Hello, and welcome to Revolutions,
Writing about the events that led to the First Civil War, political philosopher James Harrington, who lived through it all, famously observed that it was the dissolution of this government caused the war, not the war the dissolution of this government, by which he meant that King Charles was not toppled by some premeditated insurrection, rather that it was the total breakdown of political accommodation that led both sides to take up arms.
If we extend this observation one step further, we might say that the dissolution of this government caused the war, and the war caused the Revolution, because the Civil War cleared the path for notions that before the war would have been considered not just radical but unthinkable.
But the years of conflict kept moving the Overton Window (Google “Overton Window”) in a more radical direction, and over the 1640s, men went from being bomb throwing extremists to sensible moderates to weak knee reactionaries without ever changing their positions. We are now entering the most radical, the most revolutionary phase of all.
After the army took control of London in August 1647, a split began to open up in the ranks. Senior officers like Fairfax and Cromwell and Henry Ireton, now collectively known as the Grandees, were satisfied with using the reconstituted Parliament to put the King back on the throne under the Heads of Proposals. But there were some within the ranks who began to argue that King Charles had shown himself to be arrogant, duplicitous, and literally acting contrary to the will of God and had thus forfeited his right to the Crown.
The Radicalization of the New Model Army accelerating over the summer as Presbyterian officers retired, picked up steam with the army now camped outside of London because vacancies in the ranks were being filled by recruits from inside the city, and some of the new recruits had ulterior motives for joining. A good many of them were active Levelers who planned to infiltrate the army and use it as an instrument of sweeping political reform.
So who the heck are the Levelers? They were a loose knit collection of political radicals who emerged from the middle classes as the First Civil War was winding down. The name Leveler slapped on them by their enemies, of course, referred to their alleged plot to abolish property rights and equalize the distribution of wealth, something none of the key Levelers did anything but strenuously deny. I should also note that the term Leveler is very loosely applied at this point in history. So although for ease of reference, I’m going to be talking about the Levelers, this and the Levelers that, they were not a tightly organized unit. They did, however, share a common belief in goofy things like religious toleration, quality before the law, free trade, universal manhood suffrage, a government answerable to the people based on a written Constitution, goofy stuff like that.
In the specific political context of the day, they wanted to immediately dissolve the Long Parliament, abolish the House of Lords, and bring the King to trial. To achieve these ends, the Levelers plan to convince the agitators, the elected regimental representatives in the New Model Army, to join their cause. But it appears that many of the agitators took one look at the Leveler Plan to slash Parliament’s oppressive taxation and told them to take a hike because that tax revenue was earmarked for the soldiers back pay and forward pay and discharge bonuses and pensions. So the levelers changed tactics at the end of September, and a group of new agitators were suddenly elected from five cavalry regiments. And there is strong suspicion among historians that these five new agitators were not elected so much as self declared.
The new agitators then started circulating a document called The Case of the Army Truly Stated, which attacked the Grandees for selling out the common soldiers, demanded that Parliament be disbanded, and negotiations with the King cease at once. Then it went on to say crazy things like, when the next Parliament is elected, it should be on the basis of universal suffrage, which is to say freeborn men over the age of 21, which is insanity, because everyone knows that a Kingdom is defined by its property, not by its population.
On October 21, The Case of the Army Truly Stated was presented to the General Council, the Army’s governing body composed of two men and two officers from every regiment. The General Counsel gave The Case of the Army a pretty hostile reading, and then ordered the five new agitators to present themselves at the next meeting to explain just what in the hell they thought they were up to. But the new agitators decided to seize the moment by not simply defending The Case of the Army, but by writing up an entirely new petition called the Agreement of the People, which went beyond the specific issues of the day and laid out a broad theoretical basis for the reorganization of the Kingdom:
The old order of King, Lords, and Commons would be swept away, political representation would be based on population, not property, and then full power would be granted to the people’s representatives. There would be no forced impressment, there would be equality before the law and liberty of conscience.
The new agitators presented the Agreement of the People to Oliver Cromwell the night before the next General Counsel meeting, leaving Cromwell in a bind because he was trying to navigate his way through a divided Parliament to settle a peace with the vacillating King. And now suddenly the ranks of his own army were moving in a radical and vaguely mutinous direction. The attacks on the Grandees were brazen and explicit.
