The New Model Army: why Parliament won the English Civil War

When King Charles I raised the Royal Standard at Nottingham Castle on 22 August 1642 and declared war on his own people he did so with his customary appeal to regal pomp and circumstance. Yet the ceremony degenerated into farce as Charles made last minute corrections to the Proclamation which the Herald then had difficulty reading out, and when the Standard was blown down in a storm on the same night it was interpreted by many as a bad omen. This fiasco symbolised the incompetence which hampered the Royalist campaign, and compared unfavourably with the organisation displayed by the Parliamentarian military forces during the years of conflict. For after raising the armies and an indecisive period of hostilities, what proved to be the determining factor in the war was the command, discipline and conviction of the New Model Army. Simon Court explains.

Raising the armies

Charles IThe Royalists (or ‘Cavaliers’) found it initially more difficult to raise funds and troops because it was harder to persuade men away from their harvest and towards a political cause which was purely reactionary and sought to defend the King’s absolute right to govern unfettered by Parliament. (Pictured: Charles I). By contrast, the Parliamentarians (or ‘Roundheads’) could appeal to the need to make the King more accountable to his people through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and were also able to draw on the support of the English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians whose religious conviction was that God was on their side. Both politically and religiously, the Roundheads were more highly motivated.

The Roundheads also had control of the Navy and London, which gave them a clear advantage throughout the war. Control of the Navy meant that the Royalists were frustrated in their attempts to secure men and supplies from the Continent and Ireland. Control of London, which Charles had so foolishly abandoned, meant that the Roundheads had a ready provision of men, arms and clothing, easy access to borrowed money, and the administrative infrastructure of the nation state (while Charles had to cobble together new administrative and fiscal mechanisms in Oxford).

The occupation of London was particularly important throughout the war in respect of firearms, the majority of which both Roundheads and Royalists had to import from Holland and France. It meant that Parliament had control of the arsenal at the Tower of London, and was more easily able to import the sword blades and gunlocks which were necessary for the war effort. By contrast, the King was denied access to the armoury at Hull in April 1642, and when he lost Newcastle to the Scots in October 1644 he was forced to rely more heavily on the ports which he occupied in the south west. And by May 1644 the London armaments industry had expanded to such a degree that numerous London producers, who had previously supplied the King’s regime before the war, had become the major source of the supply of arms to the Roundheads.

Yet by late 1644, and despite their advantages, the Roundheads found themselves in military deadlock with the Cavaliers. The first major battle in October 1642 at Edgehill had been inconclusive, and thereafter the Cavaliers had found it easier to recruit out of a widespread social fear that the traditional English way of life was under threat from militant Puritanism. Whilst a Roundhead victory at Marston Moor in July 1644 had marked the loss of the north for the Cavaliers, they still remained strong in the south west (including Bristol and Bath) and Charles was secure in Oxford.


Oliver CromwellWhen the commander of the Roundhead Eastern Association, the Earl of Manchester, did not take full advantage of superior numbers at the Second Battle of Newbury in October 1644, and refused to pursue a retreating Charles to Bath, his subordinate as Lieutenant-General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell, pictured, realised that change was necessary. Cromwell suspected that outright defeat of the King would only be possible if the existing Roundhead commanders, who favoured a peaceful negotiated settlement with Charles, were removed and replaced with professional soldiers. Consequently in April 1645 he forced through Parliament the Self-Denying Ordinance which precluded MPs, both in the Lords and Commons, from holding military positions. Manchester and the Earl of Essex, who had led the Roundheads at Edgehill, promptly resigned.

Conveniently Cromwell, as MP for Cambridge, was deemed too important for the Roundhead military cause and was exempted from the Ordinance. He then promoted a fellow Marston Moor hero Sir Thomas Fairfax as head of the army. Tellingly Fairfax’s commission no longer included a clause for the preservation of the King’s person (although Fairfax later distanced himself from the trial and execution of Charles on 30 January 1649, which is discussed further in my piece Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I).

The Self-Denying Ordinance and the re-casting of the Roundhead chain of command put Cromwell in a central leadership position. But it was another casualty of the Ordinance, Sir William Waller, who was first to see the need to ‘remodel’ the whole structure of the Roundheads. As a major-general Waller had suffered defeat by Charles at Cropredy Bridge in June 1644, and on 2 July he wrote to the Parliamentary Committee of Both Kingdoms suggesting that “till you have an army merely your own that you may command, it is in a manner impossible to do anything of importance”. Waller recognised the inefficiency of the existing structure, where Roundhead armies were only recruited from within the regional associations (the East, West, North and South), because soldiers were often reluctant to campaign away from their local areas. He proposed the formation of a national army with no regional affiliations. Cromwell took up this idea and in conjunction with the Self-Denying Ordinance the New Model Army Ordinance was passed on 19 February 1645.


