Cromwell’s Eye

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The Battle of Preston, 1648

The generalship of Oliver Cromwell, England’s great revolutionary leader, has sometimes been criticised. Wrongly, argues Martyn Bennett, in this detailed analysis of Cromwell’s conduct at Preston, the decisive engagement of the Second Civil War.

Cromwell’s direct approach to Preston was fought with difficulty. The line of march chosen by the Scots and Royalist allies when they invaded England in July 1648 followed the western side of the Pennines.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) – revolutionary, general, and ruler of England, Scotland, and Ireland with the title ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’ from 1653 to 1658. But does he merit a place among history’s great captains?
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) – revolutionary, general, and ruler of England, Scotland, and Ireland with the title ‘Lord Protector of the Commonwealth’ from 1653 to 1658. But does he merit a place among history’s great captains?

The commander of the horse, Sir James Turner, did not approve of the route: it was full of enclosed fields, and thus difficult terrain for the horse. But the major-general of foot, Sir William Baillie, was content, as the Scottish infantry should have been well protected from attack by the New Model Army’s formidable horse.

Another potential problem Cromwell faced was the veteran Royalist contingent led by the 56-year-old Sir Marmaduke Langdale, an experienced and skilful commander. Langdale was a man who had fought determinedly and bravely at Marston Moor and Naseby, and also had at least three small-scale victories of his own under his belt.

Most problematic of all was that the route into Preston was in part a sunken road that threatened to divide any force approaching the town.

Cromwell was undaunted. He made virtue of the road in planning his bold assault, placing foot regiments either side of it while cramming the road itself with a column of horse regiments. In this unique formation the horse would punch a hole through the opposition.

How did Cromwell develop such a keen eye for terrain and its potential? What gave him the confidence to act with such apparently counterintuitive aplomb?

Cromwell’s Experience of War I
Edgehill and Newark

Cromwell did not make it to the battlefield of Edgehill on 23 October 1642: his troop of horse – at the time he was a captain of horse troop No 67 – was one of several ranging far and wide around the Earl of Essex’s main Parliamentarian army.

Nevertheless, he learned something of command and control from the disasters that befell both armies that day.

Even if there is no foundation to the story that Cromwell observed the battle from a steeple (it would have been a waste of valuable time had he been close enough to the action – he should have ‘marched to the guns’), he met with soldiers who had been there, and would have read printed accounts of it.

If he learned anything, it would have included the necessity of retaining reserve forces under command and in order.

His first skirmish, in May 1643 – during which he commanded, by then with the rank of colonel, a small horse detachment – was against the Royalist garrison forces at Newark.

The Royalists were chasing him from the town when he and John Hotham turned on the pursuers and faced them. After some dragoon musket fire, Cromwell charged.

The Royalists stood steady to receive the Parliamentarians and fired upon them, only to be swept away by the ferocity of the attack.

This small victory implied that Cromwell understood the importance of the initiative, and the moral and physical power of the attack – lessons perhaps learned from the example of Continental warfare and Prince Rupert’s aggressive application of them at Edgehill.

Cromwell’s Experience of War II

Cromwell’s second battle, at Gainsborough on 28 July 1643, saw him use terrain carefully. Despite being outranked by General Sir John Meldrum, Cromwell seems to have, in effect, assumed command.

Cromwell’s Experience of War III
Marston Moor

Having in two small battles proved that he had clear tactical ability, Cromwell was next able to demonstrate battlefield skills in the far larger battle of Marston Moor on 2 July 1644.

Cromwell took up command on the western flank of the combined Parliamentarian and Scottish Covenanter army. From this vantagepoint, he realised that the ridgeline on which the allied forces stood was vulnerable at the point where it joined the moorland close to the Tockwith to Long Marston road. The Royalists, who had noticed the same thing, opened an artillery barrage to try and force Cromwell backwards from Bilton Bream.

On his own initiative, Cromwell launched an attack on the Royalist guns and their accompanying horse regiments. The attack was a success, though Cromwell lost a valued relative and long-serving captain from his regiment.

