Restoring reputation of Yorkshire civil war hero who became ‘Cromwell’s understudy’

The Battle of Marston Moor is remembered to this day.
The Battle of Marston Moor is remembered to this day.
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Ahead of the anniversary of one of Britain’s bloodiest battles at Marston Moor, Greg Wright explains how it led Yorkshireman John Lambert’s rise to prominence as modern-day historians fight to restore the reputation of this one almost-forgotten figure of national history.

THE Parliamentary forces sang psalms in the Yorkshire cornfield as they prepared for God’s judgement in battle.

It was the evening of July 2, 1644. Two vast armies faced each other across Marston Moor with the fate of England, Scotland and Ireland hanging in the balance. Exasperated by Charles I’s arrogance and incompetence, thousands of the King’s subjects had taken up arms with his Parliamentarian foes, leading to a bloody struggle that had already torn apart families, villages and towns.

Among the forces lined up to oppose the King’s troops that day was a young man called John Lambert, a member of a minor gentry family from Calton near Malham. Lambert was connected by marriage to the powerful Fairfax family who had been enraged by the King’s high handed treatment of the Yorkshire gentry. Lambert had enlisted as a soldier on the side of Parliament and had proved to be a brave and inspirational leader, rapidly rising through the ranks. Now he faced the ultimate test.

Lambert, who was in command of a cavalry unit just behind the front line, must have known that many of his men would not survive the ferocious onslaught from the King’s side.

Despite having his horse shot beneath him, Lambert managed to find another horse and slipped through the enemy to join Oliver Cromwell, who was a rising star of the Parliamentarian cause.

Cromwell and Lambert were on the winning side that day, but victory came at a terrible cost. By midnight, the Royal army was destroyed and the victors rested on moorland that was littered with thousands of corpses.

Less than a decade later, Oliver Cromwell and John Lambert were to become the most powerful men in the first British republic, following the overthrow and execution of Charles I.

Historians have referred to the Yorkshireman as “Cromwell’s understudy”; a title that fails to honour Lambert’s independent mind. For a time, Lambert was seen as Cromwell’s natural successor and he remains one of the most powerful commoners in British history.

Yet today Cromwell is a household name while Lambert is almost forgotten outside academic circles. There is something shameful about this neglect because Lambert was a tolerant, principled, cultured and compassionate man who saved the country from chaos. His life story would make a Hollywood epic.

Born in 1619, Lambert is believed to have been educated at Cambridge. He trained as a lawyer and, after negotiations with the king failed, enlisted with Lord Fairfax’s Northern army and fought in some of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War.

In recent years, the diligent research of historians David Farr, Peter Hill and Jane Watkinson has shown that Lambert played a critical role in defending

the North during the second civil war (1648-49).

Lambert fought off Scottish invaders and the last traces of the Royalist cause, while showing mercy to his foes and protecting civilians. He was not one of the signatories to Charles I’s death warrant and, after the King was executed, Lambert continued to provide support to members of his extended family who were Royalists.

Cromwell’s allies are often unjustly dismissed as dour mediocrities, who lacked the wit or will to escape from the Lord Protector’s shadow. Lambert, however, was never scared to stand up to Cromwell and perhaps surprisingly for a military commander, loved gardening and art, a sign of his sophisticated tastes.

To quote Professor David J Breeze: “His story is made even more attractive because he was his own man, refusing to bend the knee to Cromwell when the Lord Protector required total obedience. He was also humane, refusing to undertake the harsh actions indulged in by Cromwell, which even today, cast a long shadow. John Lambert could well earn the sobriquet of being “a man for all seasons”.”

“His evident military genius and care for his troops saw him worshipped by them,” said Lambert’s biographer David Farr.

Dr Farr’s research indicates that Lambert made Cromwell Protector in 1653 and he also stopped him from becoming King in 1657. Cromwell’s protectorate was also based on Britain’s first written constitution – the Instrument of Government - which was produced by Lambert. It provided a template for order and religious toleration in a world turned upside down.

In 1658, Cromwell died and Lambert and his fellow officers were unable to prevent the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. But Lambert did not give up the fight.

Imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1660, he escaped by sliding down a rope and attempted to gather a force to make a last stand for the republic. However, he was soon recaptured, tried and imprisoned for life, dying in 1684 on Plymouth Island, an “old rebell” to the last.

So, as the 400th anniversary of his birth approaches, why should we remember John Lambert as one of Yorkshire’s greatest sons? Firstly, his life story shows that a man can rise above the most brutal conflicts to behave with wisdom and mercy. Lambert had witnessed the slaughter of thousands, including the death of his brother-in-law William Lister at the battle of Tadcaster. As the war dragged on, it brought out the worst instincts in lesser men.

But once the fighting stopped, Lambert was universally praised for his magnanimous treatment of the inhabitants of Royalist strongholds such as Oxford, where he served as governor. His dignity and strong sense of justice impressed all who met him.

To quote Dr Farr: “Charles II did not have Lambert executed due to the character, private actions and beliefs of a man who was much more than a military revolutionary.”

Secondly, Lambert displayed a religious tolerance that few of his contemporaries shared. He courageously defended his fellow Yorkshireman and Quaker James Naylor when he was charged with blasphemy, and academics have highlighted the “liberal” tone of the Instrument of Government.

Today, Oliver Cromwell is venerated as the dominant force in the British republic. The placing of Cromwell’s statue outside Parliament is surely the ultimate act of irony. Cromwell was no lover of Parliamentary democracy and was also responsible for an invasion of Ireland which led to the mass slaughters at Drogheda and Wexford.

No atrocities tarnish John Lambert’s name. The Yorkshire major general who believed in reconciliation and loved flowers still lacks a national memorial.

British history would have been very different if the “understudy” had taken centre stage.

Implications of king’s execution

Britain entered uncharted territory after the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

Killing an anointed king was regarded as a terrible act. The King’s opponents found themselves with no clear guide for governing a country that was still reeling from the civil wars.

It was the legally trained John Lambert who tried to bring some order to this chaos. Lambert’s Instrument of Government made Oliver Cromwell Protector and also attempted to protect the concept of liberty of conscience. Lambert said he did not want to “expose the people’s liberties to an arbitrary power”.

The instrument and all it represented was swept away when the monarchy was restored in 1660.