A military genius who was born, not made

PUBLISHED: 13:50 30 November 2006 | UPDATED: 13:39 04 May 2010

Cromwell

Cromwell

AS I explained last week, by the summer of 1642, the relationship between King and Parliament had deteriorated to the point at which Charles had raised his standard against the forces of Parliament. Naturally, Cromwell took up arms for Parliament and on

AS I explained last week, by the summer of 1642, the relationship between King and Parliament had deteriorated to the point at which Charles had raised his standard against the forces of Parliament.

Naturally, Cromwell took up arms for Parliament and on August 29, 1642 he mustered a troop of horses and men willing to fight for the Parliamentarian army from the Isle of Ely, Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire. In fact, Cromwell, MP and Collector of the Tithes, led one of the earliest military actions of the war when, with 200 lightly-armed volunteers, he prevented the Royalists from carrying off the silver plate that belonged to the colleges of the University of Cambridge.

In 1642 there was no such thing in England as a standing army and the only permanent forces were the Royal Bodyguards and companies garrisoning the forts. The country was ill-prepared for civil war and only a handful of commanders, including Sir Thomas Fairfax, Earl of Essex, and George Monk had professional experience through service in the Dutch army in the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).

Traditionally, if the defence of the kingdom was in question, trained bands of militia could be raised by the lord-lieutenants and their deputies. However, the requirement of training once each month was in doubt in most counties, attendance was sporadic and the arms kept were often old and unserviceable. By the outbreak of the Civil War, these bands of militia had a reputation for drinking, cursing and un-Godly behaviour. The Puritan beliefs held by Cromwell meant that the behaviour of his troops was one aspect of their training he concentrated on.

Cromwell paid great attention to detail. He read widely on the question of military principles and tactics, particularly those of Gustavus Adolphus, King of Sweden, whose military exploits during the Thirty Years War, were recorded in military publications at the time. Antonia Fraser in her book Cromwell: Chief of Men states that in 1642: "As Cromwell was now a man of 43 he must be allowed to be one of the rare military geniuses who were born not made."

Fraser points out that the Royalist leader, Prince Rupert, initially held the cavalry advantage because those gentlemen prepared to fight for the king came from the hunting fraternity. The horses they used had to be tough and brave, unlike the traditional cavalry horses that were trained in dressage. Before the civil war, it was customary that the cavalry fired with pistols and then withdrew at a graceful pace to reload. Cromwell adopted Gustavus Adolphus' approach that after firing their pistols the cavalry should continue the push using their swords. Under Cromwell the cavalry adopted the charge so widely used in warfare over the coming centuries.

Cromwell was almost obsessive in securing the correct horses for the Parliamentarian troops and at the beginning of the war his early energies appear to have been devoted to this means. He scoured East Anglia in his search and on the whole secured the animals by fair means, paying their owners between £5 and £10 for each horse. He also realised the welfare of the horses was paramount to the success of the Parliamentarians. Before the Battles of Winceby and Newbury in 1643 he warned their leader, the Earl of Manchester, that if he used exhausted horses "they will fall down under their riders if you thus command them; you may have their skins, but you can have no service."

As the war progressed, both sides sequestered horses and anything else they needed, causing poverty and hardship in many areas. While troops were raised and garrisoned locally, the general strength of loyalty to the Parliamentarian forces in the Isle left it relatively free from the misery experienced elsewhere due to the war.

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