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Revolution and Civil War: The Contested Origins of the British Army, 1645-1704

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 23 February 2012

Dr Neil Faulkner, Research Fellow at Bristol University and Editor of 'Military History Monthly', explores the creation of a mould-breaking 'British way of war' that enabled the British to humble the power of France and win a global empire.


Dr Neil Faulkner:

OK. Yes, I mean in a sense what this is, is the lecture of the first bit of that attempt to create, to write a history of the British Army that we’re publishing in 'Military History Monthly'. And there are big ideas which I want to share with you. I do want to try and give an answer to the question - where does the distinctive British military tradition which triumphs in the course of the 18th century, and in the course of the 18th century effectively builds an empire, where does that come from.

And I think, to a degree, that revolves, or that relates to a debate between those who would date the origins of the British Army to 1645 and those who would date it to 1660. And that debate has been, in a sense, touched on again with the publication of Saul David’s book - which I hasten to add is excellent, and strongly recommended to all - but he has taken 1660 as the decisive moment, which I think is wrong and said so in the review that I did last... in the last issue.

Let me... so I’m going to start with Blenheim. I’m going to start with this extraordinary transformation in the map of military power across Europe that is represented by Blenheim.

Blenheim was... it created a geopolitical revolution and it also represented, and what caused that was a military revolution. Let’s just try and get a handle on the significance of what happened in 1704. It was by far the greatest defeat suffered so far - perhaps the greatest defeat - I suppose the greatest defeat ever suffered by Louis XIV, this great monarch at the head of the superpower which dominated Europe at the time, on the throne from 1643 to 1715.

And France, at the time, was what Spain had been in the 16th century, what Germany would become in the first half of the 20th century, the dominant, the hegemonic European power. A massive defeat inflicted on the great superpower of Europe at the time which had the effect of saving the Empire - this is the Holy Roman Empire headed by the Austrian Hapsburgs - saving it from invasion and collapse, saving therefore the Grand Alliance which included the British, or... and the Dutch, but particularly importantly the Austrian Hapsburgs, and therefore preserved the balance of power in Europe - didn’t overturn the balance of power, but it preserved a balance of power. It kept in check the French expansionism represented by Louis XIV’s regime. It in fact put France on the defensive for the rest of the war... for the rest of the War of the Spanish Succession, and began a century-long process of containing and then driving back French power, specifically in relation to the War of the Spanish Succession. Began a process of attrition that would eventually bring peace.

And it quite clearly turned Britain, which up until this point had been regarded as a - rightly so - as a second-class power, it turned Britain into a European and a world power. Blenheim represents an extraordinary geopolitical shift, as significant as Waterloo was a geopolitical shift over a hundred years later. And that shift is made possible by a revolution in war, associated of course with John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, who I think was Britain’s greatest general. It’s probably a very controversial thing to say, especially surrounded by all these images of the great and the good of British military history, but I do think he was by far the greatest general in British history - I think far superior in a number of ways to Wellington. And I think that his dominance of the battlefield was related to the history which I’m going to... the back history, the back story, which I’m going to focus on in a moment.

And I think what’s also true about this military revolution is that it’s to do with the nature of the British soldier, who emerges as a dominant force on the battlefield really for the first time in 1704. And there are particular qualities, I think, that these Redcoats have, which we see clearly for the first time at Blenheim, and which underlie what is going to happen over the next century. So the British Redcoat is also very much part of this - this steadiness under fire, this drilling to deliver concentrated massed close-range volleys, the ability to withstand casualties, the aggression of Redcoats in... when on the offensive on the battlefield - and generally speaking they were on the offensive on the battlefield in the 18th century and so on - these particular qualities that the Redcoat had. Both of these things - that the commander and the nature of the rank and file are part of this revolution in war.

Now let me talk just a little bit about the... let me sort of try and unpack that revolution a bit by talking about what precedes it, and how very radical it is.

