‘The Christian Centurion’ – Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon

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Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon was described by an earlier biographer, Lucas Phillips, as ‘the type of man found in the best British armies throughout the centuries, not over-endowed with brains, but stout of heart, loyal of spirit, direct of speech, generous to a fault, God-fearing, the first into action and the last out of it.

But as Skippon’s latest biographer, Dr Ismini Pells of the University of Oxford, shares, this is only part of his story.  Skippon became the third most senior general in the New Model Army after Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.  He was the longest serving Parliamentarian military commander of the Civil Wars. But, as Dr Pells shows, his contributions reached well beyond the battlefield.  During the Republic and the Protectorate, Skippon was a senior and highly influential political figure, whose importance has subsequently been overshadowed by Cromwell.

So, as Dr Pells says, we need to bring Skippon out of the shadows and restore him to his rightful position at the heart of the Republican experiment of the mid-17th century.

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Introduction

After Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon (as the commander of the infantry) was the third-most senior general in Parliament’s New Model Army. By the time the Civil War broke out in England in 1642, Skippon had already accrued 27 years military service as a veteran of Protestant armies on the Continent and as a commander of citizen Militia forces in London. He was still in command of the London Militia until a few months before his death in 1660, meaning that no other high-ranking officer in the parliamentarian camp enjoyed such a long military career as Skippon. In addition, he was an author of religious books, an MP and a senior political figure in the Republican and Cromwellian regimes. Therefore, Skippon’ career provides the perfect opportunity to understand how military events of the Civil War period impacted upon its broader political, social and cultural themes. In this podcast, I will briefly consider Skippon’s family background and his personal development during his time on the Continent, before going to focus on his career in England during the Civil Wars and the Interregnum which followed. 

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How did Skippon’s upbringing influence his later military career?

As with many people who are later famous, we don’t know much about Philip Skippon’s early life and upbringing. He was born around 1598 as the eldest surviving son of Luke Skippon and his wife Anne, who lived in the Norfolk village of West Lexham. Luke Skippon was a very minor gentleman, who rented the manor of West Lexham on which to farm sheep and grain. Skippon’s mother, Anne, on the other hand, was the daughter of a substantial landowner, Arthur Downing. Her nephew – Skippon’s cousin – was the famous Puritan cleric Calybute Downing. Interestingly, however, Skippon’s family seem to have been religiously conservative. His father attended Caius College Cambridge, which was notorious as a “nest of Papists”, whilst his uncle was secretary to William Bourchier, 3rd Earl of Bath, whose household was decidedly anti-Puritan. Skippon’s younger brother, also Luke, went on to become a High Church cleric who flourished under Charles I’s Personal Rule. Skippon’s later religious career was thus very much at odds with his family upbringing.

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There is also no evidence that the Skippon family had any kind of military experience. This makes it harder to explain why Philip Skippon embarked on a military career to serve in Protestant armies in Europe from around 1615, aged about sixteen to seventeen. There are several possibilities: Firstly, as eldest son, Philip would have been expected to succeed to the family estates, but at this time, Luke was still only 42 years of age and so the prospect of trudging in his father’s footsteps for the foreseeable future may not have appealed to the young Philip. Moreover, harvests for 1611-13 were poor and became progressively worse. A string of poor returns from the harvests on the Skippon lands may have forced Philip to seek economic opportunity and stable employment in a military career until economic prospects in Norfolk picked up again. Military service was instinctively identified with the gentry and aristocracy, so it would have been a good way for a borderline-gentleman to prove his social credentials through a display of honour and prowess. Alternatively, it cannot be ruled out that Luke Skippon sent his son abroad in an exercise of character-building or even as a way of getting rid of a troublesome adolescent.

What lessons did Skippon learn during his overseas military service?

Skippon spent the majority of his 24 years abroad serving in the English Regiments in the Netherlands. These consisted of volunteers from England, who were paid for by the Dutch Republic and who were employed to support the latter’s fight for independence from Spain.

