Parliament’s modern army faces off against the Royalists at Naseby in 1645.
The English summer of 1645 had been unusually wet, but on June 14 the sky was clear and visibility excellent, making for a dramatic spectacle as two 17th-century armies faced off across a small green rectangle of the English Midlands just outside Naseby, 75 miles northwest of London. Spread along the north side of a large open meadow known as Broadmoor were some 10,000 Royalists loyal to King Charles I, uniformed, a modern historian tells us, in “redcoats, whitecoats, bluecoats, and greencoats, all set out checker-wise, with scores of taffeta colours flaunting in the breeze.” Facing them were nearly 14,000 supporters of Parliament, most clad in red.
Charles I was on the field, as was his field commander and nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Duke of Bavaria, who had served his uncle continuously since 1642. The 25-year-old soldier was a beau sabreur blessed with good looks, courage, and luck. His martial apprenticeship, covering the gamut of military arts, began when he was 14, and his performance and expertise—not his bloodline—had earned him the rank of commander in chief of the king’s army. This morning, Rupert would have to exploit all his well-honed skills, for he was gambling everything on a powerful strike against the enemy’s left flank and center. If his men succeeded, the king’s cause would be sustained; if they failed, then all might well be lost.
Two of Britain’s preeminent soldiers commanded the forces of Parliament. Capt. Gen. Sir Thomas Fairfax was battle tested, valorous, and strong minded. He had helped organize the army he was leading this day, which represented a radical departure in the nature of a democratic nation’s military—a bold experiment by civilian leaders desperate for victory in this first English Civil War.
Fairfax’s able lieutenant was Oliver Cromwell, a landed gentleman and member of Parliament who had come into his own as a soldier. On the battlefield, Cromwell was courageous and analytical, with an ability to visualize the ebb and flow of combat, and the skill to grasp momentary openings. A deeply religious man, Cromwell looked to the Almighty for the sanction to wage war, no matter the cost, and likened victory to “nothing but the hand of God.” Cromwell on this particular morning carried the rank of lieutenant general of horse, commanding roughly half of Parliament’s forces in the field.
Rupert, Fairfax, and Cromwell had already clashed in numerous contests, but on this day, over the next three hours, the fate of England’s fledgling democracy would be determined, and a king’s destiny set on its tragic course in one of the most pivotal battles on English soil.
England’s great civil war began in August 1642, when Charles I unfurled his standard at Nottingham and summoned troops to enforce his divine right to rule. A decade of tensions between Crown and Parliament over questions of authority and finances, well spiced with religious issues, had turned to violence. Early in the conflict, both sides acquired the sobriquets by which they are still known: close-cropped Puritan supporters of Parliament were called Roundheads, while lordly Royalist leaders were styled the Cavaliers.
Following their first major clash at Edgehill in October 1642, it came as something of a surprise to the combatants that the war would not be ended by a single, decisive battle. For almost three years the two sides maneuvered against each other, laid siege to exposed opposition strongholds, and occasionally collided, yet no win or loss brought them closer to resolution, despite Parliament usually fielding larger and better-equipped forces. “Our victories,” grumbled a Parliamentarian scribe, “were put into a bag with holes.”
At the start of 1645, Royalist forces dominated the Midlands and the west, while the Parliamentarians were strongest in the south and east. These regions, however, were pockmarked with enclaves loyal to the other side and the northern regions were still in contention.
When the hostilities had erupted, England had no professional standing army comparable to the Royal Navy. Manpower was drawn from local militia systems intended largely for self-defense. Leadership also emerged from this system, so that during the first years of the war, gentlemen commanded the armies on both sides. They were chosen more for their social stature than for their proven military abilities.
By 1645 the inexorable friction of war had prompted great changes in both forces. Top leaders in the Royalist armies were now largely men burnished by experience and success: Lt. Gen. Lord George Goring in the west; James Graham, Marquess of Montrose, in the north; and Prince Rupert with the king, who was headquartered at Oxford.
Parliament’s frustration with the military stalemate had come to a head in late October 1644. At the second battle of Newbury, no fewer than three Parliamentarian armies had brought the king and his principal army to bay, but because the Roundhead army lacked an efficient command structure, which would have imposed a hierarchy on its trio of commanders (a council generated orders), the numerically inferior Royalist army was able to fend off a series of poorly coordinated attacks and successfully withdraw. This debacle prompted Parliament to demand a radical reorganization of the army.
