George Monck — 1608-1670 Part III

Coronation procession (detail) April 23, 1661. Charles II at left, followed by Monck, who is “Leading a Horse of Estate.”

One guest, though, upstaged all the others. Monck had been summoned urgently to Dover after a letter arrived from Charles II saying that he would not land unless he was sure the general was there to meet him.

As the statuesque figure of the King — over six feet tall, with flowing locks and courtly robes — came ashore, cannon boomed out a salute from the castle. ‘The General received him with becoming duty’, recorded Gumble, who was standing just behind Monck, ‘but his Majesty embraced him with an affection so absolute and vehement, as higher could not have been expressed by a Prince to a subject. He embraced and kissed him.’ Pepys, who had been aboard the Royal Charles, sharing the King’s breakfast of ‘pease, pork and boiled beef’, noted that after the embraces ‘the shouting and joy expressed by all is beyond imagination’.

They made an incongruous couple, the King and Monck, with Charles towering over the stocky general as they walked to a waiting carriage. But the two of them symbolised the importance of the moment: the rough soldier whose strong hand rescued England from anarchy deferring to the manicured sovereign who would restore the mystery of kingship and the missing element of hierarchy required for Parliament and state to function.

During the years when Royalist agents had tried to win Monck over to their cause, vast sums had been offered secretly by way of reward. When Charles II returned, Monck wasted little time in collecting his due — both financial and by extending a personal web of patronage. He was quickly created Duke of Albemarle, made Lord General, or Commander-in-Chief, of the Army, and laden with other honours.

In his correspondence with Charles prior to their meeting in Dover that May, Monck had set only one precondition for how the King should rule. Making himself the soldiers’ champion, Monck had insisted that the army’s arrears of pay be settled as a prelude to its disbandment. This involved demobilising 18 regiments of foot, 15 of horse and dozens of garrison parties scattered about the land, totalling around 50,000 men. Parliament and sovereign had to agree a huge programme of taxation in order to buy off the soldiers, preventing the emergence of another Lambert (the general himself languished in the Tower) who might seize power. Under the new assessments, £70,000 extra per month for eighteen months was to be raised to pay off all of those regiments.

Although plans were set in train for the complete disbandment of what had once been Fairfax’s New Model Army, it may be surmised that both Monck and the King thought some soldiers might be required to act as police, maintaining internal security. There were plans to keep a few troops of cavalry to protect the people of London against thieves and the mob. Also, the future of a regiment of Royal Guards, who had accompanied Charles on his return from the Low Countries, remained uncertain.

Matters were brought to a head in January 1661, when a crowd of several hundred Fifth Monarchy Men marched to Kenwood on Highgate Hill and declared a sort of divinely inspired insurrection. Monck quickly scattered the zealots with his forces. Much of the old Parliamentary army had already been paid off, but one or two regiments, critically Monck’s own — the core of his Coldstreamers — were still under arms.

On the 14th of the same month, Monck’s regiment of foot and his troop of horse marched to Tower Hill. At about 10 a.m., a carriage appeared, bearing commissioners appointed by Parliament to oversee the disbandment of the army. As they got out, the troops formed a circle around them. Colonel King, one of the commissioners, addressed the men, an eyewitness recording:

That God had highly honoured them in the eyes and hearts of the King and kingdom; yea, and made them renowned throughout the world and to all posterity, in stirring them up to be eminently instrumental in the happy Restoration of his Majesty to his royal throne, the Parliament to their privileges, and our whole kingdoms to their antient laws, liberties, and government, without any battle or bloodshed: for which signal services his Majesty and the whole kingdom returned them not only their verbal but real thanks.

The troops were invited to lay down their pikes and muskets. No sooner had they done so than they took a new oath to serve the King as ‘an extraordinary Guard to his Royal Person’, marched forward, picked up the weapons discarded minutes before, and began shouting, ‘God save King Charles the Second!’ Some men threw their hats in the air, others primed their muskets and began a feu de joie.

