Oliver Cromwell’s letter to Colonel Valentine Walton, conveying good and bad news arising from the battle of Marston Moor, 5 July 1644

Source analysis by Prof. Peter Gaunt

“Deare Sir,

Its our duty to sympathise in all mercyes, that wee may praise the Lord together, in chastisements or tryalls, that soe wee may sorrowe together.

Truly England, and the church of God hath had a great favor from the Lord in this great victorie given unto us such as the like never was since this warr begunn. Itt had all the evidences of an absolute victorie obtained by the Lords blessinge upon the godly partye principally. Wee never charged but wee routed the enimie, the left winge which I commanded beinge our owne horse, savinge a few Scotts in our rear, beat all the Princes horse, God made them as stubble to our swords, wee charged their Regiments of foote with our horse, routed all wee charged. The perticulars I cannott relate now but, I beleive of 20000 the prince hath not 4000 left. Give glory, all the glory to God.

Sir, God hath taken away your eldest sonn by a cannon shott, itt brake his legg, wee were necessitated to have itt cutt off, wherof he died.

Sir, you know my tryalls this way, but the Lord supported mee with this, that the Lord tooke him into the happinesse wee all pant after, and live for. There is your precious child, full of glory, to know sinn nor sorrow any more. Hee was a gallant younge man, exceedinge gracious. God give you his comfort. Before his death hee was soe full of comfort, that to Franke Russell and myselfe hee could not expresse itt, itt was soe great above his paine. This hee sayd to us. Indeed itt was admirable. A little after hee sayd one thinge lay upon his spirit. I asked him what that was. Hee told mee, that it was, that God had not suffered him to bee noe more the executioner of his enimies. Att his fall, his horse being killed with the bullett and as I am enformed 3 horses more, I am told, hee bid them open to the right, and left, that hee might see the rouges runn. Truly hee was exceedingly beloved in the Armie of all that knew him, but few knew him, for hee was a precious younge man, fitt for God. You have cause to blesse the Lord, hee is a glorious saint in heaven, wherin you ought exceedingly to rejoyce. Lett this drinke up your sorrowe, seeing theise are not fayned words to comfort you, but the thinge is soe real and undoubted a truth. You may doe all thinges by the strength of Christ, seeke that, and you shall easily beare your tryall. Lett this publike mercie to the church of God make you to forgett your private sorrowe. The Lord bee your strength, soe prayes your truly faythfull and lovinge brother,

Oliver Cromwell

My love to youre daughter and my cousin Percevall, sistere Desbrowe and all freinds with you.”

Before we analyse the contents, a few points should be made about the letter itself and the text we possess. The extant version appears to be the original, as written by Cromwell on 5 July, and not a later copy. It seems to have been written throughout in a single hand, almost certainly Cromwell’s own, rather than by a clerk or secretary copying down sentences being dictated by Cromwell and then merely signed by him. The text is quite neat, clear and legible, apart from a few blobs on the page where excess ink has run from the pen as he wrote, and Cromwell made very few amendments or additions to the text. He originally wrote ‘…the winge which I commanded…’ but went back and added the word ‘left’ to make clear which wing that was; he originally wrote ‘…itt was soe great above his paine. Indeed itt was admirable…’ but went back and added the short sentence ‘This hee sayd to us’ to make clear that the dying man had in fact been able to put into words his comfort as he lay there, despite his difficulty in expressing it; and he originally wrote ‘…that God had not suffered him to bee the executioner of his enimies’ but went back and added the words ‘noe more’ to make clear that, prior to his fatal injury, he had played his part in killing the Lord’s foes. Towards the end of the letter, Cromwell twice deleted the original first word of a phrase or sentence and substituted another, though in both cases the deletions are so heavy that it is now impossible to be certain what the original word was. Thus the word ‘seeing’ was added in place of another word, perhaps ‘believe’, in the phrase ‘seeing theise are not fayned words to comfort you’, and the word ‘Lett’ was added in place of another word, perhaps ‘Desire’ at the start of the sentence beginning ‘Lett this publike mercie to the church of God…’. In both cases, the amendment probably served to make the phrase or sentence stronger and firmer. Like most literate people of the civil war period, Cromwell’s spelling was often variable and different from modern standard spellings; although later printed transcripts of this letter often modernise the spelling, here the original has been preserved. Equally, like most of his contemporaries, Cromwell was, in our eyes, very lax in using commas and full stops to break up his text and to divide it into phrases, clauses and sentences; in the transcript reproduced and analysed here, the original punctuation has largely been preserved, though occasionally full stops have been added to break up or make clearer long runs of words. Again quite typically for his time, Cromwell wrote this letter as a single and unbroken block of text, with no paragraph breaks; as in most modern transcripts, here the text has been divided into four paragraphs (of very unequal length).1