In a speech before the assembly, Oliver Cromwell railed against those members of Parliament also commanding in the field who were less committed to abolishing the monarchy and would “not permit the war speedily to end, lest their own power should determine with it.” The result was the Self-Denying Ordinance, which prohibited sitting members from holding military appointments, unless specifically exempted. This legislation forced two especially prominent Parliamentarian commanders to step down, the group realizing that the Earls of Essex and Manchester had limited victories and caused unexpected defeats by their mediocre battlefield management and cautious outlooks.
The ordinance marked the beginning of a process that would transform the course of the war. More debate resulted in the creation of England’s first national armed body, popularly known as the New Model Army—“a professional and disciplined regular force, well paid and well equipped, under the control of an independent commander-in-chief,” according to historian Trevor Royle.
The New Model Army intended to field 12 regiments of foot (14,400 infantrymen), 11 of horse (6,600 cavalrymen), and 10 of dragoons (1,000 mounted infantrymen), totaling 22,000 soldiers, but horsemen were easier to recruit than foot soldiers, so the army was chronically short of infantry. Though Parliament maintained three other forces, the New Model would be its premier combat legion, with Sir Thomas Fairfax in overall command.
While the New Model reforms represented a significant step forward in the prosecution of the war, Parliament’s democratic impulses demanded that Fairfax be kept on a short leash. He had to answer to members of the Committee for Both Kingdoms, seven from the House of Lords (including three former army commanders displaced by the Self-Denying Ordinance) and 14 from the House of Commons. The committee also reserved the right to approve appointments of all colonels, majors, and captains, though it did allow Fairfax to pick his own lieutenants, sergeants, and gunners without oversight.
When word of this shakedown reached the Royalists, they sensed an opportunity to inflict a shattering defeat on what some cocky Cavaliers were calling the “New Noddle” while it was vulnerable. (The Royalists were not alone in their disdain for this experimental creation. Looking back at this moment, a Parliamentary writer observed that seldom did “any army go forth to war with less confidence on their own side.”)
In spring of 1645, King Charles was sequestered in Oxford with his principal army, while Fairfax was organizing the New Model at Windsor. Helping keep Charles in check were 1,500 Parliamentarian cavalry commanded by Cromwell (whose removal under the Self-Denying Ordinance was suspended because of his effectiveness in the field). Cromwell harassed outposts and confiscated draft horses capable of hauling artillery. The first in a sequence of events that would climax at Naseby began at the end of April, when the committee instructed Fairfax to break a Royalist siege of Taunton in southwest England.
Once Charles was informed of the Roundhead plan, he ordered his regional forces to concentrate at Stow-on-the-Wold. The question of how best to respond to Parliament’s gambit was laid before the king’s lieutenants and advisers. Several were all for destroying the New Model Army near Taunton while it was still weak. Others, including Prince Rupert, thought it more prudent for the king’s men to march north where they would encounter only minor opposition forces and be able to lift a Roundhead siege of the important Royalist stronghold at Chester. At the same time the king would be able to contact his allies in Scotland, where the Marquess of Montrose was winning victories for the Crown.
One theoretical advantage the Royalists enjoyed was their chain of command, which ended unambiguously at the king. On paper, at least, there were no committees or divided counsels at the highest level. Had Charles I been a warrior born, England’s Civil War might well have ended after Edgehill, but for three years the king had proved anything but decisive. He failed to impose his will on several subordinates, who often behaved like satraps in their regions, and although he was adept at dissembling and dirty tricks, Charles lacked the strategic vision that marks great commanders.
Presented now with a choice between striking at the New Model Army or marching north, the king decided to split his forces and do both. Lt. Gen. Goring and 3,000 horsemen would bolster his force besieging Taunton, while the king would move north with 8,600 horse and foot.
The king’s decision was politic and personal; Lord Goring and Prince Rupert were barely on speaking terms. But dividing his army ensured that even if King Charles’s forces were successful, they would lack the strength to clinch their victories.
Parliament promptly demonstrated that it could waffle, too. The concentration of Royalist forces upset some committee members, who were uncomfortable with Charles I footloose near the eastern districts. Fairfax received fresh instructions to reverse course save for a brigade he was to detach to carry out the original Taunton relief mission. With the king away from his capital, the time seemed right to strike at his main base, so the committee instructed Fairfax to link up with Cromwell to take Oxford.