With this ceremony, the modern British Army was born. It was formed from troops that had previously been enemies — a pattern applied by the British themselves in nation-building missions hundreds of years later from Sierra Leone to Iraq. Monck’s men and a further regiment of Parliamentary cavalry (Colonel Unton Crook’s horse) were combined with some Royalist battalions brought by Charles from the Netherlands and, a few months later, with some newly raised troops. The precedence of these different regiments was considered too delicate an issue to be tackled in Monck’s lifetime, but Charles’s returnees were later designated the 1st Foot Guards and Monck’s old regiment the 2nd, or Coldstream, Guards. Even today their rivalry lives on, the Coldstreamers adopting the motto ‘Second to None’. Monck’s troop of horse and two of the King’s household were combined into the Lifeguards; Crook’s old Ironside regiment became the Royal Horse Guards, or the Blues.

These arrangements were in place for only a few months before the King’s acquisition, through marriage, of a colonial possession (Tangier in modern Morocco) required a garrison to be raised. Within a couple of years, the army, which had fallen as low as 3,000 men, was restored to a strength of around 8,500.

Fairfax’s New Model, it is true, was the first British professional military force, in the sense that its men were not paid off after each campaign and were properly trained. Ultimately, though, the New Model or Parliamentary army came to represent a sectarian instrument of military rule. It was infiltrated by various extreme religious groups, eventually fracturing along lines of loyalty to different commanders. It was for this reason that Fairfax’s army, or its remnant, was almost entirely disbanded in 1660-2. Monck’s men (and indeed Charles’s Guards regiment) were the nucleus of a modern standing army not just because their regiments have served continuously since February 1661 but because they represented the unification of what had been the Civil War factions. Even so, their constitutional status remained unclear for many years.

Until the 1689 Mutiny Act, which set out a code of military discipline, the notion of a regular army was not to be found in any statutory form. In the meantime, the Guards were paid with budgetary sleight of hand, as part of the King’s household. It was to take centuries for British soldiers to stop thinking of themselves as servants of the Crown. Indeed, some still do.

Such was the novelty of a standing army that there were no quarters or barracks for them. The men of the new Guards regiments had to be billeted, as the Parliamentary troops had been, in various places where paid lodgings might be found. An order in Monck’s regiment mentions ‘inns, victualling-houses, taverns, and alehouses’, where the men were meant to provide for their stay, food and boozing from their daily pay. This was set at ten pence a day for privates while actually guarding the King; eight pence under other circumstances. The Coldstream Guards for many years were thus scattered about, living in pubs and inns in an area of London that now comprises Clerkenwell, Aldgate, Islington and Holborn — a thoroughly agreeable existence, one imagines, for men who had recently spent years fighting Highlanders in Scotland.

Since the arrangements for raising and paying troops during the 1660s and 1670s were not subject to specific Parliamentary consent, many in the Commons frequently voiced opposition to the notion of a standing army, regarding it as an instrument that might be used by a king to rule by force. The Royalists, meanwhile, had seen in the experience of Cromwell and his generals a lesson that religious extremists should not be allowed to run the country in a similarly arbitrary way. Each side saw in the other’s pronouncements a desire to gain control of a powerful standing army as an instrument of internal repression.

Monck had believed in the need for regular military forces for many years. He and Fairfax seemed to have drawn common lessons from their campaigns in the Netherlands in the 1630s. Each had tried to apply these ideas during the Civil War, with Fairfax succeeding and Monck seeing his suggestions for such a force ignored by Charles I. Under Charles II, Monck finally found himself as lord general of a professional army. He believed that one of the principal hedges against such an army being used as an instrument of tyranny was that it should be commanded by a strong, independent figure, i.e. himself. And while, as Duke of Albemarle, he played the part of courtier to Charles II with alacrity, it is evident that the Civil War had left Monck with the belief that no monarch or royal house could regard their position as a right to be upheld, regardless of conduct. Monck’s treatise Observations upon Military and Political Affairs contained the sentence, ‘You ought not to perpetuate any Government, neither to families nor yet for life.’ This might fit easily with his earlier refusal to go along with Cromwell’s plans to pass power to his son, but it was a bombshell coming from the man who had restored the Stuart monarchy.