During the main civil war of 1642-46, and even more so while on campaign during the second civil war of 1648 and in Ireland and Scotland between spring 1649 and summer 1651, Cromwell’s practice was to write often long and detailed letters giving military accounts of his campaigns in general and certain battles and sieges in particular. Such letters were generally written very shortly after the specific event about which they supply an account, often during the evening or day immediately following a battle or the conclusion of a siege. These letters were often addressed either to Sir Thomas Fairfax, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the New Model Army (from spring 1645 down to summer 1650), or to the Speaker of the House of Commons. Cromwell probably expected that the contents of those letters would then be passed on to a wider audience – to other senior army officers in the New Model’s high command or to the House of Commons. Indeed, after certain key victories, Cromwell’s letters to the Speaker giving accounts of those actions would go on to urge that various political, social or religious reforms be enacted in the wake of these military successes and as thanks to God for giving victory, Cromwell clearly expecting that those letters would reach a wider audience and hoping that they would influence parliamentary business. Quite a few of Cromwell’s military letters of the civil war years were quite quickly printed in whole or in part, either included in the regular newspapers of the day or published within short pamphlets, thus reaching a much wider and public audience. However, this letter is different. It is far more personal and private, addressed to a fellow-officer and giving an account of the battle of Marston Moor, which had occurred three days before on 2 July, but providing only a brief and sketchy outline of military events and the course of the battle; instead, the letter’s main purpose and the majority of its contents were concerned with breaking the news of the death in action of the recipient’s son and attempting to console him in his loss.

The letter is addressed to Valentine Walton (1593/4-1661), a Huntingdonshire gentleman who had close connections with the Cromwell family. He had for a time been a ward of Oliver Cromwell’s uncle, Sir Oliver Cromwell, and in 1617 had married Sir Oliver’s niece and Oliver’s younger sister, Margaret Cromwell. Thus in this letter Cromwell was writing to his brother-in-law. Valentine and Margaret had at least four sons and a daughter before the marriage was ended by Margaret’s death; we do not know exactly when she died, but it had seemingly occurred by the time Cromwell wrote this letter in July 1644. While at the end of the letter Cromwell refers to and passes his wishes onto other family members apparently living with the Waltons or in contact with them, including his sister Jane, the wife of the parliamentarian officer John Disbrowe, he makes no reference to Margaret here, as he surely would have done had she still been alive. Nonetheless, Cromwell clearly remained close to his brother-in-law, who shared his commitment to the parliamentarian cause, and he corresponded with him during the war years.2 Walton had opposed royal policies during the 1630s, sat in the Long Parliament as MP for Huntingdonshire and from late summer 1642 onwards took up arms and fought for parliament, sometimes assisting Cromwell in military operations in Cambridgeshire and East Anglia. Although technically a member of the Eastern Association army, parliament’s biggest and most potent regional army, much of which did fight at Marston Moor, Walton was not present at the battle. Instead, he was probably based in and around King’s Lynn at the time, for in summer 1643 he had been appointed governor of that town and, holding the rank of colonel, commander of a regiment – initially an infantry regiment, but later a regiment of horse or dragoons. It was his second but by 1644 eldest surviving son – and thus Cromwell’s nephew – Valentine Walton junior (b. 1624) who fought and died on Marston Moor and about whose death this letter is largely concerned.3

Cromwell opens the letter with a rather sombre sentence, full of foreboding, with references to chastisements and trials and the necessity of sorrowing together. He is clearly preparing the recipient for the bad news that he had to break and convey to his brother-in-law later in the letter. However, Cromwell says no more about that for the moment and instead at that point he moves on to giving the good news of a great and God-given victory for parliament in battle against Prince Rupert’s royalist army. Cromwell gives few details of the battle here – this section (or, as it usually appears in modern transcripts, paragraph) is just 126 words in length – and he specifically says that this is not the time or place to go into more detail. The brief account he gives here largely conforms to other, often much fuller and more detailed contemporary accounts of the battle fought on rolling moorland west of York on the evening of 2 July 1644, though it greatly compresses the story of the battle and also makes it appear far more one-sided than it really was.4

Despite the huge numerical advantage of the parliamentarians, who had a combined Anglo-Scottish army of around 28,000 men, while Rupert’s army was probably somewhat smaller than the 20,000 men Cromwell puts it at here – most modern historians suggest that the royalist army was around 18,000-strong – the battle was not as one-sided as Cromwell’s cramped summary might suggest. Cromwell’s cavalry on the left wing of the parliamentarian line charged its opponents and was overwhelmingly successful, quickly mauling and breaking part of the opposing cavalry wing of the royalist army, containing and breaking an attempted rally and stand by some royalist horse, and thus putting to flight the whole royalist cavalry on that side of the battlefield. However, almost exactly the opposite was occurring on the other side of the battlefield – ‘as the prince’s right wing went to wrack, so his left was very prosperous’, commented the royalist Sir Hugh Cholmley,5 while the parliamentarian Lionel Watson noted how the troops on the parliamentarian left, thinking the battle won and nothing more remained to be done than mopping up, were shocked to find that on the other side of the battlefield the royalists were ‘wholly carrying the field before them, utterly routing all our horse and foot, so that there was not a man left standing before them’.6 Fairfax’s advancing cavalry was badly mauled by the royalist cavalry and this in turn seems to have unhinged part of the parliamentarian infantry in the centre-right of the battlefield. But at that crucial point of the battle Cromwell, who had maintained his victorious cavalry in good order on the left or western side of the battlefield, had held his men back from pursuing the broken and fleeing royalist horse on that wing and had probably a fresh and still unused cavalry reserve available to him, turned the tide of battle and secured the decisive and overwhelming parliamentarian victory which he talks about in this letter by using his cavalry to tear into the exposed flank and rear of the royalist infantry. In his contemporary account of the battle written from a parliamentarian perspective, Watson noted that in this ‘second charge…our horse and foot seconding them with such valour, made them [the royalists] fly before us…pluck[ing] a victory out of the enemies’ hands’.7

