The New Model Army-Agent of Revolution-by Ian Gentles–Yale University Press-400 Pages-19 Apr 2022

“The natural condition of mankind is a state of war in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” because individuals are in a “war of all against all”

Thomas Hobbes

“I would rather have a plain russett-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows than that which you call a gentleman and nothing else.”

Oliver Cromwell

When history moves with the speed of a cart-this is itself rationality and itself regularity. When the popular masses themselves, with all their virgin primitiveness, their simple crude decisiveness, begin to make history, to bring to life directly and immediately “principles and theories”, then the bourgeoisie feels fear. And cries out that “rationality is receding to the background”.

Vladimir Lenin

Ian Gentles new book is the definitive account of how the New Model Army became an armed party and was the motor force of the English Bourgeois revolution. The book is meticulously researched and extremely well written.

The military history of the New Model Army is well known, but where Gentles book differs is that it is a political history of the rise and fall of the world-famous 17th-century army. As the book title suggests, it was truly an “agent of the Revolution”. While one of the most formidable fighting forces ever put together, it was also one of the most radical apart from the army led by Leon Trotsky after the Russian Revolution. Formed in 1645, it played a crucial role in the aristocracy’s overthrow and brought to power one of the finest representative of the English bourgeoise. 

Leon Trotsky said of the New Model Army “the parliamentary army has converted itself into an independent political force. It has concentrated in its ranks the Independents, the pious and resolute petty bourgeoisie, the craftsmen and farmers. This army powerfully interferes in social life, not merely as an armed force, but as a Praetorian Guard and as the political representative of a new class opposing the prosperous and rich bourgeoisie. Correspondingly the army creates a new state organ rising above the military command: a council of soldiers’ and officers’ deputies (“agitators”). A new period of double sovereignty has thus arrived: that of the Presbyterian Parliament and the Independents’ army.

This leads to open conflicts. The bourgeoisie proves powerless to oppose with its own army the “model army” of Cromwell – that is, the armed plebeians. The conflict ends with a purgation of the Presbyterian Parliament by the sword of the Independents. There remains but the rump of a parliament; the dictatorship of Cromwell is established. The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – try to oppose the rule of the upper military levels, the patricians of the army, their own veritably plebeian regime. But this new two-power system does not succeed in developing: the Levellers, the lowest depths of the petty bourgeoisie, have not yet, nor can have, their historic path. Cromwell soon settles accounts with his enemies. A new political equilibrium, and still by no means a stable one, is established for a period of years.[1]

Gentles, a leading authority, examines every aspect of the New Model Army. It killed a King and carried out pioneering military tactics occupying London three times, creating a republic and keeping Cromwell in power as Lord Protector until his death. The book has been expanded to 1660, which means it covers the expedition to the West Indies in 1655 and the Restoration in 1660, which, paradoxically, the NMA made happen.

The army was a hotbed of radical and religious ideas and beliefs. Gentles is no stranger to this subject. His new book is touted as a fully revised version of his 1992 work, but in reality, it is a different book.

As Gentles explains in an interview: “The first edition has been condensed to about half its original length. It assimilates much new research, particularly on the Levellers and army politics (by David Scott, John Rees, Rachel Foxley, Philip Baker, Elliot Vernon, Jason Peacey and others), as well as important new work on the army’s military history by James Scott Wheeler, Glenn Foard, Andrew Hopper, Malcolm Wanklyn, Ismini Pells and others). The new edition adds chapters on the Protectorate (1653-9) and the Restoration (1659-60). It adds substantial new material to the chapters on Ireland and Scotland, extensively using the recently published correspondence of Cromwell’s son Henry to illustrate the army’s increasing dissatisfaction with the Protectoral regime. For Scotland, it illuminates the role of Robert Lilburne and George Monck in bringing that nation to heel, using a previously undeciphered manuscript to add vividness to the narrative of Glencairn’s uprising in 1654. It also provides an in-depth, shocking account of the New Model’s disastrous expedition against the Spanish Caribbean colony of Hispaniola, from which Oliver Cromwell never recovered his confidence. Finally, it provides a detailed, and significantly different interpretation of the army’s role in the Restoration, explaining how that epochal event was brought about without bloodshed.”[2]

As Gentles states, the book contains the latest historiography from the last three decades on the radical groups inside the New Model Army. He does not go along with the various revisionist historians who have deliberately downplayed the influence of groups such as the Levellers inside the army.

