After nearly three years of bitter fighting, King Charles I had not won a decisive military advantage. But that would change dramatically in the spring of 1645.
by Arnold Blumberg
By the spring of 1645, the open warfare between King Charles I and his rebellious Parliament had dragged on for nearly three years, with no apparent end in sight. With the aid of their always fractious Scottish allies, Parliamentary armies had won control of England’s north country from the king and his Royalist supporters at the Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644. Parliament’s vastly superior manpower and financial resources should have finished off the king by the end of the year. Instead, the Roundhead cause had been shaken by a series of surprising setbacks in the south. First, some 6,500 infantry under Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex, had surrendered to the Royalists at Lostwithiel, Cornwall, on September 2, 1644. Only 2,000 horsemen in the much-vaunted Parliamentary cavalry had escaped the debacle. Two months later, at the Second Battle of Newbury, the king again had eluded the rebels, who failed to crush his 10,000-man army with a Parliamentary force more than twice as large. As a result, the Cavaliers were still firmly entrenched in the southwestern part of the country, and their stubbornly held strongholds tied down thousands of troops that Parliament desperately needed to augment its armies in the field.
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Despite his successes, the king’s situation was also dire. His last remaining power bases—in Wales, the West Midlands, and the southwest—were all open to enemy attack. To further complicate matters, the king’s advisers, spurred by intense dislike of one another and intent on gaining influence for themselves at the expense of their rivals, were constantly at odds over what military course the king should pursue. Charles had hoped to allay the constant bickering and lack of cooperation among his army commanders by appointing one man to act in his name as supreme commander of all royal forces. That man was his 24-year-old nephew, Prince Rupert of Germany. It was thought that the prince, despite his age the most accomplished soldier in the Royalist army, would be able to reorganize the king’s disparate loyalists into one cohesive fighting unit. The pattern Rupert used to reorder the king’s army was based on Parliament’s own New Model Army, just then being created in the first months of 1645 under the vigorous leadership of Sir Thomas Fairfax and his grim-faced cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell.
Myriad Endemic Problems
Unfortunately for the Royalist cause, Rupert’s sophisticated scheme of consolidation and reform was opposed by many of the king’s closest friends and advisers, particularly Lord George Digby, the secretary of state, whose personal dislike of the prince far exceeded his desire to see the Royalist army streamlined into a more efficient fighting machine. The failure of the king to consistently support Rupert’s innovative ideas also hamstrung the prince’s attempts to fashion a more modern and effective army. Rupert’s hand was further weakened by the king’s inexplicable decision in March 1645 to set up a semi-independent Council of the West, under Charles’s inexperienced 14-year-old son, the Prince of Wales, to run military affairs in that part of the country.
Besides the personal animosities that fractured any strategic cooperation between the various Royalist military leaders, in 1645 the Cavalier army faced other endemic problems. Many regiments were understrength and overstaffed. Discipline was frayed as a result of continuous shortages of arms and food due to the shrinking Royalist resources as more and more of the country fell under Parliamentary control after the catastrophic defeat at Marston Moor. Worst of all was the inescapable fact that Charles did not have enough available manpower to wage an effective offensive or defensive war. Undecided on the best course of action, in April 1645 he directed his forces to concentrate at his wartime capital at Oxford. Both his nephew, Prince Rupert, and Lt. Gen. Lord George Goring, an experienced cavalry leader and commander of the Royalist military in the west, were directed to bring their troops together. The prince, with some 2,000 infantry and horsemen, and Goring, commanding another 2,000 cavalrymen, joined the king near the ancient university town on May 4. A council of war was convened immediately to plot the Royalists’ upcoming campaign.
Three Options for the King
Everyone at the meeting agreed that their cause, without massive foreign aid or substantial reinforcements from Ireland—both extremely unlikely occurrences—could not last more than another six months. In the eyes of the king’s military commanders, Charles had only three options. One, he could stand on the strategic defensive. This course was rejected since it would allow the enemy to take the initiative and bring overpowering resources to bear at the time and place of his choosing. Two, he could concentrate all his available strength and attack the New Model Army, which was known to be moving toward the West Country, before it could fully congregate.
