Following a year of set-backs, the victory of their forces at the Battle of Nantwich in January 1644 was a welcome success for Parliament.
However, Sir Thomas Fairfax and William Brereton’s success on the banks of the River Weaver in Cheshire was not one of the huge set-piece battles beloved in romantic historical fiction and it is not generally considered one of the ‘key’ battles of the English Civil War. Indeed, in Andrew Hopper’s 2007 biography of Fairfax it warrants barely a single paragraph and while other battles in the campaigns of General ‘Black Tom’ have faded from popular memory – Leeds, Adwalton Moor, Wetherby, Winceby – it has chiefly been remembered by the grateful townspeople of Nantwich itself. Nantwich was part of a series of local conflicts, all fitting into the muddled patchwork of the first civil war; a chapter of a story rather than its beginning or climax.
But there is at least one reason why the Battle of Nantwich is important to the story of the English Civil War – it began a new stage in the life of George Monck, one that would see him play a pivotal role in British history.
George was no stranger to army life. Born to an impoverished landowning father in Devon on 6 December 1608 and partially raised by his mother’s wealthy family in Exeter, he had volunteered for the 1625 expedition to Cadiz. On his return to England, he and his elder brother attacked and beat up a county under-sheriff who had arrested their father for debt. Monck pursued and stabbed the under-sheriff, who later died of his wounds. To escape prosecution for murder, Monck joined the expedition for the relief of La Rochelle in 1627.
Distinguishing himself by his bravery, in 1629 Monck joined the English volunteers fighting for the Prince of Orange against the Spanish in the Thirty Years’ War. He spent nine years in Dutch service and became a hero of the siege of Breda in 1637, during which he led the storming of the breach that resulted in the city’s surrender. However, he resigned his commission after arguing with the Dutch authorities at Dordrecht, after some of his troops, accused of mistreating civilians, were tried before the city magistrates rather than a court martial.
Monck returned to England and joined King Charles’ army in the Bishops’ Wars. In the debacle of the Battle of Newburn in 1640, Monck was one of the few English officers that did not flee from the Scots. He saved the King’s artillery by covering its withdrawal and retreated with his men in good order to Newcastle.
When Ireland rebelled in 1641, Monck became lieutenant-colonel of an infantry regiment, soon earning the trust of his troops as well as gaining a reputation for great energy, ruthlessness, calmness and secrecy. However, his superior, The Duke of Ormonde, viewed Monck with suspicion as he was one of only two officers who had refused to take an oath to support the Royalist cause in England. Placed under arrest upon arrival in Bristol, Monck then justified himself to Charles I in person – citing a constitutional dislike of swearing oaths – and impressed the King, who gave him a command in the army that had been brought back from Ireland, following a cessation of hostilities there. This force was brought over to Cheshire and employed by Royalist commander Lord Byron in his efforts to pacify the county and suppress the local Parliamentarians under William Brereton.
Despite having no military experience, Brereton had been appointed Commander-in-Chief for Parliament’s army in Cheshire, where he quickly established a formidable intelligence network of spies and lead an aggressive campaign against the Royalists, winning the first Battle of Middlewich on 13 March 1643. But these successes brought renewed focus from the Royalists, leading to his only major defeat, again at Middlewich. Bolstered by fresh troops from the English forces in Ireland, the Royalists then besieged Brereton’s headquarters at Nantwich. Hemmed in, Brereton begged for reinforcements from Lord Fairfax, then at York, who raced across the Pennines to Manchester. Physically brought to tears upon finding Parliament’s forces there in a sorry state, he ordered them new clothes before setting out in the snow to relieve Brereton’s forces.
Aiding in the siege of Nantwich, Monck was in command of Michael Warren’s regiment when Fairfax arrived. In the ensuing battle, Byron’s forces were utterly routed in a flooded, muddy quagmire and Monck became one of 72 officers taken prisoner, along with 1,500 ordinary soldiers. After the battle, eight hundred royalist prisoners switched sides and joined Fairfax’s army. But Monck was not one of them. He was taken to the capital and spent the next two years in the Tower of London, where he spent time writing Observations on Military and Political Affairs, a treatise based on his experiences in Dutch service.
It was his experience fighting in Ireland that led to his release – such a man was too useful to be left to moulder and, after swearing loyalty to the Parliamentary cause, he was released from the Tower in November 1646 and made major general of an army sent by Parliament against the Irish rebels. Despite his experience, he made little headway and out of sheer military necessity he concluded a compromise armistice with the rebel leaders on terms he knew that Parliament could not accept. Following the execution of Charles I in January 1649, Scotland proclaimed his son Charles, Prince of Wales, as Charles II and most of Monck’s army went over to the Royalist cause and he returned to England to face a rebuke from Parliament for daring to negotiate with the Irish.