Between 1620-23, Skippon was also seconded to the English expedition sent under Sir Horace Vere to defend the lands of James I’s son-in-law, Frederick V, Elector of the Palatinate and leader of the coalition of German Protestant states. Skippon also seems to have been part of Sir Charles Morgan’s English contingent sent in 1627-29 to aid Charles I’s uncle, the Protestant Christian IV of Denmark. Both Frederick and Christian were fighting against invasions by the Holy Roman Emperor as part of the Thirty Years’ War.

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Skippon’s time in Europe was vital for developing the military skills that he would later use in the Civil Wars. The fighting in the Netherlands was dominated by siege warfare and attacks on fortified positions, followed by prolonged periods of garrison duties in strategically important towns. This meant that Skippon returned to England as a specialist in conducting siegeworks and keeping discipline amongst bored soldiers. The Dutch were particularly aware that instilling morality in their troops was particularly important when fighting a war within their own territory, as they did not wish to lose the support of the civilian population who would otherwise have borne the brunt of soldiers’ bad behaviour. Moreover, Drill was often used to keep soldiers occupied and thus the officers became experts in training men. I think that it must have been particularly significant to Skippon’s learning process that he started out as a common soldier and rose through the ranks until he became a captain. His steady promotion was almost certainly a result of the immense personal courage that he displayed throughout his European career. For example, at the siege of Breda in 1637, he allegedly took 30 Englishmen up on to the city’s defences and against 200 of the enemy. Skippon was shot through his neck and temporarily lost the use of his left arm, but continued fighting for the remainder of the Engagement.

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As well as learning many valuable lessons that would guide his later military career, Skippon’s time abroad was pivotal in developing the religious belief that would play such a significant role in the rest of his life. The royalist Earl of Clarendon later alleged that:

 “The man had served very long in Holland, and from a common soldier had raised himself to the degree of a captain and to the reputation of a good officer: he was a man of order and sobriety… and having been bred always in Holland he brought disaffection enough with him from thence against the Church of England”.

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Many of the English officers who fought on the Continent for Protestant powers were zealously in favour of further Protestant reform in the Church of England and during his time in the Netherlands, Skippon began to write religious texts which showed he shared their beliefs. These writings would later form the basis for books of instruction for his soldiers during the Civil Wars.

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What was Skippon’s role in the collapse of Charles I’s authority and the outbreak of the Civil War?

Skippon returned to England around 1638 and the following year, he was appointed Captain-Leader of the Artillery Company in London, which seemed like a fitting way for a veteran officer to spend his retirement. Originally founded in 1536, the Artillery Company – known today as the Honourable Artillery Company – is the oldest regiment in the British Army. In the seventeenth century, the role of the Artillery Company was to provide the officer corps of the London Militia, known as the London Trained Bands. Skippon was the latest in a string of men appointed as Captain-Leader of the Artillery Company who had been veterans of service in the Netherlands, with the aim that they would train the Company in the most recent methods of warfare. Skippon’s appointment coincided with a period of improvement in standards in the Artillery Company’s training. Even hostile observers like the royalist author of A letter from Mercvrivs Civicvs to Mercurius Rusticus noted:

“We were wont, you know, to make very merry at their training: some of them in two yeares practice could not be brought to discharge a musket without winking. We did little image then that they were ever likely to grow formidable to the state, or to advance to that strength, as to be able to give the King battle; but after a while they began to affect, yea, and compasse the chief offices of command…”

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In fact, it seems that there was much more to Skippon’s appointment to the Artillery Company than would at first appear. According to the Royalist pamphlet Persecutio Undecima¸ in the mid-1630s, just before Skippon’s appointment:

 “All sectaries in London of a sudden entered themselves to be listed in those Artillery Gardens, to exercise feats of arms… and as their designs ripened, Captain Forster, a vinter behind the Exchange, was employed by the City faction to send overseas for Skippon, a confiding brother to the cause, to be Captain of the London Artillery Garden…”

