The Battle of Naseby (373 years ago today) was the final decisive battle of the English Civil War, and it also provides the finale of Book 3 of the Blandford Candy Histories (currently being edited but tentatively named Of Blood Exhausted). The victory of the New Model Army finished hopes of Royalist victory. The fighting would drag on for another year, but it was at Naseby that Charles I’s crown was shattered.
Despite the disastrous defeat at Marston Moor in July 1644, the year had ended with the King’s fortunes seemingly on the rise. Charles had beaten the Earl of Essex’s forces at Lostwithel, and had managed to avoid defeat (despite being massively outnumbered) against the combined armies of Manchester, Essex, and Waller at the second Battle of Newbury. To add insult to injury, the King had then managed to relieve Donnington Castle and retrieve his artillery train that had been trapped there. The subsequent bitter recriminations in Parliament saw Cromwell and the Independents accuse the army leadership of weakness and vacillation. In turn, the Earl of Manchester accused Cromwell of insubordination. What came out off the debates was the creation of a new army, and the passing of the most important piece of legislation during the war: the Self Denying Ordnance.
The Ordnance was designed to completely revolutionise the military leadership. Instead of Lords and MP’s commanding forces, the Ordnance demanded a split between the military and the political. Members of both houses had to resign their military commissions. The New Model Army was to be meritocratic, and began the traditional British distaste for soldier politicians (admittedly helped by Cromwell’s dictatorship and Wellington’s appalling record as Prime Minister). This was a massive reorganisation of Parliament’s military resources. To lead the new army they chose the Yorkshire general Sir Thomas Fairfax. Cromwell, whose resignation had been the price demanded by many moderates to support the Self Denying Ordnance, had his command "temporarily" extended. One of the few others asked to remain at their posts was Sir Samuel Luke whose intelligence network centred on Newport Pagnell was going to be vital to the campaign.
The Royalists, in the meantime, had reorganised their High Command, and were lifted by news from Scotland where the Earl of Montrose was rampaging through the Highlands destroying one rebel army after another. At the outset of the campaigning season, the royalists decided to divide their forces. The main army with the King and Prince Rupert would march north to meet with Montrose and recover York. Three thousand troops were also sent to the South West under Goring to besiege Taunton.
Fairfax led the new army directly to besiege Oxford (the Royalist capital) leaving Charles free to move north. However, news that his capital was low on supplies forced the King to turn south to relieve the city. On 31st May, the royalists stormed Leicester with the same brutality that had been meted out to Bolton a year before. It had the desired effect. Parliament panicked and ordered Fairfax to hunt down the King’s army. Fairfax demanded complete control of the campaign and Cromwell as his Lieutenant General of Horse. The MPs agreed.
After Leicester, the King at first moved south toward Oxford but then drew back towards Newark. Fairfax marched in pursuit of the King and was well supplied with intelligence from his own scouts under Leonard Watson, and Samuel Luke’s intelligence network. On 12th June New Model Army advance troops clashed with royalist forces at Daventry. Fairfax had already intercepted letters from the King to Goring in Taunton recalling the Western troops to reinforce the royal army and knew he had a temporary advantage in numbers. On 13th June a Scout named Tarrant brought in Goring’s reply. The Royalist general bluntly refused to return to Charles. Fairfax knew that he had nearly twice the forces than the King and that there were no royal reinforcements coming. King Charles had just over seven thousand men, facing him was the New Model Army with nearly fifteen thousand.
The morning of 14th June was misty. The royalists had determined to fight (against the advice of Prince Rupert) but had little idea of where the New Model Army was. Fairfax had moved to the Village of Naseby on high ground, but the royalist scouts had failed to locate the army of 15000 men just five miles away. It was only when Rupert himself rode forward to take a look, that the New Model Army was discovered. As the early morning mist dissipated, the two armies faced each other across an open valley enclosed on the Western side by long hedges (known as the Sulby hedges which marked the Naseby parish boundary) and by rough ground and rabbit warrens in the East.
