National conflicts

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Soldiers & Strangers; An Ethnic History of the English Civil War

Mark Stoyle, Yale University Trust, 2005

Reviewed by Simon Frame

This book concentrates on the relationships between the constituent parts of the British Isles during the civil wars. This not only covers the old favourites of Scotland and Ireland, but also the Celtic fringes of Wales and Cornwall. However, instead of focusing on the military campaigns or the religious or political issues, it views the civil wars in terms of national identities and the conflict between nations – which in our era inevitably involves a religious element. The writer argues that one of the key differences between the civil war and the other wars that England had been involved in over the previous century was the fact that between 1640 and 1651 ‘foreign’ armies invaded and occupied various parts of the country. Included in the description of ‘foreign’ are the ‘strangers’ (a contemporary word used to describe anybody not from round here, wherever ‘here’ was) who are recorded as being on English soil who had arrived from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Poland and even from modern Iraq.

Being a ‘stranger’ in C17th was no mean feat – the islands had been relatively united and similar in outlook and culture for some hundreds of years. The folk memory of the attempted Spanish Armada was still present and many foreign visitors commented on the dislike of the English for anyone from outside of the British Isles. Indeed, during assorted riots over the preceding century foreigners had often been singled out for violence. Being a foreign protestant apparently reduced this hostility to mere distrust. So in the perception of the English, of their fellow island dwellers, the Irish Catholics were the least desirable visitors, followed by the Welsh and Cornish, with the Scottish, who were Presbyterians, being somewhat more acceptable.

As we are generally familiar with the Irish and Scottish aspects of the civil war, I’ll review the author's views using the parts that cover the less obvious areas of Wales, Cornwall and the ‘English’ nature of the so-called ‘New Model Army’.

The author argues that the beginnings of the civil war were in rebellions in Scotland and then Ireland, with the Welsh then providing large numbers of recruits to the King when he spent three weeks at Shrewsbury in September to October 1642. This combined to add an instant national element to the war and the almost unanimous Welsh support for the King (only an area around Pembroke remaining parliamentarian) roused parliamentarians to believe that the Welsh had provided the final breach which split the kingdom. The monarchism of the Welsh is put down to a more feudal structure with Welsh landowners in place as well as a preference for a more traditional Protestantism – which the North Wales petition of March 1642 maintained was the ‘same as that brought into this island in the time of the apostles’ - which was closer to the high church of Charles than that espoused by the more radical parliamentarians. Conversely the numbers of recusants in the marches gave rise to a belief that this ancient Welsh Protestantism was too close to Catholicism.

The recruiting of large numbers of Welsh soldiers for the first Scottish campaign gave rise to fears of a ‘Welsh Popish Army’ which would be turned on the King's enemies, and investigations into a supposed Welsh plot by the Catholic earl of Worcester in November 1641 which allegedly involved assassinating members of Parliament only added to the mistrust. A barrage of increasingly inflammatory pamphlets and accusations, referred to as ‘Politike jeeres’ by one contemporary, helped to push England and Wales apart.

The continuing attacks by Parliament on the ‘Britannic’ figures of Charles and the Prince of Wales and a resistance to further religious reform ensured that Wales was known to the Venetian ambassador as fervently pro-royalist and that attempts by the English border shires to dissolve the very symbolic ‘Council of the Marches’ were unfortunately timed. An August 1642 petition for ‘protection against the Parliament’ caused Charles to pay attention to Wales and begin to appeal to its difference and cultivate Welsh support. Ultimately it is argued that the issue of religion was the determinant of wartime allegiance. The Welsh were determined, like the Scots, to preserve their traditional church.

Like the Welsh, the Cornish regarded themselves as ‘British’ and existed on the fringes of the kingdom, pretty much completely cut off by seas and the Tamar river. The English view was that they were ‘boorish’ and rustic, and prone to rebellion; in 1497 and 1549 Cornish armies had emerged from their county and been brutally crushed. Like Wales, the Crown showed some special favours to the area, which helped to give it a feeling of semi-independence, and as well as being Prince of Wales, the King's eldest son was also Duke of Cornwall. The Duchy and the ancient means of controlling the tin-mines, the court of the Stanneries, provided distinctive customs and rights within the county boundaries. Another similarity with the Welsh was the Cornish view that their version of the Church of England was an older and purer form than that practiced over the Tamar. Along with Wales, the Cornish also petitioned to protect their religion from reform, and they had one published alongside that from North Wales and another from Cheshire. As before, the Venetian ambassador noted that they were pro-royalist.

