375 Years Ago: Britain in Revolution – The Roads to & from Naseby, June 1645.

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Decision Time!

Royalist strategy in the Spring of 1645 had been to thrust north through Worcester to Chester and then pick up reinforcements in the north, where there would still be plenty of sympathisers despite the disaster of Marston Moor in the previous year. Rupert and Maurice, the King’s nephews, cleared the way by victories at Ledbury and Chester, but Charles himself was slow to move. Meanwhile, Cromwell, who was enjoying his first independent command, was sent to the Midlands to upset any Royalist plans. He lost no time in showing his ability and determination, defeating the Earl of Northampton near Islip, compelling the surrender of Bletchington House, taking two hundred prisoners in battle at Bampton, and making an unsuccessful attack on Faringdon Castle. However, he could not prevent the King from leaving Oxford with an army numbering eleven thousand. Both armies now began manoevring for advantage. Fairfax came up from the west and threatened Oxford; Rupert countered by sacking Leicester. Charles, although aware that his army was large and well-balanced was not prepared to risk it in open battle against vastly superior numbers. He therefore moved to Daventry, where he deliberated about how to relieve Oxford.

General Sir Thomas Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary Army in 1645.

Leicester’s agony had the expected effect of making the Committee of Safety in London abandon the folly of besieging Oxford. Parliament promptly accepted its recommendation that Fairfax should take the field against the King forthwith, and it soon freed him from constant direction from Westminster. It simply ordered him to follow the movements of the Royalist army and left the rest up to his judgement. Unaware of this, the King’s council of war overode Rupert and decided that the defence of Oxford must remain the main priority, the courtiers in the city, particularly the ladies, felt exposed. Added to this, Charles was not keen to engage the ‘Ironsides’ in the field with an army which was stretched by the need to garrison Leicester and beset by widespread looting, desertions and mutinies. He reckoned that he had barely four thousand foot and 3,500 horse left. Langdale’s northerners had riden off when they heard that the army was not going to move northwards and were only brought back with difficulty on 5 June, but there was still no sighting of Goring’s men or Gerrard’s Welsh levies.

In each other’s shadows:

Ordered to recover Leicester, Fairfax raised the siege of Oxford on 5 June and marched north. Three long marches took his army to a rendezvous near Newport Pagnell with the 2,500 men he had sent to support Leven, and by the 7th they were at Sherington, near Newport Pagnell. Meanwhile, the Royalist Army had camped near Daventry, where it remained immobile for nearly six days from 7 June onwards, mainly because 1,200 cavalry had been detached to escort vast quantities of cattle and sheep to Oxford, and they did not rejoin the army until the night of the 11th. Rupert cannot have approved this, because he knew from the 7th at the latest that Fairfax had raised the siege of Oxford. He wrote to his old friend Will Legge that there had been a plot among the civilian councillors to persuade Charles to return to Oxford, where they could reassert their control over him and counter the influence of the ‘soldiers’, meaning chiefly himself. Charles rejected the proposal, but it had already added to Rupert’s sense of insecurity. His own judgement was also questionable, however, for he shared the cavaliers’ facile contempt for the ‘New Noddle’, and he was poorly informed of its current strength. He was also quite unaware of its current proximity, whereas Fairfax had excellent intelligence of royalist movements from Sir Samuel Luke at the garrison at Newport Pagnell.

On 8 June, Fairfax held a crucial council of war. He put two questions to the council: how best to bring the King’s army to battle, and how to fill the vacant post of lieutenant-general of the horse. For that post he proposed Cromwell, and the assent was unanimous. He sent Colonel Robert Hammond to Westminster to request the appointment, to which the Commons immediately agreed. The Lords, whose concurrence was legally required to exempt Cromwell from the Self-Denying Ordinance, declined to give it, but the Commons’ assent was enough for Fairfax. Fairfax received equally strong support for seeking battle at the first opportunity, and on 11th he advanced his headquarters to Stony Stratford, only twenty-five miles from where the Royalist Army was entrenched in its impregnable position on Burough Hill near Daventry. Fairfax and his commander of foot, Skippon, had had much to do during the week before the impending battle, for many infantry recruits were recent arrivals and were not even armed when the army left the Oxford lines. A large consignment of muskets overtook them on the march, but there were still basic skills to be mastered. Fairfax began his final advance against the royal forces in foul weather on the 11th. His men slogged all day along muddy country lanes, avoiding the more frequented roads, and when they quartered at Wootton that night their approach was still unsuspected.

