16 March 2015

Guest blog: The 17th Century Military Revolution on the Celtic Fringe (Charles Singleton, author)

Montrose’s Irish Brigade at the Battle of Aberdeen, 13 September 1644. Divisions of pike and musket deploy into firing lines to fight with the centre of the Covenanter Army at Aberdeen. Painting by Peter Dennis © Helion & Company Limited.

The significance of the role played by the Earl of Montrose (see previous interactive map) in upholding the Royalist cause in Scotland has been much discussed, though less has been written about the influence of the military tactics and technology Montrose was exposed to as a veteran of fighting in the Thirty Years War. Less still has been investigated about the impact of continental war-fighting techniques on Irish troops who fought aboard before returning to the domestic theatres of the 1640s and 50s.

In the guest article below, author Charles Singleton introduces both of these topics, explored in detail in his new book Famous by my Sword: The Army of Montrose and the Military Revolution, and suggests how they helped contribute to a 'Military Revolution' of the 17th century ...

The state made war and war made the state

The Early Modern period was a period of rapid development in military affairs. The phrase ‘Military Revolution’ has been coined to describe this period of change, due to the increasing use of black powder weapons, growing professionalism and the ever-spiralling costs and financial demands placed on armies and the execution of wars. This was an all embracing movement that affected almost all of Western Europe.

The contribution to military developments made during this period by the Scots is frequently overlooked. During the period in question, one of Scotland’s principal exports was men in the shape of mercenaries to fight in the European wars. In Scotland’s harsh economic environment, the lure of money, adventure and booty drew many to the colours. Many Scots were to achieve fame and high rank overseas; none more so than Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, who entered Swedish service in 1605. In 1636 he was promoted to Field Marshal.

Another was James Graham, Earl of Montrose. A commander surrounded by much myth and romance, Montrose was originally a supporter of the Covenant, but became alienated from the movement. In the summer of 1644 he was to be found in the Scottish Highlands leading a mixed Scots-Irish Royalist army against government forces. His military reputation soon passed into legend. He was seen to have a leadership style and charisma which rallied men to him. Thus, his troops, without pay and in poor conditions, were able to inflict a series of spectacular defeats on the Covenant troops sent against them. Martyrdom was to add to the legend when he was finally defeated, betrayed, and executed in Edinburgh on 21 May 1651.

Montrose was to have little formal military schooling or experience. Whilst on a tour of Europe in the early 1630s he enrolled at the French military academy at Angers. Initially siding with the cause of the Covenant, he first saw action fighting against the Scottish Royalist in the First Bishops War. He achieved victory at the Brig of Dee by using artillery to suppress the Royalist defenders. In the Scottish invasion of England at the start of the Second Bishop’s War, Montrose was granted the honour of taking the vanguard of the Covenanter army into England.

Map of the Battle of Kilsyth, 16 August 1645. Having detected the Royalist camp, Government forces under the command of William Baillie attempted a flank march trying to gain higher ground. Clashes soon broke out as the Covenanter army made their flank march, with the left wing of Baillie’s force, now the rear of the march column, attacking the Highlander infantry occupying cottages on Montrose’s left flank, and the cavalry on the Government right wing, now the vanguard, attacking the Royalist cavalry. Other Covenant and Royalist units joined the fray, acting without orders. Montrose seized the unexpected opportunity, and sent his cavalry and Highlanders against the now disrupted Covenant column. The mass of the Royalist infantry subsequently joined in the attack. Baillie’s army soon started to disintegrate; the veterans were able to make their way from the battlefield in some semblance of order, but the levies broke and ran. Map: George Anderson  ©  Helion and Company.