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Many of the details in this source can be verified. There had indeed been a sharp increase in numbers admitted to the Artillery Company. Around 350 new members were admitted in 1635, compared to just 12, 18 and 16 members in the previous three years. There was certainly a Matthew Forster in the Artillery Company at this time who was a vintner living behind the Exchange. As a vintner, Forster would almost certainly have had connections in Europe to source his wine and his occupation may have taken him overseas on occasion himself. It is not implausible that Forster utilised these networks and/or a business excursion to sound out Skippon whilst he was still on the Continent about his willingness to be considered for the command of the Artillery Company. Furthermore, whilst there was a variety of religious beliefs held amongst the members of the Artillery Company, there was a core group of members who were united by their opposition to Charles I’s religious policies and their desire to see further reform in the Church of England.

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Following Charles’ bungled attempt to arrest five MPs in January 1642, Parliament appointed Skippon as Commander-in-Chief of the London Trained Bands, as the Lord Mayor (who had previously been in charge) was considered untrustworthy. In March, Parliament passed the Militia Ordinance, which took the power to appoint officers for the Trained Bands nationwide out of the King’s hands and placed it into those of Parliament. In order to set an example, the London Trained Bands were reorganised and increased from 6000 to 8000 men. Forty new officers were appointed, the majority being men who had served under Skippon in the Artillery Company. This was an important catalyst in the outbreak of the Civil Wars.

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How did Skippon rise to prominence during the Civil Wars?

In the manoeuvrings surrounding the outbreak of the Civil Wars, Parliament had raised a field army under the Earl of Essex’s command, which went off to do battle with the King in the first major encounter of the war at Edgehill in October. Following this inconclusive battle, the King’s forces marched on London. Skippon and the London Trained Bands were dispatched to rendezvous with the rest of Essex’s army at Turnham Green on 13 November. As they marched out to Turnham Green, Skippon caught the attention of observers walking up and down the ranks, issuing short speeches to stiffen the Trained Bands’ resolve:

“Come my boys, my brave boys, let us pray heartily and fight heartily; I will run the same fortunes and hazards with you; remember the cause is for God, and for the defence of yourselves, your wives, and children: come, my honest brave boys, pray heartily and fight heartily, and God will bless us.”

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The Trained Bands were placed in the centre of the Parliamentarian army, interspersed between Essex’s regular units. The Trained Bands’ shiny, previously unused uniforms and arms were used to intimidate the King’s harassed, weather-beaten, and half-starved troops. The two armies faced each other for several hours, occasionally exchanging fire that only served to scare the horses or the crowds of citizens that had turned out to watch the spectacle. Eventually the royalist forces retreated without engaging in battle, but Turnham Green proved a decisive moment in the Civil War. Skippon and the London men had prevented the royalist capture of the capital, which would have undoubtedly have won the war for the King. Charles never again dared make an attempt on London.

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Skippon’s role in the successful stand at Turnham Green resulted in promotion. On 16 November, he was appointed Sergeant-Major-General, that is, Commander of the infantry in the Earl of Essex’s army.

Over the next two years, Skippon fought in a variety of engagements with Essex’s army with, I think it is fair to say, mixed success. I would like to make four points about Skippon’s time with Essex’s army: Firstly, his European career had been dominated by attacking or defending fortified strongholds, and this became the most characteristic type of action in the Civil Wars also. It is therefore logical that Essex turned to Skippon to take the lead in sieges, such as at Reading in April 1643. This was a role in which he generally enjoyed success. Secondly, for all his military experience on the Continent, prior to 1642, Skippon had not commanded anything larger than a regiment in the field and had never fought a pitched battle. Therefore, the success he enjoyed in battle is noteworthy, such as at the First Battle of Newbury on 20 September 1643.