Attempts to raise the Commission of Array (royalist) and Militia Ordinance (parliamentarian) were started in June and July 1642, with the royalist proposals being far better received. Initially the parliamentarians stymied them but ultimately opposing indictments for ‘being armed’ to arrest Sir Ralph Hopton and ‘unlawful assembly’ against Sir Richard Buller and six Cornish MPs sent down from London went in favour of the royalists. This was no doubt influenced by the fact that the parliamentarians had not only called out the Cornish Trained Bands but had also asked those of neighbouring Devon to gather to assist. Fears of invasion no doubt swung the people in favour of the royalists and some ten thousand men turned out to assist the Sheriff in removing the parliamentarians from Launceston. Within a week Cornwall was in royalist hands. Interestingly, similar activities in Somerset had seen Hopton ejected from the county and his subsequent arrival on Cornish territory.

The King returned the support by raising regiments that were entirely Cornish, appointing an ‘ambassador’, issuing declarations that emphasised the links between the crown and Cornwall, restricting the deployment of non-Cornish troops in their county and allowing them to guard the bridges on the Tamar. Parliament was aware of this, but attempted to steer a moderate course to give them a chance of regaining influence in the area. The Cornish support for the King was regarded as an ‘insurrection’ and an aberration influenced by outsiders. Other pamphleteers were less subtle, and went out of their way to point out how un-English the Cornish were and that they must be allied to the Welsh. The Cornish seemed to see their role in the war as much as a ‘national’ war against the rest of the country as much as support for the King and they resented forming an army with non-Cornish units.

Following the disaster at Lostwithiel in 1644, (referred to as the ‘Cornwall business’) and the treatment meted out to the parliamentarian prisoners, which included the murder of a number of camp-followers as well as soldiers, distrust of the Cornish reached similar levels to that of the Irish. Minor revenge was perpetrated against Cornish prisoners taken at Second Newbury later that year, and according to a later oral tradition the parliamentarian soldiers at Naseby slashed at the ‘Irish’ (most likely Welsh) baggage train women whilst shouting ‘Remember Cornwall’. After Lostwithiel, the ‘old’ Cornish regiments melted away, and only the intervention of Sir Richard Grenvile allowed new regiments to be raised. The old regiments were taken over by Lord Goring, who despised them. The ‘new’ regiments reasserted their independent status but when they too were placed under the control of an ‘English’ officer they began to dissolve. The intervention of the King's eldest son, sticking to the title of ‘Duke of Cornwall’ and the recovery of Grenvile from injury helped to stabilise things. Goring's troopers were barred from Cornwall, forcibly if necessary, and the semi-independent nature of the Cornish army continued even as Fairfax led the army west to victory at Langport and Torrington. Fairfax made overtures to the Cornish, implying a separate future, which chimed with Grenvile's proposals for a Cornish withdrawal from the war. Grenvile was arrested and Cornish morale collapsed. Other gentlemen stepped into the breach and a secret treaty was agreed which effectively led to the surrender of the county.

The chapters on ‘Outlanders’ or genuine foreigners, aren’t as well developed as the other areas. This is possibly because the evidence for foreign troops is fragmentary and often implied by the names mentioned rather than any definitive statements about their origin. Both sides were also prone to exaggerate the numbers of continental soldiers employed by the other side. Given the English dislike of foreigners just having an unusual name or unknown accent was enough to get you labelled as an undesirable. The employment of engineers and artillery officers by both sides, such as Rosworm, du Bois and de Gomme who had gained experience in the Thirty Years War is well documented as are the Barbary pirates released from Launceston jail by the Earl of Essex. Less well known are the likes of Lieutenant Theodore Palaeologus, supposedly descended from the medieval emperors of Byzantium, and the Ethiopians and Egyptians which Sprigge noted as being in Essex's army.