The first day of what will one day be called the Putney Debates, because the General Counsel was meeting in the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Putney opened on October 28, with the new agitators charging that the Grandees were betraying both the spirit and the letter of the Solemn Engagement signed back in June. As is so often the case with these sorts of things, the opening round of the Putney debates was consumed with the question of whether the Agreement of the People should be considered by the General Counsel at all. A Committee was appointed to determine if the central claim made by the Levelers that the Grandees were betraying the Solemn Engagement was even valid. Everyone would then reconvene in a few days to hear whether or not they would hear the Levelers out.
But then one officer had a bright idea and suggested that everyone get together the next morning for a group prayer in the hopes that God might give them some direction. Being the Godly Puritans that they all were, everyone thought this an absolutely capital idea, and so the next morning they got together to pray for guidance. But this group prayer took place in the same house that the Committee was scheduled to meet in the afternoon. And when the Leveler petitioners showed up to discuss their claims with the Committee and discovered what amounted to the entire General Counsel all gathered in one place, they demanded that the Agreement of the People be debated right then and there.
Cromwell tried to scotch the idea, but a certain Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, stirred up support for immediate debate, at least as much because he had a personal grudge against Cromwell as for any Leveler sympathies he had been harboring, sympathies, which didn’t appear until, well, just now, in fact. So the prayer meeting turned into a clause by clause debate on the Agreement of the People. This debate led, among other things, to the famous exchange between Rainsborough and Henry Ireton. Ireton was incredulous on the point of universal suffrage. Did Rainsborough really mean that every man had the right to vote? What about servants and beggars and vagabonds? Surely you can’t mean them, too. To which Rainsborough replied:
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he. And therefore, truly, Sir, I think it’s clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government. And I do not think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government, that he hath not a voice to put himself under.”
This is territory that Western civilization is not going to return to for another century and a half. Because Ireton responded with the argument that would continue to carry the day for the next 150 years:
“no person hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the Kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here. No person hath a right to this that hath not a permanent, fixed interest in this Kingdom.”
So no property, no vote. However, the prayer meeting debate adjourned with no firm conclusion one way or the other. When the next scheduled session of the General Counsel met on Monday, November 1, Cromwell, and this was not his smartest move, though given his intense religious devotion, it’s understandable, opened by asking if anyone had been moved by God over the weekend, and if so, what did God tell them? Which opened the floor for the Levelers to rise and say, Why, Yes, I was moved by God, and he wanted me to tell you that he has withdrawn his favor from King Charles and his entire corrupt system.
This is the moment when Charles starts being characterized as The Man of Blood, a reference to Numbers, chapter 35, verse 33 in the King James Bible:
“So Ye shall not pollute the land wherein Ye are, for blood It defileth the land, and land cannot be cleansed of the blood that is shed therein, but by the blood of him that shed it.”
So the Putney Debates are now swimming into pretty radical waters. Because the implications of labeling Charles The Man of Blood were clear, the Leveler spokesman started openly calling for the King to be brought to trial, possibly even for his life.
These pronouncements, though, only hardened the lines of debate, and once again the day produced no compromise. By now, of course, the rest of the army was starting to get restless. Some soldiers were angry that the Grandees were selling them out. Others were angry that the new agitators were taking this all too far. Everyone was starting to get just a little bit mutinous. By November 8, with no conclusion to the debate yet reached, Fairfax and Cromwell determined that it was time to put this thing to bed. They convinced the agitators, the old agitators, to voluntarily return to their regiments for the time being, reconnect with their men, and then the whole army would get together the next week to try to resolve this debate about the political, religious, and social future of England once and for all. The General Counsel met for the final time on November 9, closing the Putney Debates, a remarkable if inconclusive little step on the long road towards constitutional democracy.
In the meantime, the King threw a wrench into everything by escaping from Hampton Court. Supposedly, this was to put himself out of the reach of the Levelers and their Man of Blood stuff, but it’s just as likely that he was looking to get himself set up in a spot where he could more freely deal with the Scots, because ever since their withdrawal back north, a faction led by the Marquis of Hamilton, remember him from back in the Bishops Wars? While Hamilton thought the Covenanter’s unwillingness to yield on Presbyterianism was about to put England in the hands of these crazy Levelers in the New Model Army. After a few meetings with Hamilton’s brother Charles lighted out for Hampton Court on November 11 and wound up headed southwest to the Isle of Wight, where the governor, a cousin of Cromwells, though one not at all happy with the politicization of the army, was shocked and not a little bit horrified when the King suddenly showed up. And, well, here I amm! He put Charles under a loose guard and notified Fairfax that I’ve got the King. What should I do with him?
