On the morning of August 22, 1642, outside Nottingham, sharp gusts of wind buffeted spectators, and a leaden sky produced a steady rain, but the anticipated ceremony would proceed in spite of the elements. The king’s standard was duly unfurled, a swallow-tailed pennant emblazoned with the royal arms.
King Charles I himself was there. His long, flowing locks framed a handsome face, and his neatly trimmed Vandyke beard and mustache were familiar from the image on many coins and from portraits. His expression, it is said, was serene, as if kings were above such things as rainstorms, yet there was sadness in the eyes, as if foreseeing future tragedy.
He was only about 5 feet 4 inches (some say as short as 4-foot-7 in his stocking feet), but every inch of the diminutive monarch was a king. Only a slight stutter–largely overcome, but not entirely banished–revealed his carefully hidden human side–a fatal indecisiveness.
The royal standard was now in place, prompting a herald to proclaim that Britain’s Parliament and its troops were traitors to the Crown. But Charles had made so many changes in the text of the proclamation that the herald stumbled in the reading, sounding tongue-tied and confused. Later, heavy winds brought the king’s standard crashing to the ground, a mishap sufficient to give any superstitious onlooker real pause.
However badly executed, the raising of the standard signaled the start of the English Civil War, a contest between the king and Parliament over who was to dominate the affairs of the country. Beyond that basic issue, its origins are convoluted and murky.
In general, though, Charles stood for absolute monarchy, where he might rule as he chose, answerable only to God. Parliament, proud of its ancient traditions and flexing its economic muscle, had grown restive, then finally rebellious, over the king’s attempts to have it don a straitjacket of medieval obeisance. More and more, Parliament wanted a share of government commensurate with its rising status.
Religion was a major factor, too. Charles was a partisan of the Anglican Church, an institution with many trappings of the Catholic past. The Calvinist Puritans who tended to dominate Parliament considered Anglican worship blasphemous and smacking of popish deviltry. The Puritans–and Parliamentary armies–were nicknamed Roundheads because many of them had close-cropped haircuts. The royalty’s supporters were known as Cavaliers because many were aristocrats trained to horsemanship almost from birth.
Since London and much of southern England had declared for Parliament, Charles was forced to abandon his capital and withdraw to Nottingham. Eventually he made Shrewsbury his headquarters.
Just as Charles began raising an army, his nephew Rupert, Prince Palatine of the Rhine, arrived and promptly offered his services to his beleaguered uncle. The king accepted and made the 22-year-old prince his General of Horse.
At first glance, it seemed nepotism of the worst kind. Rupert delighted in fine clothes and looked more fashion plate than fighter. But underneath the peacock facade, he possessed a first-rate military mind. A superb engineer, Rupert was also an excellent tactician. The Cavaliers were already good swordsmen and splendid equestrians; they needed charismatic leadership to achieve their full potential. Prince Rupert knew how to handle these sprigs of the nobility and gentry because, in a sense, he was one of them.
By mid-October 1642, King Charles judged the time was right for a march on London, which was the heart and mind of the Roundhead rebellion.
Meanwhile, Parliament used the summer and early fall to build armies of its own. Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, was appointed commander of Parliament’s main fighting forces, in part due to his Puritan leanings, or at least, sympathies. Militarily competent but little more, Essex had the advantage of being a peer of the realm–at least ‘Old Robin, as he was nicknamed, wasn’t going to feather his nest with plunder.
Essex marched out of London with orders to capture the king and bring him back to the capital. Even commanders are mortal, so Essex brought along his coffin and winding sheet just in case. It was an era of religious fervor, but the idea of a commander taking his own coffin on campaign probably did little to inspire the troops!
On October 12, 1642, King Charles I and his army left Shrewsbury and began the journey south. The main Parliamentry army under Essex, then some 49 miles away at Worcester, left to begin a roundabout march toward London. In fact, the two sides were drawing near to each other, but it was more by accident than by design.
It took the royal army 10 days to cover the distance between Shrewsbury and the vicinity of Banbury, a distance of 100 miles. On the evening of Saturday, October 22, the King’s men took shelter in a string of hamlets north of Banbury. Little did they know that Essex’s army, equally bedraggled and hungry, was centered around Kineton, just to the west.
First contact was made when Royalist troopers collided with some Parliamentary cavalry near Wormeighton while trying to secure billets for the night. By midnight the king was apprised of the situation. By sheer luck, the royal army was between the Earl of Essex and London.
Well before the first pale streaks of dawn lightened the eastern sky, the king wrapped his ermine-lined cloak about his shoulders and set off to experience his first battle. Rupert, already in motion, had seized the strategic high ground of a rise the locals called Edge Hill. The hill dominated the surrounding countryside and afforded an almost panoramic view to anyone perched on top. The village of Radway nestled at the base of Edgehill, and past that hamlet the ground broadened into an open valley with few hedges around–ideal ground for cavalry maneuvers.
There was something else that engaged Rupert’s rapt attention. The Parliamentary army was assembling, and just beyond, about two miles from the prince’s vantage point, lay the village of Kineton, Essex’s headquarters. It appeared that the Roundheads were going to accept a fight, here and now.
