This Deceitful Light (Book 2 of the Blandford Candy Histories) opens with a description of the First Battle of Newbury, and the siege of Gloucester is covered by an upcoming collection of short stories (Davenant’s Egg and Other Tales) so I thought a blog post might be in order.
At the start of the campaigning season in 1643, King Charles I looked to end the war quickly. He controlled the North of England and the West Country, and after the fall of Bristol only Gloucester and Plymouth remained as last lonely Roundhead bastions in the West. The King was faced with the choice of marching directly on London, where the Earl of Essex’s field army was riddled with disease and desertion, or take Gloucester and gather reinforcements from the Welsh March. After the heavy casualties storming Bristol, the cautious King chose to march on Gloucester, despite the urging of Prince Rupert to attack London. The Gloucester garrison, forewarned by spies in the Royalist camp, sent to London for help. However, Governor Edward Massey had less than 1500 men, few cannon, and very little gunpowder. Against that was ranged the whole Royalist army numbering perhaps 25000 men and the Royal Artillery train.
Edward Massey (1619-1674) was a pragmatic mercenary who had considerable experience in Europe. He was under no illusion about Gloucester’s survival, and had even entered into secret communication with the Royal High Command. The King expected Massey to surrender the town without a fight when he arrived with the Royal Army on August 10th 1643. However, the citizens of Gloucester were not so easily cowed. They refused to surrender, and Massey, despite wanting to surrender, was forced to defend the town against the King. He would prove remarkably adept at the task, despite his personal reservations.
Charles had by now divided his forces, leaving the Western Army in Bristol, and fearful of high casualties, settled down for a siege instead of storming Gloucester quickly. With reinforcements arriving every day, the King was confident that Gloucester would soon fall. Two days after the start of the siege, William Davenant, the poet and self-proclaimed son of Shakespeare, arrived with the largest siege mortar in England. However, the gun exploded ‘at the first discharging’(Look HERE for more on Davenant’s Gun and its links to Humpty Dumpty). It was an omen for the rest of the siege. Massey was relentless in defending against assaults: he moved his cannon every night to confuse the enemy, and had three ‘factories’ making powder to supply his men. Morale in the town was high, but without relief Gloucester’s chance of survival was nonexistent.
Meanwhile in London, the press had whipped up a frenzy about the fate of Gloucester. The town took on an Alamo like significance for the Parliamentary cause. Essex’s depleted, demoralised army was reinforced by the London Trained Bands and set off on a long march West on 26th August 1643. The rebel Earl had mustered nearly 15000 men for the campaign, but it was Parliament’s last field army of worth, if anything happened to it the war was finished, London would fall and the King would be victorious. The relief army slowly crept towards Gloucester, first to Northampton and then on towards the hills above the besieged town. We have the wonderful account of the march by Sergeant Foster of the Red Regiment of the Trained Bands who described the campaign in some detail. On the 5th September Essex’s army climbed Prestbury Hill and sighted Gloucester. There was a wild outbreak of cheering at the sight of their destination, and the discharging of weapons leading to the accidental death of one young boy in the Red Regiment. Essex ordered six cannon to discharge a signal to the defenders, but it went unnoticed in the town. The Cavaliers noticed: King Charles, with not enough gunpowder to fight a battle nor time to take Gloucester, withdrew, and Essex arrived in the town the following day. At the relief, the town had only 3 barrels of gunpowder left themselves and a few days worth of food. Essex and the army had arrived in the nick of time.
King Charles was still in a commanding position: the roundhead army had to get back to London or risk being cut off. The Cavaliers merely had to block Essex’s return and watch the Roundhead army collapse. The lack of powder was, however, the Achilles heel in the Royalist plans. Essex at first managed to give the Royalists the slip, getting ahead of the Royal army, hotly pursued by Prince Rupert’s cavalry. The Royalist Horse managed to delay and harass Essex giving Charles time to put his remaining forces between Essex and London. On the 19th September, both armies settled down for the night outside Newbury.
Yet again the Royalist High Command made a fatal mistake. They left a large hill overlooking their position unguarded, and on the morning of the 20th September, Essex sent Roundhead advance units to seize the hill. The Royalists were wrong-footed and forced to attack Essex’s army rather than hold a defensive position. What followed was a day of assaults on the Roundhead line, led by Rupert in the South, but the royal army was unable to break the London Trained Bands, and the Parliamentary line held. Now the lack of powder came back to haunt the Royalists. With not enough reserves to fight another day, the royal army slipped away in the night leaving the road to London open. Essex marched his victorious force back to the capital to a rapturous welcome. The Scots signed a treaty with Parliament to invade the Royalist North of England, and King Charles had lost his last chance to end the war in one blow.
The relief of Gloucester and defeat at Newbury marked the high mark of the Royalist war effort. Defeat nine months later at Marston Moor finished the King’s realistic chances of winning the war.