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English Civil War: Battle of Marston Moor

Originally published by Military History magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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The year 1644 saw a great change in the English Civil War. For a start, it ceased to be exclusively English, as the Scots and Irish entered the fray. Many familiar faces, amateurs at war, were gone. But German-born Prince Rupert of the Rhine, King Charles I's nephew, was still there for him, recruiting and training forces on the Welsh border, and Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, still guarded London with a Parliamentary army that denied Rupert's aspirations of conquest while itself being unable to conquer.

In December 1643, Ralph Hopton, the most successful Royalist general next to Rupert, had been turned back from Arundel in Sussex and from Alresford in Hampshire. By then, Hopton's magnificent Cornish Infantry, which had stormed Lansdown Hill on July 5 and held the defenseless town of Devizes in that hopeful summer of 1643, had returned home. The campaigns of both sides had stalled in the south.

Control of the House of Commons was in the hands of younger, harder men, such as Oliver St. John and Sir Henry Vane the Younger. Vane had negotiated Scotland's entry into the war, and 20,000 men were about to march into England to preserve Scotland from English prelates and to impose Presbyterianism on England-or so they thought.

Oliver Cromwell, that superbly efficient soldier of the Eastern Counties who in a few months had made himself into a total professional, had the spiritual force to make himself master of his regiments of cavalry and then to make his regiments the masters of the armies of Parliament. In a few years he would rule England, and under him Britain would become the master of North America's eastern seaboard as well as an equal and sometimes feared voice in the councils of Europe. 'Few indeed loved his government,' wrote the historian Thomas McCauley nearly two centuries later, 'but those who hated it most hated it less than they feared it. Had it been a worse government, it might perhaps have been overthrown in spite of all its strength. Had it been a weaker government, it would certainly have been overthrown in spite of all its merits. But it had moderation enough to abstain from those oppressions that drive men mad; and it had a force and energy which none but men driven mad by oppression would venture to encounter.'

Yet Cromwell, who became a military dictator with the power of a king, though he spurned the title of king, came from the class of small gentry that was often on the side of Charles I in the Civil War. An uncle of Cromwell's had entertained King James VI of Scotland in 1603 when that monarch was on the way to London to accept the English crown as King James I. In the 1620s Oliver Cromwell became a not very prominent member of the House of Commons. In the 1630s he supported his cousin John Hampden in his resistance to the Ship Money Tax, imposed by Charles I without Parliamentary approval. A poor speaker who tended to ramble, the unprepossessing Cromwell was nevertheless picked out by Hampden as likely to become 'the greatest man in England' if war should come. Cromwell's utter conviction that he had sought and found the will of god impressed his listeners far more than his speaking ability or appearance.

Cromwell was at the Battle of Edgehill on October 23, 1642, and became convinced that Parliament should recruit for its cavalry God-fearing men with a spiritual certainty that would enable them to prevail against the 'men of honour' to be found fighting for the Royalists. Mere'serving men and tapsters,' he told Hampden, would never do.

He showed great energy recruiting cavalrymen to fight under Edward Montagu, second Earl of Manchester in the Eastern Counties Association, and he was largely responsible for turning back the southward movement of Royalist forces left in Lincolnshire by the absent William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, at Winceby on October 11, 1643. Colonel Cromwell's regiment of horse soon swelled to 1,400 strong. He trained his men to charge at a 'good round trot,' although they also must have belted in at full gallop when contact was made. His troopers wore leather jackets that were often covered by armor. They were drilled to pull up on command after a charge so that Cromwell could regroup them and charge again if need be. In contrast, Prince Rupert's men, following the more traditional battle tactic of the day, would tear through the enemy like dogs jumping through a hoop and then return to the battlefield so exhausted they could hardly charge again. At Naseby in 1645, they drove the rebel horse clean off the field, kept going, then returned to find the rest of the battle was lost. At Marston Moor, by contrast, Cromwell's men were able to make two separate charges on different parts of the field. It was a new battlefield discipline that Rupert never mastered.