This was easier said than done. The place was heavily fortified and well supplied—even a small garrison could defy a larger force—and the muddy roads meant that heavy siege cannons would be a long time coming. Fairfax complained about having to spend time and resources “unprofitably before a town whilst the king hath time to strengthen himself.”
Hardly had the New Model Army set a new course when the committee intruded again, telling Fairfax to detach Cromwell with some of his horsemen for a mission to the eastern districts.
Meanwhile, King Charles and his Royalist detachment had traveled north, reaching Burton on May 25. He had followed a circuitous route to avoid Parliamentarian strongholds, spreading misinformation regarding his destination, and increasing his army’s strength by adding the garrisons of loyal outposts on the way. On his journey, Charles learned that the investment of Chester had been lifted—making his relief mission less critical—and that the enemy was threatening a siege at Oxford. He recalled General Goring and considered a fresh course of action.
To relieve the pressure on Oxford, the Royalists thought to distract the New Model Army by striking at a valuable Parliamentarian target close at hand, duly surrounding Leicester on May 30. Following the rejection of a traditional summons to capitulate, Royalist forces under Prince Rupert stormed and captured the place the next day. Afterward, according to one of the king’s councilors, “the town [was] miserably sackt without regard to church or hospital.” Propaganda issued by both sides makes it difficult at this distance to soberly assess the lurid accounts of atrocities that appeared after this serious Roundhead reverse.
If King Charles wanted to get Parliament’s attention, he succeeded. The shocked committee made a fateful decision to loosen the strings tying Fairfax to the central command and gave him a free hand to bring the Royalist army to bay. The Oxford siege was lifted, Fairfax headed toward the king’s last known position, and Cromwell was recalled. Meanwhile, King Charles, still believing his capital to be in peril, obligingly directed his forces south and east, reaching Market Harborough on June 5. This prompted a rumbling from some of his cavalry, whose threatened homes lay to the north, but they were persuaded to stay the course.
In Market Harborough, the king’s men gathered supplies and intelligence. Although Oxford was no longer threatened, Charles wanted to do something to reassure his loyal followers. He marched south and west from Market Harborough, arriving at Daventry on June 7. While his army camped at the Iron Age fort on Borough (sometimes “Burrow”) Hill, the king organized and dispatched a supply train to Oxford, a southward journey of some 30 miles. This heartening but unnecessary gesture kept him in Daventry for six days.
While cooling his heels, Charles received the grim assessment that the New Model Army was “much superior to the numbers he had formerly been advised of.” Still, he believed he had the advantage. Writing to his queen on June 8, he declared, “since this rebellion [began] my affairs were never in so hopeful a way.”
Sir Fairfax moved his army east after breaking off its half-hearted approach to Oxford, stopping at Newport Pagnell on June 7, the same day King Charles entered Daventry. Suddenly unsure where the Royalist army was centered, Fairfax held station for several days while his scouts probed in all directions, and he worried about his command.
Even sympathizers did not universally welcome the New Model Army. As it passed town garrisons on its march, Fairfax had pressed these units into service. They were not part of the New Model scheme, and they came to resent its first call on scarce resources. In addition, the Puritan fervor of some New Model members went against the grain of many a rural Presbyterian. Internal discipline could be extreme; several soldiers had been executed to suppress mutinous behavior.
“I think these new modelers knead all their dough with ale,” complained one military administrator, “for I never saw so many drinking in my life in so short a time.” The jaunty Cavalier assessment that the New Noddle would come apart at the seams under the stress of battle cannot be dismissed as so much wishful thinking. All this troubled Fairfax.
While at Newport Pagnell, Fairfax received the authorization he had requested to promote Cromwell to the rank of lieutenant general of horse, placing him in charge of all the army’s cavalry. On June 12, needing to freshen his supply sources, Fairfax shifted the army west and north toward Northampton, settling on its outskirts around Kislingbury, perhaps a dozen miles from Daventry. He was moving his army cautiously, positioning it behind watercourses whenever possible to forestall any Royalist spoiling attack.