It was Sunday, and church bells summoned the faithful to divine service. Lord Essex himself had been on his way to church when he received intelligence that the royal army was in the vicinity. Somewhat reluctantly, Essex shifted his thoughts from the Prince of Peace to the gods of battle. He outnumbered the king on paper, but some of his regiments were scattered and would not reach the battlefield for several hours.
That posed a dilemma, because if he fought now, both sides would be equal in numbers–about 14,000 each. But Essex’s hand had been forced with the Royalists between him and the capital. There would definitely be a battle.
As the morning wore on, King Charles I arrived on the scene, accompanied by his two sons Charles, Prince of Wales, and James, Duke of York. Dressed in a black velvet, ermine-lined coat, the Order of the Garter sparkling on his breast, the monarch wore a velvet-covered steel cap over his long tresses.
Charles now trained his spyglass on the distant enemy with as much grace and style as he could muster. I never saw the rebels in a body before! exclaimed the awed monarch.
The sight was colorful as well as awe-inspiring. A uniform in the modern sense was still decades into the future, so each regimental colonel dressed his men according to his own taste or pocketbook. In order to distinguish friend from foe, Parliamentary soldiers took to wearing tawny-orange sashes, orange being the Essex color. Many Royalists wore crimson sashes, but the impromptu system of sashes was not foolproof in the smoke and confusion of battle.
As the armies gathered, it was clear battle formations would be entirely conventional. Foot regiments were placed in the center, with cavalry guarding the right and left flanks.
There were, on either side, two basic types of foot soldier–the pikeman and the musketeer. Pikemen were partly armored and wielded spears 16 to 18 feet long. They fought in hedgehog or phalanx formations and were supposed to protect their musketeers as well as to engage enemy pikemen.
Musketeers wore no armor, and their weapon was the matchlock, a ponderous affair that could weigh up to 20 pounds. Matchlock muskets were smoothbores, inaccurate beyond 50 yards. A trained musketeer could get off two rounds a minute, but his weapon’s chief defect was its method of ignition. A long cord called a match snaked around musket and musketeer, its end a smouldering ember. Attached to the musket’s serpentine, the match ignited the priming powder when the trigger was pulled. But keeping the match alight was difficult at best, and almost impossible in damp or rainy weather.
As the hours dragged on, tempers began to fray. Prince Rupert got into a verbal duel with the king’s commander in chief, Robert Bertie, Earl of Lindsey, over timing and tactics. Lindsey was all for caution and delay; Rupert was chafing at the bit to attack.
A more serious altercation arose over what formations the king’s forces should adopt. Rupert, dazzling in a scarlet suit that dripped silver lace, wanted to place the musketeers in formations patterned after the ideas of Sweden’s late King Gustavus Adolphus. Swedish-style formations would be thinner, some six-men deep instead of the standard eight, thus lengthening the line and increasing firepower. Lindsey vehemently disagreed, arguing for older Dutch-style formations.
All eyes looked to the king as ultimate arbiter of the dispute. He came down squarely in favor of his nephew, not because of nepotism, but because the monarch was beginning to recognize Rupert’s military gifts. It was the last straw for Lindsey, who threw down his baton–his symbol of command–and stomped off in a rage. He fumed that if he was not thought fit to lead the king’s army, he’d go back to his own Lincolnshire Regiment and fight with it.
As his replacement, Charles selected Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth, whose bouts with the bottle were legendary. Nearing 70, his age and expanding girth seemed to argue for retirement, but he was a good soldier with much left to give. He also knew Rupert well and retained the young man’s confidence.
It was around 3 o’clock when the Parliamentary guns opened fire. Royalist artillery flamed in counterbattery. Seventeenth-century cannon came in all shapes and sizes, with names like culverin, demi-culverin, and fawconette. They were as cumbersome as their names, with slow rates of fire. Nevertheless, a steady iron hail played all along the Royalist lines, and the first casualties began to fall.
The right wing of the Royalist army consisted of cavalry and dragoons under Prince Rupert, the left wing cavalry and dragoons under Lord Henry Wilmot. The infantry at center–musketeers and pikemen–was led by Lord Forth, Lord Lindsey and Sir Jacob Astley. King Charles’ absolutism did not extend to the battlefield; tactical command was largely Rupert’s.
The fighting proper began with a sharp skirmish on the Parliamentary left. The Roundhead left-wing commander, Sir James Ramsey, was a canny Scot who posted some 300 musketeers in hedges along his flank. If Rupert’s cavalrymen attacked, they would be hit by a deadly cross-fire.
Recognizing the danger, the Royalist leadership ordered Sir James Usher’s dragoons forward to deal with the problem. Roundhead muskets flamed, but the dragoons easily weathered this storm of lead and swept all before them. The hedges were soon cleared, and the surviving musketeers were forced to fall back on their main body. The dragoons suffered few casualties.
Also about this time, a solitary rider burst from the Parliamentary lines, galloped over to Prince Rupert and told him that Sir Faithfull Fortesque’s troop was about to change sides. Although they were Royalists to the core, circumstances had forced them into Parliamentary ranks. As a signal for their defection, they were going to ride up, tear their orange sashes from their shoulders, then discharge their pistols into the ground.