It was this stealthful strategy which gave Fairfax the initiative. By 12 June, the New Model had reached Kislingbury, eight miles east of Daventry (see ‘map 2’ above), and its cavalry patrols drove the Royalist outposts back towards the town. This was close enough to Charles to alert him to the impending danger, but the rain may have made Rupert’s scouts slack in patrolling, for he was still oblivious of the New Model’s proximity until late in the afternoon, when its ‘forlorn hope’ of forward cavalry surprised two of his outposts only two miles outside Daventry. The Royalist Army was dispersed and resting, its horses grazing, while the King was enjoying a hunt at Fawsley Park, several miles away from its nearest positions. Fairfax quartered his army around Kislingbury that night, and most of it must have slept in the wet fields. By nightfall, Rupert was at last aware that he had seriously underestimated the enemy’s numerical strength. He and the King had decided to retreat northward by way of Melton Mowbray to Belvoir Castle, where they could reinforce themselves from Newark and other Midland garrisons. Fairfax, not yet aware of this intended manoeuvre, stayed in the saddle until 4 a.m., riding round his regiments to check their preparedness against a nocturnal attack until he could make out the dim bulk of Burough Hill beyond Flore in the half-light. But the confusion caused by Fairfax’s sudden and unepexcted appearance did not force the Royalist Army to abandon its strong stand in arms on the hill above the town. Charles had no intention of being forced to fight at a disadvantage on ground not of his own choosing. All night, Fairfax could see their many little fires twinkling, but as the day dawned, so did the realisation that the ‘cavaliers’ were burning their huts before setting off ‘in retreat’.

At 5 a.m, back at the parliamentary camp, Fairfax’s scoutmaster brought him confirmation that the Royalists were indeed retreating. He had also intercepted a letter from Goring to Rupert, telling him that that he was not yet ready to join him from the west but urging him not to engage in battle without him. Buoyed by this news, and even more determined to draw the King into open battle, Fairfax called a war council at 6 a.m., and it was actually meeting when a cheer heralded Cromwell’s arrival. Cromwell had been in Ely, recruiting both horse and foot, and Fairfax sent for him at once on receiving the Commons’ approval of Cromwell’s appointment as Lieutenant-General, and of his plans to engage the King’s Army. Cromwell was the obvious military choice for this command, and it was a very popular appointment in the army. When he rode into the lines with seven hundred horse, early in the day, he was greeted ‘with a mighty shout’. To throw off a possible pursuit, the Royalists marched westwards for some miles towards Warwickshire, as if intending to retreat south-westward towards Oxford, before wheeling north-eastwards for their chosen quarters around Market Harborough, where the King planned to rendezvous with his troops from the Newark garrison. Fairfax lost little time in resuming his pursuit and his ‘complete’ New Model marched to Guilsborough, between Daventry and Market Harborough, about four miles south of Naseby and about eight miles from Harborough.

All through the 13th, a strong detachment of what was now Cromwell’s cavalry, under Henry Ireton and Thomas Harrison, had shadowed the Royalist Army’s movements, remaining hot on its heels, while the remainder of the New Model advanced on a parallel line with it at much closer quarters than Rupert was aware of. He had posted an advanced guard of about twenty horse at Naseby, seven miles from Market Harborough. That evening, Ireton’s scouts fell on them as they were taking supper and refreshments at the inn. Most were captured, but those playing quoits, possibly in a courtyard or separate room, were able to escape and carry the alarm to Harborough. Awakened with this alarming news, that night, Charles called a council of war with Rupert and the other councillors in the early hours of 14 June.

