Lieutenant-Colonel Randolph Egerton of the King’s Troop of Horse Guards, a unit that returned with the exiled King Charles II in 1660 before joining his new army, c1672
The Coldstreamers march to London, 1660
During the five and a half years that Monck ruled Scotland, he tried to reconcile competing religious, military and budgetary demands. His solutions were subtly different from those in England. There was less religious tolerance in Scotland under the period of military rule, and certainly those members of the garrison who fell in with the Quakers or Fifth Monarchy Men often found themselves being dismissed from the army. Monck sought to maintain the military effectiveness of his regiments by curbing religious politics within their ranks, straining every sinew to pay them regularly and keeping them under command of trusted subordinates. All the while, he tried to protect himself against nasty political surprises by retaining a network of correspondents in London, his native Devon and the garrisons of Ireland and England — people of like mind, many of them professional soldiers.
At times, Monck tired of his burden and sought to resign, but Cromwell wouldn’t let him. The Lord Protector had become such an admirer that he even preferred to overlook the ways in which Monck had subverted his Puritan experiment. Some of those black-suited ideologues who did not like what they heard from Edinburgh tried to convince Cromwell that Monck’s heart remained true to the Stuarts and that the general was one of those who sought to restore Charles II to the throne.
Writing to Monck in August 1655, Cromwell referred to these rumours, going as far as to make a joke of them: ‘There be some that tell me that there is a certain cunning fellow in Scotland called George Monck who is said to lie in wait there to introduce Charles Stuart; I pray you must use your diligence to apprehend him and send him up to me.’
Why did Cromwell leave him in Scotland, at the head of one of the few effective garrisons left in the army? The Lord Protector knew his general well enough to realise that the sense of military honour that bound Monck to serve, after having agreed to take up the Scottish position, would be sufficient to prevent him betraying the Commonwealth’s trust. It was a sound judgement, and indeed was exactly the same one reached by a Royalist peer in considering whether Monck might be turned to the Stuart cause. The leading Stuart supporter put it thus: ‘The only ties that have hitherto kept [Monck] from grumbling have been the vanity of constancy to his professions, and his affection to Cromwell’s person.’ In this last comment the Royalist had realised something that the Lord Protector apparently had not. Monck respected Cromwell as a general and as a strong hand, holding the country back from even worse confusion and Puritan zealotry.
When Cromwell died, in September 1658, the country reached a crossroads. For a few months, his son Richard was able to rule, but challenges to his authority began appearing almost immediately. The ties between Oliver Cromwell and his generals had been dissolved. They began vying for power and, increasingly, Richard became a marginal figure. As Monck’s correspondents in London told him of each new twist and turn, he decided that he could not remain indifferent in the power struggle. He prepared to hurl himself out of Scotland, exploding with all the force of a political mortar bomb.
It was late in the evening of 8 December 1659 when Monck and his party arrived in Coldstream, a small village on the Scottish side of the Tweed. The ground was blanketed with snow, and stones in the stream that marked the English border were wreathed in ice. Several regiments of Monck’s Scottish army had already billeted themselves on the locals, having marched there on the general’s orders. At a time of night when the embers in Coldstream’s hearths would normally have been dying, smoke billowed into the crisp night from its chimneys, bearing witness to the many rough soldiers who had been packed into each home or barn.
One of Monck’s party recalled their arrival at 11 p.m.: ‘The honest Red-coats did bid us heartily welcome, but the Knaves had eat up all the Meat, and drank all the Drink of the Town . . . the General lodged, falling to his good Cheer, which was his chewing tobacco (which he used to commend so much).’ Monck and his people finally found beds for the night at a house just outside the village.
Monck’s days in Coldstream were the most fateful of his life. For it was there, gripped in the depths of the Scottish winter, that he had to decide whether to cross the Tweed, march to London and seize power. Ann appeared on a couple of occasions, but Monck packed her off the following morning. He did not want her there as he approached his moment of decision.
Fifteen months had passed since Oliver Cromwell’s death. His son Richard had inherited the title of Lord Protector but immediately it had become apparent that he did not have either the strength of character or the army following to wield supreme power. Certain warlords — veteran army commanders — soon decided to ignore Richard and took steps to dictate their terms to what remained of Parliament.
Cromwell’s side in the Civil War had, of course, fought in the name of Parliament, but by 1659 that assembly was a shadow of its former self. Its remaining members were those who had survived the 1648 purge of 231 Royalists and the following year’s abolition of the Lords. Monck signalled by letter his opposition to the actions of the military opportunists who now attempted to coerce the MPs. The principal among these warlords, Major General John Lambert, had marched north with a small army, ready to confront Monck if he sought to follow his words in support of Parliament with deeds. Lambert was a gifted cavalry commander who had campaigned on the same side as Monck and Cromwell in Scotland seven years previously. But now he coveted the title of Lord Protector and had garnered some support among Puritan officers.