Rupert now turned to his own attack. The prince was about to try something new and unconventional. Standard cavalry tactics dictated that horsemen approach an enemy at the trot, discharge their pistols, then wheel about in a well-ordered pirouette to reload. There was little or no direct contact with the enemy.
By contrast, Rupert advocated shock action. Instead of merely firing on the enemy and moving away, Rupert was all for cold steel–his men were ordered to hack through enemy formations with their swords.
The Royalist right-wing cavalry–some 1,700 sabers in all–advanced at a walk. Some of the finest regiments in Britain were taking part, including the King’s Life-guard, a body of men whose pride and panache equalled their pedigree.
For the first 100 yards or so, Rupert kept his cavaliers on a tight leash. But soon the pace quickened, and before long the Royalist right wing was in a full charge.
The sight of this pounding steel tide was too much for Ramsey’s Parliamentry troopers, who discharged their carbines prematurely and turned tail. Virtually all the cavalry of the Roundhead left wing took to their hooves, leaving clusters of hapless musketeers at the mercy of Rupert’s troopers.
Almost simultaneously, Lord Wilmot and the Royalist left wing began their own charge–and met much the same resistance. There were a few more hedges to clear, perhaps, and Roundhead muskets emptied a few saddles, but in the main Wilmot’s troopers swept all before them.
Adrenaline pumping, hearts throbbing, Rupert’s right wing pursued the fleeing enemy, sabering and shooting all within reach. After a madcap chase of about two miles, the Cavalier troopers finally drew rein in Kineton, Essex’s headquarters. There, they found the Parliamentry baggage train, with plunder for all–including Lord Essex’s own coach.
But the battle was far from over. When the Royalist right and left wings charged, they left their infantry far behind and vulnerable. The Parliamentary general, William Balfour, noted that vulnerability and moved quickly to exploit it with his reserve cavalry. Once the Royalist infantry was destroyed, the battle would be over. Better still, if the king himself could be captured, the royal cause would be checkmated.
Oblivious to the mounting danger, the Royalist infantry moved forward to engage the enemy’s opposite numbers. Pikes lowered, and bodies of men smashed into each other, while musketeers on the flanks poured hot lead into the ranks.
At that point, Balfour’s Parliamentry troopers made their appearance, reducing several of the king’s brigades to bloody ruin. The Roundhead horsemen galloped so near the king that they managed to capture his personal standard. Its bearer, Sir Edward Verney, gave a good account of himself, even using the standard’s staff as a kind of pike. He dispatched two Roundheads, but was finally overwhelmed and killed.
In the gathering darkness, Prince Charles and his entourage sheltered behind a barn. Most of the rebel horsemen passed them by, but one broke off from the main body and flew directly toward the heir to the throne. It was a tense moment, but luckily a Royalist named Mathewes chopped down the charging Roundhead with a poleax.
By now, the force of Balfour’s charge was becoming spent, and Rupert’s cavalry was starting to drift back. In any case, darkness and exhaustion signaled an end to the battle. As if by mutual consent, the pikemen retired from one another, although the musketeers continued to fire into the night.
Although technically a draw, Edgehill was politically a Royalist victory. Rupert’s cavaliers had routed most of the Parliamentary cavalry, and the king’s forces had managed to stave off a serious 11th-hour attack. Then, too, King Charles was still astride the path to London. Aside from being the political and mercantile heart of the nation, London and the surrounding counties harbored many neutrals who were straddling the fence, waiting to join the winning side. If London were seized, they would almost certainly flock to the king’s banner. The king also lacked sea power, and London’s fall would probably mean the taking of naval bases on the Thames and Medway.
But King Charles hesitated. Although he was personally brave, the sight of all the day’s carnage may have shocked his refined senses. When morning broke, Essex’s battered army drew off toward Warwick, leaving the road to London open.
Ever the fire-eater, Rupert urged his royal uncle to advance quickly on the capital, an opinion seconded by the Earl of Forth. But, true to character, the king could not bring himself to such an irrevocable step. Some weeks later, when the Royalist forces finally did begin to move on London, the opportunity had passed and they were rebuffed.
In the aftermath of Edgehill, though, the king had reason to celebrate a victory. In the last phases of the battle, an enterprising Royalist, Lieutenant John Smith, had recaptured the royal standard and earned a knighthood from a grateful monarch.
Edgehill was a school of war, a place where a largely untried nation could learn–or relearn–the arts of war. Some proved better pupils than others. A rather obscure Parliamentary captain named Oliver Cromwell had arrived too late to take part in much of the fighting, but he took Edgehill’s lessons to heart. He could see that, in the main, Roundhead cavalry was ill-trained rabble compared to the Cavaliers.
Eventually, Cromwell would form a New Model army that would equal, and even surpass, anything Charles could muster. And the Puritan leader’s fabled Ironsides cavalry would greatly contribute to Parliament’s victory over the king. Oliver Cromwell–and the king’s own nature–would lead Charles to the executioner’s block in 1649. *
his article was written by Eric Niderost and originally appeared in the October 1993 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!