After Cromwell’s advice, Fairfax moved the army off the top of the unassailable Naseby ridge to a lower (more tempting) position slightly to the west. At the same time, Cromwell sent a regiment of Dragoons under Colonel Okey around the Sulby Hedges. Ireton (Cromwell’s future son-in-law) commanded the NMA left wing of Horse, Phillip Skippon commanded the infantry centre, whilst Cromwell commanded the right wing of Horse.
Despite their inferiority in numbers, the royalists had decided to break the NMA with a frontal assault, relying on the experience and fighting zeal of the Oxford Foot. On the royalist left flank, the Northern Horse faced Cromwell. Rupert's brother Maurice led the Royalist right wing facing Ireton, but Okey’s dragoons hidden in the Sulby Hedges suddenly started volleying shot into the stationary royalist right wing. Prince Rupert rode over to see what was happening. Unable to get at the dragoons who were protected by the hedges, and losing the fire fight despite the support of some commanded musketeers, the royalist right wing began their charge early. They rode out of range of Okey’s muskets, Rupert calmly dressed their ranks, and then they crashed into Henry Ireton’s troops.
As had happened at Edgehill three years earlier, Rupert’s charge swept away the rebel left wing of horse, but they carried on to loot the NMA baggage train. In the centre, the royalist foot had smashed the first ranks of the NMA infantry, driving into the centre of their line. However, the NMA line merely bowed in the centre rather than breaking. The second line held with their superior numbers. At the infantry flanks, the royalists started to get pushed back.
The right flank of the NMA still faced the Northern Horse under Marmaduke Langdale. At first the Northern Horse held back from the charge. When they did charge, they were outnumbered two to one. Cromwell’s first line charged out to meet them, halting them in their tracks and outflanked them. Langdale’s Horse broke and ran. Cromwell sent some troops in pursuit and turned his second line of Horse on the exposed royalist infantry. At the same time Okey’s dragoons, who had been left the other side of the Sulby Hedges, mounted up and rode out from their protective walls. With the remnants of Ireton’s Horse they attacked the Cavalier right flank. The royalist foot were enveloped from both sides. Prince Rupert’s bluecoats (an elite royalist foot regiment) moved up to try and rescue the situation, but without cavalry support they were isolated behind the battle line. They held off repeated charges and musket volleys, until Fairfax himself led his own regiments against them. The Parliamentarian general took the Bluecoats standard personally in the melee.
The rest of the royalist foot either threw down their weapons or fled. Archaeological evidence of the battlefield indicates that this was no wild flight, but an organised fighting retreat by some units. Prince Rupert, arriving back at the battlefield after regaining control over his troops, was faced with the utter defeat of the cavalier army. He could not induce his men to charge again. Charles I, seeing his army destroyed, for a moment started a wild charge with his personal bodyguard, like Richard III at Bosworth 150 years before. Fearing a similar ending as Richard III, the Earl of Carnwath grabbed the King’s horse bridle, swore, and shouted "Would you go upon your death?" at his monarch. He led the King away. The royal bodyguard followed their master, and any chance of retrieving the situation was lost. Some surviving troops made a stand on a hill to the north of the baggage train, but they were quickly overwhelmed by Fairfax’s men.
The royalist baggage train was captured, and over a hundred camp women murdered in the killing frenzy. The Parliamentarians claimed they were Irish whores, but they were most likely Welsh wives and camp followers whose language was mistaken for Irish Gaelic. With the baggage train was King Charles’s carriage and correspondence: all of his secret communications with Irish Catholics, the French, the pope, all of the Queen’s machinations in Paris. All of it fell into the hands of his enemies. The royalist foot were destroyed: one thousand killed and another five thousand captured; the artillery train was lost, and what was left of the Horse scattered across the midlands.
In the aftermath, Leicester was retaken by the NMA, and six weeks later Goring’s remaining western army was destroyed by the Fairfax at the Battle of Langport. Parliament published the King’s correspondence, scoring a massive propaganda coup with the public. By September they had captured Bristol, and the Earl of Montrose was finally beaten in Scotland. All that remained were the increasingly isolated royalist strongholds that were captured one by one by Fairfax and Cromwell. King Charles was soon a fugitive in his own kingdom and in May 1646 gave himself up to Scots forces at Newark. The first Civil War was over.
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All images from wikimedia and in public domain execept the battle plan of Naseby from History Net.