The action at Bilton Bream forced the Royalists into defending a weak position, and they were thereby exposed to defeat during the battle proper, when Cromwell launched three lines of attackers upon them.

The defeat of the Royalist western flank ensured the defeat of Prince Rupert and the Earl of Newcastle on that day.

Cromwell’s Experience of War IV

Nearly a year later, at Naseby, Cromwell was able once again to use the very constricted ground available to him on the right flank of the New Model Army.

Cromwell at Naseby, 14 June 1645, where he commanded the right flank of the New Model Army, and again demonstrated his superb leadership of cavalry.
Cromwell at Naseby, 14 June 1645, where he commanded the right flank of the New Model Army, and again demonstrated his superb leadership of cavalry.

He exploited the ground to control the movement of several waves of attacks upon the Royalist flank opposite under Sir Marmaduke Langdale. This allowed him to defeat the Royalist horse without committing more than a fraction of his three lines.

With a controlled reserve in fully-formed order, Cromwell was able to wheel in on the Royalist foot to his left, yet still retain ordered forces for a later attack on the Royalist reserve.

Towards Preston

Cromwell’s conduct of the battle on the Parliamentarian right at Marston Moor was a masterly demonstration of tight, carefully calibrated tactical control.

Though he had demonstrated his ability to combine command and control with an extraordinary understanding and use of terrain in both small- and large-scale battles, Cromwell was still, at the end of the First Civil
War, under the command of others. He had not yet demonstrated his capacity to command a large army in battle. It would take a second war to present him with the opportunity.

As 1647 drew to a close, the defeated Charles I managed to persuade a significant section of the Scottish political elite that he was more able to defend the Presbyterian kirk than a Parliament at Westminster dominated by religious Independents and the officers of the New Model Army. A series of rebellions broke out in England and Wales, and a Scottish Covenanter army gathered in the Borders.

Cromwell at Naseby
Cromwell at Naseby

Cromwell’s initial involvement in the Second Civil War of 1648 focussed on the recapture of rebellious South Wales and the siege of Pembroke Castle. Lord General Fairfax had taken the rest of the army into East Anglia to tackle rebellions there, and he had become embroiled in the long siege of Colchester.

It took until 11 July for Cromwell to accomplish his tasks in Wales, following which he marched into England, re-equipped his army in the Midlands, and headed north.His aim now was to tackle the Scottish and Royalists forces that had invaded western England under the Duke of Hamilton and Sir Marmaduke Langdale.

Cromwell joined General John Lambert – the commander of a small part of the New Model Army and some local forces – in Yorkshire, and together they marched to Otley on 13 August. A day later, they arrived at Skipton and sent scouts to probe the valley of the River Ribble, over the Pennines.

On the far side, Langdale began to receive reports to the effect that Cromwell was approaching rapidly. Such reports were part of a confusing set of rumours of Parliamentarian forces in several parts of the region, on both sides of the Pennines, so no immediate action was taken.

Langdale did try to catch up with the bulk of Hamilton’s forces, but by this time his advance units were stretched out over an extended line of march.

On 15 August, Cromwell closed in on the Scots, and advance units were soon skirmishing with them.

Royalist uncertainties

It is possible that Hamilton simply did not believe that Cromwell could have covered 400 miles before meeting Lambert, and another 60 since they had joined forces. Thus Hamilton’s army continued to behave as if it were moving in friendly territory rather than in the presence of the enemy. Reserve forces under Robert Monro had remained north of Lancaster, whilst the foot was en route to Preston. The horse, meanwhile, were far ahead, south of the River Ribble and heading towards Wigan.

Hamilton’s Scottish army consisted of about 3,200 troopers, organised into as many as 23 small horse regiments, accompanied by 21 undersized foot regiments, totalling no more than 11,500 in total, and 20 cannon. Langdale’s English Royalists consisted of 3,000 foot in nine small regiments, with 600 horse.