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Thirdly, there were times when the strategy of Essex’s army, to which Skippon will have contributed, was questionable. For example, it is difficult to over-emphasise what a monumentally stupid move it was to march into Cornwall in 1644 – a decision which we know Skippon supported. However, Essex had powerful opponents within the parliamentarian alliance who deliberately diverted money and resources away from his army to Parliament’s other field armies. The availability of resources may not have predetermined the outcome of battles but they still had a significant influence on the strategic and tactical choices available to commanders.

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Finally, at several key moments in 1642 to 1644, Essex’s army was reliant on brigades of men seconded from the London Trained Bands to reinforce its numbers. These troops, which Skippon had trained prior to the Civil Wars, performed well on the field and the relationship that Skippon had built up with the London men prior to the Civil Wars was undoubtedly crucial in this success. 

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What was Skippon’s relationship like with the men under his command?

Skippon’s relationship with the men under his command was, by all accounts, a good one. He seems to have taken a particular care for their spiritual wellbeing. In 1643, Skippon published A Salve for Every Sore, which was dedicated ‘To all souldiers of what degree soever’. This promoted a practical faith that reassured Skippon’s soldiers of God’s promises to never abandon them in their plight and that their sufferings were in his cause. He followed this in 1644 with the publication of True Treasure, which provided soldiers with thirty simple catechisms to guide their moral lives. Finally, in The Christian Centurians Observations, published in 1645, Skippon drew on his numerous years of military experience to offer his soldiers reflections on the nature of the military lifestyle and the cause for which they fought. He hired a succession of army chaplains and was renowned for instilling preaching and praying among his men. Skippon also seems to have taken his men’s material interests seriously and repeatedly harangued his parliamentary masters to supply pay and clothing for his men.

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What was Skippon’s role in the formation of the New Model Army?

In the conflict within the parliamentarian high command over the winter of 1644-5, Skippon largely seems to have taken the side of Oliver Cromwell. However, he managed to avoid any public role in the arguments. At the passing of the New Model Ordinance on 17 February 1645, Skippon was immediately appointed Sergeant-Major-General of the infantry, under Sir Thomas Fairfax as Commander-in-Chief.  Both had zealously pursued outright victory in the war, rather than fighting to bring the King to terms, and the two men caused a storm by choosing officers for the New Army whose political and religious outlook was unpalatable to many in Parliament, especially the House of Lords. Furthermore, the New Army was formed from an amalgamation of Parliament’s armies under the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Manchester and Sir William Waller, and it contained fewer officer positions than had existed in total amongst the three old armies. This meant that several officers had to be discharged.  Unsurprisingly, this decision was not popular but Skippon to quelled all the mutinies with diplomacy and the tricky task of amalgamation was eventually achieved with goodwill.

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Given the opposition to the formation of the New Model Army, it would only have taken a few defeats for the whole project to fall apart. The Battle of Naseby marked its first real test and the outcome would be crucial. Although Naseby was a famous parliamentarian victory, the outcome was uncertain for much of the battle. The parliamentarian Cavalry on the left wing was shattered, which exposed Skippon’s infantry and the line was then broken. This forced Skippon to bring up his reserves and he then played a crucial role in stabilising the centre, which enabled Cromwell to launch his battle-winning move with his Cavalry on the right. During the course of the melee, Skippon had been on the receiving end of friendly-fire from one of his own musketeers. As Fairfax later reported the Speaker of the House of Commons,

“Major-General Skippon was shot through his side but notwithstanding, he continued in the field with great resolution and when I desire him to go off the field, he answered “he would not go so long as a man would stand”, still doing his officer as a valiant and wise commander”.

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Skippon was treated in nearby Northampton and such was the importance of his recovery, that medics were sent from London at public expense, prayers were offered up by London’s parishes and newsbooks printed updates on his progress. It was a month before he could be moved back to London and a year before he returned to active service at the siege of Oxford, where the royalist capital fell on 24 June 1646.

