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August 24, 2006

The Development of the British Army: An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702 - Roger Manning

Posted by Jeremy Black

An Apprenticeship in Arms: The Origins of the British Army 1585-1702
by Roger Manning
Pp. 488. Oxford University Press, 2006
Hardback, 75

Though not as prominent as France or Spain, England was a significant military power in this period, not least in the 1590s, 1650s, 1690s and 1700s. The understandable focus in much recent literature on the development of the British navy risks distracting attention from this importance. In practice, land conflict played the crucial role in the creation of Britain in this period and was also important to the country's international profile.

Beginning with the Irish wars of Elizabeth I and closing with the Nine Years War of William III, Manning offers a scholarly account that relates military proficiency to changes in British foreign policy and developments in British society. In particular he focuses on the militarisation of aristocratic culture and society, and how this was linked to the purposes of government, a theme also examined, albeit in a different context, in Stuart Carroll's recent Blood and Violence in Early Modern France (Oxford University Press, 2006).

Acculturation to arms is a key theme and concept, as is professionalisation, which could be gained in domestic military service but was more commonly obtained through service in active Continental armies, especially those of Spain, Sweden and the United Provinces. This was particularly important as under James I and Charles I there was a failure to sustain military preparedness, in part for policy reasons under James, but for more complex political causes under Charles.

Furthermore, the campaigning of the 1620s against Spain and France was unsuccessful and offered soldiers far fewer opportunities than the contemporaneous Thirty Years' War. The latter is seen as providing crucial experience for the mid-century British civil wars, and this was particularly so for the Scottish army. This indeed helped account for its particular effectiveness, especially in the Bishops' Wars.

As so often in military history, the key advantage was provided by experience. Mid-century employment at home was then followed by a marked reduction in army size, and this ensured that there was a renewed diaspora in search of military opportunity, which, for example, took Scots into Russian and Swedish service.

This diaspora was accentuated by political factors, with Charles II under pressure to reward Cavalier loyalism, as opposed to more professional but less socially-exalted or politically consistent officership. Such a "tasking" in command and officership has a long pedigree, and military historians are apt to ignore it. In the case of seventeenth-century Britain, military effectiveness was thereby compromised, but the government's focus was on the navy.

Military training, in contrast, was, as before, much in evidence on the Continent, especially in the Dutch army, and this helped William III when he invaded England in 1688. He did so with a substantial force, clearly expecting conflict with James II's large army, but James' failure of nerve helped lead to the collapse of this force. In part, it was then melded with William's units, becoming the army that played a key role in bringing William control over Britain and then in ending the French run of success in the Spanish Netherlands.

After the war ended in 1697, there was a renewed danger that disbandment would lead to a decline in effectiveness, but the rapid resumption of large-scale conflict in the shape of the War of the Spanish Succession ended this threat. Instead, Britain was launched onto the pattern of pairs of wars in which the army was more effective in the second (1702-13, 1756-63, 1803-15) than in the first (1689-97, 1739-48, 1793-1802).

Manning is alive to the problems of maintaining effectiveness. His claim that the mid-seventeenth century wars introduced the theory and practice of the military revolution into the British Isles does not stand up against recent work on the Tudor period, but this is an impressive book that has much to offer both the political historian and the military specialist.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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