Self-denying Ordinance

Self-denying Ordinance

The first Self-denying Ordinance was a bill moved on December 9, 1644 to deprive members of the Parliament of England from holding command in the army or the navy during the English Civil War. It failed to pass the House of Lords. A second Self-denying Ordinance was agreed to on April 3, 1645, whereby all the persons concerned were to resign, but without prejudice to their reappointment. This ordinance was part of reforms aimed at Parliament forces, which resulted in Oliver Cromwell's more unified and efficient New Model Army.

Political motivation

At the outset of the English Civil War, Parliament gave command of its main armies to members of the aristocracy. This was in accordance with well-established practices of the day, and generalships were accorded to the Earls of Manchester and Essex among others. The Earl of Manchester, Edward Montagu, was given charge of the Eastern Association, where Cromwell served under him as a cavalry officer.

Parliament was soon hindered by dissension within this military leadership. These officers were not professional soldiers; their experience and skill at warfare varied. More significantly, a faction of them avoided engagements with the Cavalier forces, hoping that reconciliation with King Charles I was still possible. Lord Manchester, perhaps the most prominent of these, expressed his pessimism for the war as follows: "If we beat the king 99 times he is still king, and so will his posterity be after him; but if the king beat us once, we shall all be hanged, and our posterity be made slaves."

As the war proceeded, it was clear that Essex and Manchester were at best half-hearted in pursuing the fight against the royalists, an attitude that became ever more apparent as the struggle became more radical. The growing rift between the Lords and the Commons finally came to a point of crisis when the fruits of the great victory at the battle of Marston Moor were allowed to slip away at the disappointing second battle of Newbury. It was after this that the political tensions between Cromwell and Manchester could no longer be contained by the established forms of command.

Members of Parliament, notably Oliver Cromwell and Sir William Waller, saw the need for radical reform of the army. For Cromwell, this attack on Manchester's conduct ultimately became an attack on the Lords, most of whom held the same views as Manchester, and on the Scots, who attempted to bring Cromwell to trial as an "incendiary". At the height of this bitter controversy, Cromwell suddenly proposed to stifle all animosities by the resignation of all officers who were members of either House. This proposal, in theory, affected himself no less than the Earls of Essex and Manchester.

Terms of the Ordinance

The first “self-denying ordinance” was put before Parliament on December 9, 1644. It provided that “no member of either house shall have or execute any office or command...”, etc. in the armed forces. One of the exceptions was Oliver Cromwell. It passed the House of Commons on December 19, but was thrown out by the Lords on January 13, 1645. The Lords, naturally, were reluctant to approve an ordinance that would automatically exclude nobles from military command. It also " weeded " out the " half measures men such as Fairfax and Manchester.

A second version of the bill was prepared, which required resignations as above, but did not forbid re-appointment of the officers. This bill was agreed to on April 3, 1645. The text of the second Ordinance can be found [ here] .

Historic significance

The Self-denying Ordinance improved military unity by separating the quarrels in Parliament from the immediate operations of command. Leaders from the Presbyterian “peace party" faction in Parliament resigned their military positions to retain their political powers; Lords Manchester and Essex forfeited their generalships, as Lord Warwick did his command of the navy. Leadership of Parliament’s troops fell to Sir Thomas Fairfax, then a lieutenant general, who was among the few officers still eligible for the post.

In practical terms, the Ordinance solidified the power of Cromwell and his “war party” faction. Cromwell was a member of the House of Commons, so he was obligated to resign his post as well. However, the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which oversaw the war, found his talents as a soldier indispensable. His term in command was extended several times, in forty-day increments, until it was finally made permanent. While this appointment was officially as Fairfax’s lieutenant general, Cromwell wielded influence well beyond his rank.

More broadly, this reform helped usher in Cromwell’s New Model Army. This reorganized force, designed for unity and efficiency, incorporated several practices recognizable in modern armies. In addition to a professional officer corps promoted on merit, it replaced the sometimes balky local units with nationally controlled regiments, standardized training protocols, and ensured regular salary payments to the troops. This army soon turned the war in favor of Parliament, decisively beating the Royalist forces at the battle of Naseby on June 14, 1645.


* [ Summary from British Civil Wars Reference]
* [ Detailed Lesson from the Baldwin Project]
* [ History of the Great Civil War, 1642-1649, by S. R. Gardiner (1889)]
* [ Text of the Second Ordinance]

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