In terms of completely or majority foreign units, only the Queen’s Horse, referred to by one royalist officer as ‘most Frenche’, and the parliamentary cavalry regiments of Hans Behr and John Dalbier are reliably attested to. Assorted officers are noted, but foreign infantry are difficult to detect. Reports of atrocities by the French cavalry accompanying Henrietta Maria began to circulate as soon as they arrived, and Fairfax himself relays a tale of rape and pillage. Even the Cornish resented the presence of the French and refused to admit the ‘nasty, thievish... buggering, beastly French... of her Majesties Dark Guard’. A Dorset royalist had to persuade locals that any monies raised for the King wouldn’t be used to pay ‘French papists and [other] monstrous outlandish men’. Behr’s Dutch troopers acquired a similar reputation. Defections from the parliamentarian to the royalist cause by foreign troops did nothing to enhance their reputation, the most notable of these being John van Gerrish, who left Essex's army at Edgehill to inform his opponents that the cavalry troop of Sir Faithful Fortescue would shortly defect. Plundering was recorded as a ‘foreign’ trait, and condemned as such, whether the perpetrator was a native or not.

By 1644, foreign armies had trampled all over England; the Welsh and Cornish from the west, assorted continentals from the east, numbers of Irish soldiers via Wales and the north-west, and finally the Scots appearing from the north, formerly as occupying enemies and then as allies – but still occupying swathes of English land. Indeed the Scots perceived failure to advance south to the aid of the parliamentarians in a timely manner had made many suspect that they intended to stay and put down roots.

Parliament had long attached its cause to the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ and the word ‘patriot’ was used in a declaration within months of Edgehill. In fact Parliament was often referred to as ‘the Parliament of England’ and Essex and his army were noted as defending ‘English honour’, despite the foreign officers in the ranks of his and Waller's and Manchester's armies and the distant support of Scottish allies. The presence of the Scots officers in particular led to friction and even at one point a mass sword-fight in Westminster Hall in 1643.

Matters came to a head after the Anglo-Scots victory at Marston Moor, when Cromwell for one seemed to change his mind about his fellow victors, and the London newsletters supported the view that the battle was won largely through the efforts of the English part of the army. Cromwell’s attack on Manchester’s unwillingness to vigorously prosecute the war also included a charge of inactivity against Major General Crawford and a demand that he and other senior Scots officers should leave the army. There were military and religious aspects to this, as well as echoes of earlier complaints that the Scots and other foreign troops wanted to spin the war out for their own profit. Essex later stated that Cromwell wanted the job of fighting the war done not by soldiers but ‘...the godly... or any new English man...’. ‘Soldiers’ meant professionals and by inference, also included the foreign mercenaries.

Following the ‘Cornish business’ calls for a reform of the army mounted, with some writers wanting those who fought for ‘self ends’ removed and ‘an army of one minde’. Not long afterwards the alliance between the Scottish Covenanters and the Independents in Parliament collapsed. Those who wanted to prosecute the war more fully were now free to purge the army of undesirables – Behr and Dalbier were two of eight of Essex's senior commanders who were confined to London for supposedly failing in their duties. Manchester and Cromwell subsequently fell out over the proposals to consider ‘the whole militia’ and it became clear that rumours that the army would be cleared of foreigners would receive widespread support. The Lords received a sermon that partially attributed the victory of Scipio’s army over Hannibal Barca at Zama to their shouting with one [Roman] voice and Cromwell welcomed the Self-Denying Ordinance by talking about ‘true English hearts’ and ‘our mother country’.

The army was ‘new moulded’ in early 1645 avoiding any consultation with the Scots, and despite attempts by the Covenanters and the Lords to reinstate more than fifty of their preferred candidates, Fairfax’s choice of officers was supported by and pushed through by the Commons. Some three hundred Scots officers lost their positions, as did the vast majority of continentals. Those few remaining, including Crawford, resigned en masse in April. The remainder were sent off to the provincial armies, including large numbers to serve under Massey in the west.

Many opinions have been expressed as to how and why the so-called ‘New Model Army’ differed from its predecessors or the armies that were broken up to create it; it was a ‘national’ rather than a local army, a ‘godly’ army, a ‘left-wing’ or even a ‘democratic’ army. Some have maintained that it wasn’t really different at all. Mark Stoyle argues that there was another dimension to its creation – the composition of the officer corps of the new army was different – it was what Richard Baxter would later call ‘the English Army’.

The rest, as they say, is history. The author actually makes a good case for the important role played by the national aspects of the war, which has been overlooked within most mainstream accounts. Some of the evidence is common knowledge, but Mark Stoyle pulls it all together into a convincing narrative. Well worth a read.