14 June 1645

The English Civil War between King Charles I and the forces of the English Parliament was in its third year when Parliament finally approved the creation of what was called the New Model Army, set up in an attempt to revive its flagging military fortunes. In truth there was not much that was new about it in terms of the tactics, technology or organization involved. The innovation was in the name. Instead of three separate Parliamentary armies, none of which could inflict a decisive defeat on royal forces, the New Model Army was given new leaders, a unitary organization and a fresh spirit.

The English general Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) is shown here in battle armour. Cromwell’s work in creating the New Model Army during the English Civil War contributed to the victory of Parliament over the king.

The decision to create a new army arose from the strategic stagnation on the Parliamentary side caused by the division of its forces and the many political and religious arguments that weakened its cause. Charles and his German generals, Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice, were beginning to achieve a military advantage. In December 1644, the cumbersome twenty-five-strong Parliamentary ‘Committee of Both Kingdoms’, which managed the war effort, agreed to establish a New Model Army which would unite the three separate armies in the field and create a solid force of 22,000 men (6,600 cavalry, 14,400 foot and 1,000 dragoons, or horse infantry), all to be raised from the Parliamentary counties in the east and south of England.

To give the army some professional leadership, a Self-Denying Ordinance was introduced into Parliament, preventing Members of Parliament from also holding army command. The army was formally constituted on 27 January 1645, under the command of two men who had proved themselves able and resourceful officers: Sir Thomas Fairfax became commander-in-chief and Major General Philip Skippon commander of the infantry.

Only after weeks of argument did the existing commanders consent to stand down and allow Fairfax to organize his new command. Extensive supplies and large bodies of men flowed in during the early spring, while Fairfax instituted tough discipline to reduce the number of desertions and to instil in the men a sense of purpose. Executions or beatings were introduced for looting or dereliction of duty, but at the same time more regular pay was instituted for the troops.

Even then Parliament only gave Fairfax the right to command on his own behalf in June 1645, shortly before battle was joined; and only on 10 June was the MP Oliver Cromwell, who had managed to win exemption from the Self-Denying Ordinance, made Lieutenant Commander of Horse, in charge of the cavalry. Fairfax promoted men who had proven military worth, and Cromwell, as it turned out, was an inspired choice. With his troop of 900 ‘Ironsides’, well-trained and mounted men, Cromwell was to play a major part in the battle that unfolded in the middle of June.

It was not clear where the first test of the New Model Army would take place. Both the king and Parliament continued to divide their forces to cope with local sieges or military crises, but in late May, confident that there was nothing about this New Model Army that could really threaten the royal forces, Charles and Rupert set out to seek battle. On 31 May, they captured and brutally sacked the Parliamentary city of Leicester and then moved south in force towards Northamptonshire. The royalist army failed to realize that Fairfax had now consolidated his scattered forces and was close by, near the small town of Naseby. The discovery was made on 13 June and the king and his commanders finally decided on a fight. The two armies closed towards each other and the following day drew up in battle order.

There is still much dispute about the exact size of the forces opposed at Naseby. The royal army was somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000, consisting of infantry and two large forces of cavalry; Fairfax had perhaps between 15,000 and 17,000, divided into infantry, two cavalry wings (the left under General Henry Ireton; the right under Cromwell) and a force of 1,000 mounted dragoons under Colonel John Okey. After early morning manoeuvring, the armies faced each other from two low ridges north of Naseby, the Parliamentary army largely concealing itself from view by forming up below the brow of their ridge to hide its size and composition. The foot on both sides carried either long pikes or halberds, 4.5 to 5.5 metres (15 to 18 feet) in length, or heavy matchlock muskets, which a skilled musketeer could fire at the rate of one shot per minute, with mixed effect. Enemy foot soldiers were difficult to break with musket fire, but a cavalry charge could be disrupted as horses and men were hit by random balls. The cavalry on both sides had light armour, pistols and heavy swords. Artillery was present but played, it seems, almost no part in the fight. The New Model Army differed hardly at all from its adversary, though part of it may well have been better trained. What did distinguish it was the shift over the course of 1645 to the idea of merit as the qualification for command.

The exact chronology of the battle differs in the many seventeenth-century accounts. Recent archaeological research suggests that Okey and his dragoons, concealed behind a hedge at right angles to the enemy, moved towards the royal army and opened fire on the right wing of the cavalry. Other accounts have the battle starting when Prince Rupert led his horse in a charge at Ireton on the Parliamentary left, throwing it into disorder until he was fired on by Okey’s musketeers. Rupert’s charge was pell-mell, taking him and his horsemen off the battlefield as far as Fairfax’s baggage train, where skirmishers seem to have held them at bay.

The royal infantry then charged the Parliamentary centre, pushing it back towards the reserves, and the battle stood in the balance until Cromwell led his cavalry in a fierce charge against the horsemen on the royalist left, routing them comprehensively and then wheeling round to attack the royalist foot from the rear. Ireton’s men had regrouped to join Cromwell and between them and the Parliamentary infantry, roused to greater efforts by a bare-headed Fairfax at the thick of the fight, the royal army was crushed. Charles wanted to rally his reserves and charge into the mêlée but was restrained from risking almost certain death or capture. The remnants of the royal army fled north, away from the destruction, leaving an estimated 1,000 dead and 4,000 prisoners.

The Parliamentary forces lost fewer than 700 dead, and gained all the king’s baggage, artillery and private papers. They also found hundreds of women, chiefly army wives and camp followers; assuming them to be prostitutes of the royal army, a hundred of them were slaughtered and others mutilated in the most savage episode of the day. The impact of Naseby was profound, and the king surrendered within a year. In the 1650s, Cromwell, who had distinguished himself at the battle as a tough and disciplined commander, became Protector of England. The New Model Army continued after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 in the guise of the Horse and Coldstream Guards.