He writes, “The Levellers were very influential, despite what other historians have said. As early as March 1647, they hitched their wagon to the New Model Army, regarding it as their main hope for achieving their programme. The Leveller leaders spent a good deal of time at army headquarters in the mid-summer of 1647, striving to politicise it. In October and November, they virtually won over the Council of the Army, with the exception of the conservative Grandees, to back the Agreement of the People. A year later, when the army was desperately in need of political allies, the Levellers got it to adopt the Agreement of the People with the sole proviso that it be approved by Parliament. The decisive falling out between Leveller and army leaders did not occur until the spring of 1649, and even then, many officers remained supporters of Levellerism, which they labelled ‘The Good Old Cause’, up until the eve of the Restoration.”[3]

As Gentles’s book shows, the study of the NMA is integral to understanding how the English bourgeois revolution came about and succeeded. One surprising thing about the book is how little of Gentles’ historiographical proclivities are in this book. He does not subscribe to a’ Three Kingdoms’ approach to the English civil war – as Jasmin L. Johnson wrote, contained within this approach ‘is a tendency to bounce back and forth from country to country and from campaign to campaign, causing confusion and obscuring the effects that developments in one theatre of operations might have had on the others’.[4]

While Gentles is not immune to the siren calls of revisionist and post-revisionist historians, he places the actions of the NMA as part of a ‘people’s revolution. This tends to indicate that the influence of Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill and Brian Manning is not entirely dead.

As was said earlier, Professor Gentles is one of the few modern-day historians who does not downplay the influence groups such as the Levellers had inside the NMA. His new book offers a fresh insight into the complex relationship between Oliver Cromwell and Leveller leaders such as John Lilburne.

Gentles does not spend much time on military matters in this new book, and he acknowledges that Cromwell had no formal military training. Gentles, it seems, does not rate him highly as an army figure which is a little strange because if you read Royalist-supporting military historians like Peter Young, you get a much more accurate picture of Cromwell’s military prowess.

Gentles believes that Cromwell’s adventures in Ireland are a blot on his record and suggests that Cromwell’s overriding concern in Ireland was the neutralisation of Royalist threat and that the attack on, and massacre of, Catholics was a by-product of that action. Cromwell’s hatred for Catholicism was prevalent amongst the rising bourgeoisie of the 17th century. He further suggests that Cromwell played a key part in developing Irish nationalism.

Quite where the NMA fits into Gentles’s belief that the leaders of the revolution belonged to a ‘Junto’ is not explored. The definition of Junto is a group of men united together for some secret intrigue’, with the champion of this new historiography being John Adamson. The main theoretical premise of his book The Noble Revolt is to view the Civil War as basically a coup d’état by a group of nobles or aristocrats who no longer supported the King. According to Diane Purkiss, these nobles were ‘driven by their code of honour. They acted to protect themselves and the nation. Names such as Saye, Bedford, Essex and Warwick move from the sidelines to occupy centre stage, as do their counterparts among Scottish peers. They, not the rude masses, plucked a king from his throne.

I recommend this book to general readers and more academically minded students, as it is intelligent and well-researched. It has extensive footnotes, a lengthy bibliography, and excellent pictures, and it deserves a wide readership and should be on every universities book list.


[1] From Chapter 11 of The History of the Russian Revolution (1931)

[2] https://aspectsofhistory.com/author_interviews/ian-gentles-on-the-new-model-army/

[3] https://aspectsofhistory.com/author_interviews/ian-gentles-on-the-new-model-army/

[4] Jasmin L. Johnson, ‘Review of Ian Gentles, The English Revolution and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, 1638-1652’, H-War (February 2008)

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