the defensive, but these charges didn’t always lead to immediate victory, and we mostly don’t know what pace was used.
Cromwell’s cavalry didn’t have an unbroken run of success in the First Civil War. Something went wrong at Second Newbury in October 1644. It’s hard to tell exactly what, because surviving accounts are vague and contradictory and the political fallout from the failure to destroy the King’s army led to lots of dishonest and partisan accounts of the campaign. Malcolm Wanklyn has tentatively suggested that Cromwell and his cavalry went on strike because a decisive victory wasn’t in the interests of the Independent faction at that time (Wanklyn, ‘Cromwell‘). This is a mirror image of the traditional view that Manchester and Essex deliberately delayed at various times because they didn’t want a decisive victory. I’d want much more proof before accepting any of these accusations. But whatever the reasons, Cromwell’s cavalry failed on this occasion and were outperformed by Essex’s cavalry under Sir William Balfour. At Naseby in 1645, the New Model Army’s right wing under Cromwell performed well, but the left wing under Henry Ireton did quite badly, again for unclear reasons. For me, the unpredictability of cavalry combat would be a sufficient explanation for any failure or success.