Sir Phillip Musgrave, who had earlier in the year seized Carlisle, also led a small Royalist force of no more than 500 horse and 1,500 foot.

Nevertheless, the combined Scots and Royalist forces would have been impressive had they been enthusiastic and well trained; and even as they were, they still represented a formidable challenge for Cromwell’s 11,200 men.

Plan of action

Cromwell’s council of war resolved to head for Preston and attack Hamilton there. Cromwell himself was determined to quickly ‘attend the enemies motion’, and to facilitate rapid movement he parked his supply train in Knaresborough before marching towards Preston.

Hamilton probably now knew of his approach, so the Scots and Royalists began drawing closer together.

Cromwell sent a forlorn hope of 220 horse and 400 foot towards Preston, which began skirmishing in ‘inclosed ground’ to the north and east of the town, so as to hold the ‘Engager Army’ in place whilst Cromwell hurried forward.

Cromwell at Marston Moor, 2 July 1644, where he honed his skills as a resolute commander of horse.
Cromwell at Marston Moor, 2 July 1644, where he honed his skills as a resolute commander of horse.

The countryside around Preston was exactly what Sir James Turner had complained of and Baillie had liked: Cromwell described it as ‘totally inconvenient for our Horse, being all inclosure, and myerye ground’. Worse still, the road leading to Preston was ‘deep and ill’ – in other words, a sunken road.

The Parliamentarian commander faced a dilemma: any soldiers or troopers using the road would be overlooked by anyone standing on the surrounding ground and would be separated from other troops. In a regiment of foot, the files on either side of the road in any formation broader than its width would become distanced from those on the road, breaking the cohesion of the regiment. Yet, if they marched down the sunken road in column, their constrained frontage would be vulnerable front and flank, and they would likewise become separated from flanking regiments.

Cromwell’s solution was unique: two regiments of horse, Harrison’s first, followed by Cromwell’s new regiment (formerly Vermuyden’s), were to proceed down the lane flanked by foot on the higher ground. To their right on the north-western side of the lane were the foot regiments of Colonels Reade, Deane, and Pride, whilst to their left on the south-eastern side were Colonel Bright’s and Lord Fairfax’s regiments. Behind them all were two foot regiments formed into a reserve, the Lancashire militia and Colonel Ashton’s foot.

Despite being in enclosed country, Cromwell’s battle plan approximated something of an open-field deployment. In addition, two regiments of horse, Colonel Thornhaugh’s and Colonel Twistleton’s, were arrayed on the right flank, and what Cromwell referred to as the ‘remaining horse’ were arrayed to the left; and there was yet a further horse regiment in reserve on the lane.

Cromwell’s assault

Cromwell’s army advanced on the enemy foot in this formation, heading towards Preston. His was a creative use of ground given the difficulties of the approach and the appalling weather over the past few weeks, which had turned the earth to mud.

Cromwell had again demonstrated his imaginative mastery of difficult terrain. Instead of the sunken lane presenting a problem and dangerously dividing his front-line regiments, exposing them to attack in detail, Cromwell had created a spearhead of horse regiments in the centre to put pressure on the foot ranged to his front and then to barge down the road into the town once resistance collapsed. This disposition also overcame some of the limitations imposed on the horse by the enclosed fields.

Men of the New Model Army,
Parliament’s instrument of victory in three civil wars (1642-1646, 1648, and 1649-1651).
Men of the New Model Army, Parliament’s instrument of victory in three civil wars (1642-1646, 1648, and 1649-1651).

The plan worked, but it was not easy, and the attack took its toll on Harrison’s regiment, as it took a four-hour fight to defeat Langdale. Cromwell later made it clear that Harrison’s regiment, after leading the initial attack, played the supporting role to Cromwell’s own regiment when pushing into the town.

According to Cromwell, it was the initial fighting which was the most intense, both on the lane and its flanking fields. For a time, Langdale’s plan to hold Cromwell back, whilst withdrawing in good order to the River Ribble, worked, resulting in the four hours’ hard slog that took such a toll on Harrison’s men.