Rupert and much of his cavalry managed to escape the battlefield – Cromwell puts his surviving force at around 4,000, though military historians generally reckon that around 6,000 royalists got away with the prince to fight another day. Cromwell was evidently not immune from the common civil war trait of over-estimating the size of the opposing army at the start of an engagement and under-estimating the number of enemies who got away at the end of it to fight another day. However, much of the royalist infantry which fought at Marston Moor was killed, wounded or captured. Defeated, disordered, scattered and fleeing foot soldiers could indeed be picked off almost at will by victorious and pursuing cavalry. Cromwell talks of them being ‘as stubble to our swords’ and of how royalist infantry regiments were routed by the parliamentarian cavalry; other contemporaries noted much the same thing, Watson writing of how fleeing royalists were pursued all the way to York, the parliamentarians ‘cutting them down so that their dead bodies lay three miles in length’.8

Overall, then, Cromwell’s military narrative of the battle found in this letter is largely accurate from his completely victorious and all-conquering perspective, but it gives an overly compressed and one-sided account of the battle – quite literally one-sided, as it makes no reference to the mauling of the right wing of the parliamentarian horse or the disruption to the centre-right of the parliamentarian foot, which for a time meant that the outcome of the battle appeared uncertain and in the balance and which led Cholmley to write that had the successful royalist cavalry commander on that wing kept his victorious horse in good order and on the battlefield ‘as did Cromwell’s, and not dispersed themselves in pursuit, in all probability it had come to a drawn battle at worse’.9

On the other hand, Cromwell is perfectly accurate in describing the overall outcome of the battle as a complete parliamentarian victory and in suggesting that it was the biggest and most decisive victory achieved since the civil war had begun. By July 1644 parliamentarian forces had secured the upper hand in several field engagements – for example, during the latter half of 1643 Cromwell himself had won or participated in victories at Gainsborough and Winceby in Lincolnshire, during early autumn 1643 a parliamentarian army dispatched from London had first relieved the besieged town of Gloucester and then inflicted such losses on the king’s army which tried to block its route at Newbury in Berkshire that the royalists had fallen back, while in spring 1644 a southern parliamentarian army had mauled a royalist army at Cheriton in Hampshire, compelling it to fall back under cover of darkness. But Marston Moor was parliament’s first clear and decisive victory in a major battle during the civil war – with 46,000 men involved, it was by some way the biggest battle of the main civil war of 1642-46 – and, even though Cromwell could not be certain of this when he wrote to Walton on 5 July, its consequences were equally dramatic and decisive. In the wake of defeat at Marston Moor, the royalist cause in northern England collapsed. Several northern royalist commanders quit the war and went into self-imposed exile, many northern royalist troops either laid down their arms and went home or abandoned the north, moved south and fought for the king in the Midlands and southern England, the royalists’ northern capital of York – whose close siege by a combined English and Scottish parliamentarian army during spring 1644 had led to the intervention of Rupert and his army in its support and so precipitated the battle of Marston Moor – was compelled to surrender later in the summer and by autumn 1644 the royalists retained only a small number of now isolated and largely impotent towns, castles and other bases in northern England.

As he did so often in his letters relaying news of and relating parliamentarian military successes, here Cromwell ascribes victory not to his own military skills, to the huge parliamentarian numerical advantage, to royalist shortcomings or to any other mortal, secular factors. Instead, he sees it as a gift from God, to whom all the glory belongs. Here, as so often, this in turn confirms to Cromwell that he and his men were doing God’s will, fighting for a godly cause, and that the military victory was a sure sign of God’s support for the cause and for the godly party. He writes that the victory at Marston Moor was given by God and through His divine blessing upon the godly party ‘principally’. This comment might be linked to what Cromwell says a couple of sentences further on, where he notes that his own victorious left wing of cavalry comprised ‘our owne horse’ – almost certainly referring to the cavalry of the Eastern Association – except for ‘a few Scotts in our rear’. Is Cromwell’s comment that the victory came about because of ‘the Lord’s blessinge upon the godly partye principally’ to be read alongside this description of the composition of Cromwell’s victorious cavalry wing, implying that the bulk of the cavalry there – good, godly Englishmen from East Anglia and the East Midlands and fellow-members of the regional army of which Cromwell was second-in-command and cavalry commander – were godly, but implicitly or explicitly excluding from that description the small number of Scottish horse stationed in the rear line on the parliamentarian left wing? The wording and structure of this part of Cromwell’s letter are ambiguous and this does not necessarily follow, but it is one possible reading of Cromwell’s comments here. Certainly, several military historians and biographers of Cromwell have suggested that in this letter Cromwell appears significantly to underplay the contribution of Scottish troops in general and of the Scottish cavalry forming part of the parliamentarian left wing in particular to the overall course and successful outcome of the battle.

