Cavalry Operations: Why horse supply matters

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 7:00 am, 13 October 2013]

[Edit May 2016: Peter Gaunt cited this blog post in his review of my book in War in History to show how my thinking had changed, which was nice.]

Over the last three posts, I’ve shown that early modern armies couldn’t move without an adequate cavalry screen, that what was adequate depended on objectives and balance of forces, and that the balance between cavalry in field armies could be affected by small-scale raids. Now I’ll bring it all together, in a post that could be titled ‘how horses won the English Civil War’. (more…)

Concerning Burial of the Dead

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:59 am, 15 April 2013]

[Edit May 2016: No prizes for guessing who this was about.]

From ‘An Ordinance for taking away the Book of Common Prayer, and for establishing and putting in execution of the Directory for the publique worship of God’ passed by the Long Parliament in January 1645 (in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum):

When any person departeth this life, let the dead body, upon the day of Burial, be decently attended from the house to the place appointed for Publique Burial, and there immediately interred without any Ceremony.

And because the customes of kneeling down, and praying by, or towards the dead Corps, and other such usages in the place where it lies, before it be carried to Burial, are Superstitious: and for that praying, reading, and singing both in going to, and at the Grave, have been grosly abused, are no way beneficial to the dead, and have proved many wayes hurtful to the living, therefore let all such things be laid aside.

Howbeit, we judge it very convenient, that the Christian friends which accompany the dead body to the place appointed for publique Burial, do apply themselves to meditations and conferences suitable to the occasion: And, that the Minister, as upon other occasions, so at this time, if he be present, may put them in remembrance of their duty.

That this shall not extend to deny any civil respects or differences at the Burial, suitable to the rank and condition of the party deceased whiles he was living.

These rules were observed at Oliver Cromwell’s funeral on 23 November 1658. Although his effigy was brought from Somerset House with an ostentatious procession accompanied by cannon salutes, there was no ceremony once it reached Westminster Abbey (Ian Gentles, Oliver Cromwell: God’s Warrior and the English Revolution, pp. 196-7; Cromwell’s body had actually been buried in secret shortly after he died in September).

History shows that things were different in the past, so they could be different again in the future.

Early Modern Documents: Horse Casualties

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:35 am, 15 January 2013]

In discussions about early-modern cavalry tactics, some people have asked me how many horses were killed in battles. This is the answer. Actually only a partial answer, but it’s the best one I’ve got. Narratives of English Civil War battles are usually very vague about casualties, if they mention them at all. Financial records are usually a better source for numbers. For a few parliamentary cavalry units, I’ve found detailed lists of horses lost in service. In 1644, Parliament set up  the Committee for Taking Accounts of the Whole Kingdom to audit the war effort (you can read the ordinance for appointing the committee at British History Online). One of the committee’s jobs was to certify arrears of pay due to soldiers and officers (Ian Gentles estimated that these ran into millions of pounds). If the commanding officer of a unit couldn’t satisfactorily account for money, horses and equipment he had received, the value would be knocked off his arrears. Losses by enemy action during a battle were usually allowed, giving officers a strong incentive to exaggerate battle casualties in their accounts. This is obviously a problem because the figures they give could be too high, but it also pretty much guarantees that they won’t be too low. The committee concluded that Lionel Copley, a captain of horse in the Earl of Essex’s army, had defrauded the state of lots of money and horses, and overstated his losses at First Newbury to cover it up, but some members of his troop testified against him. I haven’t included his accounts here because they’re incredibly complicated as well as unreliable. Below I’ve put extracts from three other officers’ accounts that give details of horse losses. Doing this made me realise how bad the transcripts I made for my PhD were, but it also shows that I’ve got much better at palaeography. The quoted text is all in Crown Copyright and released under Open Government Licence. Click the links in the document references to see page images on Flickr (non-commercial use only).


Cavalry Tactics: How close was close order?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:30 am, 10 October 2012]

Writing about cavalry charges often uses the phrases ‘close order’ or ‘knee-to-knee’. But what do these actually mean, and how close can you keep charging horses? This post won’t necessarily answer these questions satisfactorily, but it will show that there are lots of different opinions in drill books and eyewitness accounts.


Cavalry Tactics: Dutch, Swedish or something else?