Charles II was evidently shrewd enough to recognise in Monck the kind of independence of spirit that required careful handling. He not only larded the Duke with honours and money, but used Monck as a trouble-shooter during the Great Plague, after the Fire of London and, reverting to his position as naval commander, during renewed naval hostilities with the Dutch. This second tour as an admiral was not a success for Monck, however, for he was defeated in battle by the Dutch fleet, a stain on his reputation in later life.

The final period of his service brought Monck into frequent contact with Samuel Pepys, one of the clerks running the navy. Pepys certainly paints a less than flattering picture of Monck in this period, recording at one point, ‘he is grown a drunken sot’. Others were scathing about abuses of patronage by Monck and his wife, with one noting, ‘both of them asked and sold all that was in their reach, nothing being denied them for some time’. Pepys also considered Monck rather dim. At the same time, though, he was perceptive enough to recognise both his popularity and his standing with the King. When Monck returned from fighting the Dutch in October 1667, he received a vote of thanks from Parliament in spite of the defeat. A perplexed Pepys wrote, ‘I know not how, the blockhead Albemarle [i.e. Monck] hath strange luck to be loved, though he be (and every man must know it) the heaviest man in the world, but stout and honest to his country.’

On 2 January 1670, Monck died while sitting in a chair at home. The King immediately ordered that he be embalmed by royal physicians, prior to lying in state at Somerset House. The obsequies observed at this time dictated a lengthy period on display, allowing worthies the opportunity to travel to London from various parts of the country. The dead general was thus exhibited for weeks, suitably prepared by the doctors so that his remains did not visibly deteriorate or prove too offensive to the mourners’ nostrils.

The character left to posterity by most of those contemporaries who wrote about him was of ‘honest George Monck’. He was the archetype of the reliable soldier who eschewed courtly sophistication and spoke about things as he found them. Even someone like Pepys, whose patron was a rival of Monck’s for the King’s favour, had to concede these traits.

It would be fatal to conclude from this, though, that Pepys was right when he called Monck a ‘blockhead’, since there is much evidence to the contrary. It is Monck’s seizure of power in 1660 — the key drama of his life — that shows what a calculating and ruthless man he could be when he thought that the interests of England and, obviously, his own family demanded it. Monck’s plain, thickset appearance, his refusal to use flowery language and even his West Country accent may all have caused people to underestimate his intelligence.

When Thomas Hobbes published Behemoth, or the Long Parliament in 1671, the tract in which he tried to digest the experience of that national madness that was the Civil War and find its deeper meaning, he chose to place the march from Coldstream at the very end of his story. Behemoth concludes with the words, ‘You have told me little of the General till now in the end: but truly, I think the bringing of his little army entire out of Scotland up to London, was the greatest stratagem that is extant in history.’

In giving this powerful testimony to the significance of Monck’s coup, Hobbes played the same trick on his readers as the general had played on his rivals — of writing him off, allowing him to remain on ‘remote stages’ until the moment of his own choosing. In describing the march as the ‘greatest stratagem’, Hobbes also acknowledged that Monck had cloaked his real intentions, sometimes wrong-footing his rivals with lies.

There can be no doubt, though, that the general acted with cunning and calculation in 1660: he maintained a network of secret contacts in order to gain the most timely intelligence of what his rivals were doing; he neutralised his army rivals; once in London, he marshalled sufficient secluded Members of the Commons to produce at the key moment in Parliament as his coup moved towards its unstated climax, Restoration.

The quality of his thinking is also shown in the book Observations upon Military and Political Affairs, ostensibly written by him in 1644-5, while a prisoner in the Tower, but evidently amended later in life and finally published in 1671, after his death. In formulating general principles about the conduct of war, Observations showed an intellectual ambition to which the vast majority of British officers through the ages would never have aspired. It would be overstating it to say that Monck’s treatise made him an English Machiavelli or Clausewitz, but it was not a lack of merit that ensured Monck’s book circulated little in the decades after his death. Rather, it seems that a British officer corps that would rank among the poorest read in Europe (the French were the unquestioned champions of military theory) was not much interested in the reflections of a man who had done so much to shape the country.