Whilst he wasn’t one of the many who saw extensive military experience in the European Wars, Montrose was able to bring together a disparate and volatile force of pro-Royalist factions and use each element to their best ability. He was also fortunate in not only the quality of many of his troops, but in the abilities of his subordinates. Principal amongst his officers was Alistair MacColla, son of a MacDonald clan chieftain. Appointed in 1644 to lead a brigade of Irish Confederates shipped to Scotland to fight on behalf of the King, he joined with Montrose at the end of August that year at Blair Athol. MacColla was to play a leading role in Montrose’s army and played an important role in many of the victories over the Covenant forces during 1644-45.

Like their Scottish and English counterparts, the Irish were to be found in the military camps of Europe. As the Thirty Years’ War drew on in Europe, the French in particular were to make extensive use of Irish troops. The French promoted Michael Wall of County Waterford, perhaps echoing David Leslie’s achievement in the Swedish army, to army commander in 1639.

The outbreak of the Irish rebellion was to see considerable numbers of Irish troops, experienced in the latest military practices, return to Ireland. The returning veterans, in addition to bringing military experience, also brought back the latest ideas on how to support armies. After the initial series of uncoordinated attacks, the Catholic rebels had to create administrative structures with which they could support not only their new armies, but also at the same time procure monies and equipment. A supreme council was established, along with an association, which was to resemble the English Parliament’s regionalised war efforts. The role of the supreme council was to appoint military commands, build up war materials and create taxes with which to support the war effort.

An Irish musketeer
An Irish musketeer. Illustration: Tony Barton. © Helion & Company Limited.

The Confederacy was also able to gain support from abroad. France, Spain and the Papacy were able to contribute significant sums of money to the Catholic cause. However, the bulk of finances would be gathered from home. Using methods that proved to be very similar to the ones used by the warring factions in England, the Confederates cast the net far and wide. Supporters were asked to contribute, whilst merchants provided loans (considered by many to be an essential part of military funding). In addition, a mint was established at Waterford. Traditional sources of revenue were used and others developed. Significant percentages of church tithes and freehold taxes were allocated to the support of the army. Excise duties were introduced and placed on liquor, tobacco and cattle.

With the establishment of a financial infrastructure, the Confederates were able to develop a home armaments industry. Apart from over running production centres, such as furnaces and forges at Kilmacoe in County Wexford, they were able to establish their own industrial plant, such as the iron works at Artully in County Kerry. To run the new plants and contribute their experience, foreign arms workers were sought out by the agents of the Confederacy to come to Ireland. Special efforts were made to attract foreign gunsmiths.

The modern nature of the Confederacy administration and war effort was also reflected in the equipping and organisation of its army. The ‘traditionalist’ school, led by writers such as James Hill, claims that the sword was the principal weapon of the Celts in the early modern period, and that the charge was central to their tactics. Closer examination, however, reveals a far greater degree of change and sophistication in military affairs. By the start of the seventeenth century, the swordsman, whether in Celtic or Western European society, was rapidly becoming an anachronism.

By the early seventeenth century the swordsman had almost disappeared from the European battlefield. Like the longbow, a skilled swordsman could not have been produced in a matter of weeks and, like the longbow, its demise was hastened by the relative ease by which soldiers could be trained to use either pike or musket. Those Irishmen that flocked to the colours of the Confederacy in 1641 would have been the veterans of pike and shot warfare in Flanders and Germany, or were to be trained by these veterans in these modern methods. Like those veterans returning to Scotland in 1638, many Irish troops were to bring arms and equipment in lieu of pay with them on their return. Owen Roe O’Neill, who returned in 1642, was not only to bring three hundred commissioned and non-commissioned officers, veterans of Spanish service, but also a considerable amount of equipment and monies.

The output of the home industrial base certainly reflects the manner of weaponry made. Immediately after its capture by the Confederates, the ironworks at Lissan were immediately turned over to the production of pike heads. Special emphasis was placed on the home production of musket barrels and locks. The home industry was to become so well established that, after the Cessation of 1643, English Royalists were to place orders with the Irish arms industry.