The New Model Army had been born, and Fairfax quickly moulded it into an efficient, disciplined fighting force with an unusually high degree of motivation. Officers were appointed and promoted on merit rather than social standing, and were often from humble origins. Colonel Pride, whose men forcibly prevented about 130 MPs from entering Parliament on 6 December 1648 and which precipitated the trial of Charles, was a brewer. This meritocratic principle was captured by Cromwell when he said “I had rather a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentlemen, and is nothing else”. The typical soldier of the New Model Army fitted this description: honest, sober, morally principled, politically motivated, unpretentious and disciplined. It served as a self-identity which contrasted with that of the Cavalier, who was depicted as boorish, arrogant, drunk, conceited and womanising.

Prince RupertIn return for his loyalty the New Model Army soldier received regular pay. Other innovations included appointing officers of the general staff to perform specific tasks such as the administration of justice and the acquisition of supplies and provisions. The Scoutmaster-General Leonard Watson was responsible for reconnaissance and collecting intelligence on enemy movements, and the efficiency of the New Model Army’s intelligence proved to be a major factor in its success. These tasks were being performed at a national level . By contrast, efforts by the Royalists to modernise were hampered by factional struggles in Charles’ court in Oxford between those like Prince Rupert (pictured), the commander of the King’s cavalry, who insisted that military efficiency must be a priority, and those who claimed that the King must respect the traditional power structures in the shires.

The New Model Army consisted of 22,000 professional soldiers; 15,000 were infantrymen and 7,000 cavalry led by Cromwell and called the ‘Ironsides’ by Prince Rupert. They comprised volunteers, and also veterans who were reassigned from the four existing regional associations. The change in command and the restructuring of the Roundhead army was accompanied by a hardening of political attitude towards the future of the King and his allies. Archbishop Laud, who as we saw in my piece Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the causes of the English Civil War had introduced reforms which directly threatened Puritan religious practice, had been imprisoned for over four years but was executed in January 1645.

The creation of the New Model Army also resulted in an immediate and decisive military success in its first major engagement at Naseby in June 1645. For Naseby showed the difference in discipline between the two armies. Cromwell specifically forbade his cavalry to gallop after a fleeing army, but demanded that they hold the battlefield and not loot abandoned enemy baggage, which enabled them to make further charges. The Cavaliers, on the other hand, made the mistake of launching only one successful charge and then leaving the battlefield to go looting  and not participating further in the action. This tactical blunder was committed by Rupert not just at Naseby, but also at Edgehill, costing them victory. The final moments of Naseby turned into a bloodbath with many women, including a party of Welsh prostitutes and other Cavalier mistresses, slaughtered. This war crime reflected the increased brutality of the war and the religious zeal of the New Model Army.


Soldier's Catechism New Model ArmyIn the wake of victory at Marston Moor Cromwell wrote “Truly England and the Church Of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given unto us…obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly party”. And in the aftermath of Naseby he claimed the victory was down to “none other than but the hand of God; and to Him alone belongs the glory…” For Cromwell and his troops military victory was the outcome of God’s will. They were determined to ‘valiantly fight the Lord’s Battle’ as ‘an army of Saints’. The Soldiers Catechism (pictured) that was drilled into the army recruits further instilled a sense of divine mission: the first answer to the question What are the principal things required of a soldier? was ‘That he be religious and godly’.

The New Model Army was more than an efficient fighting force. It was the means to achieve a political and religious revolution. After Naseby the Royalists suffered further defeats at Langport and Bristol and in May 1646 the King was forced to surrender himself to Scottish Presbyterian forces in Newark. Tellingly, however, the New Model Army was not disbanded and indeed became further politicised as the attitude hardened that ‘Charles’ blood guilt’ and betrayal of his people demanded proper punishment before God. It was the New Model Army who drove through the process of the trial and execution of the King.

The New Model Army had become a fully integrated military arm of a modern political and religious movement. And self-consciously so. In The Representation of the Army (published in 1647), and in deliberate contrast to the Royalists, they described themselves thus: “…We were not a mere mercenary army, hired to serve any arbitrary power of a state, but called forth and conjured by the several declarations of Parliament to the defence of our own and the People’s just Rights and Liberties…”. It was that passion of the troops – military, political and religious – which made the difference to the outcome of the English Civil War.

See a list of the Key Battles of the English Civil War.

Simon Court

See also Simon’s articles on Politics, Protestantism and Personality: the Causes of the English Civil War and Killing the King: The Trial and Execution of Charles I.