Soldiers & Strangers by Mark Stoyle

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The Independent Culture

His principal thesis is that the Royalist cause was heavily supported by Celts (the Irish, Welsh and Cornish) and that, in reaction, Oliver Cromwell went in for an early form of ethnic cleansing. Stoyle demonstrates that the New Model Army which won the decisive victory at Naseby in 1645 was above all an English army, consciously xenophobic and imbued with notions of racial purity. The atrocities that followed Naseby, including the mass slaughter of Royalist women, lit the fuse that would detonate a few years later at Drogheda and make the name of Cromwell a byword for cruelty. Thomas Carlyle liked to link Cromwell and Frederick the Great, but it is the analogy with later Germans that will most strike a modern readership.

The proto-Aryanism of the New Model Army was something Cromwell came to only gradually. In the early years of the war, Parliament lost popular support through employing brutal foreign mercenaries and soldiers of fortune. While cynically using the Covenanting Scots as his allies, Cromwell always loathed them and realised that propaganda about Charles I's use of "foreign invaders" (code for the Welsh, Irish and Cornish) would not work while Parliament had the Scots on its side. Cromwell was able to emerge as a convincing advocate of racial purity and true Englishness precisely because of his singlemindedness, whereas nobody believed the claims that the treacherous, trimming, double-dealing Stuart monarch really embodied the soul of England and was a martyr sacrificing himself for the common people against the propertied classes.

Although Cromwell acted as though he had a hotline to the Almighty, his very fanaticism lent him credibility as a "sea-green incorruptible". Tapping into the resentment against the high level of pillage, looting and rape by foreign mercenaries (even though the worst offenders were probably the Germanic and Bohemian buccaneers who fought for the Puritans), he cleverly used classical models to bolster his ideology of racial purity; he argued, for example, that Scipio Africanus and the Romans had beaten Hannibal at Zama because theirs was a purely citizen army while the Carthaginian host was a polyglot force. Later, as Lord Protector, Cromwell would take his xenophobia to the point of expelling all foreigners from the realm. He was also able to use the austerity associated with Republican Rome to advantage, stressing the "clean" asceticism of his Roundheads as against the corrupt degeneracy of the Cavaliers - a word derived from the Spanish caballero which in those days carried the nuance of a swaggering Spanish braggart.

Stoyle's ethnic analysis is very fine, not just in the areas one might expect, relating to Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Cornwall, but in his careful winnowing of the contemporary sources that throws up combatants hailing from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Scandinavia, Poland, Spain, the Balkans and even Iraq (or Mesopotamia as it then was). Stoyle admits that the number-crunching and quantification beloved of a certain kind of historian will always elude the student of foreign mercenaries in the English Civil War, but he clearly establishes that the racial composition of the combatants is an unjustly neglected area and that the English Civil War was in part an expression of English chauvinism, as much to do with ethnicity and national identity as religion or economics.

The entire book, shot through with compelling instances of the dark side of human nature, will serve to confirm those whose attitude to the "English Revolution" is "a plague on both your houses". And those who persist in admiring Oliver Cromwell will need to do some hard thinking.