In reality, troops from the Scottish Covenanter army, which had entered England at the beginning of 1644 in alliance with and in support of the English parliamentarians, made a significant contribution to the army which opposed Rupert at Marston Moor. Scottish troops comprised well over half the infantry stationed in the centre of the parliamentarian line and, taking the two wings together, up to a quarter of the cavalry arrayed on both wings, with three regiments stationed on each wing. The left cavalry wing, commanded by Cromwell, comprised three main lines of horse, the third and rearmost of which was made up of three Scottish horse regiments under the Scottish general David Leslie. On the extreme left of his front line Cromwell also had a regiment of Scottish dragoons. The total number of men deployed on the left wing of the parliamentarian army, including cavalry, dragoons and small units of infantry also placed there, was probably somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000. Of this, Scottish troops made up around 1,500 men. Thus at least a quarter – and probably rather more than that – of the troops which Cromwell commanded on the left wing of the parliamentarian line were Scots. Moreover, Cromwell’s third and rearmost line of horse, which acted as a reserve, probably played little part in the initial attack which broke the opposing royalist cavalry. Thus part or all of these three cavalry regiments, all of them Scots, were in place, intact and in good order at this stage of the contest and, despite Cromwell’s rather dismissive phrase in this letter, they probably played a very significant role in the second phase of the battle, in which Cromwell employed his horse to attack and overwhelm the royalist foot in the centre of the battlefield and such royalist horse as were still present on the other side of the battlefield, thus turning the tide of the fight in the centre and on the right and securing such a resounding parliamentarian victory. Other English participants and eye-witnesses who wrote contemporary accounts of the battle were often rather fuller and more generous in acknowledging the Scottish contribution. Thus Watson praised the leadership and dynamism of Cromwell and his mainly Eastern Association horse and foot, but was also careful to note the contribution of ‘those Scots which charged in with them, commanded by Major Generall Lesley, who carried himselfe very bravely’.10

Cromwell’s rather brief, even slighting, reference in this letter to the Scots and to the contribution of Scottish troops to the military victory probably had deep roots. In summer 1643 the English parliament had reached a deal with the Scottish Covenanters, called the Solemn League and Covenant, whereby a Scottish army would enter England and fight for and in alliance with the English parliamentarians and against the royalist forces. But in return, the English parliament had appeared to agree to the main Scottish demand, namely that if and when the civil war was won, parliament would impose Scottish-style Presbyterianism in and throughout England and Wales. Cromwell was by no means the only MP and senior officer to have strong reservations about this aspect of the deal. By 1643-44 he and others had come to see the breakdown of the old Church of England and the fragmentation of Protestantism in England and Wales into a number of Protestant faiths, groups and sects as a gift from God and as an unexpected but cherished consequence of the civil war. Believing that there was an element of God’s truth in all the new Protestant religious groups, several of which had gained strong support within the English parliamentarian armies, and that God was working through each of them, Cromwell and others came to welcome and strongly to support this religious diversity and, under the banner of ‘liberty of conscience’, to see the continuation of the current religious freedom as essential and godly and a key element of any post-war settlement in England and Wales.

Cromwell did not oppose Presbyterianism as such – it was, after all, a perfectly respectable and, by the time of the civil war, quite long-standing form of Protestantism, present in Scotland and elsewhere – and when he was based in Scotland in 1650-51 he went out of his way to stress his acceptance of Presbyterianism as a legitimate form of Protestantism. But in the wake of parliament agreeing the Solemn League and Covenant and apparently signing up to the Scottish terms, Cromwell (and others) became increasingly concerned about and opposed to any religious settlement which would compel people in England and Wales to adhere to Presbyterian forms or would enforce Presbyterianism as the only legitimate religion there. It is possible that Cromwell’s encounters with fervently Presbyterian Scottish officers during the combined Anglo-Scottish siege of York of spring 1644 and his greater awareness of how some Scots wished to see the full terms of the Covenant strictly enforced, compelling those of other Protestant faiths and beliefs to conform to their views and their projected religious settlement, had by July 1644 sharpened Cromwell’s opposition to the Scottish alliance and thus his reservations about the contribution of the Scots. This may have led Cromwell to draw a distinction between the godly party – his own English Eastern Association troops – on the one hand and the Scots present at Marston Moor on the other, if that interpretation of Cromwell’s words is correct. It is almost certainly why in this letter he makes such a brief and slight comment about the contribution of Scottish troops to the military victory, under-playing their role in the battle.