As the afternoon drew to a close, Langdale was on the outer edge of Preston and still in a good defensive position, but his right flank was less secure and becoming outflanked as the fighting developed. In the end, though, Cromwell’s spearhead worked, and Langdale’s forces were broken.

The follow-through

Most of the Scottish foot were to the south of Langdale, crossing the Ribble and heading southwards, as a result of Hamilton’s late conversion to the idea that Cromwell was west of the Pennines. Even when it became clear that the attack on Langdale was serious, the Scots commanders decided that Lambert could slow Cromwell’s advance and hold him at the river line long enough for the whole Scottish army to turn around.

Cromwell later commented that Langdale made skilful use of reserve forces, introducing them carefully into battle when required as he retreated. But it is probable that he was mistaking confusion for good management, and the additional forces were simply the Scottish regiments joining the fight as they were able, not as a planned incremental defence strategy.

These Scottish foot regiments, so belatedly and reluctantly sent to support Langdale, soon became trapped on the north bank when Cromwell’s reserve foot regiments reached the Ribble bridge. Nor could they attempt to follow the Scottish horse on the left wing, which made its way towards Lancaster, because Cromwell’s advance accelerated. With passage across the river denied them, many Scottish regiments were, alongside their Royalist allies, captured where they stood.

The Battle of Preston had been so hard-fought that Cromwell had to acknowledge that he had failed to pursue the Duke of Hamilton closely.

Forces sent after Hamilton were led by Colonel Thornhaugh, formerly of the Nottingham garrison, who was killed in the pursuit. The pursuers succeeded in slowing down the Scots near Wigan, but were unable to stop them getting into the town.

A day later, Cromwell chased Hamilton towards Warrington, where the last significant fight of the campaign took place at Winnick Pass. The Scots held off Cromwell’s horse vanguard and pushed back his foot regiments when they arrived, but it was in vain, for the New Model Army eventually overcame all opposition and drove the Scottish forces into Warrington itself. Sir William Baillie surrendered the foot after consulting his officers because the foot soldiers, ‘tired with an incessant March’, refused to obey orders.


At the Battle of Preston, Cromwell made use of what was at hand, showing once again that he could read and interpret the tactical challenges and opportunities that terrain presented quickly.

Oliver Cromwell c. 1649 by Robert Walker.
Oliver Cromwell c. 1649 by Robert Walker.

Unlike that great interpreter of terrain, the Duke of Wellington, at Waterloo, Cromwell had never seen the battlefield at Preston before. Four years earlier at Marston Moor, and again two years after at Dunbar, Cromwell demonstrated understanding of the way that high ground could, as it slopes down towards level ground, provide attackers with an open door. These two battles show him reading the landscape simultaneously as both attacker and defender, even though, in both cases, he was to become the attacker.

He could also see how unpropitious terrain could be used, if not to advantage, at least so as to offset the disadvantages it seemed to present. At Preston, he had been faced with a sunken road in the centre of his proposed line of attack. His response had been to create a combined-arms attack with two brigades of horse in the lane itself and foot brigades on either side of them.

Some years later, in 1671, when he published his Observations on Military and Political Affaires, General George Monck, now Duke of Albemarle, advocated just such combined-arms formations. Whilst Monck had been present at Dunbar and had joined in the discussions about battlefield tactics there, he had not been present at Preston. Nevertheless, the ratios Monck used, of two ‘divisions’ of foot flanking one of horse in the front almost exactly match Cromwell’s tactics at Preston. Even Monck’s diagrams bear close resemblance to them.

Cromwell must be rated one of the great captains of his age, a master of war and a tactical innovator, a commander above all with a superb ‘eye’ for terrain; and therefore as one of the principal exponents of the ‘military revolution’ of the 17th century.

Martyn Bennett is Professor of History at Nottingham Trent University. His book, Cromwell at War: the Lord General and his military revolution, was published by Bloomsbury in 2017. It is the first major biography of Cromwell in the context of the 17th-century military revolution.

This article was published in the June 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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