Cromwell's inspired leadership in 1643 was a portent of the increasingly powerful role he would come to play in succeeding events, his drive fueled by the religious conversion some years before that had led him to believe in a personal God who spoke to his servant Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was a true Puritan Independent, believing that each person should find his own way to God just as he had. The Independents were to become the rulers of England after the war, to the disgust of the Presbyterians, and Cromwell's soldiers were to be known for their preaching officers, who soon had an immense influence over their fiercely Protestant men. Puritans, who were strong in trade and commerce, and who were thus literate enough to read the Bible, provided an ever-present recruiting ground for Cromwell's forces. The Royalists rightly feared the Puritans, but they did not fully understand the group's potential influence.

In contrast to Cromwell, the man of certainty, King Charles gave his generals no proper directive for 1644. Instead, he thrashed about in all directions, calling a Parliament to assemble in Oxford; negotiating with the Scots through James, first Duke of Hamilton, and with the Scottish Royalists through James Graham, Marquis of Montrose; urging his lord deputy in Ireland, James Butler, Earl of Ormonde, to conclude a treaty with the Catholic Confederacy, thus releasing Protestant troops to serve in England; negotiating behind Ormonde's back for a Catholic army; and negotiating (using his wife, Henrietta Maria, as intermediary) with any European country that might help him.

The assembling of 200 members for the Parliament at Oxford created a serious rival government to the House of Commons in London, which had trouble raising more than 200 members itself, once war had begun. The Oxford Parliament was joined by the bulk of the House of Lords, leaving rebellious London's upper house with a mere 25 or so members.

Charles' other bright ideas came too little. No European aid reached the king. The Irish negotiations remained a hopeless muddle, and the thousands of Irish soldiers that Charles wanted would remain quite remote and useless. Hamilton's pleadings with the Scots were in vain, and even though Montrose scored a series of remarkable victories for the Royalists in 1644-46 (at Tippermuir, Inverlochy, etc.), he was unable to shift the political weight of the stubborn northern kingdom.

In the spring of 1644, the Scots under Alexander Leslie, first Earl of Leven, were besieging Newcastle and had sent patrols as far south as Durham. Blocked in Lincolnshire by Cromwell and the Earl of Manchester, the northern Royalists under the Earl of Newcastle retreated into the walled city of York. Much of the cavalry was sent out to ride for Newark, where it reinforced a Royalist garrison that never surrendered until ordered to by Charles in 1646. Some 5,000 men were retained to defend York. Around York there eventually gathered three Roundhead (Parliamentary) armies; that of Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, which had been driven to refuge in Hull during the Royalist successes of 1643; the Scots, except the portion besieging Newcastle, and Manchester's troops of the Eastern Counties Association. While the Royalist situation worsened in the north, in March Rupert suddenly curved across the middle of England to Newark, where he forced the surrender of 6,000 Parliamentary troops besieging the place under Sir John Meldrum. The whole of Lincolnshire again fell to the Royalists.

The news from Newark brought new urgency to the deliberations of the Parliamentary Committee of the Two Kingdoms, which was trying to direct the war from Westminster. Cromwell called up all the men he could muster and then firmly held East Anglia. Rupert returned to Oxford and in May he headed for Lancashire, where he intended to pick off Parliamentary garrisons before marching to the relief of York.

On May 6, the Earl of Manchester stormed Lincoln before leaving with Cromwell to join the siege of York. On the other side of the Pennines, Rupert took over Stockport on May 25, and Bolton three days later. At Bolton, 1,600 Roundheads were killed and the town was savagely sacked in reprisal for refusing to surrender-typical in the 17th century. Early in June, Rupert was in Liverpool, now joined by Lord George Goring and the Newark cavalry. Rupert measured the strength he would need to help relieve York, but he intended to take the town of Manchester first.