Having given some account of the battle and victory, at that point in his letter Cromwell returns to his main subject, rather abruptly breaking the news of the death in action of his own nephew, the recipient’s son, Valentine Walton junior. Walton was captain and thus commander of a troop within Cromwell’s own cavalry regiment, which played a prominent part in the developments on Marston Moor during 2 July and was in the heat of the action during the evening battle. At some point in the course of action on the moor during 2 July, Walton was badly injured by being struck by a cannon ball, Cromwell recounts, which shattered one of his legs, as well as killing his own horse and three other horses. The precise point and time at which this occurred are not entirely clear. Most historians suggest that it occurred during the evening of 2 July, in the opening phase of the main battle, when Cromwell’s regiment, including Captain Walton, was at the heart of the major cavalry charge which quickly broke the opposing royalist cavalry wing. Walton was hit and felled as the parliamentarian cavalry rode forwards, perhaps, but lived long enough to see the royalist cavalry break and flee in this first stage of the battle proper. But would Cromwell as overall commander of the left wing of the parliamentarian army and – as we learn later in this letter – another regimental commander, too, really have had time to stop and to attend and talk to the injured Walton as he lay dying amidst the opening phase of a major and fast-moving battle? Some historians, including Alan Marshall and, in some of his work, P.R. Newman, have suggested that the event could have taken place much earlier in the day, well before the main battle, in the course of cavalry skirmishing on and around the moor during the morning and early afternoon of 2 July.11 Placing Walton’s fatal injury well before the main battle and in the midst of limited and intermittent early skirmishing certainly makes it easier to explain the attendance of Cromwell and another colonel. But Cromwell’s letter seems to suggest that Walton was hit and fatally injured in the course of a major and decisive cavalry action, and clearly also while artillery was firing, and this seems more consistent with the first phase of the battle proper rather than preliminary and quite minor maneuvering and skirmishing earlier in the day.12 Perhaps, however, Cromwell deliberately conflated events in his letter to make it appear to the recipient that his son had been killed in the main battle, and thus had played at least some part in the great, decisive, God-given victory, rather than losing his life in mere preliminary skirmishing.

Clearly, Walton’s injury was not immediately fatal and the letter gives the impression that Walton remained alive, conscious, talking and lucid, through grievously injured, prostrate and immobilised, for a while. He was attended by surgeons, who concluded that the only way to save him was to attempt the amputation of the damaged limb, though in fact this brought about his death. We know about this process from several contemporary medical accounts, particularly that of Richard Wiseman, a surgeon who was active, principally on the royalist side, for much of the war, who went on to have a distinguished medical career and who left a detailed published account of his practices.13 Although simple fractures to arms and legs could be set and stand a good chance of healing, civil war surgeons were aware that shattered limbs would not heal cleanly and would almost certainly lead to death, through infection or gangrene, even if the initial blood loss had been brought under control and stopped, and the only real option in such cases available at the time was amputation. Wiseman and others noted that, if amputation was required, it should be attempted as quickly as possible after the wound had been sustained, preferably immediately. The intervention needed to take place above the damaged part of the limb, where, having attempted to restrict the flow of blood to the limb, the flesh and underlying tissue would be cut round and pulled back to reveal the underlying bone but leaving a flap of flesh, the bone itself quickly sawn through, and then the flesh pulled back over the end of the newly-cut bone and stitched and tied using the flap, and the wound compressed and bandaged in the hope that the stump would heal cleanly. But a mixture of shock and blood loss could cause the patient’s death during or immediately after the operation, as appears to have been the case with Walton; even if the operation itself seemed to go well, infection could then set in and lead to a subsequent and slower death.

We have no idea where Walton’s remains were then buried and no tomb or marked grave appears to survive. Given his status and the known whereabouts of his body at the end of the operation, it is likely that the corpse would have been given a decent burial in a nearby church or churchyard or possibly even returned to his family for burial in Huntingdonshire.14 It thus probably escaped the fate of so many of those who perished on the moor, buried in unmarked mass graves on and around the battlefield.

In the final, lengthy section of his letter (usually reproduced as a separate paragraph in modern transcripts), Cromwell attempts to console his brother-in-law for his loss. He does so in several ways. Firstly, he begins by noting that he had gone through a similar experience – ‘you know my tryalls this way’ – and had himself sought and received divine consolation. Here Cromwell is referring to the death of one of his own children. By summer 1644 Cromwell had lost three children, a son James who died shortly after his birth in January 1632, his eldest son Robert who died of natural causes in the later 1630s while in his teens and, most recently, most relevantly and probably the bereavement which he had in mind when he wrote this letter, his second but by that stage oldest surviving son Oliver, who had also taken up arms for parliament but had died a few months before, earlier in 1644, probably of natural causes, while serving as a captain in the parliamentarian garrison of Newport Pagnell, aged twenty-one. Oliver Cromwell junior and Valentine Walton junior were not only cousins but also near contemporaries, both born in 1623-24, both dying, as the second but by then eldest surviving sons and namesakes of their fathers, while fighting for parliament in 1644.

