Image: Wencelas Hollar image: Earl of Essex, Wikimedia Commons

This week sees publication, by the Institute of Historical Research, of the Cromwell Association Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officersan online record of more than 4000 officers who fought for Parliament during the first Civil War of 1642-6. Dr Stephen K Roberts, the Directory’s general editor, explains its compilation and the challenges of piecing together the lives of an army in wartime.

In 1999 the Cromwell Association wished to commemorate in some substantial and lasting way the 400th anniversary of Oliver Cromwell’s birth. The Association is a registered charity and membership society seeking to promote study of the 17th century in Britain, not just Oliver Cromwell alone. Its members responded positively to my suggestion that we produce a biographical dictionary of parliamentarian civil war officers comparable with the late Peter Newman’s dictionary of royalist officers, published in 1981. I had no idea then how complex and time-consuming a task it would be, though perhaps I should have done! The Association invested some of its own resources in the project, and employed Dr Tim Wales, a noted archival researcher, to assemble the content for the dictionary.

It’s the fruits of this project that are now available with publication, by the Digital team at the Institute of Historical Research, of the Cromwell Association Directory of Parliamentarian Army Officers. The Directory – a biographical record of 4,027 named officers who fought in the field armies of England and Wales – covers the outbreak of civil war in 1642 to the inauguration of the commonwealth in 1649, with a particular focus on the years up to 1645 and the creation of the New Model Army.

From the outset it became apparent that the structure of the army command would present us with challenges. The parliamentary war effort was managed by a range of committees, in London and in the localities. These changed and evolved over the course of the war, and from the outbreak of hostilities in autumn 1642 Parliament allowed and encouraged enthusiastic commanders to raise regional forces to act in parallel with its main field army under Robert Devereux, third earl of Essex (left, central figure). We decided that the best way to compile the material was by a twin research focus: on the regions (the north, the south, the east and the west) and also on the main armies, for which listings would be made.

The sources for the project have been a mix of manuscripts, notably the ‘commonwealth exchequer papers’ (SP 28 at the National Archives, Kew), and a very wide range of printed materials. These have included county histories and editions by record societies. We have also drawn heavily on the work of other modern historians who have compiled lists of names for particular armies or regiments in various parts of the country. Despite these resources, and the skills of the project’s researchers, a complete listing of parliamentarian officers remains an impossibility. Survivals of muster lists are rare, and the composition of a regiment or a troop over a sustained period of time is very hard to trace. What we have therefore is a series of snapshots of regiments and other units derived from numerous historical sources.

As the project evolved it became apparent that it would have to be less a biographical ‘dictionary’ and more a ‘directory’, since many of the names were simply that, and no more. It would have taken much more research than was feasible to flesh out each of these names into even a partial biography. Furthermore, it seemed increasingly appropriate to consider this not as a printed book but as an online resource that could be cross-searched for multiple purposes.

The natural home for the Directory was British History Online (BHO), a digital library of key printed primary and secondary sources for the history of Britain and Ireland, published by the Institute of Historical Research. Editors at British History Online were receptive; and grants from the Marc Fitch Fund and the Aurelius Trust helped with the cost of creating the ‘born-digital’ resource that’s now available. Because of gaps in the historical evidence, and the transfer of officers, it became clear that a final listing organised county-by-county or unit-by-unit would be impracticable. In the latter stages of the project we therefore decided that the most useful format would be an alphabetical listing of officers’ names, which would make searching or browsing for an individual name very easy and immediate.

The new Directory will be of first and obvious interest to military historians, but also to anyone – local, family and social historians – interested in tracing names of men who may have fought in the first English civil war. Its entries are freely available via British History Online, and a search of BHO will also locate mentions of persons of the same name across many additional primary and secondary resources charting the history of the mid-17th century. The Directory appears on BHO under a Creative Commons licence that will also permit downloading of the XML (digitally marked-up) version of the complete text. With this, historians of the civil war will be able to undertake new research by searching and grouping the parliamentarian officers by age and place of origin, among other attributes.

Finally, while the Directory’s launch marks a milestone, it will not be the end of the project. Rather, BHO editors’ interest in sustainable digital research projects will enable corrections and expansion to be made – in what, I hope, will be a continuing collaboration between British History Online and the Cromwell Association.

Dr Stephen K Roberts is editor of the ‘Commons, 1640-1660’ section of The History of Parliament, and vice-president of the Cromwell Association.