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 Why did Skippon take the side of the army in its disputes with Parliament following the end of the First Civil War?

Skippon had tended towards Presbyterianism in religion, which had kept him in favour with some of the more conservative elements in the parliamentarian alliance. However, he was in favour of a limited degree of toleration in religious affairs and had always supported a vigorous prosecution of the war against the King, thus earning the favour of his more radical parliamentarian colleagues. He was therefore a useful mediating force when the army began to push back at Parliament’s attempts to disband the army without any assurance regarding arrears of pay, Indemnity from prosecution for acts committed during the war, welfare for wounded veterans and war widows, and forced deployment to Ireland.

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In December 1646, Skippon was elected to Parliament as MP for Barnstable. Army commitments prevented him from taking up his seat until April the following year, when he cautiously spoke in favour of the army’s grievances. In return, he agreed to represent Parliament in negotiations with the officers at a meeting Saffron Walden. An informant at Saffron Walden had observed that:

‘Major-General Skippon is quite lost in the army by endeavouring to please both sides: he will not get any men with him and I much fear if he stay he will be at a nonplus.’

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Indeed, Skippon admitted that:

“I found the business harsh and rugged, and in importance of it, exceeding all that I have yet met with.”

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Ultimately, Parliament had decided to press ahead with their plans anyway and risked starting another Civil War by planning to raise a new army based on troops disbanded at the formation of the New Model Army. Skippon considered this an affront to the army’s honour, and when apprentices invaded Parliament in July 1647 to force Parliament to uphold this action, he saw the very institution of Parliament under threat. He therefore joined Fairfax and Cromwell at the head of the army and marched on London to restore order.

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Why was Skippon so crucial to parliament’s cause in the Second Civil War?

The Second Civil War consisted of an invasion from Scotland accompanied by uprisings throughout England and Wales. The reason why there were no uprisings in London was largely down to the work of Skippon. In May 1648, he resigned his command in the New Model Army and resumed his old position as Sergeant-Major-General of the London Trained Bands. He was also appointed to the Committee of Both Houses, which directed Parliament’s military strategy. He only attended the Committee to discuss business concerning London and he was the source of most of the policies affecting London.

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Skippon’s political capabilities are probably the most commonly overlooked aspect of his career and yet he was, at times, quite politically devious. He was often instrumental in supporting others but very rarely took the lead himself. He was an effective operator but somehow always managed to keep his face out of the picture. He paid others to gather intelligence that led to numerous arrests (by others) of royalist officers. He issued warrants to search suspected royalists’ houses and apprehend those suspected of involvement in conspiracies. To achieve his aims, Skippon repeatedly relied on men from the Artillery Company and the networks he had built up back in the late 1630s/early 1640s.

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Did Skippon support the trial and execution of the King?

Skippon was a pivotal part of the purge of Parliament led by Thomas Pride on 6 December 1648. This prevented MPs who had been in favour of further negotiations with the King from taking their place in Parliament. It was the duty of the London Trained Bands to provide a daily guard when Parliament was sitting. When the Trained Bands turned up to perform their duties, they found their way blocked by Pride’s regiment of New Model Army men. Skippon persuaded the London Trained Bands to return to the City without any blood loss and he was later sent by Parliament into the City to continue his work of conciliation. Furthermore, he successfully led a vote in the Commons that a similar purge of the City government take place to prevent those who had favoured negotiating with the King from standing in the London Common Council elections three days later. Skippon’s support for Pride’s Purge is an interesting stance for one who had ostensibly sought to protect the integrity of Parliament in July/August 1647.

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Even more puzzling was, for all the work he had done to facilitate Pride’s Purge, Skippon refused to have any part in the trial and execution of the King. He was appointed one of the commissioners and judges for the trial in January 1649, but he refrained from attending and did not sign the death warrant. Skippon’s sudden cold feet in the proceedings against the King might perhaps be explained by the decision to charge Charles with treason. Once treason was the agreed charge, Regicide may not have been a foregone conclusion but everyone knew that the punishment for treason was death.  Throughout the trial, Skippon was reported to be supporting Fairfax in advising caution, postponement of the execution and a consideration of alternatives.