The army, meanwhile, had gathered for their follow up to the Putney Debates. But critically, the rendezvous at Corkbush Field was to be held over three days, allowing the Grandees to control the course of events. On the first day, seven regiments were ordered to muster, but then two more appeared without orders and without officers evidently ready to press the Leveler position. But Fairfax met with each regiment in turn denounced the new agitators for intentionally undermining army unity, promised to follow through on the program laid out by the Solemn Engagement, and, this is the crucial bit, if the breakdown of discipline kept up, I’m going to resign.
That threat pretty much snapped everyone to attention. Fairfax was beloved, and the regiments unanimously agreed to follow his lead. The two mutinous Leveler of regiments were then broken up by Cromwell and the cavalry. The next two days saw the rest of the New Model Army regiments line up with Fairfax when it was all over the budding Leveler mutiny was broken, at least for now.
Parliament gratified to find that the Grandees had just put down the Levelers prioritized the pay and pension bill so dear to the soldiers immediate hearts. But it didn’t solve the problem of what to do about the King. Nor did it put the Republican genie back in the bottle, because as the Commons once again took up the question of how to deal with Charles, the Presbyterians and Independents, who both favored putting him back on the throne, were now joined by what I’ll call Commonwealth Men who openly argued that Charles, at a minimum, ought to be deposed or forced to abdicate, possibly even put on trial for his crimes against the Kingdom. But Parliament voted to keep up the peace talks. They presented their conditions for continuing negotiations to the King on Christmas Eve 1647 and told Charles he had four days to respond.
But just then a small party of Scots showed up on the Isle of Wight to discuss their own terms with Charles. Built around a three year Presbyterian trial period, to be followed by a general debate on the religion of England. Charles liked this a whole lot better than anything Parliament was offering, and on December 26 the King rejected Parliament’s proposal and secretly signed The Engagement with the Scots, cementing a military alliance and putting England on the path to renewed civil war.
After this latest infuriating example of Charles’ obstinacy, Parliament passed the Vote of No Addresses on January 17, which meant no more negotiations with the King. Ever! But they also rejected a bill to impeach him. So it’s clear that Parliament wasn’t really sure what they wanted to do. They were also being distracted by growing unrest out in the counties because we haven’t had a chance to get too much into this. But just know that in order to wage their war against the King, Parliament had been forced to jack up the tax rate to something like three times what it had been during Personal Rule. And they developed a habit of locking up dissenters without due process of law. And by indemnifying the soldiers, they were validating the worst excesses of martial law. So basically everything they had been railing about when they ran Charles off in the first place.
Historian John Morrell has a great quote about this in The Nature of the English Revolution, where he says that “Parliament had fought to protect a herd of sacred cows, each of which was slaughtered to propitiate the God of war“. The average English family was sick of it all. They were sick of high taxes, sick of confiscation, sick of soldiers. Except now it was Parliament rather than Charles, who felt the wrath of the put upon English family. It was this far more than any intense love of the King that helped draw the line of the Second Civil War.
But whatever Parliament might have done to recurring favor with the people was put on hold in February, when the terms of The Engagement became public. Into the spring, old Royalist officers started streaming north to offer their assistance to the Scots, while the Commons emphatically voted to retain the old Constitution of King’s, Lord’s, Commons to kill accusations that they were getting ready to turn the world upside down.
In late April, the Engagers, as Hamilton’s Scottish party was now called, easily occupied. Berwick and Carlisle to use his staging grounds for the coming invasion. In early May, the Scottish estate grandly voted Hamilton and army 30,000 strong, which sounds awesome, but just so you know, he’s never going to get anywhere near that number, because instead of every Minister telling his congregation that enlisting for service was an obligation to God, he was telling them that the Engagers and their nambi pandy three year trial period were selling God out, which, as you can imagine, made recruitment difficult.
The Second Civil War is both shorter than the First Civil War and more dispersed as individual English communities simultaneously rose up in defiance of Parliament, creating a web of local action all hinging on the expected invasion from Scotland. The first official fighting broke out in Wales after Parliament attempted to disband the local regiments. As Cromwell rode off to try to put down this initial uprising, Kent and Essex both flared up, forcing Thomas Fairfax to seize preparations for a campaign against the Scots and march east to deal with the soon to be 11,000 men raised by the Earl of Norwich, aka the father of Sir George Goring.
Meanwhile, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough continued to prove himself a nuisance to Fairfax and Cromwell. He had gotten Parliament to promote him to vice Admiral of the Fleet. But when he showed up to take his command, the sailors of the flagship ticked off if their much loved former Admiral had been given the boot mutinied, put Rainsborough on a boat and declared for the King. The rest of the Navy soon followed.