I’m going to focus on the main theatre of war in talking about, in trying to define old regime warfare, because to a very large degree of course the serious fighting in the War of the Spanish Succession took place in the Low Countries, in this kind of traditional cockpit of European conflict over hundreds of years as it has turned out to be since. In the early 18th century it was extremely wet because there had been far less of the drainage and the land drainage and the digging of canals and so on that have happened since. I mean it’s obviously a low-lying area, but large parts of it were swampy. The roads were of very poor quality, generally speaking they weren’t properly made roads at all. That meant that military movement of both men and material and supplies was dependent to a very large degree on waterways. And three great river systems - the Rhine river system here, the Meuse or Maas river system here, and the Scheldt river system here - were fundamental to military movement in the cockpit, less so as time went on, but very much so at the beginning of the 18th century.

Movement from one river to another, one waterway to another, was dependent on very primitive, cumbersome, overlarge wagon trains that were very poorly adapted to the particular conditions of the Low Countries. One of the innovations of Marlborough of course was to introduce these relatively lightweight two-wheeled wagons. And this kind of battleground means that there are numerous chokepoints - numerous points across this landscape where you can block the movement of an army. And this gives rise to a European way of war which is particularly characteristic of the Low Countries, but to a degree applies elsewhere as well, which is that it is very heavily defensive in character.

The Low Countries are studded with state-of-the-art... Vauban and Coehoorn - these are the two great military engineers of the time, Vauban of course the Frenchman, and Coehoorn the Dutchman - building these sort of star fortifications, and I’ve put up an illustration of Mons as an example, with the gaps between the natural barriers often also having lines of earthwork defences, so the whole place absolutely studded with these forts which means that we have a kind of a war of position and movement where keeping your army intact is critically important, because it’s the army that defends the chokepoint, it’s the army that defends the fortress, it’s the army that blocks a process whereby the enemy might collapse like a series of dominoes, a series of these fortifications, so there’s a real concern to keep the army intact. They’re moved very carefully around this chessboard-like battleground. Strategy tends to be defensive, it tends to be low risk. These are campaigns of position and manoeuvre. Warfare, if you like, is sticky, it’s not mobile, it’s not fast-moving, and it therefore tends to be indecisive. So an entire campaign might revolve around the siege of just one of these major fortified centres which moves one army another five miles, or ten miles forwards, but then the campaign has to be renewed the following year.

Now it’s that [slow-moving, defensive warfare] that is transformed by the campaign of 1704. And let me just very quickly rehearse the strategic situation in 1704 using a slightly wider map.

In 1702, when the war began, Marlborough had captured several fortresses on the Meuse, this is the... the Rhine is here, this is the Meuse you can see coming in here. The Meuse is one of the avenues of advance, or corridors of advance into Holland, and so shutting off the Meuse was important - this is blocking an invasion route of the French into Holland. He does that in the campaign of 1702 by capturing a number of fortresses. But four opportunities to bring the French to decisive battle are frustrated by the conservatism of the Dutch generals backed by Dutch politicians because they are concerned not to risk their forces in a pitched battle in the open.

In 1703 this means, in turn, the French are able to go onto the offensive. And what they do is to open a corridor of advance in the middle Rhine, in this region here, creating the possibility of linking up with the Elector of Bavaria, who is a French ally, and making a thrust towards Vienna - a thrust which in itself would perhaps be enough to bring the Austrian Hapsburgs to the point of surrendering and abandoning the Alliance. The Empire faced invasion and defeat in 1704. Marlborough had been frustrated by operating in Low Countries theatre where his Dutch allies prevent him from seeking decisive battle.

So there’s this extraordinary strategic blitzkrieg, which is what it is in the context of the way in which the Europeans traditionally conduct warfare, particularly in the Low Countries. A strategic blitzkrieg that involves a 250-mile march from the Meuse, up here, on the edge of the... on the eastern edge of the Low Countries cockpit, all the way across central Europe to the upper Danube. A march which involves 40,000 men, swelling to 60,000 as more join in. Marching across the front of powerful French armies here, who are actually poised to interrupt this march had they been confident about Marlborough’s intentions, and had they worked out a strategy that they were confident about implementing. So there’s an element of serious risk-taking involved in the strategic movement.

Deep deception is involved because there’s uncertainty throughout about exactly what Marlborough’s destination is. And the French aren’t sure whether he’s going to try and seek another invasion route coming into France. They’re not sure until finally he continues the march on down towards the upper Danube that that is in fact his destination.