Secondly, Cromwell related to his father what young Walton said and his overall attitude and frame of mind as he lay mortally injured. Despite his wound, he apparently had time to talk to Cromwell and to Cromwell’s colleague Francis (Frank) Russell, a Cambridgeshire parliamentarian and colonel and commander of an Eastern Association foot regiment which fought at Marston Moor, whose alliance with the Cromwells grew closer in the 1650s when his daughter Elizabeth married Oliver Cromwell’s son Henry in May 1653. The dying man was apparently full of (spiritual) comfort, greatly exceeding and implicitly allaying his physical pain, so much so that Walton had found it hard to put into words how he felt. His only regret, he told Cromwell and Russell, was that he would no longer be able to do God’s work through killing the Lord’s enemies. Before Cromwell got to him and had this conversation, he had heard that Walton had called to his colleagues to open up a little left and right, so creating a small gap in the line of parliamentarian cavalry through which he could see their royalist opponents fleeing.

Thirdly, Cromwell told Walton how his son had been a gallant and gracious figure, loved by his military colleagues who knew him, though adding that few knew him well, for he was a ‘precious’ young man. ‘Precious’ is being used here in the early modern sense, to denote someone of particular and unusual spiritual and moral worth, who was distinct from and often stood apart from the unregenerate masses.

Fourthly, Cromwell assured Walton that in the light of all this, his son had certainly been saved by the Lord and had attained at his death eternal salvation, stressing that all his possible sorrows and sinfulness were at an end, and that he had now been translated to everlasting glory and was with and had joined the ranks of the saints in heaven. Although the reference to the saints in this context might suggest that Cromwell was of a particularly fervent or godly mind-set, a strong belief that the newly-dead had been saved and translated to heaven, and an attempt to console newly-bereaved loved ones by stressing that, was a common-place of early modern death. It is seen in other letters of the civil war relating to the war dead. For example, in autumn 1643 the mildly parliamentarian Earl of Leicester wrote to console his daughter, the wife, now widow, of the royalist Earl of Sunderland, who had just been killed as a result of being struck by a cannon ball at the first battle of Newbury. The writer speaks of Sunderland having been ‘raised to a degree of happiness far beyond any that he did or could enjoy upon earth’ and of him being able to look down from heaven and see his widow grieving too much and making herself ill – ‘imagine that he sees how you afflict and hurt yourself; you will then believe that though he look upon it without any perturbation, for that cannot be admitted by that blessed condition wherein he is, yet he may censure you and think you forgetful of the friendship that was between you if you pursue not his desires in being careful of yourself who was so dear to him’.15

Fifthly and lastly, Cromwell urges Walton to be comforted by God’s grace and the strength which God can bestow, by the knowledge that his son had received the Lord’s salvation and had achieved a state of eternal and unblemished happiness in heaven and also by the firm knowledge that his son had perished in the Lord’s cause. He assures Walton of his sincerity in all of this and expresses his expectation that thoughts of the great, godly victory at Marston Moor accorded to the true members of Lord’s church and His followers – by which he means the congregation of the godly and certainly not all Christians or all Protestants, nor all those adhering to (what was left of) the Church of England – should counter-balance and even make him forget his personal sorrows at the loss of his son.

Along with the exchange between Sir William Waller and Sir Ralph Hopton before the battle of Lansdown the previous year, Cromwell’s letter to Walton after Marston Moor is probably the most famous and most quoted letter of the civil war. While sometimes noting and exploring Cromwell’s slighting reference to the Scots and also occasionally finding some of the language a little blunt, most historians have judged it to be a moving expression of Cromwell’s devout faith and compassion. C.H. Firth thought the letter revealed ‘in its tenderness and sympathy, its enthusiasm and its devotion to the cause, the depths of Cromwell’s nature and the secret of his power over his comrades in arms’.16 John Buchan commented that ‘a letter of consolation, written in the high emotion of victory, is not a reasoned appreciation of a battle; but was Oliver’s view not in substance right?’17 In his outstanding study of the battle, Peter Young quoted the letter and felt that ‘the brusque, inept language masked a warm and kindly nature’.18 More recently, Peter Gaunt has called the letter ‘a masterpiece and one of the most moving letters he wrote’,19 while Frank Kitson, again quoting the letter at length, felt that ‘it shows Cromwell at his best and most compassionate’.20

