General George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle
1608 to 1670
George Monck was born near Torrington in Devon. His military career began at the age of sixteen when, having thrashed the sheriff who’d arrested his father for debt, he was packed off on the ill-fated expedition to Cadiz. In the years that followed, he fought at La Rochelle and the Low Countries – distinguishing himself at the siege of Breda in 1637. He fought for Charles l in the Bishops’ Wars, commanded a regiment of Foot against the rebels in Ireland and would have continued serving the King throughout the first Civil War had he not had the misfortune to be captured at the battle of Nantwich in January 1643 – with the result that he spent the remainder of that conflict in the Tower. Had he agreed to turn his coat, he would have been released in an instant but he refused to do so and insisted on remaining loyal to the King. Instead, he passed the time writing a book – Observations upon Military and Political Affairs – and having an affair with his laundress, Nan Ratsford.
When the King’s cause was irretrievably lost, Monck finally agreed to fight for the Parliament and spent two years serving as Major-General of Ulster and a further two creating order in Scotland. Then, in 1652 with the advent of the first Dutch War, he went to sea as an Admiral. Not surprisingly, he didn’t have much of a grasp of nautical language and, according to his sailors, was more likely to shout ‘Wheel right!’ than ‘Hard to starboard!’ Yet he proved a successful naval commander and it was he who won the decisive battle which ended the war in 1654.
At around this time, Nan Ratsford was widowed and Monck married her – a happy and surprising ending to a long-standing love-affair. Monck’s next posting was as Governor of Scotland where he ruled with moderation and was as popular as a man in that position was ever likely to be. It was this part of his career which was to prove immensely important for, during it, he built up great authority in Scotland – along with his army and a full treasury. All these placed him in a key position in the crisis which built up after the death of Cromwell in September 1658. For six months, George Monck became a prominent and powerful figure in English politics and the use he made of this power changed the course of history.
He supported Richard Cromwell’s brief term in office and gave no support to the Royalist intrigues of 1659. But when Lambert and Fleetwood expelled the Rump in October, Monck was moved to act and lead his army south. By the time he crossed the Tweed on New Year’s Day in 1660, the Rump had been recalled but Monck marched on, arriving in London on February 3rd. The chaos within government was such that he became convinced that only the return of Charles ll could prevent anarchy. The advice, sent orally rather than on paper, to the king-in-exile formed the basis of the Restoration settlement. Fresh elections brought a strong Royalist majority, causing Monck to reveal his approval of the return of the monarchy. And appropriately enough, it was he who greeted Charles ll on the beach at Dover in May, 1660 and, in effect, handed his kingdom back to him.
Although George – now created Duke of Albemarle – served Charles for ten more years, the most momentous moment of his career was over. He had restored the monarchy without spilling a single drop of blood but, modest and old-fashioned, he was out of place at the Restoration court – though still respected in military matters. He dealt with the disbandment of Cromwell’s army and went to sea once more, less successfully than before, during the second Dutch War of 1664-67. He died in 1670 and was buried with much ceremony in Westminster Abbey.
The restored monarchy didn’t have the money to build a monument to General Monck and historians have tended to neglect him. But it was he, believing that soldiers should be a tool in the hands of civil authority rather than weapons in those of ambitious generals, who put an end to military rule in England. He said, ‘I am engaged in conscience and honour to see my country freed from that intolerable slavery of a sword government …’ If he truly believed this – and it seems that he did – I can’t help but wonder what he thought Cromwell had been doing from 1653 onwards and why, despite that, he continued to support him. Loyalty, perhaps?