It’s a masterpiece of logistics with all of the supplies in place at the depots, so as the army marches in after each day’s march, everything is prepared. There’s even a huge consignment of replacement shoes in anticipation of the fact that the army is going to walk itself out of its shoes on the course of this 250-mile march. And its objective is to effect a junction with the Imperialist armies in the heart of Europe.

Getting Marlborough away from the Dutch and their caution, and allowing him to link up with Prince Eugene, who is another... a bold, aggressive, dynamic commander... an Imperialist commander, and to work with him in bringing on a decisive battle, which is what he is pursuing. Marlborough wants to fight the French in the open and inflict upon them a crippling battlefield defeat. And he’s prepared to do it despite the fact he’s outnumbered, despite the fact the French have 56,000 men, 90 guns and a strong defensive position, and the Allies - the British, and the others who are part of Marlborough’s army and the Imperialists - have 52,000, 66 guns. Nonetheless they make the decision to attack, so there’s the famous anecdote where they both go up the church tower of Tapfheim church and they look to the west and they can see the French and Bavarian army drawn up in a strong defensive position, and they decide nonetheless they’re going to attack it, which is to turn on its head the rules of European warfare at the time.

Now I’m not... I’m going to speak very briefly about the detail of the battle. Suffice it to say it was a masterpiece. Suffice it to say that the skill with which Eugene’s Imperialists were used as a fixing force, holding and engaging, and keeping occupied, and to some degree requiring a shift of reinforcements in that direction, the whole of the French left. But the attack by Salamander cuts British infantry on Blenheim, which again has the same effect of fixing the garrison of Blenheim and drawing reinforcements into this position, such that the centre of Taillard's position on the right was so weakened that it became possible for Marlborough to launch a decisive attack with his battle-winning force in the closing stages of the battle. All of that is well known. Suffice it to say not only are we looking at a strategic blitzkrieg that breaks all the rules, we are also looking at an exercise of battlecraft on the battlefield that breaks all the rules and demonstrates the fighting power again of these soldiers. The steadiness, the discipline, the willingness to withstand casualties, the willingness to move to very close range and then to deliver disciplined massed volleys at point-blank range, that in the attack of the Redcoat infantry on Blenheim village, and the nature of the final cavalry charge with Marlborough’s cavalry, as Cromwell's had done, riding knee to knee, moving in at the trot, maintaining a tight formation and hitting with tremendous shock, with tremendous power.

Let’s sum it up. The secrets of this victory were that instead of a war of position, of manoeuvre and defence, instead of that we have a war which is about movement. It’s about strategic movement across the entire theatre of war. It’s about strategic movement within the zone where the opposing forces are coming into contact with each other. It’s about movement on the battlefield itself. It’s about the use of fire power and the level of drill that is necessary to achieve massed close-range volley fire which has the ability to shatter an opposing formation. It’s the delivery of that firepower to the battlefield, and to decisive points on the battlefield. And it’s the relentless aggression in contrast to the defensive-mindedness of European warfare at the time.

Now where does this come from? And I don’t buy it that it’s all about the great man. And I think he was a great man, I think he was the greatest general in British history - I’ve said that already. But great men are created. They’re created by historical forces, by social forces, by political forces and so on. They represent a developing tradition, they emerge in particular specific historical circumstances. I certainly don’t think it’s got anything to do with the Restoration, which represents the endpoint of a military tradition which has to then be slowly reconstructed. The idea that the running down of the Army and the kind of rebuilding of the Army from 1660 represents a meaningful starting place doesn’t convince. Because of course the armies that were rebuilt later in the 1660s, the 1670s and on, were rebuilt using a cadre of officers and NCOs, and to some degree rank and file, and a military tradition which already existed, and it was the military tradition of the New Model Army.