This enterprising idea was shelved because the king feared that in order to bring enough men to bear against the Roundheads he would have to deplete the remaining areas under his control. Three, he could retake northern England. This option, supported by Prince Rupert, would require first raising the enemy siege of Chester, which had been held by the king’s men since the disaster at Marston Moor. A move east would then follow to attack the Scottish army under the Earl of Leven, who at that moment was besieging Carlisle. Rupert argued that the plan would work if Goring and his cavalry kept the New Model Army busy in the west, allowing Rupert enough time to defeat the Scots in the north. With Leven’s forces destroyed and the north country again free to provide recruits and supplies to the Royalist cause, Charles could turn south and meet the rebels in open battle with at least a fighting chance of success.
A Council Divided
The council was divided between Rupert’s plan and other members’ desire to immediately engage the New Model Army while it was still in the process of organizing. As a result, the king settled on an unfortunate compromise: Goring would return to the west with 3,000 cavalry and strike the New Model Army if and when an opportunity presented itself. The rest of the Royalist army would march north to relieve Chester. Goring’s departure left the king with few veteran cavalry of his own, forcing Rupert to replace them with ill-trained, undermanned squadrons bereft of any battle experience.
The main Royalist force, the Oxford Army, was a small affair when compared to the New Model Army. A veteran corps of about 1,500 infantry and 600 horsemen served at Oxford, along with a static garrison force of both horse and foot soldiers. Rupert and his brother Maurice mustered another 1,500 infantry and 500 cavalry, while Goring’s 2,000 well-trained and well-armed troopers added punch to the Royalist cause. In addition, there were 11 regiments of foot and an equal number of cavalry regiments and Life Guard units of regimental size. All these formations shared two basic characteristics: they were badly understrength and they were made up of experienced, steady, and determined men. The Royalist artillery train was small—eight sakers, two mortars, and six heavy siege pieces. With a total force of 6,000 cavalry and 5,000 infantry, this confident, veteran force represented a dangerous opponent to any enemy.
Leadership in the King’s Army
Leadership in the king’s army was another advantage. As overall commander of the army, King Charles was widely admired by his men. He had shared their hardships on campaign, and his optimistic attitude and pleasant, if distant, personality gave them heart. He never shied away from making the tough decisions once battle was joined. A better tactician than strategist, the king had proven himself both brave and stubborn in a fight. At his side, Prince Rupert was the ideal cavalier and had achieved an impressive record of success on the battlefield. He was a superior cavalry leader and the most experienced soldier in the king’s service. His sincere concern for the welfare of the men under him was backed by solid administrative ability. His strategic insights were usually correct.
The king’s infantry commander, Lord Jacob Astley, was an old soldier of considerable experience and service on the continent. He had been appointed to his current post in August 1642. Competent but unimaginative, Astley served the king’s cause with a steady hand. The commander of the Northern Horse (cavalry raised in the north of England) was the dour Sir Marmaduke Langdale, a fine leader of mounted forces. This dependable Yorkshireman had a gift for organization and was a prime mover in restoring the royal cavalry to combat effectiveness after the defeat at Marston Moor. A longtime professional soldier, he was a solid leader of men and a good tactician.
The “New Noddle”
While Charles and his generals planned the upcoming campaign, his opponents struggled to pool their own vast resources into a formidable fighting force, one that could overthrow the monarch and win the war. Toward that end, Parliament had passed legislation in February authorizing “a New Model of the army” of 22,000 soldiers. This new strike force was to be formed by disbanding the old Parliamentary armies under Lord Essex, Lord Manchester, and General Sir William Waller, filling the ranks with volunteers and organizing them into 11 regiments of horse, 12 of foot, and one of dragoons. By April, the New Model Army was ready to take the field despite the fact that its infantry contingent still numbered only about 10,000 men.
The Royalists mocked the nascent Parliamentary force as the “New Noddle,” but the New Model Army actually had much going for it. Although its various infantry regiments brought with them different levels of experience and training, morale was high and discipline was rigidly—not to say religiously—maintained. Conscription was used to raise the necessary manpower, and anyone failing to report for duty within six days of being drafted was subject to execution. Lesser offenses such as blasphemy were punishable by a red-hot poker through the tongue. Unaffiliated young men were stopped frequently on London streets and hustled into troopships to be delivered, bound and kicking, to the army headquarters at Maidenhead. for its part, the cavalry was full-strength and well-armed, confident of its ability to match its Cavalier opponents. A strong artillery train of 56 field guns—mainly demi-culverins and sakers—marched with the army, along with a number of formidable siege guns, including cannon, demi-cannon, and 12-inch mortars to reduce fortified enemy positions.
