Edward Montagu: man of conscience?

Edward Montagu, second earl of Manchester (1602-1671), is one of those historical figures who changed his political views as the events of his time unfolded.  To some, this may have smacked of inconsistent principles, but to others it would have suggested sensible pragmatism.

Montagu, son of a judge and government official, attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the alma mater of his near-contemporary Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Nevertheless, as a young man he was firmly in the royalist camp, being made a Knight of the Bath at Charles I’s coronation in 1626.  It was his second marriage to Anne Rich (d.1642), daughter of the earl or Warwick, which shifted him in a different political direction.  He became drawn into the orbit of a group of puritan peers dominated by the Rich family.  In time he fell out of favour with the royal court, becoming one of the king’s strongest puritan critics.  His danger moment came in January 1642, during the mounting crisis which preceded the civil war, when he was one of six members impeached by Charles I for high treason.  The charges were to be waived, but when war came to England in August 1642, he rallied to Parliament’s cause and saw action at Edgehill in October that year.

Upon his father’s death in November 1642, he became earl of Manchester, and his leadership skills were recognised in August 1643 when he was made major-general of the eastern associated counties, Oliver Cromwell’s stamping ground.  This brought him into close contact with Cromwell, and it seemed likely the two men could form a partnership to take the parliamentary army through to final victory.  Then came Marston Moor on 2 July 1644.  One of the largest battles ever fought on English soil, it proved to be an epiphany moment for the earl.  Revolted by the carnage he saw on the battlefield, his appetite for warfare evaporated.  He now urged Cromwell to negotiate with the king because, as he saw things, “if we fight [the king] 100 times and beat him 99 he will be king still, but if he beat us once, or the last time, we shall be hanged”.  To make matters worse, the eastern association coffers were now bare, so he could not even afford to pay his troops’ wages. 

Despite his pacific views, he stayed with the army, but had little stomach left for the fight.  At the second battle of Newbury on 28 October 1644, he performed so abysmally that he came under attack in Parliament.  He lingered on until April 1645, then resigned his commission.  In January 1649, he strongly opposed Charles I’s treason trial and execution, so not surprisingly was stripped of his remaining offices and banished from public life.

Like much of the nation, he welcomed Charles II’s return in 1660, and having shifted back to the royalist camp, was suitably rewarded.  He joined Charles’s Privy Council, became lord chamberlain of the household, and in April 1661 was installed as a Knight of the Garter.  He married five times between 1623 and 1671, not because of marital failures, but simply because his first four wives predeceased him.

Edward Montagu died of colic on 7 May 1671, and was buried in the parish church of his native village, Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire.  One contemporary described him as “a sweet meek man”.  In truth, he was a master of the art of political survival in a time of national turbulence.  And perhaps a man of conscience too.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

The Queen's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.