Oliver Cromwell always had an eye for talent and, in July 1650, Monck was given command of a regiment of foot in the army being prepared for the invasion of Scotland. However, the memory of Nantwich had not faded in the intervening years as the regiment supposedly replied: ‘What! To betray us? We took him, not long since, at Namptwick [sic], prisoner: we’ll have none of him.’ Cromwell was forced to form a new regiment for Monck, as the strength of opinion could not be overturned.
After the incredible victory over the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, in which he led a brigade of infantry in an attack on the Scottish centre, Monck was made commander-in-chief in Scotland in order to complete the subjugation of the country, a duty he carried with both efficiency and brutality. After a spell recovering his health in Bath, and despite having no naval experience, he became a General at Sea in the First Anglo-Dutch War. As with all other military matters, Monck excelled – the Dutch were fought to a stand-still.
Suspicion over Monck’s true loyalties never truly went away and rumours that he was a closet Royalist dogged him. As Lord Protector, Cromwell is said to have written to Monck in 1657: “There be [those] that tell me that there is a certain cunning fellow in Scotland called George Monck, who is said to lye in wait there to introduce Charles Stuart; I pray you, use your diligence to apprehend him, and send him up to me.”
The question of his allegiance came into sharp focus in 1658 when Cromwell died. Monck remained silent and watchful at Edinburgh, outwardly lending his support to the Protectorate under Richard Cromwell but not intervening when he was deposed by a military junta yet refusing to commit when Royalist representatives approached him during the summer of 1659 regarding a possible restoration of the monarchy.
What Monck chose to do at this point was vital as his was the only coherent force left in the British mainland. He had cunningly purged the ranks of the forces occupying Scotland of religious radicals and officers not loyal to his command, leaving himself with – essentially – his own private army, with which he could decide the fate of the nation. So what would he do? Side with Parliament and continue the Commonwealth? March on London and take power for himself? Or would he use his soldiers to reimpose the monarchy?
He continued this difficult game of politics in a highly fluid and charged situation but when Charles Fleetwood and General John Lambert declared against Parliament, Monck refused to join them and marched across the Scottish border, Lambert’s army eventually fading away due to lack of pay.
On 1 January 1660, at Parliament’s invitation, Monck slowly marched south, his ultimate purpose remaining obscure. Occupying London on 3 February 1660, he continued to proclaim his support for the Commonwealth in public but entered into secret negotiations with representatives of Charles Stuart to restore the monarchy. Charles’s conciliatory Declaration of Breda of 4 April 1660 was largely based on Monck’s recommendations and the newly convened Convention Parliament formally invited Charles to return as monarch.
When the restored King landed at Dover on 25 May, Monck was the first to greet him as he came ashore. Charles reportedly kissed him and called him “father”.
Unwittingly, Monck’s capture at the Battle of Nantwich in January 1644 put in motion a chain of events that led, after 16 years, to the Restoration. Without the intractable, practical, and secretive Monck in Scotland it is uncertain what would have happened in the dying days of the English republic and whether the transition back to a monarchy would have proceeded as smoothly. If it had not been for Fairfax’s deliverance on the outskirts of a Cheshire market town, who knows what could have become of George Monck?
Monck retrospectively claimed that he had been working towards a royal restoration since before 1660, a bitter pill to swallow for many staunch Commonwealthmen who did not baulk from condemning his betrayal, apparently without irony. Just as with the unruly regiment in 1650, this reputation as a ‘turncoat’ plagued him for the rest of his life – according to diarist Lucy Hutchinson, her husband so abhorred Royalist-turned-Parliamentarian Ashley Cooper that “he could not bare ‘the mention of his name, and held him for a more execrable traitor than Monck himself.’” Lauded by the new regime and hated by his former comrades, Irish philosopher John Toland claimed Monck’s “Dissimulation, Treachery, and Perjury, are like to remain unparalled’d in history”.
Whether he was a secret Royalist, a true Parliamentarian, or merely a practical and pragmatic soldier, it was at Nantwich that the fate of George Monck turned.
Ellis, John – To Walk in the Dark: Military Intelligence during the English Civil War 1642-1646, The History Press, 2011
Gardiner, S.R. – History of the Great Civil War, The Windrush Press, 1987
Hopper, Andrew – ‘Black Tom’: Sir Thomas Fairfax and the English Revolution, Manchester University Press, 2007
Hopper, Andrew – Turncoats & Renegadoes: Changing Sides during the English Civil Wars, Oxford University Press, 2012