However, not all historians have interpreted the letter so positively and recently it has been used to construct some rather more critical, even harsh portraits of Cromwell. In a study of Cromwell published in 2001, J.C. Davis offered an unusually long and pointed analysis of the thrust of the letter. Noting how it is ‘often read as a model of sympathetic, sentimental condolence’, Davis questions and largely rejects that interpretation. Instead, Davis suggests that it reveals ‘the tough and unsentimental attitude of the godly towards death and, in particular, the death of the enemies of God and His cause’, while also stressing how the godly should not display ‘uncontrolled grief’ as ‘excessive sorrow would show lack of faith in the Lord’ – hence Cromwell’s quite stern admonition to Walton senior. Davis portrays both Cromwell and the dying Walton as men ‘who relish the slaughter of their enemies’ and he sees a ‘chilling’ attitude to ‘butchery’ within Cromwell’s words and phrases. The letter shows Cromwell as a ‘godly warrior…at his least sentimental’, Davis argues, as well as providing an excellent example of communication between a godly network, membership of which was crucial to the shaping and career of Cromwell. Although Cromwell reminds his brother-in-law of their bonds of kinship and also of his own personal experience of losing a son, the keynote of the letter, Davis suggests, is its stress upon a shared belief in a providential God and a godly cause, building upon Cromwell’s and Walton’s ‘mutual understanding of values and beliefs in respect to death, grief and the providential determination of events by God’.21

Following on from Davis’s interpretation and picking up several of his points, in 2004 Ronald Hutton offered – within a wider study of aspects of Stuart history – a sharp and quite critical review of Cromwell and of historians’ approaches to him, questioning why current historiography appears so kind and so positive in assessing the man, his character and his achievements.22 Hutton finds ‘striking’ the uniformly positive conclusions of recent studies of Cromwell – ‘all have essentially endorsed and repeated the verdict passed by [the late Victorian historian S.R.] Gardiner: that Cromwell was a great and admirable individual who dominated and determined the politics of his age and [however] was ultimately a political failure’ in his lasting achievements and legacy, not ‘because there was anything inherently wrong in what he desired’ but rather because ‘the bulk of his compatriots were not yet ready to recognise its worth’.23 In the bulk of his chapter and focussing on Cromwell’s – in Hutton’s view, generally manipulative – words and on some of his actions, Hutton goes on to challenge this positive historical consensus in a number of ways and on a number of grounds, two of which are directly relevant to this discussion.

Firstly, Hutton reassesses Cromwell’s letter to Walton, quoting it more or less in full and then summarising the views normally expressed about it by historians, including its apparent ‘fervent piety’, its role as ‘a supreme illustration of the humanity of the author’ and the way in which it is usually interpreted as successfully extending consolation to the bereaved father – ‘given the cultural values and expectations within which Cromwell and his friend operated, and the perennial human needs of bereavement, Oliver could hardly have done better’, Hutton concludes of the typical reading. However, he goes on to explore how ‘from a different point of view, it is an appalling piece of writing, vividly illustrating the dehumanising effects of war’. Hutton highlights how Cromwell is glorying in killing fellow Englishmen, dismissing them as inanimate ‘stubble’, as ‘rogues’ and as the enemies of God; how he conveys the dying young man’s one regret being his inability to kill more of them; how he seems to revel in the civil war and the slaughter it entails and sees it all as directed by God; and how he portrays the battle of Marston Moor as a victory achieved by his own, quite narrow godly clique, thus excluding other Englishmen as well as the Scots from that righteous group. Hutton concludes that the letter could still be read as a good expression of consolation, but one ‘straitjacketed with a narrow sectarian mentality’. Given these two, starkly different readings of the letter and equally starkly different interpretations of Cromwell drawn from it, Hutton argues that we need to look harder and more critically at why recent historians have overwhelmingly chosen to follow the positive and pro-Cromwell line and that Cromwellian historians should be willing to adopt a more critical approach.24

Secondly and more broadly, Hutton challenges the whole approach to studying and understanding Cromwell generally taken by historians and biographers, by privileging and relying so heavily upon Cromwell’s surviving words, expressed in the main in personal letters surviving from the late 1630s to the early 1650s and in the texts of a string of speeches he gave during the last ten years or so of his life. His letters and speeches have been not only the starting point for modern biographies and other studies but also, Hutton disapprovingly suggests, more or less ‘the finishing point as well’. Picking up on a phrase used by John Morrill, Hutton asks whether it is ‘quite proper’ for historians in constructing their portraits of Cromwell to rely so much on his own letters and speeches and for a historical figure to be allowed to speak for himself in academic historical analyses. An investigation drawing so heavily on extant letters and speeches will certainly show how Cromwell wanted people to think of him and the image he sought to project, Hutton argues, pointing to work by Morrill and by Blair Worden as providing revealing studies of Cromwell’s words and showing more clearly what he meant and how he sought to manipulate his audience through his use of language. However, citing work by Sean Kelsey which offers a ‘startlingly and refreshingly hostile’ interpretation of the senior army officers, including Cromwell, during the period of the Rump parliament, Hutton argues that studies of Cromwell relying far less upon his own letters and speeches and far more upon non-Cromwellian sources, not least the views of other contemporaries, will provide new, more balanced and historically stronger perspectives, diverging from the positive historical consensus which has tended to dominate the field.25