Other events now impinged upon the campaign. Rupert had worked out a plan to defend Oxford with outlying garrisons, backed by a cavalry reserve in Oxford that could go to the aid of any endangered garrison. At the urging of the notoriously unstable George Digby, second Earl of Bristol, King Charles abandoned Reading and Abingdon, which were promptly occupied by the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller. Charles bolted out of Oxford with 3,000 cavalry on June 2 and headed for Evesham. Digby admitted later that, 'had Essex and Waller either pursued us or attacked Oxford, we had been lost.'

Fortunately for Charles, Essex marched for the southwest in an attempt to occupy Cornwall, a departure that allowed the king to turn on Waller at Cropedy Bridge and win a substantial victory on June 29. Charles, however, was disconcerted enough to have written a letter to Rupert on June 14 from Bewdley that caused Rupert to break off his Lancashire campaign and march for York. 'If York be lost,' the king said, 'I shall esteem my crown little less, unless supported by your sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the south before the effects of the Northern power can be found here.'

Charles meant, in effect, that if York was lost, there would still be hope for him if Rupert could join him and write off the Roundhead forces in the south before the 'Northern power'-the Scots and others-could come to their help. 'But if York be relieved,' the letter went on, 'and you beat the rebel armies of both Kingdoms which were before it-then, but otherwise not, I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive to spin out time until you come to assist me; wherefore I command and conjure you…that, all new enterprises laid aside, you immediately march according to your first intention, with all your force, to the relief of York.'

By this convoluted sentence (which gives us a glimpse of his muddle-headedness) Charles implied that he could hold on in the south until Rupert had relieved York and won a great battle. He befuddled the issue with the three words 'but otherwise not,' which suggest that if Rupert could not relieve York and 'beat the rebel armies,' then Charles could not'spin out time' in the south. That did not square with the earlier suggestion that all might be well if Rupert could march south 'before the effects of the Northern power can be found here.' Rupert probably knew that Charles had no idea how to frame clear instructions, so he did the only thing possible-he marched out of Preston on June 23 to cross the Pennines on the way to York.

Cromwell and his lieutenants knew Rupert was at Knaresborough on June 30. On July 1, they faced west along the York-Knaresborogh road, pulling some of their forces back over a bridge of boats at Poppleton.

They soon realized that they had not adequately anticipated the enemy's movements. Rupert shot across the map like a line on a graph, crossing the Ure at Boroughbridge and the Swale at Thornton Bridge before dropping to the south, with the Ouse River protecting his right flank. That night he seized the bridge of boats at Poppleton and sent his messengers into York over the very trenches the Roundheads had so speedily abandoned. His infantry had marched more than 20 miles that day; the cavalry had ridden even farther. It was a remarkable piece of strategy, but the advantage gained was to be negated within a few hours.

The Roundheads drew off toward Tadcaster to guard the route to Newark and the south. Horse and foot were strung out like stretched elastic as Rupert's men began to appear behind them on Marston Moor at dawn on July 2.

Rupert had snatched a few hours of sleep in the Forest of Galtres. He then sent a peremptory message to the Marquis of Newcastle demanding he be present with his forces on the moor at 4 a.m. Newcastle replied by saying he was 'made of nothing but thankfulness and obedience to your highness' commands,' but not until 9 a.m. did he arrive with a small party. 'My Lord, I wish you had come sooner with your forces,' said Rupert dolefully, 'but I hope we shall yet have a glorious day.'

Newcastle was a patrician who had been born in 1592; he was a learned man-poets John Dryden and Ben Jonson were among his friends-but he made no claim to being a great general. 'He loved monarchy,' wrote sir Edward Hyde, 'as it was the foundation and support of his own greatness; and the Church, as it was well constituted for the splendour and security of the Crown; and religion, as it cherished and maintained that order and obedience that was necessary to both.' In contrast, the 60-year-old commander of the Scots, the Earl of Leven, was said to be almost illiterate, although he held a Swedish knighthood.

Newcastle's military advisor was James King, first Baron Eythin, who had been with Rupert at Lemgo, Germany, in 1638 when the latter was taken prisoner. Eythin had not covered himself with glory then, and now Newcastle was faced with the fact that this 25-year-old nephew of King Charles was his Royalist commander.