By the end of spring, there were at least six different regions in revolt, forcing Fairfax to break up the New Model Army to go deal with them all individually and simultaneously. The Lord General himself remained stuck in Essex. After Fairfax defeated Norwich’s hastily raised army at Maidstone, the remaining Royalists retreated to the city of Colchester. Fairfax tried to storm the city in mid June, but he was repulsed and forced to settle into what became an eleven week siege through what turned out to be one of the nastiest coldest and wettest summers in English history.
With all of this going on, the Royal court in exile down in France, that is to say, Queen Henrietta Maria and Charles, Prince of Wales, got in on the action and sent the Earl of Holland, who happens to be the Earl of Warwick’s brother, up into England to take overall command of the Royalist cause. Holland made his way to Surrey, where he started to work up an audacious plan to use the recently flipped Navy to go down to France, pick up the Prince of Wales and a bunch of munitions, and then sail up the Thames to capture London. But Holland was discovered before he could pull it off and soon wound up the prisoner of the New Model Army.
As July rolled around, practically all corners of England had settled into a bitter stalemate. The Second Civil War saw no wistful letters between rival generals, no returning of captured wives, no generous quarter. The Royalists believed that they were fighting not just against men they disagreed with, but heretical rabble hellbent on destroying the social, political and religious fabric of the Kingdom, while the Godly soldiers of the New Model Army believed that the whole point of the First Civil War had been to determine whose side God was on, and clearly he was on their side. So restarting the war was quite literally blasphemy that must be punished swiftly and severely. With these bitter scales so balanced, the fate of England was in the hands of the Scots.
On July 8, Hamilton finally started marching south. Far from commanding the 30,000 he had hoped to raise, it was a mere nine or ten thousand that followed him. Most were not very well trained or very well equipped. Plus, Hamilton’s second in command thought that he should be the first in command and was not exactly about to play Cromwell to Hamilton’s Fairfax. So if Hamilton had been given a choice, he probably would not have started marching when he did. But the Royalists in England were not going to be able to keep up their end of the stalemate for long. So Hamilton felt obliged to get moving. But even then it was slow going. The crappy, terrible, no good summer of 1648 had turned the roads into mud pits and every brook, creek and stream into an impassable torrent.
But as he passed through Carlisle, Hamilton picked up another 3,000 men. And somewhere out there, Sir Marmaduke Langdale was riding around with another 3,600 cavalry. With Fairfax bogged down at Colchester, it fell to Cromwell to halt the Scottish advance. But as paltry as the Scottish forces were, Cromwell himself was only able to ride out of Pembroke at the head of 3,000 infantry and 1,200 cavalry. Everyone else was scattered across the countryside. The only thing going for Cromwell was that a Northern Association force had been cobbled together by Sir John Lambert, a man who will shortly become a major player in our story, and now numbered about 4,000 men.
Both Cromwell and Lambert expected Hamilton to take the eastern route south, so that he could relieve Colchester and maybe link up with the Prince of Wales’s naval convoy. But Hamilton elected to take the western route, hoping that by passing through the generally Royalist Lancashire, his army would snowball as he marched. But the arrival of the Scottish army only compounded the food shortages caused by the crappy, terrible, no good summer of 1648, and all they did was alienate potential supporters. And though Hamilton’s army had linked up with Langdale’s cavalry, bringing their numbers up to maybe 15,000, he failed to prevent Lambert from linking up with Cromwell, which, yeah, he really shouldn’t have let that happen, but it’s not his fault. His intelligence was so bad he didn’t even know Cromwell was in the vicinity.
By the middle of August, Hamilton continued to slog south blithely unaware that Cromwell and Lambert were right on the east side of the Pennines, a range of Hills running north-south up in northern England. So though he now had upwards of 18,000 men under his command, Hamilton’s forces were spread out all over the place. His most veteran troops had been left behind to garrison the north because of personal rivalries among his officers. Meanwhile, the entire cavalry had pushed further south on a foraging mission. So as Hamilton reached Preston, he was down to 10,000 men, mostly underfed and grumpy infantrymen. And that’s when he got hit!
On August 16, Cromwell crossed the Pennines with about 8,600 men and emerged north of Hamilton’s position, cutting off the road back to Scotland. Langdale had been posted with 2,000 men just north of Preston to guard the rear as the rest of the Scottish army crossed the Tweed river south of town. When the Parliamentary forces appeared, Langdale thought that first they were simply dealing with a small company of skirmishers. But it soon became apparent that these guys were just the tip of the Parliamentary iceberg. When Hamilton was informed that enemy soldiers had been sighted, he too assumed that they were just light skirmishers, and Langdale would be more than a match for them. So he continued the crossing.