At Daventry, the king’s Oxford supply mission had been successful and he resumed his original plan to march north to connect with loyal forces in Scotland. Charles expected to be rejoined en route by General Goring and his 3,000 seasoned troops, but his always unpredictable subordinate sent a message of excuses urging the king to delay his departure until Goring could arrive. The message was intercepted. Fairfax read it on the eve of the Naseby battle, greatly relieving his persistent fears that the Royalist cavalry would outnumber his own.
Sensing he was closing the distance, Fairfax accompanied one group of scouts on the night of June 12, personally observing the enemy burning huts on Borough Hill preparatory to a march. Rushing back to his lines through some rain showers, the army commander managed to forget the day’s password and a dutiful sentry kept him waiting until his identity could be confirmed. After tipping the guard for his fidelity to duty, Fairfax met with his principal lieutenants.
The army would proceed north to Market Harborough by way of Naseby. An easily seen windmill on a level plain northeast of Naseby was the designated rendezvous point for the Roundhead forces. On June 13 Cromwell reconnected with the New Model Army, bringing with him 600 to 700 troops.
Market Harborough was also the destination of the Royalist army, which arrived there on the same day, just as the Roundhead force was approaching Guilsborough, 10 miles to the southwest. A Parliamentarian combat patrol led by Col. Henry Ireton entered Naseby, surprising a Cavalier outpost and taking prisoners. Now each side knew for certain that the other was near.
That night the king called together his war council. They decided, as one member later recorded, “to march back and seek [Fairfax] out, [rather] than to be sought or pursued.…” Several chroniclers of this campaign blame Rupert for taking this aggressive course, but the most reliable reports say that the military men (including Rupert) preferred postponing a showdown until their odds improved. The king’s abrupt decision to seek out his opponent shows the kind of influence his more bellicose courtiers exercised over him at times.
Fairfax had already designated Naseby as the New Model Army’s point of concentration. As he drew near, he received reports that the Royalists were close at hand.
Rupert and Fairfax intially selected positions that they felt offered the maximum advantage to receive an attack by the other. The Royalists assembled along a mile-long ridge southwest of Market Harborough. Fairfax picked out high ground just northeast of Naseby fronted by bogs. According to one account, Cromwell dissuaded him from settling the army there, reminding him that the objective, after all, was to invite attack, and with the swampy ground inhibiting enemy cavalry movements, that wouldn’t happen. Fairfax ultimately mustered his units at a different position, more to the west.
It was likely Fairfax’s advance parties Prince Rupert spotted as he was undertaking his own reconnaissance after receiving an unsatisfactory nonsighting report from his scoutmaster general. Rupert’s observation persuaded King Charles to take up a new position on the west side of Naseby, on a prominent rise called Dust Hill, possibly hoping to flank the enemy. Fairfax found corresponding high ground that allowed him to match the move so that by early morning the two armies were in sight of each other, with the plain of Broadmoor between.
Each marched with artillery, though at Naseby neither would utilize it much because of the nature of the terrain and the muddy roads. Both had cavalry, which constituted their main striking force, organized in troops of roughly 60 men further grouped into regiments as large as 10 troops. Part of the New Model’s cavalry force was a smaller complement of mounted infantry, called dragoons. Such units had fought with King Charles earlier in the war, but appear to have been phased out by the Royalists at this point. When Naseby was fought, the New Model dragoons and some cavalry were exchanging their old powder-pan weapons for early-model flintlocks more suited to their rough-and-tumble operations.
Infantry formed the core of each army. Their armament was also in transition. A small number were pikemen, who employed a 16-foot wood pole (usually made of seasoned ash) tipped with steel as their main weapon, backed up by a broadsword. The pike had been the mainstay of medieval warfare for some 200 years. The musketeers were armed with matchlocks, which fired when the burning end of a chemically treated flax or hempen cord was manually thrust into the gunpowder pan. They took a relatively long time to reload, so the musketeers counted on the pikemen to cover them while they recharged their pieces. In addition to executing the numerous steps to load and shoot their pieces, and the different formations required in battle, the musketeers had to somehow juggle powder bandoliers and flasks (fine powder for the pan, coarser powder for the barrel) with smoldering primers while in combat, praying the two would never meet by accident.
Recent calculations suggest that King Charles brought 10,200 troops to the field this day, slightly more infantry than cavalry, and that they faced more than 13,700 Roundheads.
But the Parliamentarian army’s propensity for disorganized warfare diluted its numerical advantage, so that neither side was assured a victory.
The centerpiece for the Parliamentarian deployment consisted of two primary lines of infantry plus a regiment in reserve (7,321 soldiers) under Maj. Gen. Philip Skippon, Fairfax’s second in command, with a forlorn hope of 300 musketeers screening their front. It has been estimated that the proportion of shot to pike was four to one, making the mix 5,856 muskets and 1,465 pikes. The 2,960 cavalrymen on Skippon’s right were led by Cromwell, the 2,500 on his left by Ireton. Since Fairfax’s army had filed onto the battlefield already set in combat formation and filled the space from left to right, there was less room for the last to arrive, leaving Cromwell’s horsemen somewhat jammed together and stacked in three echelons.
Prince Rupert handled the placement of the king’s forces. His 4,140 infantry in the center were in two lines, commanded here by Sgt. Maj. Gen. Lord Jacob Astley. In the Oxford army this day the shot-to-pike ratio is thought to be close to five to one, representing 3,450 musketeers and 690 pikemen. The disparity of numbers became evident when Astley’s fully extended line could not cover the whole front of the Parliamentarian infantry. To Astley’s left (directly facing Cromwell) were the fractious Northern Horse (plus some small attached units) numbering 1,540 commanded by Brig. Gen. Sir Marmaduke Langdale. The same number of mounted units to his right were under the command of Prince Rupert’s brother, Maurice. The composition of these formations was complicated by Prince Rupert’s habit of inserting small cavalry detachments between his infantry blocks (some 720 horse in this case), and appending parties of musketeers (200 each) to the cavalry. Backing up the Royalist army was a reserve (1,190 horse, 670 infantry) under the king’s direct command.
As the armies took position, Fairfax kept many of his infantry units on the reverse slope, out of view of the Royalists. Historians have proposed various reasons for this tactic. Some say he feared the impact that the impressive scene of the king’s men deploying would have on his fledgling army, others that he was cannily concealing his true strength from the enemy. Watching the Royalists spread out for battle, Oliver Cromwell could not help “but smile out to God, in praises, in assurance of victory.”
The lines were formed by about 8 a.m. Each army occupied a 1,200-yard front: the Royalists facing south, the Parliamentarians north. To the west, the fighting arena was clearly delimited by a sturdy parish boundary hedge, while, on the east side, rising ground with a belt of furze bushes and rabbit warrens marked the usable limit of space. The thousand yards of seasonally marshy farmland between the two lines was under open cultivation with no walled enclosures. At roughly midpoint between the two sides, a slim gully projected into the open ground from the east side, growing increasingly shallow as it threaded along.
Even as the Parliamentarian men were taking their positions, Oliver Cromwell discerned an opportunity. The hedge lining the meadow’s west side would force the enemy cavalry to advance with it on their right flank. He sought out Col. John Okey, instructing him to position his 676 dragoons behind the barrier to rake the Royalist riders as they charged the main battle line. Okey rushed his ammunition resupply and hustled toward the assigned post. It has long been believed that he took position roughly midway between the two lines, but recent field investigations by battle historians show a significant accumulation of musket shot squarely off the Royalist right flank, suggesting Okey likely rode there and prompted a response from the 200 Royalist musketeers assigned to cover the cavalry.
The abrupt crescendo of gunfire on his right flank brought Prince Rupert over from his central position with the king and reserve. It was about a quarter past 10 when, by Rupert’s command, the Royalist right flank cavalry began to advance, as much to escape the sniping as to close with the enemy. However, instead of falling back to the main army, Okey adroitly sidled south, closing with the Parliamentarian line, while maintaining his fire behind the hedge barrier. His men continued to pepper the Royalist cavalry until they could no longer be targeted. From the Roundhead side, Rupert’s advance had all the appearances of an opening charge.
That demanded a countercharge, so Ireton’s cavalry began moving to meet them. Well before they collided, Rupert suddenly halted his force. His lines had been somewhat disarrayed by the marshy bottomland they encountered and the cavalry’s abrupt advance had opened a gap with the supporting infantry to their left while outpacing the attached musketeers. Rupert’s stop caused Ireton to halt his countercharge, so for a few awkward minutes the opposing cavalrymen stared at each other.
As the king’s foot soldiers came abreast of the gully bisecting the field they found it 15 feet deeper toward the east end. This had the double effect of slowing the left side of the infantry battle line and thickening the right as soldiers understandably crowded that way, resulting in something of a concentrated spiky wedge that angled toward the Parliamentarian line close to the junction of Ireton’s cavalry and Skippon’s infantry. It would appear that Rupert’s plan was to strike first and hard at the Parliamentarian left flank to unhinge Fairfax’s formation. All he hoped for on the Royalist left was that the Northern Horse could hold Cromwell’s riders in check.
Despite having to reposition, Prince Maurice’s horsemen still struck the Parliamentarian line first. The two left squadrons of his Royalist cavalry failed to crack the Roundhead line and were shoved backward. The three on the right, however, steadily waded into the four New Model mounted regiments holding the western end of the Parliamentarian position.
As this was happening, the Royalist front line of foot (perhaps 2,530 men) in their tight wedge closed with Skippon’s 4,332. (The forlorn hope appears to have hardly given them pause.) Fairfax’s infantrymen may have been confused by a tactic employed by the Royalist foot, whose musketeers held their fire until loosing a single close-range volley followed by a charge.
What happened next was known as “push of pike,” as one side tried to bowl over the other before closing in a melee. The king’s men, said one Royalist observer, using “sword and butt end of muskets did notable execution; so much as I saw their colours fall and their foot in great disorder.” The intermingling of 720 cavalry with the Royalist foot also hindered the Roundhead response. Then General Skippon was shot in the right side and the rumor spread that he had been killed, adding to the confusion as the frontline of Roundhead infantry began to falter under the impact.
Observing the two Cavalier cavalry squadrons retreating before him, Ireton led part of his command to the right to assist Skippon’s hard-pressed foot soldiers. Ireton was wounded and briefly taken captive, disrupting the Roundhead chain of command. At roughly 11 a.m., the New Model cavalry on the western extreme of the line began to scatter. The Royalist riders there achieved a limited breakthrough and now penetrated into the Roundhead army’s rear. Finding access to the immediate rear blocked by the formations Fairfax had hidden on the reverse slope, the Cavaliers pressed south. This party soon became embroiled in a time-consuming and unsuccessful firefight with the baggage train guards.
It has long been believed that Prince Rupert himself led the small force that, for all practical purposes, rode off the battlefield, allowing many historians to have fun at Rupert’s expense. “Once again the stag-hunting squires tally-hoed too fast and much too far” is a typical summary. However, Rupert’s own “journal,” kept for him by an aide, indicates that he remained with Prince Maurice’s horsemen only until the enemy’s line had been breached, after which he made his way back to the king and the army’s reserves. By the time Rupert arrived, a situation that had initially seemed so promising had dramatically changed for the worse.
Even as the Cavalier infantry wedge made contact with the Parliamentarian foot, Langdale’s leading line of Royalist horsemen (perhaps 865 strong) advanced against Cromwell’s front riders (some 1,600). Cromwell immediately led his men forward. The rough ground here slowed the pace of events as the various columns on both sides had to carefully pick their way across it. Here the greater numbers and firm discipline of the New Model riders and the sullen dispositions of the Northern Horse resulted in Langdale’s line coming apart by 11:30 a.m., though not without stiff fights in places. In a vain attempt to bolster this flank, the king committed his cavalry reserve (1,190 riders) but it made no headway against Cromwell’s well-trained horse.
By the time Rupert reached the reserves, the cavalry was expended and the Royalist left flank was in disarray. What these troops might have accomplished in the fiercely contested center remains a matter for speculation. Now, from the 670 infantry remaining in the reserve, Prince Rupert’s Bluecoat Regiment of Foot, maybe 400 men, tramped south to Dust Hill to secure the principal road leading north from the area.
Along the left center of Fairfax’s infantry formation, the first line of Parliamentarian soldiers was stiffened by the second, adding 2,292 fresh men to the combat. Morale got a further boost when General Skippon showed himself to be very much alive. Astley committed his 1,610-strong second line to the fray, no longer to win but to stave off disaster. Fairfax himself appeared on the scene, his head bare. Some sources say his helmet had been knocked off; others that he had taken it off so his troops would recognize him.
After two hours of fighting, the training and greater numbers of the New Model infantry began to turn the tide against the Royalist foot. The king’s infantry, now with the first and second lines intermingled, was pressed to midfield. With New Model foot soldiers attacking from the front, it was suddenly assailed on both flanks as well. Portions of Ireton’s command plus some of Okey’s dragoons converged on its right and Cromwell’s cavalrymen now attacked on its left. Cromwell’s control over his formation was such that he was able to dispatch several regiments to harry Langdale’s troops as well, while redirecting others to encircle the beleaguered Royalist infantry. What was left of the Oxford army began to withdraw north.
On Dust Hill, Prince Rupert’s Bluecoats bought some valuable time at a great price when they, in the words of a chronicler, “stood to it, till the last man, abundance of them slaine.” For the mass of the Royalist foot, hemmed in on all sides in the center of Broadmoor, the alternatives were death or surrender. Being experienced and practical soldiers, most chose the latter.
In earlier battles between these forces, a retreat by one side usually triggered a free-for-all pursuit by the victors. This time, however, Fairfax held back until he could organize an infantry-cavalry striking force to methodically grind up what remained of the Royalist troops. Despite several Parliamentarian accounts to the contrary, the army of King Charles did not disintegrate into a panicked mob. Carefully charted archaeological evidence of scattered shot shows “hot spots” along the retreat route, which suggest that the surviving Royalists put several effective delaying actions into play. Writing afterward, Fairfax’s chaplain, Joshua Sprigge, took care to state that the king’s men “were not wanting in courage.”
Still, other old habits died hard. Wagons were overrun and plundered, with estimates of the loot topping £100,000. In one notorious incident, a party of women camp followers was overtaken and savaged.
It was more likely during the retreat, rather than at the end of the battle (where it is usually placed), that King Charles attempted to personally intervene. When he turned to confront the pursuing Roundheads, one of his commanders stopped him and shouted: “Will you ride upon your death in an instant?” That exclamation was enough to stay the king who, accompanied by Prince Rupert, then rode 18 miles to Leicester. The king continued to Hereford, reaching it on June 19. That he was in denial over his defeat might be deduced from a statement by one of his retinue who wrote that upon arriving “we were there all lulled to sleep with sports and entertainments; as if no crown had been at stake.”
Naseby was an unmitigated disaster for the Royalist cause. The victorious New Model Army suffered about 535 killed or wounded. Only perhaps a third of the army King Charles had committed to battle at Naseby remained under his control at day’s end. The great majority of his infantry was lost, some killed, most captured, along with 12 pieces of artillery. The foot soldiers represented a military asset that King Charles would not be able to replenish, and without a solid foundation of pikemen and musketeers, he could expect to accomplish nothing of lasting importance.
There was a political element to the defeat, as well, for the Parliamentarians captured material that included several private communications (quickly made public). They showed that Charles was actively scheming to employ foreign troops against his own people.
While Naseby was not the last fight of the English Civil War, it was the beginning of the end. Not quite a month later Goring’s Western Army was beaten at Langport and then the Royalist strongholds began to surrender. Less than a year and a half after Naseby, King Charles was in the hands of the Parliamentarians. Ahead of England was a strained interlude as king and Parliament failed to find any common ground, followed by a short (less than a year) second round of civil war when Charles attempted again to regain his throne by force, using an alliance of hard-core loyalists, Scots, and Irish.
Defeated a second time, Charles I was executed on January 30, 1649.
With his Naseby victory, Sir Thomas Fairfax was hailed as Britain’s leading soldier, becoming overall commander in chief in 1647. He grew increasingly dissatisfied with the course of political events, however. He did not support the king’s execution and took an active role in committing the army to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, after which he retired from public life.
For Oliver Cromwell, the years following Naseby would see him assume total control of the nation as its self-proclaimed Lord Protector. His five years of rule by the sword would completely eclipse his critically important military service during the English Civil War, and his key role delivering the Parliamentarian victory at Naseby.
Prince Rupert went into European exile, only to be welcomed back to England when Charles II was restored to the English throne. In peace Rupert remained active as a sportsman, amateur scientist, and dabbler in the arts. He died in 1682 and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
Modern British historians now rank Naseby with Hastings and Bosworth. Indeed, some 200 years after it had ended, the leading British philosopher and historian Thomas Carlyle wrote of the battle’s great importance in a letter to an avocational scholar whose family owned small portions of the battlefield: “Few spots of ground in all the world are memorabler to an Englishman.”
Originally published in the Winter 2010 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.