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What did Skippon do during the 1650s?

The execution of Charles I was by no means the end of Skippon’s career. He returned to sitting as an MP in the Rump Parliament and was elected to four of the five councils of state which wielded executive power under the Commonwealth regime. He did not sit in the short-lived Barebones Parliament in 1653 but was sought out by Cromwell to serve on the latter’s Council of State during the Protectorate. He sat again as an MP in all the Protectorate Parliaments, this time representing King’s Lynn. He even sat in Cromwell’s ‘Other House’ as ‘Lord Skippon’. During the so-called ‘Rule of the Major-Generals’, Skippon was appointed Major-General for the City of London, but it was a role for which he seemed to have little enthusiasm and most of his duties were deputed to the Major-General for Middlesex, John Barkstead.

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            He continued to serve as commander-in-chief of the London Trained Bands throughout the 1650s. Skippon’s willingness to work with both the Commonwealth and Protectorate regimes seems to have been driven by a desire to maintain order over chaos, while his value to his political masters rested in his long-standing ability to keep the capital under strict control – a vital ingredient in the success of any of the political experiments of the 1650s. Skippon also seems to have maintained a respect and admiration for Cromwell himself and the Protector’s endeavours. He marched in Oliver’s funeral procession and was a signatory to the proclamation which made Richard Protector. He took little part in politics following Richard’s resignation and the restored Rump Parliament, not least as by this time he was elderly and in poor health. He was replaced as Commander-in-Chief of the London Trained Bands in February and died shortly afterwards on 28 June 1660, just a few weeks after the Restoration.

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How has Skippon been remembered?

Until my biography of Skippon was published in 2020, there had been no full-scale study of the life and career of this leading figure in the British Civil Wars. Why had he been so neglected? Back in 1938, Cecil Ernest Lucas Phillips observed that ‘Skippon is one of those to whom history, overshadowed by the figure of Cromwell, has never done full justice. Yet since he stormed no constitutional redoubts, nor led any great party, his special interest for us must remain that he personifies admirably the best type of soldier who fought in those wars, with their merits and their faults.

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Phillips went on to argue that Skippon ‘was of a type found in the best British armies throughout the centuries – not over-endowed with brains, but stout of heart, loyal of spirit, direct speech, generous to a fault, God-fearing, the first into action and the last out of it’.  Since 1938, the fleeting references to Skippon in secondary literature are similarly universally positive, he being variously described as a ‘brave old Puritan soldier’, a ‘simple man, brave, soldierly, and passionate about religion’ and ‘a much loved parliamentary commander’.  Indeed, the same qualities occur time and again: professionalism, popularity, piety and political apathy.

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The origins of these epithets are to be found in Skippon’s own writings. In his books, he cultivated for himself the persona of the ‘Christian Centurion’. Using Biblical examples of military men, he highlighted the virtues pertaining to the Christian centurion: faith, humility, compassion and devotion. The Christian centurion persona thus formed the basis of much of his subsequent reputation. Skippon clearly wished others to know that religious and military matters were intertwined and close to his heart. Yet I hope that I have demonstrated to you that we also should not overlook his undoubted – if subtle – political capabilities and why, therefore, we should return Skippon to the heart of the events of the British Civil Wars.

You can learn more about the eventful life of Philip Skippon in Dr Pells’ biography, published by Routledge, Philip Skippon and the British Civil Wars, the Christian Centurion.

Dr Pells has also recorded other talks and interviews on topics including the lives of children during the conflict, the effect of the wars on the mental health of veterans and fascinating insights into the every day lives of men, women and children revealed by the Civil War Petitions Project of which she is Project Manager.