At Gloucester and again at Newbury in 1643, Rupert had balked and overruled. At Newark he had been his own boss. Now once again his plans were thwarted by powerful older men. Newcastle was not going to meet Rupert-an upstart half his age-on a moor at 4 a.m., forsooth! Nine o'clock was a much more civilized hour, and even that was earlier than he was used to. Lord Eythin, too, made no attempt to get his men moving that morning of July 2. When he did turn up in the afternoon, he grumbled to Rupert that a plan of battle was all very well, 'but there is no such thing in the field.'Somewhere about midday, the Roundheads realized the Royalists were gathering on Marston Moor, and they frantically began giving ground. Rupert contemplated sending his cavalry to swirl among the disordered enemy, but presumably felt he was not strong enough to withstand a counterattack without the support of Newcastle's men. He hesitated and settled for watching while Cromwell, Manchester, Leven, Lord Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas Fairfax, moved their forces into battle order. His hesitation at that critical moment was to lose the war for the Royalist cause.

Many similarities come to mind between Marston Moor and the battle that reputedly decided another civil war two centuries later: Gettysburg. Two months earlier, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had won the Battle of Chancellorsville but lost his great deputy, Lt. Gen. Thomas J. 'Stonewall' Jackson. At Lansdown Hill, the Royalists had won the battle but lost the incomparable Sir Bevil Grenville, who, if he had lived, might have become to Rupert what Jackson could have been to Lee. At Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, the Confederates would fail to seize the commanding heights as they arrived on the field and then would delay the great assault that might have shattered the Union Army of the Potomac. The man filling Jackson's role at Gettysburg, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, is often blamed for Lee's defeat for failing to fully maintain the initiative based on his commander's intent and take the heights outside the town straightaway. At Marston Moor, Eythin prevented the prompt assembly of the Royalists when they could have destroyed the scattered Roundheads with ease. At 4 p.m. the Royalists were finally ready for battle-but so were the Parliamentarians.

'Is Cromwell there?' Rupert asked a Parliamentary straggler who had been taken prisoner earlier that day. Cromwell was indeed present, with 2,500 cavalry, backed by a reserve of 800 Scots on Parliament's left.

Rupert had about 17,000 troops. On his right were some 2,600 cavalry under Maj. Gen. Sir John Urry (or Hurry), a many-times deserter from both sides. It is strange that on this vital day he was Rupert's main cavalry commander, but he did his work professionally, interspersing blocks of 50 musketeers with the squadrons of horse. This was a popular Swedish idea, intended to break up an enemy charge before it came within sword-slashing range. Lord John Byron commanded the first line and Sir Richard Molyneux the second. There was no reserve, apart from Rupert's personal guard of 'Bluecoats.'In the Royalist center were Newcastle's 'Whitecoats,' so-called because of their coats of undyed wool. These were the men who had borne the brunt of the fighting for York, and this day they would die by the thousand for a lost cause. On the left was Lord George Goring's cavalry of some 2,000 to 3,000 troopers. Goring was a heavy drinker who did not get along with the other Royalist leaders, but at Marston Moor he would nearly win them the battle.

In the Parliamentary center were six infantry brigades in the first line, two each under Manchester and Lord Fairfax and another two of Scots under Lt. Gen. William Baillie. In the second line, all the infantry were Scots except for another of Manchester's brigades. On the right were 2,000 to 3,000 cavalry under Sir Thomas Fairfax.

The Roundheads had about 23,000 men, according to recent research, not the 27,000 once reported. They certainly outnumbered the Royalists, but not so much that Rupert, being reinforced by the York garrison, was afraid to meet the enemy. The two armies were only about 400 yards apart, separated by a ditch and the track running from the village of Long Marston to Tockwith. Along the Parliamentary front were 25 cannons, which were more irritating than murderous. The most efficient artillery of the time was the large siege cannon, which was too cumbersome for battlefield use.

