Before the Civil War, England had no permanent standing army. Each county had its own local militia that could be called upon during times of conflict, but these weren’t professional soldiers.
In 1644, the parliamentarians suffered one of their biggest losses at Lostwithiel in Cornwall, where their main field army was destroyed. In the wake of the defeat, Oliver Cromwell argued that Parliament could never win the war without better military strength; there were even concerns that some politicians in command of armies might try to prolong the war to keep hold of their power.
On 3 April 1645, the Self-Denying Ordinance was passed by Parliament: no member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords was henceforth permitted to hold office in the army or navy – although this was modified to allow re-appointments. The parliamentarian army, too, was reorganised and a New Model Army was formed – a national army of professional and well-trained soldiers, equipped to fight anywhere it was required.
Unlike the armies of the past, the highest-ranking officers were chosen based on their talent, rather than on social status or wealth. As well as weeding out any unsuitable candidates, many Scottish and foreign mercenary officers were removed too, making the new army an almost-entirely English force, some 20,000 men strong.
How religious was the New Model Army?
The New Model Army was also quite radical in religious terms, as historian Professor Mark Stoyle explains: “A lot of the most radical Protestants – really zealous Puritans – flocked to the army. These were people after Cromwell’s own heart: radically religious, English and patriotic.” Recruits were taught the divine quality of their mission using The Soldier’s Catechism, which detailed the parliamentarians’ stance in the war and encouraged all of the soldiers to be godly.
There was a lot of competition for good positions in the new army and many men volunteered to fight, but this still didn’t make up the required numbers. Professor Stoyle suggests that conscription was needed – especially in London and the south-east – meaning there were a number of soldiers who didn’t necessarily want to be there, at least at first.
A standardised uniform was introduced for this new national army, with red coats chosen as it was the cheapest option – it was the first time in English history that an army had all worn the same uniform. Financial discipline was kept, too, and soldiers were provided with regular and generous pay.
The New Model Army on the battlefield
Following their 1644 defeat in Cornwall, a few of the men who had been dismissed from the earlier parliamentarian armies now joined forces with Charles I. Replete with experienced soldiers, the king was flushed with confidence and sure of victory, while the New Model Army had not yet been tested on the battlefield. Charles would soon discover, however, that the war was far from won.
Sir Thomas Fairfax was made captain general of the New Model Army, and on 14 June, it faced its first great battle, at Naseby in Northamptonshire. The army successfully destroyed the royalist forces, and within a year, had won the first of the Civil Wars for Parliament.
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Whether this victory was purely down to the New Model Army is not clear, but as Professor Stoyle says, they certainly helped: “Parliament could have won without the New Model Army, but probably wouldn’t have done so as swiftly. With their access to London and its trade routes, parliamentary resources were much better and could be channelled to the army, which contained very fervent, committed officers and men. It was also much bigger than the king’s forces, especially at Naseby. The historian Ronald Hutton once remarked that the king committed suicide at Naseby by tackling a much bigger army with a much smaller one.”
The soldiers of the New Model Army had proven themselves to be a highly skilled and dangerous force to be reckoned with. They continued to win victories on the battlefield, and in 1648 they crushed the royalists and Scots at Preston and brought the Second Civil War to its conclusion.
The New Model Army also went with Cromwell during his campaigns in Ireland, and – with Cromwell taking the place of Fairfax – they beat the Scots and royalists at Dunbar and Worcester, resulting in the end of the Civil War altogether in 1651.
During the days of the Protectorate, after Charles I’s execution, Cromwell relied heavily on the New Model Army to rule, rather than looking to Parliament, and it eventually eclipsed the institution in power. However, Cromwell’s son and successor, Richard, commanded no allegiance with the military, and the New Model Army was disbanded upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
Despite this, it was clear that a permanent army was still in the nation’s best interests, and a new English army was established by Charles II in January 1661 – the basis for the modern British armed forces today.
The turmoil of the Civil War was an ideal breeding ground for political dissent
Out of the chaos of the Civil War came a new political movement known as the Levellers, who believed in religious tolerance, equality, suffrage and popular sovereignty. The name itself was derived from a derogatory term for rural rebels.
One important figure of the movement was John Lilburne, who was arrested in 1645 for suggesting that MPs enjoyed a life of luxury while letting others fight for their cause.
Many discontented members of the New Model Army began listening to these ideas, which appealed to those who felt ignored. At first, the Levellers campaigned alongside Oliver Cromwell, but they eventually turned against him, demanding a settlement to the Civil War that would ensure political freedom.
In 1647, the movement began to create a plan to modernise the democratic process across England and question the authority of parliament. They asked for the vote to be extended to a wider group of people, while the army also presented its own set of grievances.
The Levellers eventually began to lose support within the army, and the 1649 Banbury Mutiny – when Cromwell launched a surprise attack on dissenting soldiers – saw the Levellers’ power base in the New Model Army destroyed. Although they didn’t achieve success in England, their ideas would go on to inspire many revolutionaries in France and America.
This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed