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The Battle of Naseby, on June 14, 1645, had raged for three hours between King Charles’ veteran forces and Parliament’s numerically superior but inexperienced New Model Army. In the end, Sir Thomas Fairfax, the New Model’s commander, managed to carry the day, despite the initial smashing cavalry charge of Charles’ nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the courageous stand of the outnumbered Royalist foot. A doubtful outcome had miraculously been turned into a total rout of the king’s army.

“The whole body of their foot taken and slain,” Fairfax reported back to London. “The horse all quitted the field….Their ammunition, ordnance and carriages all taken.” A field dispatch added that Oliver Cromwell, lieutenant general of the Parliamentary horse, “did beyond expression gallantly” in the field that day, but Cromwell gave credit where he was sure it was due: “This is none other than the Hand of God; and to him above belongs all the glory.”

After three bloody, indecisive years, it seemed as if an end to the English Civil War was at last in sight. Just one day after the battle, the Committee of Both Kingdoms, the wartime joint executive for England and Scotland, rushed letters to the beleaguered Parliamentary garrisons in the West Country announcing this “very great victory” and encouraging them to take heart, for help soon would be on the way.

The truth was that the Royalists still had formidable forces in the West, where the sharpest thorn in their side was the Parliamentary garrison at Taunton, in Somerset. An interminable siege had tied down much-needed cavalry forces that might have made a difference to King Charles’ cause at Naseby. Now the Royalists had to take Taunton and quickly.

George Lord Goring, commander of the Royalist Cavalry as well as being in charge of the siege, was an experienced, hard-fighting, hard-drinking officer whose talent was matched by his ambition. Although Goring claimed overall precedence in the Western campaign, other Royalist commanders thought differently, believing they held independent commands. In particular, Sir Richard Grenville of Cornwall had spent as much time verbally battling against Goring as fighting their common enemy. To further complicate matters, the king had sent his 14-year-old son, Charles, Prince of Wales, and an advisory council to act as the civilian authority in the West in early March 1645. The feuding commanders now had to contend with what they deemed civilian interference.

As early as June 18, General Goring wrote to the Prince’s Council at Barnstable to advise that a Parliamentary relief force under Maj. Gen. Edward Massey was advancing toward his position. He also had news of plans being made in London for a full-scale Western campaign. Despite that intelligence, he remained optimistic about a successful conclusion at Taunton— if Grenville could be persuaded to join him. Less than a week later, however, Goring was bitterly complaining of his lack of supplies and threatening to raise the siege “out of hunger.” The council replied with alacrity, promising provisions for both Goring’s forces and the nearby Royalist garrison at Langport.

Goring’s intelligence proved to be correct; Massey, with a force of 2,200 horse and dragoons, had reached Romsey in Hampshire on June 26. That same day the Committee of Both Kingdoms granted Sir Thomas Fairfax his request to take the New Model Army west: “In regard to the pressing necessity of relieving the party within Taunton, and of breaking the King’s forces in the West, we approve your intention.” Furthermore, unlike in the splintered Royalist command, Fairfax was granted the power “to do therein as you shall see cause and may judge best.” The committee also urged both Fairfax, then located at Leclade on the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border, and Massey to get messages through to Taunton’s defenders to let them know two relief forces were marching to their assistance. At the same time, the pursuit of King Charles was left to Parliament’s ally, the Scots Army.

On July 2, the Parliamentary forces linked up at Blandford in Dorset. Fairfax and Cromwell had covered more than 60 miles, and the news of their rapid approach was sufficient to force Goring to raise the siege of Taunton, for he knew his forces were heavily outnumbered. Modern estimates place the ratio at about 2-to-1, with approximately 7,000 Royalists facing some 14,000 Parliamentary troops. London, however, was still worried about assistance reaching Goring across the Bristol Channel, from the king who had eluded his pursuers and was now recruiting in Wales. “We conceive it to be of great consequence to our affairs” to prevent any such linkup, the Committee of Both Kingdoms warned its commanders.

Goring, on the other hand, did indeed hope to keep this line of communication open and moved his army toward Langport, thus putting the Parrett and Yeo rivers between himself and the pursuing army. Fairfax was left somewhat frustrated and scouting for safe crossings, since the retreating Cavaliers had pulled down the bridges and stationed guards at the river passes. By that point in the war, Fairfax and Goring had faced each other several times. Their last major encounter had been at Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, when Goring’s cavalry had routed Fairfax’s horse and nearly turned the tide of battle before Cromwell had saved the day. Now Fairfax was once again facing Goring, who was moving from one side of the river to the other in an effort to avoid a major confrontation while he awaited reinforcements.

In a further attempt to even the odds, Goring sent out a party of 1,500 horse in a feint back toward Taunton, hoping to draw off some of the Parliamentary forces. Fairfax did send Massey with 4,000 horse and dragoons toward Ilminster in pursuit. But the Royalist ploy backfired, for Goring made the mistake of including his hard-drinking brother-in-law, Commissary General George Porter, in the diversionary force. On the afternoon of July 9, as Porter and his men relaxed and refreshed themselves in the village of Isle Abbots, Massey managed to approach undetected and enter the town from two sides. At least 200 Cavaliers were taken prisoner, and the rest were put to flight. General Goring himself came upon his disordered cavalry and entered into the fray, receiving a deep facial wound while trying to rally his troops. As he saw his brother-in-law gallop by in flight, Goring angrily remarked to his adjutant, Sir Richard Bulstrode, that Porter deserved “to be pistoled for his negligence or cowardice.”

Fairfax now had several passes available to him to bring his army across the rivers in pursuit of the retreating Royalists. Goring, in turn, decided to send his baggage and artillery farther west to the stronger Royalist garrison at Bridgwater, “our horse having been very much shattered with the disorder…[and with] not one day’s provisions in Langport.” He actually was still hoping to withdraw his entire army without giving battle, but, as he would later recount, “[T]he enemy drew up so fast against us that we were forced to face them and endeavor to keep a pass through which they were to come towards us.”

On July 10, Fairfax caught up with the Royalists, several miles east of Langport. Goring had taken advantage of the marshy terrain, for the Parliamentary forces would have to ford a stream and charge uphill in a narrow pass that allowed no more than four horses abreast and through a gantlet of hedges lined with musketeers. He also had placed two fieldpieces overlooking the pass.

Fairfax opened with a cannonade of “about 50 or 60 great shot,” by which the Royalists’ two lone guns were soon taken out of action. It is interesting to note that of the many eyewitness reports, only one emphasized the importance of the New Model Army’s superiority in artillery, stating, “Our ordnance played so quick and sure, that presently the enemy were put to a rout, and were as in a maze, not knowing which way to avoid the cannon.” Others preferred to see God’s hand at work rather than the gunners’.

Fairfax next dispatched Colonel Thomas Rainsborough with 1,500 musketeers to beat the opposing infantry, many of whom were new recruits from Wales, from the hedges. Finally, Major Christopher Bethel entered the narrow pass with three troops of horsemen, backed by three of General Fairfax’s own, commanded by Major John Desborough. Bethel led his own troop “through the water which was deep and dirty” and charged uphill against the Royalists holding the heights. Bethel’s charge—“one of the bravest ever beheld,” an eyewitness noted—was so ferocious that he initially forced his opponents to give way. When Bethel’s three troops were finally forced to give way, Desborough charged with the reserve, caught the Cavaliers in the flank and broke them. “God took away the enemy’s courage, and away they [did] run,” a Parliamentary observer noted. Bethel and Desborough then set off in hot pursuit and chased part of the Royalist horse to the outskirts of Bridgwater.

General Goring joined the battle, fighting alongside his lifeguard, trying to rally his failing troops. With about 1,000 horse and foot he managed to retreat to Langport, pursued by Fairfax and Cromwell. As Goring, his troops, the garrison and the Royalists retired through the far end of town, to join those who had already fled to Bridgwater, they set fire to houses to cover their retreat. It was now Cromwell’s turn to lead a dangerous charge “where he himself went through the fire flaming on both sides of him.”

On July 11, Fairfax wrote Parliament, “It pleased God, on Thursday last, by this Army, to give General Goring a defeat.” More than 2,000 prisoners had been taken, as well as stores of arms and many colors of horse and foot. More important, Fairfax would continue his relentless pursuit to Bridgwater, which he would force to surrender on July 22. In a letter to his father, the general shared his great relief at having stopped the western Royalists’ threat: “We cannot esteem this mercy less all things considered than that of [the] Naseby fight.”

Goring, who succeeded in escaping, tried to play down the magnitude of this loss in his postmortem. But he had to admit that the impact on morale “is very much, for there is so great a terror and distraction amongst our men that I am confident at this present they could not be brought to fight against half their number.”

King Charles had lost his last chance to negotiate from a position of military strength. By December 1645, even Lord Goring gave up the fight; he granted himself indefinite leave and sailed for France. He never returned to England, but fought as a mercenary for the king of Spain and died impoverished in Madrid in 1657 at the age of 48.

Even the victorious Fairfax would eventually be eclipsed by his subordinate, Oliver Cromwell. And ultimately the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 did not bring the final answer to the question over which so much blood had been shed: Who was to be the sovereign power in England, king or Parliament? Only with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was Parliamentary supremacy established, this time in a bloodless coup. The memory of Englishmen killing Englishmen in battles like Naseby and Langport clearly had a lasting effect.


Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.