Monck’s book combined much of what was to become standard in such works — advice about the concentration of force or qualities of decisive generalship — with some fresh ideas that seem part of our modern age, such as the vital importance of intelligence gathering in order to wage successful war. His reflections on relations between generals and their political masters are of greatest interest, though. In his advice that ‘you ought not to perpetuate any Government’, Monck showed that the relationship between England and the Monarch had been permanently altered by the Civil War, and that the Restoration was not simply handing the country back to the Stuarts to do with it what they liked. Indeed, the overthrow of James II just a few years later would underline Monck’s conviction that no king had a God-given right to continue his rule, regardless of his behaviour.

As for success in war, Monck stated that it needed underlying economic strength as well as military professionalism: ‘I account a Rich Publick Treasure, providently provided before-hand, and a people well trained in Martial Affairs, to be two of the only Pillars (next under God) that will preserve a Kingdom or State from ruine and danger.’ Monck argued for moderation in waging war: ‘It is an excellent property of a good and wise Prince to use War, as he doth Physick, carefully, unwillingly, and seasonably.’ As for the role of generals in launching conflict or defining its aims, he believed, ‘It is a dangerous thing for a General to make himself chief in pursuading a Prince, or State to any weighty and important resolution, so that the counsel thereof be wholly imputed to him, which belongs to many.’

In these last two points Monck did much to define the British Army and its style of generalship for the next two hundred years. First, any blatant adventurism was to be eschewed. Second, responsibility for going to war must always be seen by the wider public as the decision of a government rather than its generals.

In an age of modern liberal democracy, many regard the armed forces as ‘apolitical’. But there should be no doubt about it, Britain’s post-Civil War settlement was made possible by a military coup in 1660. Furthermore, in the two centuries that followed Monck’s action, the army that he founded would often find itself up to its neck in politics. The knack for aspiring ‘political generals’, as Monck had shown, was to intervene in civilian counsels only occasionally, and to be very careful about cloaking their intentions. In foreign wars, senior officers were bound to have strong views about the feasibility or righteousness of military plans, but they needed to use wisdom and guile to bend civilian opponents to their way of thinking.

Monck’s coup, though, was such an unarguably political act that his historical reputation became the subject of partisan dispute. Tories would see him as a man loyal to his rightful sovereign who rescued England from the madness of its ‘state of nature’ following the execution of Charles I. Their ideological opponents — later known as Whig historians — tended to see Monck as a cynical adventurer who changed sides too many times, betrayed Cromwell and ultimately sold out the Commonwealth in order to enrich his family.

As to the significance of his actions, though, there is less dispute. Monck had other options, after all: he might have consolidated his personal power and made himself Protector, as some urged him to do; conversely, he could have allowed the election of a new Parliament, without the return of Charles II, thereby producing a true republic. Instead, he took the key step in the creation of a constitutional monarchy, and founded a professional army.

The procession from Somerset House to Westminster Abbey on 30 April 1670 was a splendid one, paid for by the King. Atop the coffin was an effigy of the Lord General, Duke of Albemarle, dressed in armour. As the carriage carrying it made its way up the Strand, it was watched by two regiments of City Militia, who were lining the route. The 1st Foot Guards followed on; then Monck’s old regiment, the Coldstreamers. Behind this military parade came Monck’s son and the other mourners. Ann had died a fortnight after her husband, but, with no lying in state necessary for her, had beaten him to their vault in Westminster Abbey. While some contemporaries liked to look down on her for her lowly origins, her death testified to the depth of her love for the general, and, as one modern biographer has noted, ‘No breath of scandal was to hurt either of them at the bawdy court of the restored Stuart king.’

Circumstances had cast Monck not as the victor of epic battles but in the role of kingmaker. This gave him a more significant legacy than the greatest master of the battlefield of his own age, Oliver Cromwell. Even so, the army that Monck had founded was, at the time he left it, a small enterprise: several thousand men who figured little in the calculations of European statesmen. The task of getting the wider world to sit up and take notice of this new power would eventually fall to a tall young ensign who walked behind the general’s coffin on that day in April 1670. His name was John Churchill.

1 thought on “George Monck — 1608-1670 Part III

  1. Pingback: George Monck — 1608-1670 Part III – faujibratsden

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