After the Roundheads had chanted their evening psalms, it was generally believed that there would be no fighting that day. The Parliamentary infantry stood in a field of wet rye. Just after 7 p.m., where was a rain shower, and Rupert went off to have his dinner. 'We'll charge them in the morning,' he said to Newcastle, who retired to his coach to smoke a pipe. At 7:30 p.m., however, a thunderclap smote their ears and, as if on signal, Cromwell charged.

We do not know what Cromwell had said at a hurried conclave on Marston Hill a little earlier, but now the entire Roundhead army moved forward, 'like unto so many thick clouds,' as Manchester's chaplain Simeon Ash put it. The Roundhead scoutmaster who was with Cromwell described the onrush of the left wing: 'In a moment we were past the ditch into the moor, upon equal grounds with the enemy, our men going in a running march.'

From those descriptions it seems that Cromwell's horse hit the Royalists in well-ordered squadrons. There was no sudden tearing through the enemy such as Rupert loved to do. By unified weight the Roundheads heaved back the Royalist right. Lord Byron did not help by advancing to meet the charge head-on and getting in the way of the musketeers.

As soon as he heard the sound of battle, Rupert leapt into the saddle and charged into the fray at the head of his reserve of Bluecoats. They fought furiously and punched back the crust of Cromwell's cavalry. At about that time, Cromwell was slightly wounded in the neck and withdrew for some minutes to have the cut patched. Someone ordered up the Scottish reserve and Cromwell soon returned to urge it on in person. Suddenly, the Parliamentary weight prevailed, and Rupert's horse was flying back along the road to York.

Elsewhere, the Royalists seemed to have won the battle. Newcastle's Whitecoats had made a colossal attack on the Parliamentary infantry, and the Scots in the second line could hardly hold them. The first line was in complete disorder and it seemed that the Whitecoats' driving pikes might lift the Roundheads clean off the field. On the Royalist left, Lord Goring had launched his cavalry in the sort of tear-away charge Rupert might have produced had he not been so hesitant. The Parliamentary right had been torn away as a man's shoulder might be torn away by a cannonball, and the Earl of Leven and one or two other worthies went with it. Back down the roads leading to the south went news of the trampling of Parliament's main armies, and in Newark a peal of bells was rung in honor of a Royalist triumph.

The time was getting toward 8:30 p.m. and there was at most an hour of daylight left. Cromwell had pulled his cavalry round behind the Royalists and halted either in or near Wilstrop Wood. Most of Rupert's cavalry had fled beyond it, and Cromwell let them go while he and his men coolly evaluated what else needed to be done on that hectic field.

Lord Fairfax had joined the rout of the infantry, but to his right with some of the cavalry was still his redoubtable son, Sir Thomas. In the midst of the confusion he threw away the white scarf by which many of the Parliamentarians distinguished themselves (those were the days before regular uniforms), and he rode amid the turmoil right through the rampaging Royalist cavalry. It is not certain who first found Cromwell at Wilstrop Wood with news of the chaos on the Parliamentary right, but it might have been Fairfax. At any rate, Fairfax would have been sufficiently coolheaded to put Cromwell in the picture. And Cromwell knew what to do.

At 8:30 Goring's cavalry was slicing away the right flank of the wavering Roundhead infantry, and some of his men had even reached Marston Hill. Suddenly from behind them, from where they might have thought Rupert's Bluecoats were waiting, came a sweeping, violent charge of 2,500 horsemen led by Cromwell in person. And these men were fresh-remember, they had paused after the rout of Rupert's cavalry, and had not just returned from a chase.

John, second Earl Maitland's regiment of Scots was still holding its ground with pike and musket, and the grand sweep of Cromwell's cavalry did the rest. From being the victors, Goring's horse became the fugitives, the mere backwash of a river trying to contend with an oncoming tide. By 9 o'clock the battle was over as a contest, and Cromwell was the master of the field, with which his nominal superiors, Manchester, Leven and Lord Fairfax had lost touch.