The choice thus confronting Monck as he reviewed his regiments in Coldstream was whether to risk a further civil war involving years more bloodletting. He wrote to Lambert: ‘It is much upon my spiritt that this poore Commonwealth can never be happy if the army make itself a divided interest from the rest of the nation.’ But Monck was not just opposed to rule by military diktat. His belief that England would have to revert to its traditional form of government included a more explosive agenda: that only the Restoration of King Charles II could end the chaos in his country. He stood ready to usher in a new order, but his road to Westminster was full of dangers, which meant he could not state his aims plainly. Army and society had been shattered by seventeen years of strife. There were all manner of disparate sects and interests that disagreed about most things but still denounced the Stuart monarchy loudly and might unite against anyone proposing Restoration.
We are fortunate that some of the greatest English writers — John Milton, Samuel Pepys and Thomas Hobbes — lived through this crisis and recorded their views about what Monck did next. ‘If [Monck] had declared for the King or for a free Parliament,’ noted Hobbes, explaining the general’s subterfuge, ‘all the armies in England would have joined against him.’
Monck’s first priority during those days in Coldstream was therefore to assure himself of the loyalty of his own troops and that other garrisons in England and Ireland would acquiesce to his entering the political fray with his secret objectives. As he waited in the little border village, mud-spattered messengers on foaming horses arrived regularly, carrying dispatches from his correspondents across the country.
Monck had gone to the utmost care to cultivate these contacts during the preceding months, and to ensure that they went undiscovered by spies or gossips. Thomas Gumble, one of the general’s chaplains, recorded, ‘He had constantly Letters directed to Scotch Names at Edenbourgh, about Merchant affairs, and also other private business; and the whole Intelligence wrapt in certain words to be read in certain places . . . he had several Messengers that came as often as there was occasion, through by-ways, and not in the great Road.’
Others, too, arrived to see him: for example, a relative of Thomas Fairfax, the erstwhile commander of the Roundhead armies who, during Cromwell’s later years, had shut himself away in Yorkshire. During the Civil War, Fairfax had been Monck’s adversary and Lambert’s friend, but over time he had come to conclude that England’s best course back towards stability consisted of restoring the monarchy. Now he was ready to declare his support for Monck as soon as he crossed the Tweed, and to bring numerous influential northern gentlemen with him.
These secret preparations were so effective that Monck wrong-footed many of those who now sought power but who had written him off as a dull plodder. Hobbes wrote, ‘they thought not of him; his gallantry had been shown on remote stages . . . [but] after General Monk [sic] had signified by letter his dislike of the proceedings of Lambert and his fellows, they were much surprised, and began to think him more considerable than they had done; but it was too late’.
By Christmas Day 1659, Monck’s conspiracy was nearing fruition. He knew that many in London were desperate for deliverance from religious extremists relying on armed force, and that others in the army would either support him or at least stand aside and watch. But what about the loyalty of his own troops?
A little over two months before, on 19th October, the issue of allegiance had reached a tense crisis in Edinburgh. Monck had been forced to use loyal soldiers to face down those of his own and another regiment who had fallen under the spell of officers sympathetic to Lambert. Addressing the troops during this stand-off, with musketeers blowing on their smouldering matches, ready to give fire at any moment, Monck appealed direct to the rank and file, bellowing out in his Devon accent a promise that he would guarantee them their back pay. The men began cheering for their general; when shots rang out, mercifully they came in the form of a salute for Monck. With the threat of bloodshed averted, Monck had to dismiss the lieutenant colonel of his own regiment and six of its ten company commanders; all had shown themselves loyal to Lambert and the other army plotters in London.
With this crisis behind him, and the army readied in Coldstream, Monck’s careful management of his soldiery during the previous four years paid dividends. Those in the ranks knew that ‘honest George Monck’ had seen to it that they were paid more often than the men of other garrisons and now they also had that promise of the remainder of their due. Occasional fighting against Highland rebels meant the regiments had retained their spirit. His popularity in this small force was such that when Monck rode among his men, he would often hear them shout that he should make himself Lord Protector in Richard Cromwell’s stead.
On 1 January 1660, Monck’s first brigade marched across the bridge at Coldstream. His destiny was sealed. Thomas Gumble, his chaplain, recorded breathlessly that setting out on New Year’s Day was ‘a good omen to begin a New World in England’.
The Scottish army marching south consisted of four regiments of horse and six of foot. They were divided into two brigades, the second of which, accompanied by Monck himself, crossed the Tweed on 2 January. The total strength of this force was fewer than 6,000 men, and they were soon known as the Coldstreamers. Gumble compared them to the Nobles of Israel, ‘because they offered themselves willingly among the people, and jeoparded their lives unto death in the high places of the field’.
Ten days after their departure, when the Coldstreamers marched into York, the immediate prospect of bloodshed had receded somewhat. Yorkshire had risen in support of Monck, and Lambert’s army melted away. Various worthies who presumed to speak for Parliament now began frantic negotiations with Monck, realising at last that he had become England’s kingmaker. Associations around the country began sending petitions to York, where the general paused for five days while considering his next step.
