Armies and politics – English Civil War 1647
Merely by their existence, armies influenced politics.
They constrained the terms under which peace negotiations could be made and they contributed to the factional infighting to which both sides were prone.
Despite their victory in the first civil war, by 1647 parliament’s armies had grown odious to the people because of the crushing burdens imposed for their maintenance.
John Morrill has suggested the cost of billeting the troops probably exceeded the cost of direct taxation.
By 1647 parliament owed approximately £2,800,000 to the New
Model Army, as well as its garrison forces and provincial armies under Edward
Massey and Sydenham Poyntz.
Faced with increasing civilian hostility and little prospect of receiving their arrears, many soldiers questioned why they remained unpaid.
Some perceived a conspiracy among those MPs seeking to disband the
army before arrears were settled.
Despite the usual focus on the New Model,soldiers from parliament’s provincial forces were equally capable of organized political activity in response to issues of pay and indemnity.
County committee men, excise officers, and sequestrators were seized and ransomed, whilst General Poyntz was arrested by his own soldiers.
Yet the political intervention of parliament’s soldiers stretched far
beyond their personal and professional grievances to embrace wider issues such as liberty, the franchise and the king’s fate.
As Ian Gentles has reminded us, the purge of parliament, the trial and execution of the king, and the establishment of a republic would have been unthinkable without the political interventions of the New Model Army.
The exhilaration of continued victories gave them confidence to organize politically and demand outcomes from the war that recognized their sacrifices.
The soldiers did not need John Lilburne to teach them political principles, as the election of representatives by mutinous soldiers was a common enough military practice elsewhere in Europe.
The General Council of the Army, the Declaration of 14 June 1647, and the Vote of No Addresses all represent occasions where the New Model intervened in politics, whilst the strength of the soldiers’ challenge to their generals at Putney may have been underplayed.
Indeed, Philip Baker and Elliot Vernon have recently argued that the first Agreement of the People presented to the General Council
of the Army at Putney on 28 October 1647 was not drafted by Leveller leaders
such as John Lilburne, Richard Overton or William Walwyn, but was rather
collated by John Wildman in consultation with the Army’s new agents and its
civilian counsellors such as Maximilian Petty.
Of these, even Wildman himself was likely to have been a former trooper in the Eastern Association.
So rather than seeing the Levellers as ‘infiltrating’ the army, there are now powerful arguments to envision ‘a thoroughly politicized army that was capable of thinking for itself’.
The concerns of parliament’s soldiers were also a crucial factor in
driving the regicide, despite the hesitancy of many of the trial commissioners.
Sean Kelsey has postulated that a capital sentence against Charles was far from
a foregone conclusion, even once the trial was underway.
He has stressed reluctance to impose the death penalty, as well as divisions among the trial commissioners and army officers over the nature of the charges.
Council of the Army, the Declaration of 14 June 1647, and the Vote of No Addresses all represent occasions where the New Model intervened in politics,whilst the strength of the soldiers’ challenge to their generals at Putney may have been underplayed.
Yet his claim that the decision to execute the king was only taken at the eleventh hour has been criticized for downplaying the implacable hostility of the army.
Despite only eighteen out of fifty-nine regicides being army officers, the military played the leading role in forcing the king’s execution.
Military pressure for ‘justice’ against Charles I came from petitioning units dispersed all across England, not just the New Model regiments in and around London.
Consequently, the generals must have feared a collapse in discipline if the king was spared.
The Army’s political interventions thereafter remained no less critical in
accelerating regime change, so much that Professor Austin Woolrych highlighted ‘climacterics’ around each time the army intervened against parliament in his structuring of the period.
The legacy of these military interventions in 1647,1653 and 1659 was the speed by which the army that restored Charles II was disbanded, to prevent it from meddling in politics again.
Thereafter, during the later seventeenth century, standing armies were frequently equated with military tyranny and oppressive regimes.
It was dark memories of the New Model, not the Army of the Covenant, or the Irish Confederacy, that were conjured when discussing the advisability of a standing army.
This reflects that no Scottish or Irish force achieved the same degree of influence within the state that the New Model achieved in England during the 1650s.
Considering the internal divisions within the Covenanting and Confederate movements, as well as the provincial-based organization of the latter’s military this is scarcely surprising.
Nevertheless, despite the New Model’s retrospective pre-eminence, the
soldiers of other civil war armies frequently intervened politically in ways that
their masters would not have approved, suggesting that an overview of army
mutinies in the war of the three kingdoms needs to be written.
Political interventions from soldiers shaped the shifting coalitions and at times dictated events.
For instance, Alasdair MacColla’s invasion of Argyll in 1645 and
Cornish attempts to separate themselves from mainstream royalism were
overtly political acts that proved highly damaging to the royalist cause.
Other examples include the deployment of Roman Catholic Irish soldiers in England, an outcome that proved to be very difficult even for some bellicose royalists to stomach.
Finally, the prospect of further Irish landings in 1649 had important
political consequences in England.
When Charles I refused to order Ormond to desist from his preparations, he narrowed the political options available to his enemies, making regicide far more likely.
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