On the morning of the 17th, Langdale’s men were dug in on the road to Preston and did indeed present a formidable obstacle to Cromwell’s advance. The conditions, as always, through the Second Civil War were terrible. But through pouring rain and driving wind, Langdale held out until he was finally overrun by the math of the thing and forced to fall back into Preston.
By now, Hamilton recognized that he had a real live battle on his hands. While his men completed the crossing, Hamilton himself stayed on the north bank of the river, waiting for Langdale to appear. But when Langdale finally did appear, it was only Langdale who appeared. He had been forced to leave his men to surrender back up in Preston.
Cromwell now faced two heavily guarded bridges that stood between him and Hamilton’s main army, which forced him to engage in a slow and torturous push of pike across both rivers. And I can promise you that the pikemen at Preston were not just waving their spears around. Parliamentary forces crossed the second river and captured the Scottish baggage just as night fell. Hamilton then took advantage of the darkness by withdrawing on a drumless march south. If he could only link up with his cavalry, he just might be able to whirl around and stampede over Cromwell’s outnumbered army. But then, you know, it’s just one of those crazy things that can turn the course of an entire war. Because by now Hamilton’s cavalry was riding north as fast as they could and Hamilton was marching south as fast as he could. Except they were on different roads! They were on different roads, so they totally missed each other. In the wee hours of the morning, the cavalry stumbled onto the Parliamentary camp just south of Preston. They went, holy crap! and turned around. Now, instead of being the saving grace up ahead, Hamilton’s cavalry was suddenly his rear guard. It’s just the damnedest thing!
So Hamilton’s new plan was to make for Warrington, but it was a pretty demoralized force he now led. The baggage had been captured, the gunpowder was mostly soaked. After a full day’s flight, Hamilton dropped maybe 4,000 men, although nobody knows for sure. At Winnick Pass, under the command of William Bailey, who last time we saw him, had been fighting Montrose up in Scotland. Bailey’s job was to slow Cromwell long enough to let the rest of the army get dug in at Warrington. The men left at the bottleneck that is Winnick Pass fought bravely and held their ground for hours. But disgruntled locals, ticked off about Scottish plundering, informed Cromwell of a route around the pass that would allow him to bring the Parliamentary cavalry in behind Bailey. As Cromwell led the cavalry round back, the rest of his army launched a frontal assault with Colonel Thomas Pride’s infantry regiment (remember that name, Colonel Pride) in the middle.
The Scots, holding Winnick, were finally forced to retreat right into Cromwell’s cavalry. Bailey managed to withdraw with 2,700 survivors back to Warrington only to find that Hamilton and all the senior officers had taken the cavalry and flown the coop. They left orders for Bailey to surrender under the best terms that he could.
The Scottish army, the key to the whole royalist strategy, had just been completely annihilated. Sir Marmaduke Langdale was caught a few weeks later resting in an ale house. And on August 25, Hamilton himself was run down and captured by John Lambert.
As news of the battle of Preston rippled south, the Royalist cause evaporated with it. Down at Colchester, Fairfax discovered that a simple piece of news finally did what cannon, musket, hunger and disease had failed to do for eleven weeks. On August 27, the besieged Royalists finally surrendered. Though the Earl of Norwich was left for Parliament to deal with, in an uncharacteristic display of harshness, Fairfax executed two of the non-aristocratic Royalist leaders. A controversial decision that was a rare black spot on the otherwise evenhanded and, dare I say, enlightened career of Sir Thomas Fairfax.
Up in Scotland, news of Preston prompted the Earl of Argyll to raise a force and try to unseat the Engagers. And though they turned out to be more resilient than he would have hoped. Argyll did manage to seize control of Edinburgh. As he was taking the Scottish capital, he learned Cromwell had turned north and was now standing at the border. The Scottish Lord sent desperate messages begging Cromwell not to invade and quickly arranged for the surrender of both Carlisle and Berwick. But Cromwell had had enough scheming from the north. In mid September, he crossed into Scotland. And by October 4, he was occupying Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, down in Westminster, news of Preston meant that Vote of No Addresses notwithstanding, it was high time to start negotiating with the King again. Because who doesn’t love negotiating with the King? Well, by now, it turned out that a lot of people didn’t like negotiating with the King. And next week, those people are going to drop a list of everyone who still thinks that dealing with the King is a good idea. Because it’s time for them to go. Because really, it’s time for the King to go.
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