The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution


Created in 1645, the New Model Army was a truly formidable fighting force: in the first six years of its existence, it crushed Royalist resistance in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and brought about the execution of King Charles I. Yet, paradoxically, it was instrumental in the Restoration of his son 11 years later.

But the New Model Army was much more than a fighting force: it was a political entity in its own right, and those within its ranks promoted radical political ideas and dissenting religious beliefs. During the religious and political turmoil of the 1640s and 1650s, it occupied London three times, including in 1647, a year that the New Model Army took centre-stage in English politics, heralding a seismic shift in attitudes towards the King, and ultimately leading to his trial and execution.

Therefore, it is impossible to have a proper understanding of the so-called ‘English’ Civil Wars without appreciating the pivotal role that the New Model Army had in its outcome, regardless of whether the wars are viewed as a series of conflicts that engulfed the British Isles, or a political and religious revolution that led to the establishment of a republic.

Author Ian Gentles is widely regarded as the leading authority on probably the most influential army in English history. The New Model Army is a fully revised version of his 1992 work The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-53. It has been expanded to go up to 1660, thus enabling it to cover both the expedition to the West Indies in 1655 and the Restoration in 1660 (but, oddly enough, not the 1658 campaign in Flanders).

But this is more of a social and political study of the New Model Army than a typical military history. The author gets under the skin of the New Model Army to understand just what made it tick: how and why it was created, how it was led, and the religious and political beliefs of its soldiers.

Among many highlights is its second chapter, in which the author considers the logistical challenges (something that equally applies to any other fighting force of the period) faced by the New Model Army, not least recruitment. During the first year of its existence, the strength of the army was constantly bled by desertions, to the extent that for every soldier who was retained, about two men had to be conscripted. So, despite the New Model Army having a strength of as many as 24,800 during 1645-1647, it was a tight group of about 5,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry that gave the Army its distinct character.

While it was the best funded army of the Civil Wars, even the New Model Army could only pay its soldiers 76% (infantry) and 58% (cavalry) of the time. Indeed, arrears of payment was almost a constant feature throughout its existence; there were exceptions, including Oliver Cromwell, who, as commander of the New Model Army in Scotland in 1650, was not only paid on time, but was actually paid in advance.

Although the author provides a chronological history of the New Model Army from its creation to the Restoration, he does not go into detail listing regiments, fighting strengths, or comprehensive accounts of campaigns and battles.

But the purpose of this book is not to provide yet another military history of the wars, but to look beyond the accounts of the fighting, and to consider why the New Model Army was so formidable on the battlefield, and why it had such an impact on politics and religion off it.

Here the author succeeds admirably, delivering an indispensable study that is both insightful and thoroughly readable.

The New Model Army: Agent of Revolution, Ian Gentles, Yale University Press, hbk (£25), ISBN 978-0300226836.