There was a bloody postscript. The gallant Whitecoats refused to surrender to an army that included many Scots. They were penned in White Sike Close, and they fought on far into the night under a full moon while Cromwell's cavalry had the hideous work of cutting away their outer ranks layer by layer. The Whitecoats who were wounded spent the last of their strength thrusting upward from the ground with pikes and scythes, trying to maim the horses of their attackers. Late that night some 30 or so surrendered; the rest were dead or so badly wounded they could no longer bear arms.

The Royalist dead totaled between 3,000 and 7,000, probably nearer the latter figure when it is recollected that 3,000 Whitecoats alone must have died. The Roundhead losses are reckoned to have been less than 1,000 dead and wounded, but it was a narrow squeak. For without Cromwell, those figured could easily have been reversed. Rupert still managed to find 6,000 horsemen with whom he escaped back over the hills into Lancashire.

A few days later, Yorkshire troops under Sir Thomas Fairfax entered York under an agreement that no 'foreign' soldiers would garrison the city. Sir Thomas, one of the most civilized men in that war, saw to it that the stained-glass windows of York Minster (containing more than 2 million separate pieces) were not damaged by the iconoclasts among the Roundheads.The results of the battle were cataclysmic. Apart from Newark, the whole of the north and the English midlands had fallen to Parliament in two hours. The biggest battle fought on British soil was a Parliamentary landslide. Cromwell was free to turn his attention to the south.

The Scots now returned to the siege of Newcastle, Fairfax the Younger mopped up Royalist garrisons just as Rupert, only a few weeks before, had mopped up Parliamentary garrisons. 'Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord in this great victory given unto us,' wrote Cromwell to his brother-in-law. 'God made them as stubble to our swords. We charged their regiments of foot with our horse and routed all we charged.'

The Marquis of Newcastle declined to help Rupert pick up the pieces; instead, he left the country. He returned at the time of the Restoration in 1660 and lived to the ripe old age of 84. The Earl of Manchester, nominal commander of the Parliamentarians at Marston Moor, returned to East Anglia for a time, where he contemplated the future with increasing doubt.

In the south, King Charles had followed Essex into Cornwall, and at Lostwithiel on September 2 some 8,000 Parliamentarians surrendered-the greatest single capitulation of the war. Charles marched back to Wiltshire, entered Salisbury in high spirits, and at the end of October fought another drawn battle at Newbury against twice his numbers. He thought the war had been dragged back onto an even keel, but it had not. Nothing could undo the effect of those shattering charges of Cromwell's men, half-humorously and half-fearfully dubbed 'Ironsides' by Rupert himself. From now on, Parliament would be able to concentrate its forces in the south and the midlands, where the war would be decided.

Cromwell and Manchester came to a parting of the ways at Newbury. Manchester pointed out that no matter how often Charles was beaten, he was king still and that one defeat would ruin Parliament. Cromwell would have no truck with that defeatism, and he and his friends in the House of Commons dictated the course the war was to take from then on. A new army, the New Model (which included some New England colonials in its ranks) was to take the field in 1645, and under Sir Thomas Fairfax it was to win the Battle of Naseby. It was not an army to be found to any one district, like the Eastern Counties Association or the Cornish Infantry, but would march and fight anywhere. It was England's first real standing army, and it introduced among its men, New Englanders and all, the red coats that were to be the British infantryman's until the facts of 19th and 20th century war (and the climate in India and South Africa) led to the introduction of khaki.The powerful Oliver Cromwell, lieutenant general of horse in the New Model Army, grew even more powerful after Marston Moor. After the execution of King Charles I on January 30, 1649, Cromwell's sweep to military dictatorship could not be stopped.

Yet, that was not to be the end-the reaction, when it came, was against the military republic and not against the monarchy. In 1660, when Charles II was restored, both the Earl of Manchester and the Marquis of Newcastle were on his staff-and example of the constant changing of partners in the waltz of history. And it can be argued that the two hours at Marston Moor ensured the triumph of the constitutional monarchy just as much as it spelled the end of the ambitions of Charles I.

For further reading, South African contributor John Woolford suggests: This War Without an Enemy, by Richard Ollard; Cromwell: Our Chief of Men, by Antonia Fraser; and The King's War, by C.V. Wedgwood.

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