Auctions | March 5, 2018

Cromwell Letter on First Victory in Battle Goes to Auction at Bonhams

CROMWELL (OLIVER) Autograph letter signed copy.jpgThe celebrated letter written 375 years ago by Oliver Cromwell in July 1643, after his first victorious encounter during the English Civil War at the Battle of Gainsborough, is to be offered for sale at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in London on Wednesday 21 March. It is estimated at £20,000-30,000.

Cromwell was a lively correspondent providing vivid, free-flowing pen sketches of the fighting.  From circumstantial evidence, the letter is presumed to have been written to his fellow MP, Sir John Wray and here Cromwell describes for him the moment he first encountered the enemy,” The great body of the enimie advanced, they were within Muskett Shott of us when wee came to the pitch of the Hill, wee advanced likewise towards them and both charged each upon other.” [The great body of the enemy advanced, they were within Musket Shot of us when we came to the pitch of the hill, we advanced likewise towards them and both charged upon each other]. 

After his comprehensive victory in this first skirmish, he tells Wray, “All their force beinge goun, not one man standinge, but all beaten out of the field, we drew up our body together, and kept the field” [All their force being gone, not one man standing, but all beaten out of field, we drew up our body together and kept the field.”]

Elsewhere, Cromwell shows the qualities of leadership and vision for which he became renowned, exhorting Wray to see this success as a sign of God’s favour, to raise a troop of his own and strike while the iron is hot -  “A reasonable strength now raised speedilie, may doe that which much more will not doe after some time.” [A reasonable strength now raised speedily, may do that which much more will not do after some time.]

Bonhams Senior Books and Manuscripts valuer, Simon Roberts said, “This has long been recognised as an important letter, detailing Cromwell’s coming of age as a commander in battle. The experience he gained at Gainsborough made a direct contribution to his victories at the two pivotal battles of Marston Moor and Naseby, which fatally undermined the future effectiveness of the Royalist army, and set Charles I on the long road to the scaffold.”    

Like many Parliamentarians who opposed King Charles I, Cromwell had been preparing for war throughout 1642. With little previous military experience, he nevertheless succeeded in raising a cavalry troop in Cambridgeshire, and by the time the letter was written, Cromwell had begun to forge his troops into the fiercely disciplined Ironsides of legend.

It was at the Battle of Gainsborough in July 1643 that they were, for the first time, to prove their worth. During the encounter, the Parliamentarian cavalry charged successfully, managed to stage an orderly retreat under counter-attack from Royalist troops, and then charge again. This iron discipline under pressure, first seen at Gainsborough, was a key factor in Cromwell’s subsequent success as a military leader.

2018 marks the 360th anniversary of Cromwell’s death in 1658.

Sale: Fine Books and Manuscripts

Location: Bonhams Knightsbridge

Date: Wednesday 21 March at 10.00 am

Specialist: Matthew Haley: Head of Departement Fine Books and Manuscripts

Image: Letter written by Oliver Cromwell after the Battle of Gainsborough, 1643. Estimate £20,000-30,000