Thursday, 20 June 2013

Swedish Scots and Oliver Bonaparte

As a newcomer to studying the Civil War era, one thing has been bothering me: how on earth did the Scots win the Bishops' Wars in 1638-40?

It is, I think, the only genuinely successful Scottish invasion of England ever. Before that date, Scottish invasions of England had normally either failed catastrophically (1346, 1513, 1542) or been blocked by the Scottish nobility before they could happen (1557). This was not just because of the balance of populations and of wealth, but because the Scots forces consisted principally of feudal levies, that is, men raised from the lands of particular noblemen and bound to serve for specific, short periods. They could be seasoned fighters, but they weren't professional soldiers, and in any case they worked much better as a defensive than an offensive army. The further they got from home, the unhappier they became.

Worse, in 1638 Scotland
had enjoyed sixty-plus years of unprecedented internal peace. So those local levies would not have had even that level of experience. I know the English were divided and the Scots furious, but how hard can it have been to see off an army like that?

But now a twenty-year-old article by Edward Furgol* explains it to me. Turns out the Scots had spent the previous 15 years serving a brutally effective apprenticeship in modern warfare: from the mid-1620s, something like 25,000 Scots - around a tenth of the adult male population - had served in the armies of Denmark and Sweden during the Thirty Years' War. When they came home, they weren't just battle-hardened: they had learned the hard way how best to fight a 17th-century war. The Scots Covenanters, raising their armies in the late 1630s, deliberately put Swedish veterans in charge. This didn't just mean that these armies were far more professional and formidable than any previous Scottish army, and indeed more so than the English forces. It also meant that, using Swedish methods of conscription, the Scots were suddenly able to field huge numbers: again, some 24,000 men in the field in 1640.

Which is interesting in its own right, I think, but it connects with one of my wider hunches: that we do not take the connections between the British wars of the 1640s and the European war of 1618-48 nearly seriously enough. Could the one have even happened without the other?

It's not just training and personnel. David Trim pointed me to this wonderful woodcut from a 1659 representation of the European wars:


There is one wing of the Habsburg eagle, symbolic of ravaging Catholic armies, in the Netherlands: the other wing in Yorkshire. There was a case, some at the time thought, for seeing the wars on either side of the North Sea as the same struggle.

And if the Catholic threat could spill over from the Continent to Britain, why could Protestant vengeance not do the same? By the early 1650s, the New Model Army had become more formidable still than that Swedish-inspired Scots host. Was there an army in the world which was a match for it at that date, man for man? Some of its supporters were keen to take the battle to the enemy. In 1653 the Fifth Monarchist John Rogers was asking, ‘how durst our Army to be still, now the work is to do abroad? Are there no Protestants in France and Germany (even) now under persecution?’ Others pondered an invasion of Rome.

Big talk. But when the French revolutionaries talked of setting Europe alight, that seemed ridiculous too: till they did it. Could the English revolutionaries have done the same? Cromwell as Napoleon, or as a latter-day Alexander the Great? Well, no. But it is, I think, just about imaginable. For us: and more importantly, for them.

*Edward M. Furgol, ‘Scotland turned Sweden: the Scottish Covenanters and the Military Revolution, 1638-51’ in John Morrill (ed.), The Scottish National Covenant in its British Context (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990).

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