“Cromwell’s contribution was greater off the battlefield than on it”. How far do you agree with this view of Cromwell’s role in the First Civil War?
Many historians have argued that Cromwell’s rise to prominence was through his work during the First Civil War (1642-1646). This work can be split into two sections: on the battlefield and off the battlefield. On the battlefield, his main success came during the Battle of Marston Moor and Battle of Naseby, whilst off the battlefield he was instrumental in passing the Self-Denying Ordinance which created the path to victory for Parliament.
Cromwell’s early military engagements in East Anglia had been relatively successful compared to other parliamentary generals during the first two years of the First Civil War. The Eastern Association, Cromwell’s army, were successful in several minor battles, namely Gainsborough, Winceby and Grantham. This prevented the Royalists from controlling Lincolnshire. These victories had provided much-needed propaganda for parliamentary newspapers, during a year in which the Royalists were clearly the stronger side. In addition, Cromwell also stopped the proclamation of the Royalist commission of array in Hertfordshire. However, it should be noted that these triumphs were trivial, and when placed in the context of the entire war its only function was to delay the southward march of the Earl of Newcastle’s army. Nevertheless, Cromwell’s prominence was enhanced significantly since he was the only parliamentary general to have any success in 1643.
His other military successes in 1643 include establishing the northern frontier of the Eastern Association at the River Nene. The victory at Crowland Abbey entrenched parliamentary control in East Anglia, indicating that Cromwell was clearly successful in preventing Royalist forces from taking over Lincolnshire. Again, this had provided the Parliament Scout with propaganda. This propaganda gave Cromwell an increased military reputation, which helped him in the political arena during the latter years of the First Civil War.
The Battle of Marston Moor, July 1644, changed Cromwell’s career both as a politician and a military general. Cromwell’s unique ability to regroup of his soldiers after attacking Byron’s cavalry in order to attack George Goring from the rear was the main catalyst for the victory. Although this battle did not decide the final fate of the First Civil War, it gave parliament hope and confidence; after the battle parliamentary soldiers were euphoric. This suggests that, just as in 1643, Cromwell’s military leadership not only resulted in victories but also increased the morale and confidence of the parliamentary army in general. Following this victory Cromwell’s political and military reputation were elevated to new heights.
Whilst the Battle of Marston Moor was not the turning point in the First Civil War, the Battle of Naseby (June 1645) certainly was. Yet again, Cromwell was instrumental in winning the battle for parliament. Just like at Marston Moor, Cromwell’s horse was able to attack the Royalist from the rear, breaking the initial Royalist momentum. Since royalist infantry were either or slaughtered or surrendered, the King was never able to field a full size army again, implying that at Naseby Cromwell had effectively won the war for parliament. Furthermore, by capturing the King’s baggage train, Parliament were able to publish the details of the Charles’ correspondence with the Irish Catholics and hence giving Parliament more support from the people. Evidently, one can see that Cromwell was at the heart of the victory at Naseby, which ensured that parliament won the First Civil War.
It may appear that all Cromwell’s military actions all resulted in victories. This is not the case. Even in 1643, Cromwell had some failures as a soldier. Although he was successful in East Anglia, he completely failed whenever he tried to participate in wider military engagements. By the summer of that year, his military position was as dire as other parliamentary generals, and thus was in no position to provide military support. Meanwhile, Cromwell’s military failures after Marston Moor include the Battle of Newbury and Battle of Donnington Castle.
However, these failures were minor and did not have as much an impact as his victories. For instance, the Battle of Marston Moor was not decisive, so the loss at Donnington Castle did not mean that parliament lost the opportunity to win the war. On the other hand, Essex’s loss at Lostwithiel was much more consequential since it negated the advantage gained at Marston Moor. One might wonder whether if Essex had not lost at Lostwithiel, parliament would have won the war much earlier due to the advantage gained at Marston Moor. Therefore, Cromwell’s military failures are cancelled out by his more important successes.
These military successes turned Cromwell into a parliamentary hero. As a result, he was able to advance his political influence. In the political arena, Cromwell was able to a more integral part than before the civil war.
Cromwell’s main political achievements occurred in the Self-Denying Ordinance, in which he secured a pathway to victory for parliament. The Self-Denying Ordinance forbade any MP to hold an army command. This meant the likes of Manchester and Essex were forced to relieve their military commands. Consequently, the peace party lost control of parliament’s army, leaving the war party, who wanted outright victory first, in control of the army. This meant that the parliamentary army was united in its aims, implying that Cromwell had set the framework for parliament’s future military engagements. The Self-Denying Ordinance also allowed for the creation of the New Model Army, whose excellence was witnessed at the Battle of Naseby, again indicating Cromwell’s ability in the political arena.
The Self-Denying Ordinance was not Cromwell’s only political accomplishment. In January 1644, Cromwell is involved in raising monthly assessments by 50%. This helped parliamentary finances which were in short supply. Cromwell also attacked many other parliamentary generals who he felt had played insignificant and incompetent roles in battles. All of these happened because of Cromwell’s increased political status, as seen by his position in the Committee of Both Kingdoms.
Therefore, it seems that Cromwell played key roles in political events during the civil war. However, it is important to remember that the Self-Denying Ordinance was not devised by Cromwell but instead by his parliamentary allies, notably Viscount Saye and Sele. Although he was involved in its passage through parliament, Cromwell was merely the most prominent beneficiary. In parliament Cromwell was supported by at least 9 connections. Without these connections it could be argued that Cromwell would not have received such political importance.
Furthermore, it was Cromwell’s military success that allowed him to be influential in parliament, thus implying that his political status was dependent upon his military prowess. His military triumphs also helped him when Essex and Denzil Holles debated whether or not to impeach him. They had decided not to proceed because of Cromwell’s military importance to the parliamentary army, suggesting that his military contribution cannot be replaced.
In addition, before the First Civil War, Cromwell lacked many essential political skills as seen by many of his mistakes. Cromwell’s paucity of political aptitude is also seen when he attacks Manchester in November 1644. This attack split parliament into rival two factions: peace party and war party, which would have consequences after the war. Although Cromwell did try to unite the factions together, he was responsible for the breakout in the first place, thus implying a negative contribution off the battlefield.
Therefore, one finds that Cromwell’s contribution off the battlefield is not as desirable as his military contribution. His political contribution alone could not have won the war for parliament, whereas his military contribution on its own could have won the war for parliament.
In conclusion, Cromwell’s role on the battlefield and in the political arena cannot be underestimated; in both areas he was useful and helpful towards parliament’s cause. However, Cromwell’s role main role was on the battlefield where he led many parliamentary armies to victories in full-scale battles as well as minor skirmishes, which eventually ensured triumph for parliament over the king.
These victories allowed him to acquire an increased status not only militarily but also politically, which gave him more influences in parliamentary affairs on and off the battlefield. Nevertheless, politically he did not architect any notable event, even the Self-Denying Ordinance wasn’t devised by Cromwell. On the other hand, militarily he guided a parliamentary side from near defeat in 1643 to victory three years later. Thus, this gives the impression that Cromwell’s contribution was greater on the battlefield.