Export records are also able to build a profile of the equipment ordered by, and issued to, the Confederate armies. Early in the rebellion, contact was made with friendly foreign powers and merchants and, as a result, the import of foreign weapons was soon well established. Shipments began to arrive in January 1642 and, by the end of February, the Venetian ambassador was able to report the large scale of deliveries to Ireland from the continent. A sample delivery from Europe would be that made in October 1644 by Nicholas Everard and Jean de la Villette. Together they were to import: 4000 muskets, 1000 pairs of pistols, 1000 carbines, 20000 lbs of match and 600 barrels of gunpowder.

So lucrative was the export of goods to the Confederacy that France, Spain and the United Provinces all attempted to solicit the business of the Confederates’ agents and representatives.

About Famous by my sword: The Army of Montrose and the Military Revolution

A brilliant young poet, leading a gallant band whose epic adventure ends in defeat, betrayal and execution. He was a doomed King’s general who dared to win – and lost it all. The Scottish Royalist armed forces, along with its principal leader, the Marquis of Montrose, have had a romantic veneer that has long obscured their true composition and function.

In this work, the author examines the troops and their operational doctrines within the themes of the early modern military revolution, and places the Scots Royalist within a greater European context of development.

The cover Famous by My Sword depicting Montrose’s Irish Brigade at the Battle of Aberdeen, 13 September 1644, depicting divisions of pike and musket deploying into firing lines to fight with the centre of the Covenanter Army at Aberdeen. The principal part of the army was the Irish Brigade made up of three regiments of foot. These units together with those of Laghtnan, McDonnell and O’Cahan may have totalled 1500 men. Following skirmishing on the flanks of his army, Montrose ordered a general advance and following a prolonged firefight in the centre, the Covenanter forces gave way and collapsed into a rout. The Irish soldiers depicted here are in a mix of Western European and traditional Irish dress, including white trews. Some wear a parochial interpretation of the popular military hat, the Montero. For further notes, see the photo and caption on page 34 of the book. Painting by Peter Dennis © Helion & Company Limited.

About the author

Charles Singleton has spent the last thirty years engrossed in the age of Pike and Shot warfare and the British Civil Wars. He has taught and researched the period extensively and regularly visits the sites linked to the events of the 17th century. He has acts as a consultant on the period to media production companies, and has also worked with local BBC radio on programmes about the conflict. His first book Uncharitable Mischief, Barbarity and Excess in the British Civil Wars saw publication in 2013. Famous by my Sword, the army of Montrose and the Military Revolution, is his first book for Helion and Company. He is also the editor of the 2012 Oxford Companion to Military History, published by the Oxford University Press. Working as a museum and heritage professional, Charles is married and lives with his wife Helen and two Jack Russells on the edge of the Welsh Marches.

Introducing Helion and Company ‘Century of the Soldier’ series

"This is the century of the Soldier" - Falvio Testir, poet (1641)

The Helion and Co. ‘Century of the Soldier’ book series will cover the period of military history 1618-1721, the golden era of Pike and Shot warfare. This time frame has been seen by many historians as a period of not only great social change, but of fundamental developments within military matters. This is the period of the ‘military revolution’, the development of standing armies, the widespread introduction of black powder weapons and a greater professionalism within the culture of military personnel.

The new ‘Century of the Soldier’ series will examine the period is a greater degree of detail than has been attempted in similar formats. The series has a very wide brief and intends to cover all aspects of the period from the battles, campaigns, logistics and tactics, to the personalities, armies, uniforms and equipment. A couple of events are scheduled for 2015 in support of the publications, both to be held at Rowley’s House, Shrewsbury:

  • 16 May (11am - 4pm): Helion and Company ‘Century of the Soldier’ launch event
  • 19 September (11am-5pm): Helion’s First Conference of the English Civil War.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting that the Welsh seem to have made less of an impact than their Irish or Scottish cousins, or is that due to being lumped in with English mercenaries on the continent?