And the military tradition of the New Model Army itself did not come from nowhere. There is a long tradition going back, right back to Anglo-Saxon times, of militia service, of the Anglo-Saxon fyrd made up of freeborn men, freeborn English men who have a certain political right and also an obligation, therefore, to do military service. And you can see them on the Bayeux Tapestry if you want a picture of them, because that is them on Senlac Hill. There are some images of... on the tapestry which show the English line on the hill and they’re armoured, they are the housecarls, they look just like the Normans. And there is this image that shows un-armoured men, these are the militia. These are the militia where the housecarls, the armoured housecarls, have been stripped away and we see the ordinary Anglo-Saxon free citizens, free members of their village communities from the southern counties who were required to do military service at Hastings. The Anglo-Saxon fyrd is a tradition that then continues through the medieval period where the obligation on ordinary free Englishmen to do military service continues and produces, of course, the English longbowmen who are so important in the conquest of Wales and Scotland and also more obviously, more famously, in the conflict with the French in the course of the Hundred Years War. The Anglo-Saxon fyrd and the English longbowmen represent the continuity of this tradition of militia infantry service going back over hundreds of years.

And who are these people in sociological terms? They are the 'middling sort'. They are what those in the 17th century who were trying to describe what was happening in the English revolution called the 'middling sort'. Not the aristocracy, not the top gentry, but the lesser gentry sometimes. Certainly the yeomen farmers, certainly the artisans, or the better-off artisans and craft workers and so on in the towns - that middle section of society who drive a process of social change that is gathering momentum in late medieval England and then comes to two major crises in the 16th and the 17th century. The English Reformation, in the middle of the 16th century, is powered essentially by the 'middling sort'.

They are the Protestants, they are the enthusiasts for the dissolution of the monasteries. They are the people who form the basis of the Tudor monarchy, the Tudor absolute monarchy. They are the bedrock of support of the Elizabethan regime. The 'middling sort' produced the seadogs of the Elizabethan navy - they are recruited from this level of society. They produce the trained bands that muster at Tilbury in 1588 to defeat the Spanish should they have succeeded in landing. And this 'middling sort' is then fundamental to the parliamentary cause between 1640 and 1660.

But the struggle to bring the 'middling sort' to the fore, to build an army around them, to unleash their military potential and their revolutionary potential, is an argument within the revolution itself. And of course the leading exponent of that sense of how to win the war, how to defeat the King, was Oliver Cromwell - himself a man of relatively modest background, I mean a country squire with a close relationship with the forces in English society that were interested in change. And he says about Edgehill - and the reason I put this up is because Cromwell of course learns a lesson from Edgehill, and the lesson is very revealing of his sense of the central significance of the 'middling sort' and the need to empower this section of society if we’re... if the Parliamentarians are going to win - ‘Your troopers...’ - he’s talking to fellow Parliamentarians - ‘Your troopers... are most of them old, decayed serving men and tapsters... and their troopers [the Cavaliers, the Royalists] are gentlemen’s sons, younger sons and persons of quality. Do you think that the spirits of such base and mean fellows will ever be able to encounter gentlemen who have honour and courage and resolution in them? You must get men of a spirit... that is like to go as far as gentlemen will go, or else I’m sure you will be beaten still.’ We are going to build an army, in other words, not of gentlemen, but of people who are as good as gentlemen.

And he starts with his own regiment which becomes the toughest and also the most radical regiment in the Parliamentarian army, and this is how he describes these men that he recruits that become then the model for the creation of the New Model Army: ‘A few honest men are better than numbers... If you choose godly, honest men to be captains of horse, honest men will follow them. I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.’

A plain russet-coated captain who believes in the cause that he is fighting for - that’s the model soldier that Cromwell is looking for. That’s the model soldier that becomes the basis of the New Model Army.

Let me say a few things about it. It was described by Sir John Fortescue, the great historian of the British Army, as ‘by far the greatest army in Europe at the time’. And if you look at its record, its record is absolutely phenomenal, and a phenomenal record of victory and success. It was created in 1645 to give the Parliamentarian forces strategic reach and mobility, to overcome the problem of parochialism, of localism, of Parliamentarian armies not being willing to march beyond their home district. So it’s a national army, a true national army for the first time in the conduct of the English Civil War.

There was tight discipline inside it. Gambling, drunkenness, wenching, those things were severely punished inside the New Model Army - a tightly disciplined force. There was a revolutionary spine. And by a revolutionary spine I mean key officers, key NCOs were religious radicals and political radicals. And there was a general circulation inside the army of pamphlets, of leaflets, there were meetings, there were radical sermons. This was, if you like, an army of democracy, an army where there was a living democracy debating all the time what it was about. An idea which I think is important to get a hold of when we’re thinking about the origins of the British Army where democracy is actually central to what is going on inside the army, because it’s the way in which a commitment to the cause is actually built. This is the 'middling sort' in arms.