The great question at this was whether to offer open battle, and the answer wasn’t easy. The alternative proposals was to make speedily for Leicester, where the addition of its small garrison and the shelter of its defences would give about ten thousand men a better chance to hold off the fifteen thousand (but, for the most part, barely trained) men of the New Model. There were great risks either way. A retreat with Cromwell’s cavalry in hot pursuit could have led to a savage mauling, not least for the two hundred wagons in the royalist train. But it is very significant that Rupert advised against giving battle, while Digby and Ashburnham pressed for it, arguing that retreat would demoralise the king’s men, whereas they supposed Fairfax’s men to be discouraged by the sack of Leicester and the failure to take of Oxford. Even less realistically, they urged that Fairfax should be engaged before he could join forces with the Scots. In the end, the decision rested with the King, and he opted for open battle. So the decision was taken to stand and fight on the high ground two miles to the south of the town. Here there was a ridge of high ground covering the two miles from East Farndon to Great Oxendon, in modern co-ordinates from the B4036 to the A508 (see the map below).

The Royalists marched south on the morning of 14 June, and the two armies met at Naseby, just over the county boundary from Harborough, in Northants. It has been said that ‘the Royalist cause committed suicide at Naseby’, and it was a battle that the king should never have fought, but in fairness what has to be considered in making this distant judgement is what might have happened if the battle had been declined by Charles and Rupert. Even if the King could have got his army through to Leicester unscathed, he could not shelter there indefinitely, because Fairfax was intent on fighting and could in the long run muster more reinforcements than he. Now that Parliament had learnt how to deplo its superior resources and found commanders with the will to win, the tide of war had turned in its favour. And yet, if Goring had had obeyed orders and added his troops to the king’s, Naseby would have been fought on more equal terms, with even better if still fewer infantry and with a numerical advantage in cavalry. As Austin Woolrych has written,

If the untried New Model’s first battle had ended in defeat, who can be sure that it would have developed the the collective spirit that took it within a year to total victory?

As a result of the interception of his letter, Rupert did not know that Goring was still stuck in Somerset, and that the latter had advised against an immediate engagement in the assumption that his forces were well on the way. Had they waited in Leicester, Goring’s troops may have been able to make a difference in a subsequent battle, but by the time he arrived the Royalist Army could have been destroyed either on the road to Leicester, or in a siege of the City. However, in deciding to go into battle with the troops he had, Charles was going against the odds, but even then, the result was not a foregone conclusion, given the relative inexperience of the parliamentarian infantry.

Both armies were on the move from the early hours of 14 June and in position well before 8 a.m. Rupert deployed the Royal Army along the East Farndon-Oxendon ridge in a position to block any Parliamentarian advance towards Market Harborough. The New Model had concentrated on Naseby by 5 a.m. but Fairfax, unwilling to risk blundering into the royal army in the early morning mist, had halted to await firm news of the enemy’s movements. Fairfax and Cromwell went forward to reconnoitre the ground towards Clipston at about the same time that Rupert, disbelieving the report of his Scoutmaster-General that there were no Parliamentarian troops within four miles of the Royalist position, rode towards Naseby to find the enemy for himself. As Fairfax ranged on the ridge north of Naseby, he contemplated deploying one mile to the south of Clipston where his front would be protected by a stream and boggy ground, but Cromwell argued that Rupert would realize that that an attack in this direction could place his cavalry at a disadvantage, and would therefore refuse action or swing around the Parliamentarian flank onto firmer ground. Fairfax therefore agreed to fall back to the Naseby ridge, where Rupert’s cavalry would have to charge uphill to reach the Parliamentary line. He did not know yet whether the royalists would accept his challenge, but the appearance of their cavalry in force on another ridge four miles away reassured him. It was then that he realised that this was going to be a major battle, if not a decisive one.

Preliminary Manoeuvres:

Fairfax noted that the ground between Naseby and Clipston was marshy, so that if he could persuade Rupert to charge over it and up the ridge, this would be a good start to the day for him. Rupert, of course, had his eyes just as wide open as Fairfax and had during his reconnaisance had observed Fairfax and Cromwell withdraw towards Naseby with their escort. He ordered his army to veer to the right towards Dust Hill, on to the line of the Sibbertoft-Naseby road (see the map above). From there he hoped to to flank Fairfax’s position. Seeing this movement, Fairfax ordered the New Model to close to its left to meet it. By 9 a.m. the two armies were both marching westwards on a parallel course, shifting the battlefront one mile west of its original line. As they drew abreast of the open valley known as Broadmoor, they halted and deployed. The two armies drew up about a thousand yards apart, both near the crests of gentle rises, with the open expanses of Broadmoor between them. This area was now bounded by Dust Hill to the north, Red Hill to south, annd Sulby Hedges to the west.

