Generalship in the First Civil War 1642-1644

A.H. Burne assesses the achievements of the leading generals of the first English Civil War.

Professional historians are generally chary about placing individuals—particularly soldiers—in an order of merit. The amateur has fewer inhibitions; and in this essay I propose to attempt an assessment of the leading generals in the First Civil War, of whom the best known are Oliver Cromwell, Sir Thomas (afterwards Lord) Fairfax, and Prince Rupert. But I shall stop short at the battle of Naseby, when the issue of the war was decided, and must therefore guard against the error of judging men’s early achievements in the light of their ultimate fame. Heaven-born generals are few; and the average general’s early achievements are often unimpressive. Frederick the Great ran away at his first battle; the Duke of Wellington was badly rattled when commanding a battalion at Seringapatam; Stonewall Jackson behaved abominably when acting as a subordinate at the battle of White Oak Swamp; the Duke of Monmouth defeated Marlborough (then Lord Churchill) at Philip’s Norton. So we must forget Dunbar and Worcester and concentrate upon the problem before us. If Naseby had put an end to the military careers of all the leading generals in the First Civil War, how would history assess them?

Prince Rupert was the third son of that remarkable woman, Elizabeth,  sister of Charles I, and wife of Frederick, Elector Palatine. At the age of thirteen, he had seen active service in the Palatinate, and again in the following year. At seventeen, he commanded a regiment of horse, and led it in a successful charge. Captured in another charge, he was held prisoner by the Emperor for over two years, on the grounds that he was a soldier too dangerous to release. At eighteen he was praised for his “ripeness of judgment”. Rupert, in short, may be described as an infant prodigy in the art of warfare.

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