It goes into battle within a few months of its formation, at Naseby, and again I’m going to comment very briefly on Naseby just as I have done with Blenheim. The key thing about Naseby is that it was the triumph of a particular military system, a new military system. Those who know the battle will probably recall a Royalist cavalry victory on the Royalist... the Royalist right, a cavalry victory here. But some of the Parliamentarian horse rallied, and the Royalist horse went off to plunder the baggage train down here. There was a somewhat static, slow-moving infantry engagement in the centre which is very typical of the English Civil War - infantry combat tended to be very, very sticky because of this complicated need to co-ordinate the movements of muskets and pikemen.

But on the Parliamentarian right, where Cromwell was in command, the Royalist horse was smashed and the Parliamentarian horse on this flank then become the battle-winning force, turning in on the Royalist foot, turning in on Charles I’s reserve and bringing about the defeat from the right moving across the battlefield of the Royalist forces. It was decisive, and it was decisive because of Royalist indiscipline, because a Royalist cavalry victory on one side of the battlefield did not translate into a tactical advantage. It turned into a looting of the enemy’s baggage train, in contrast to what happened on the other side of the battlefield where the grit of the Parliamentarian infantry in holding in the centre, and the discipline of the Parliamentarian horse in turning their initial tactical advantage on the right into a decisive tactical advantage across the battlefield as a whole was crucial.

It was about the command and control on the battlefield exercised by Cromwell himself, the greatest commander produced by the revolutionary wars, and it was about tactical follow-through. It was about the fact that the Royalists were given no chance to recover from their tactical defeat such that 5,000 of the Royalists became casualties or prisoners - they lost half their army on the battlefield - and there was then also strategic follow-through. They had no opportunity after that to build a new army. The dispersed Royalist forces across the country were then destroyed in detail by this national force able to operate across the entire theatre of war.

There is an unbroken military tradition linking the New Model Army of 1645 - which of course continues as a central force in British public life right up until 1660. There’s an unbroken military tradition linking that New Model Army with what happens at Blenheim in 1704. The coup in 1660 - which is what it is, it’s a military coup - is a coup of the Army against itself. It’s one section of the New Model Army moving against the rest of the New Model Army in order to bring in the King. There’s no sense at all in which the Army itself is overthrown. There’s a shift to a different political set-up, but it’s engineered by the Army, it’s engineered by a New Model Army leader, General Monck, here.

The Restoration army, which of course is run down to a small fraction of what it had been initially at any rate, retains two, later a third reconstituted regiment of the New Model Army, and retains officers and traditions inherited from the New Model Army. The armies that are sent, for example, on expeditions subsequently, like the expedition to Tangiers, they’re not reconstructed de novo. They are drawing on an existing cadre of officers and NCOs and military experience and expertise.

1688, the Glorious Revolution is the confirmation of this reality that the Army of the restoration period is still essentially the New Model Army. It’s still essentially the army of Parliament. It is the revolt of the Army against the regime of James II and his attempt to do what Charles I had tried to do - to construct an absolute monarchy. The decision of the Army to mutiny is confirmation of where the Army stands, as is of course the Army’s role in the defeat of the First Jacobite Rebellion, the Second Jacobite Rebellion, and the Third Jacobite Rebellion - all attempts, subsequent attempts, to create some kind of absolute monarchy on the continental body; each of those attempts defeated by the British Army.

Let me say something about John Churchill himself, because I think that what’s crucial to understanding him and his achievement is that he was, and I put it in very stark terms here, I’ve said that he was finally, when the chips were down, Parliament’s man. He was the son of a minor Royalist gentryman. Now the political allegiance is one thing, but his position within society, or the position of his father within society is another. And the position of his father within society actually makes him a natural Parliamentarian rather than a natural Royalist. And it’s interesting that the family as a whole were split, and he, John Churchill, was brought up in the household of his Parliamentarian great-grandmother. So here’s an example of a family of rank, but relatively modest rank in English society, that's split down the middle by the conflict. So he’s influenced by both.