Oliver Cromwell: Leader of the New Model Cavalry
The remodeled army was fortunate to have commanders of ability and experience to lead it. The commanding general of all Parliamentary forces, Sir Thomas Fairfax, had gained his first military training in the Low Countries and then had seen action in King Charles’s abortive campaigns against the Scots in the late 1630s. Serving under his father in the north of England for the first two years of the English Civil War, he had won minor victories at Wakefield and Nantwich. A good organizer and an even better battlefield tactician, “Black Tom” was both respected and loved by his officers and men.
The leader of the New Model cavalry, Oliver Cromwell, continued the practice he had begun earlier in the war of providing his troopers with equal amounts of practical training and moral instruction. His reputation as a dynamic cavalry leader grew out of his successes in eastern England in 1643 and were confirmed by his performance at Marston Moor the following year. By virtue of being a lieutenant general, Cromwell was second-in-command of the army.
Sir Philip Skippon led the New Model infantry. A professional soldier most of his life, he too had served on the continent, commanded the London Trained Bands (private citizens originally mustered to maintain order and suppress riotous behavior inside the city), and headed the foot regiments of Lord Essex’s army during the first two years of the war. Blunt, brave, and efficient, Skippon was equally popular with members of all ranks.
First Steps Taken in April
The end of April saw the first moves in what would be the decisive campaign of the war. The Committee for Both Kingdoms, an executive body of English and Scottish nobles, generals, and politicians that ran Parliament and the war effort, ordered Fairfax to move into the West Country and relieve the town of Taunton, the only inland garrison still held by Parliament in that part of the country. At the same time, Cromwell, with a mixed force of cavalry and infantry, was to keep the king’s army in check at Oxford.
Responding to the enemy’s opening maneuvers, Charles directed Goring to leave sufficient forces to besiege Taunton and hurry east to rejoin him. On May 4, Goring reached Oxford after first brushing aside some of Cromwell’s cavalry outside the city.
Meanwhile, Fairfax sent 3,000 infantry and 1,000 horsemen to succor Taunton, while the bulk of the New Model Army reversed course and headed for Oxford. Reaching the Royalist stronghold on May 19, Fairfax was joined by Cromwell and his cavalry, and the Parliamentary forces began preparations to besiege the town.
Reformulating Charles’ Overall Strategy
They were too late. The king and his army already had left the wartime capital and headed northeast to Stow-on-the-Wold, which they reached on May 8. Two weeks later they arrived at Market Drayton, just west of the Trent River. There it was decided that the king and Rupert would proceed with the northern campaign, while Goring would take his cavalry and keep the New Model Army occupied in the west. The plan was based on the outdated belief that the enemy was still en route to the West Country to relieve Taunton. Once at Market Drayton, the king received the discouraging news that the siege of Chester had been abandoned by the Parliamentarians and that Taunton had been secured on May 11.
With the rationale behind the move north no longer relevant, Charles had to reformulate his overall strategy. Complaints soon arrived that Oxford was not prepared to withstand a lengthy siege, and the Royalists scrambled to find a way to draw the New Model Army away from their capital. A council of war decided that an answering attack on a city held by Parliament would do the trick. Leicester was chosen for the Royalist assault. Located some 60 miles north of Oxford and about the same distance east of the king’s present position, the town was reputed to hold a weak garrison and much accumulated wealth. Furthermore, the Scottish forces in the Midlands that might have challenged the king’s march north had recently moved back to their own county to counter the successes of the pro-Royalist Earl of Montrose. With the Scots gone from the region, Leicester fell to the king on May 31. A long day of frenzied looting then ensued, and some 140 carts rattled out of town with goods bound for Royalist bases at Newark, Lichfield, and Belvoir. Along with the rich bounty were 1,000 muskets and 500 barrels of gunpowder. Roundhead propaganda alleging that the king’s men had summarily executed hundreds of the town’s inhabitants was later disproved, although a Royalist officer, Captain Richard Symonds, conceded that “there was scarce a cottage left unplundered and no quarter given to any in the heat” of battle.
This article is from the February 2005 issue of Military Heritage Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.