Neither Davis’s sharper interpretation of Cromwell’s Marston Moor letter nor the broader challenge laid down by Hutton seems thus far greatly to have affected Cromwellian studies. In new full-length biographies written by Martyn Bennett and Ian Gentles, as well as in two new collections edited by Patrick Little, all of which have appeared since Davis and Hutton published their work, positive assessments of Cromwell have continued to prevail. More importantly, Hutton’s 2004 challenge to the whole approach of studying Cromwell largely through his own words seems to have provoked very little direct or indirect response. For example, Bennett’s very solid, clear and sensible 2006 biography continues to make extensive use of the surviving letters and speeches and, as the endnotes reveal, some sections or chapters predominantly rest upon such source material, while a major new multi-volume edition of Cromwell’s letters, writings, speeches and other utterances is being prepared by a team of distinguished Cromwellian scholars, is now nearing completion and should be published within the next few years.26

1 Modern transcripts may be found in Thomas Carlyle, revised S.C. Lomas, Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (3 vols, London, 1904), I, 176-77 and W.C. Abbott, The Writings and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell (4 vols, Cambridge, Mass., 1937-47), I, 287-88. A good and clear photograph of the original, which is now held at Chequers, appears in Antonia Fraser, Cromwell, Our Chief of Men (London, 1973), opposite p. 284.

2 Although only one other letter from Cromwell to Walton appears now to survive, Walton seems to have received and retained quite a number of letters from his brother-in-law, as after the civil war he reportedly wrote a biographical account of Cromwell drawing upon and containing (presumably transcripts of) many of Cromwell’s letters, but it was never published and Walton’s manuscript was lost sometime during the eighteenth century and no longer survives – see C.H. Firth and Sean Kelsey, ‘Walton, Valentine (1593/4-1661)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

3 Ibid.

4 For good accounts of the battled, see Austen Woolrych, Battles of the English Civil War (London, 1961), chapter 3; L.P. Wenham, The Siege of York and the Battle of Marston Moor, 1644 (Skipton, 1969); P.R. Newman, The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644 (Chichester, 1981); Peter Young, Marston Moor 1644: The Campaign and the Battle (Moreton-in-Marsh, 1997); John Barratt, The Battle for York: Marston Moor, 1644 (Stroud, 2002); John Tincey, Marston Moor, 1644: The Beginning of the End (Oxford, 2003); P.R. Roberts and P.R. Newman, Marston Moor: The Battle of Five Armies (Pickering, 2003); Malcom Wanklyn, Decisive Battles of the English Civil War (Barnsley, 2006), chapters 10-11; I. Roy and J. MacAdam, ‘Why did Prince Rupert fight at Marston Moor?’, Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, 86 (2008).

5 Jack Binns, The Memoirs and Memorials of Sir Hugh Cholmley of Whitby (Woodbridge, 2000), p. 137.
6 L. Watson, A More Exact Relation of the Late Battle Near York (1644), p. 6.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid., p.7
9 Binns, Memoirs and Memorials of Sir Hugh Cholmley, p. 137.
10 Watson, A More Exact Relation, p. 7.
11 Alan Marshall, Oliver Cromwell, Soldier (London, 2004), p. 108, drawing on Newman and Roberts, Marston Moor, 1644: The Battle of Five Armies.
12 In another of his works on Marston Moor, P.R. Newman also felt that the event took place in the first phase of the battle proper, during the evening of 2 July, but linked it to another event to which some though by no means all contemporary accounts allude – that at some point in the battle Cromwell received a slight wound to his neck and very briefly attended a surgical post to have it dressed, before resuming the fight. Newman speculates that it was at this stage that Cromwell encountered Walton, having his much more serious wound examined and attended to by surgeons – see Newman, The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644, pp. 83, 86. But again, this does not seem to be entirely consistent with the version and sequence of events which Cromwell conveys in his letter.
13 R. Wiseman, Eight surgical treatises (London, 1696).
14 Though there does survive within the church at Great Staunton in Huntingdonshire an elaborate early seventeenth-century monument to George Walton (Waulton), at whose death Valentine Walton senior inherited what became his principal estate there.
15 A. Collins, Letters and Memorials of State in the Reigns of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, King James, King Charles the First and Part of the Reign of King Charles the Second (2 vols, London, 1746), II, pp. 671-73.
16 C.H. Firth, Oliver Cromwell and the Rule of the Puritans in England (London, 1901), p. 110.
17 John Buchan, Oliver Cromwell (London, 1934), p. 192.
18 Young, Marston Moor, p. 128
19 Peter Gaunt, Oliver Cromwell (Oxford, 1996), p. 53.
20 Frank Kitson, Old Ironsides: A Military Biography of Oliver Cromwell (London, 2004), p. 92.
21 J.C. Davis, Oliver Cromwell (London, 2001), p. 84.
22 Ronald Hutton, Debates in Stuart History (Basingstoke, 2004), chapter 4.
23 Ibid., pp. 95-6.
24 Ibid., pp. 99-101.
25 Ibid., pp. 97-99.
26 Martyn Bennett, Oliver Cromwell (London, 2006); Ian Gentles, Oliver Cromwell: God’s Warrior and the English Revolution (Basingstoke, 2011), Patrick Little (ed.), The Cromwellian Protectorate (Woodbridge, 2007); Patrick Little (ed.), Oliver Cromwell: New Perspectives (Basingstoke, 2009).