He’s a courtier, and he’s an officer, dependent on the patronage of the Duke of York who subsequently becomes Charles II. Now that’s very significant. His patron is the man who attempts between 1685 and 1688 to construct an absolute monarchy. And when that is first challenged by the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, John Churchill decides to fight for James II against Monmouth, against the ‘good old cause’ as they called it, against the danger of a renewal of revolutionary anarchy, as the men of property feared. But in 1688 he’s shifted and supported a coup, a military coup, against James II, in defence of property which was now threatened by the absolute monarchy, in defence of Protestantism which was threatened by the Catholicism of the court, and in defence of Parliament - in defence of the idea that we do not want an absolute monarchy, we want a constitutional monarch who rules with Parliament, not in defiance of Parliament.

In other words we have a military revolution that makes possible a geopolitical revolution that is rooted in the English revolutionary experience of 1640 to 1645. And this is just how significant that was, to conclude, in this struggle against France where we started. Louis XIV’s France numbered 20 million people at the time of the War of the Spanish Succession. And it’s estimated that its total manpower mobilisation capacity was round about 450,000 men.

Against that, Marlborough’s England was a land of about 7 million people, so a third of the size. And the largest army fielded by the British in the course of the War of the Spanish Succession was 70,000 soldiers strong, excluding Ireland and garrisons. There’s a huge gap, a huge gap on the face of it, in the resources and the military capacity of these two states that come into conflict with each other, not just once, but again, and again, and again in the period between 1688 and 1815. This long 18th century, if I can call it that, is a... is dominated geopolitically by the struggle between Britain and France. The Nine Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession, the War of the Austrian Succession, the Seven Years War, the American Revolutionary War, the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars - these are all fundamentally conflicts that involve a struggle for global power, a struggle for global empire, a struggle for European hegemony between Britain and France. And it’s a struggle by which the French go down and the British are successful in creating what turns out to be the greatest empire ever seen.

This is the great age of the British Army - 1645, with the foundation of the New Model Army, until 1815. A military tradition forged in revolution and civil war. A military tradition where the leaders of the Army are committed to the defence of property, not just against the mob, but also against overarching political power, also against a monarchical state. Committed to the defence of property, Protestantism, the Protestant religion that’s bound up with the idea of constitutional government now, and committed to Parliament as the mechanism, the constitutional mechanism whereby the interests of the new dominant class in English society can be protected.

The military tradition itself is rooted in an older, medieval militia tradition of free men, and draws upon it. The Redcoat is a yeoman, a solid yeoman farmer in uniform given a Brown Bess musket, and the qualities that he displays on the battlefield are the qualities of this crucial class in the development of English society. Recruited from the 'middling sort' of yeoman and artisans, led by a new breed of lesser gentlemen and career officers, of whom John Churchill is a supreme example. The English revolution therefore created an army capable of breaking the power of France and building the greatest empire ever seen.

There you go.


23 March 2012, 1.36pm

Very Good lecture

Very Good lecture

Harvey Pincis
29 March 2012, 3.29pm

Brilliant lecture; well

Brilliant lecture; well balanced and focused - a strong thesis supported by an excellent argument.

Ian Dexter
24 April 2012, 10.10pm

Spot on, most interesting and

Spot on, most interesting and needs to be said.
Only slight criticism is that yeomen undoubtedly had their place - but so did the poor and propertyless, which probably always constituted the majority, certainly of the infantry.

William Johnson
12 November 2012, 5.32pm

Poor lecture in the general

Poor lecture in the general tradition of blinkered British historicity. Of course much of the content is correct and insightful about the composition of the army, but the lecture fancifully conjures up the notion of a 70,000 man army defeating a 450,000 man force. It ignores the contribution of other members of the anti-French coalition (Holland, Austria, etc.) both in troops and materiel. Also in portraying John Churchill as a completely principled individual only driven by high ideals of anti-absolutism it ridiculously ignores his well described avarice in self-advancement and acquisition of personal property. Disappointing that a lecture at the National Army Museum serves up such faded incorrect cliches.

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