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 12:43 pm, 19 September 2012]

Behind every Great Man there’s another Great Man who is supposed to have inspired him, even though he’s a unique genius. Whiggish narratives of progress in cavalry tactics often say that Prince Rupert and/or Oliver Cromwell got his brilliant ideas from Gustavus Adolphus. Back in the caracole post we saw how Michael Roberts credited Gustavus Adolphus with getting rid of the caracole and bringing back proper, vigorous, manly shock charges. These assumptions have had knock-on effects for historians of the English Civil Wars, who have often tried to classify various tactics as either Dutch (old and rubbish – how quickly they forgot that Maurice of Nassau was a Great Man) or Swedish (new and good). I’ve already discussed how Rupert and Cromwell weren’t necessarily doing anything new, when we can tell what they were doing at all. This week, see how their tactics don’t relate to national stereotypes.


Cavalry Tactics: Cromwell

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:32 am, 11 September 2012]

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.


Wharton Letters: 26 August 1642

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:00 am, 26 August 2012]

This post is part of a series of letters from parliamentary soldier Nehemiah Wharton during the English Civil War, which will be posted on the anniversary of the day they were written. For more information see the introduction. To find the rest of the series, use the “wharton letters” tag. The original of this letter is held by the UK National Archives, reference SP 16/491/133, ff. 309-10. The text of the letter is out of copyright. Images are available for non-commercial use only at Flickr (click on folio numbers for individual page images).

This week, Wharton takes part in a mutiny, poaches a deer, goes into battle for the first time, and meets an old friend.


Sometimes a blog is only sleeping

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 11:24 am, 16 October 2011]

Today this blog has made it to five years, although there have been some significant gaps so it’s not exactly five years of continuous blogging. My book has now passed peer review and I’ve got until the end of November to make the final revisions, so I’ll be able to post a bit more frequently now. For now here are some quick links and random thoughts:


[posted by Gavin Robinson, 8:51 am, 23 July 2011]

  1. Richard Cust and Ann Hughes, eds., The English Civil War (London, 1997).
  2. Ian Gentles, Oliver Cromwell: God’s Warrior and the English Revolution (Basingstoke, 2011).
  3. Clive Holmes, The Eastern Association in the English Civil War (Cambridge, 1974).
  4. Clive Holmes, Why was Charles I executed?, (London, 2006).
  5. Mary Leys, Catholics in England, 1559-1829: A social history, (London, 1961).
  6. J. S. Morrill, The Nature of the English Revolution (London, 1993).
  7. Diane Purkiss, Literature, gender and politics during the English Civil War (Cambridge, 2005).

I’m so looking forward to being able to buy and read a book that has absolutely nothing to do with the book I’m writing. Will it ever happen? I’m also trying to write as little as possible about Cromwell because there’s way too much literature to deal with.

Anyway, no more blogging for me until at least September as the book deadline is coming up and I’m getting too busy for anything else.

Two Princes (and Two Rebels)

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 10:51 am, 2 January 2010]

Back in July I posted a “review” of the Ladybird book Oliver Cromwell: An Adventure from History. One of the strange, interesting, and almost certainly untrue stories in it was that Cromwell and Charles I had a fight when they were small boys:

Oliver’s uncle, Sir Oliver Cromwell, was an important man, and lived on an estate much larger than the farm belonging to Oliver’s father. He was in fact so important in the county that on more than one occasion he was visited by the King, James I. On one of these visits the King was accompanied by his son Charles, and whilst Sir Oliver was entertaining the King, the two boys, Oliver Cromwell and Prince Charles, were sent into the garden to play. According to the story, the boys quarrelled and fought, and Oliver was the winner.

As I mentioned, one of the suspicious things about this story is the complete absence of Henry Prince of Wales, Charles’s older, more militaristic, and more Calvinist brother. That led me to believe that the story must have originated after Henry (who died as a teenager leaving Charles as heir to the throne) had faded from popular memory.

Now I’ve found a new lead. I’ve been reading Vernon Snow’s Essex the Rebel, a biography of the third Earl of Essex. During my PhD I read the bits about the civil war but skipped the rest. Now I’m going through the whole thing because I’m interested in all of Essex’s life. Page 43 mentions that at some time from 1609 to 1611 (dates are surprisingly vague in this book) Essex had an argument with Prince Henry while they were playing tennis. Henry called him “the son of a traitor”, and he responded by hitting the prince on the head with a tennis racket! James I seems to have Stoically accepted the assault on his son, telling him that “He who did strike him then, would be sure, with more violent blows, to strike his enemy in times to come”. This prophecy didn’t quite come true, as Essex became the military leader of the armed rebellion against Charles I in 1642. Like Prince Henry, Essex the Lord General has largely faded from popular memory. Just as Henry was overshadowed by Charles, Essex was overshadowed by Cromwell. If the tennis court incident is one of the influences on the story of Charles and Oliver fighting each other, this could be yet another case of Cromwell stealing Essex’s thunder.