Fairfax was one of the first to come and see Monck, and urged him to declare for Charles II. But he was disappointed when the Coldstreamers’ leader gave him no clear answer. There were different proposals flying about that fell short of this dramatic step and were therefore worthy of consideration. Many of the arguments centred on whether some sort of national equilibrium could be restored if the MPs purged, or ‘secluded’, in 1648 — at least those who had survived — could be recalled to the Commons. Those opposed to this measure knew it would lead inexorably to the return of a Stuart king.
Monck did not gratify Fairfax, or the others who wanted him to spell out his position in York. Instead he resumed his march towards London. Some regarded this as indecision and funk. A contemporary and rival damned Monck as ‘instrumental in bringing things to pass which he had neither wisdom to forsee nor courage to attempt nor understanding to continue’.
Admirers, though, regard the general’s refusal to declare his aims during the Coldstreamers’ march as a masterful tactic to prevent his enemies coalescing. It is clear that Monck wanted Restoration, but that he did not dare articulate it until he could see for himself the situation in London and know that he could rely on the support of all the main garrisons. In cloaking his intentions, the general was ready not just to be evasive but to resort to downright lies. Monck wrote to one of the old Roundheads in London: ‘Believe me, Sir, for I speak it in the presence of God, it is the desire of my soul, and shall (the Lord assisting) be witnessed by the actions of my life, that these nations be so settled in a free state, without a king, a single person, or House of Peers, that they may be governed by their representatives in Parliament successively.’
On 3 February the Coldstreamers reached Highgate. Monck reviewed the regiments and addressed them as they gazed south from the hill at London’s northern extreme to the smoky metropolis below. Once the order to march was given, the regiments filed down the hill, their many flags dancing in the winter wind. The musketeers lugged matchlocks on their shoulders, the pikemen tramped along, carrying their long, awkward weapons with practised ease.
Down Gray’s Inn Lane the long columns of soldiers went, the townspeople stopping and staring. One of the Coldstreamers recorded, ‘the Scotch forces did not find the usual welcome of the people, as they did in other places; only they were gazed upon, and that was all their entertainment. Which the Soldiers observing, wished themselves among their Friends in the North.’
To Londoners, the Coldstreamers looked quite different to the well-fed garrison troops they were used to. One account stated, ‘Their Scotch horse were thin and out of case with long and hard Marching; and the men as rough and weather beaten, having marched in a severe Winter about three hundred Miles in length, and through deep and continued Snows; so that all their Way they had scarce seen their native Country.’ They proceeded to Westminster, where Monck went in search of the Speaker of the Commons. Londoners gradually understood what the arrival of this new army meant.
Samuel Pepys noted in his diary on 6 February, ‘I stood upon the steps and saw Monk go by, he making observances to the judges as he went along.’ The next day, he saw some of Monck’s men manhandling some Quakers, evidently having taken their commander’s dislike of the religious sects to heart, and noted disapprovingly, ‘indeed the soldiers did use them very roughly and were to blame’. A few days later, once a letter by Monck in favour of restoring the secluded Members of Parliament had become public, Pepys raced to the Guildhall in the City and found a very different scene:
the Hall was full of people expecting Monk and the Lord Mayor to come thither, and all very joyfull. Met Monk coming out of the chamber . . . but such a shout I never heard in all my life, crying out ‘God Bless Your Excellence’ . . . I saw many people give the soldiers drink and money, and all along the street cried, ‘God Bless them!’ and extraordinary good words.
Monck’s position had at last become clear. The MPs purged in 1648 were those who had refused to go along with the trial and execution of Charles I. Bringing them back into the House would create a majority in favour of Restoration. People in the City, in particular, longed for it, and the explosion of joy witnessed by Pepys can be seen in that light. However, not everyone agreed to this step, and those who thought Monck’s request a betrayal of everything gained in the Civil War met urgently at Westminster, and agreed to elect a completely new House of Commons.
It is a measure of how far Monck had thought ahead and prepared the ground through his secret correspondence and messengers that on 21 February, when his opponents were about to dissolve the House and declare a new election, one of his staff appeared at the Commons with seventy-three of the Members purged a dozen years before. Resuming their seats, and to the consternation of the Puritan zealots, these Members immediately changed the balance of the House. There could be no thought of casting out these returning gentlemen, because the other MPs knew that the force of Monck’s army stood behind them. The Restoration of Charles II became inevitable.
Three months later, on 25 May, a large crowd of dignitaries assembled on the quay at Dover. It was approaching 1 p.m. and the assembled party watched as a ship of the line approached. The warship had, until three days before, been called Naseby, after one of Parliament’s great victories. In view of its mission that day, it had been tactfully renamed the Royal Charles. The Mayor of Dover and his retinue fussed about, standing under the ornate canopy they had erected for the occasion. A large Bible, with golden clasps, sat on a lectern, awaiting presentation to His Majesty.