PARLIAMENT'S GENERALS: SUPREME COMMAND & POLITICS DURING THE BRITISH WARS 1642-51

PARLIAMENT'S GENERALS: SUPREME COMMAND & POLITICS DURING THE BRITISH WARS 1642-51

Author
MALCOLM WANKLYN
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
This is a useful and timely book for several reasons. Firstly, it examines the careers of most of Parliament's Generals in the Civil War. There is a tendency for the gigantic figure of Oliver Cromwell to overshadow the others, who included the Earl of Essex; Sir Thomas Fairfax; his father, Lord Fairfax; The Earl of Manchester; Sir William Waller, Ireton, Deane and Monck. In this book they are given equal prominence. One has to conclude that, faced with this array of military talent, the Royalists had little chance of eventual success in the war, even though the dash and courage of Royal commanders might win individual battles.

Secondly, the author explains how politics impinged on the Parliamentary Army's work. Not only were most of the Generals members of either the House of Lords or the House of Commons; they were answerable to Parliament through committees which had been set up to oversee the war. Throughout the war political intrigue continued. Yet prior to the publication of Parliament's Generals, historians had underestimated – or at any rate had written little about – the political aspects of high command: the Generals' ever-changing and often difficult relationship with the English Parliament and its various executive committees. While prosecuting the war, the Generals had to keep glancing over their shoulders; to play politics, intriguing on occasion against each other and controlling their subordinates.

Unsurprisingly, the most politically-aware General was the one who won in the end. That was Oliver Cromwell. He emerges from his book with his military reputation intact and even enhanced. Although he had no military training or background, he quickly became the most formidable soldier of his age. How did he do it? He was clearly a brilliant man-manager. He is known to have studied the campaigns of other generals. But these factors alone do not explain his success. Readers who, like this reviewer, were brought up to believe that Cromwell was a man of diamond-hard integrity are in for a shock. The future Lord Protector also emerges as a consummate politician; a Machiavellian figure who was capable of taking credit for others' successes; of avoiding blame for his own omissions; of manipulating the news; of intriguing against rivals and destroying their careers. One victim of Cromwellian character-assassination was the Earl of Manchester, grotesquely caricatured by Robert Morley in the inaccurate 1970 film Cromwell. His reputation has never recovered. Wanklyn comments wryly that “the best that can be said about him is that for Cromwell the ends justified the means...with the proof of the pudding being determined in the eating. If his endeavours were crowned with success, whatever the human cost, that was a clear sign of his innocence in the eyes of God.”

Cromwell's successor as military political genius was General George Monck, who likewise emerges with his military reputation enhanced, but also appears as a consummate political actor. The proof is in his career. After the fall of the house of Cromwell in the person of Oliver's son, Lord Protector Richard “Tumbledown Dick” Cromwell, and faced with the alternatives of bringing back the republic, restoring the monarchy or becoming dictator himself, Monck restored Charles II. This action made him extremely popular. Before doing so, he deftly disposed of his rivals and enemies, political or military. Monck never fell from favour; he became Duke of Albemarle, Commander in Chief of the Forces, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, First Lord of the Treasury and held numerous other offices, dying in 1670, "like a Roman General with all his officers around him". Interestingly, Monck had a tenuous claim to the throne; he was a Plantagenet in the female line, descended from Lionel, Duke of Clarence. Monck was the last commander in chief to use the title of "Lord General", which he kept until his death. It had however acquired a republican or Cromwellian odour; other titles, such as "Captain-General" were used thereafter.

I have a very few criticisms: while this book is a boon to historians, it is not an easy read, being dense with detail. I do not think that the author is entirely fair to Cromwell, whom he appears both to dislike and admire. Would Cromwell have survived if he had not become a Machiavelli? I suspect not; I also suspect that, as a pious Puritan, he intensely disliked some of the things that he had to do in order to survive. His speech at the dismissal of the Long Parliament in 1653 is revealing of his real feelings about politics and politicians:

"Ye are a factious crew, and enemies to all good government...Is there a single virtue now remaining amongst you? Is there one vice you do not possess? Which of you have not bartered your conscience for bribes? Is there a man amongst you that has the least care for the good of the Commonwealth?"

I would have liked to have seen more about the sea commanders. Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, Lord High Admiral under the Commonwealth and Protectorate, achieves a brief mention, while Cromwell's Lord General at Sea, Admiral Robert Blake, one of the most interesting figures of the Civil War, is not mentioned at all. Yet they re-established England as a formidable naval power. Perhaps they are to be the subject of a separate volume? I hope so. The book is illustrated with helpful maps and contemporary engravings of the Generals. There are excellent Notes, Bibliography and Index.

Malcolm Wanklyn, currently Emeritus Professor in the History Department of the University of Wolverhampton, is a distinguished academic who has specialised in, and written extensively about, the Civil War.

Review by Metellus Cimber II

4/5 mushroom-heads

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