The Navy in Cromwell’s England
In 1653 England was a kingless republic. Charles I had been beheaded, on the orders of Parliament, four years earlier. His son had been declared King Charles II by the Scots, but Charles II’s Royalists were defeated by Parliamentary forces at the Battle of Worcester in September 1651. Charles II was forced to flee the country, leaving England without a monarch for the first – and only – time in its history. The Kingdom of England had been replaced by the Commonwealth of England.
In principle, the Commonwealth was governed by Parliament. But in practice, Parliament was increasingly dominated by one man – Oliver Cromwell. At the start of 1653, Cromwell was the de facto ruler of England. By the end of the year, as Lord Protector, he was its de jure ruler as well – and remained so until his death in 1658.
Oliver Cromwell first came to prominence as a general in the Parliamentary army. It was because of the military efficiency of this army – and its focused, disciplined commanders like Cromwell – that Parliament was able to secure victory over the Royalists in the Civil War. In the past, armies had been relatively amateurish affairs. Their leaders were foppish noblemen whose military rank was a reflection of their social rank, rather than their ability as commanders. Troops were little more than local militias, hastily formed and quickly disbanded. In contrast, the Parliamentary army – the New Model Army – was a permanent body of professional, well-trained, well-disciplined soldiers. Its generals understood strategy and tactics, they could give out orders, and they knew how to maintain discipline in the ranks.
When Cromwell came to power, he set about transforming the English Navy – no longer the Royal Navy – in the same way the Parliamentarians had transformed the Army. In previous generations, a fleet had been a collection of individual warships. Each ship was a self-contained fighting unit, whose captain had discretion and initiative to pursue the battle as he saw fit. On board ship, discipline was paramount, but between different ships of the same fleet discipline was almost non-existent. As a result, naval battles tended to degenerate into duels between pairs of opposing ships, rather than a fleet operating as a cohesive whole. Cromwell was determined to bring army-style tactics and professionalism to naval warfare.