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Streeter’s contemporary line-drawing of the battle (see caption below).

The most recent, detailed and accurate analysis of the battle was written for the 350th anniversary of the battle by Glenn Foard (1995) in Naseby: The Decisive Campaign (Guildford), which is now much the fullest and best analysis of the battle, taking account of archaeological evidence. Excluding officers, Foard estimates that the king probably had just over nine thosand men, compared with something over fifteen thousand on the side of Parliament. The royalists were outnumbered mainly in infantry, though those they had were seasoned soldiers, a high proportion being hard-fighting Welshmen. In terms of cavalry, they had about five thousand against 6,600, but again, they had greater experience. Fairfax had approximately 13,500 New Model men in total, including a thousand dragoons.

The Parliamentarian infantry were deployed in two lines with a ‘forlorn hope’ of musketeers in front of the first and a reserve from Harley’s Regiment behind the second. From left to right the first line of foot consisted of Skippon’s, Hardress Waller’s, Pickering’s, Montague’s and Fairfax’s Regiments, and a second line of Hartley’s, Hammond’s and Rainsborough’s Regiments. Of these regiments, Pickering’s, Montague’s, Hardress Waller’s and Hartley’s (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Pride) were, almost certainly, still seriously under strength. Only Skippon’s own regiment is likely to have had anything near its full complement of men. Pickering’s also probably had more than its fair share of raw recruits, for in January 1645 it had been the weakest of all the Eastern Association regiments joining the New Model, with only 243 men. Moreover, although Ayloffe’s troops had been taken into the regiment, it is unlikely that, as a garrison force throughout 1644, they had been retrained for battle.

The parliamentarian cavalry were drawn up on either flank, Ireton commanding the left wing composed of eleven squadrons, and Cromwell’s slightly stronger right wing of 3,500 troopers in thirteen squadrons. The arrival of Colonel Rossiter’s Lincolnshire regiment, four hundred strong, soon after battle began may have swung the advantage even further towards Fairfax’s army. They deployed to the right rear of the first line and on the right of the third line. At the last moment, the parliamentary dragoons, under Colonel Okey, were ordered to line part of Sulby Hedges in advance of Ireton’s cavalry. From there, they were to have a major role to play against the right of the Royalist line. Fairfax’s artillery commanded by Lieutenant-General Hammond was positioned between the infantry regiments of the first and second lines with a total of eleven guns on the battlefield and three in the baggage park.

Across the moor the Royalist army numbered around nine thousand men, with approximately 4,500 cavalry and almost the same number of infantry. The foot, who had been commanded since Edgehill by the veteran 66-year-old Lord Astley, were deployed in three brigades under, from left to right, Sir George Lisle, Sir Henry Bard and Sir Bernard Astley. They were supported by the nine hundred troopers of Colonel Howard’s Horse and a reserve of 1,300 men formed by the King’s Lifeguard and Prince Rupert’s Regiment. The main body of the cavalry was deployed on the flanks with two thousand horse under Rupert on the right wing and sixteen hundred under Sir Marmaduke Langdale on the left. The royalist artillery comprised twelve cannon deployed in pairs between the regiments and two mortars. But there was very little primed artillery on the Royalist side, as most of it had been left in the army’s initial position. In addition, although the Royalist army was an experienced one with a high proportion of officers to men, it was seriously outnumbered.

Streeter’s plan gives us a contemporary picture, from an eye-witness, showing the two armies facing one another.
At Naseby the greater resources available to Parliament, as well as superior discipline, proved decisive.

The battle front was now approximately a mile long. As the final stage of his deployment, Fairfax withdrew his line a hundred paces, so that most of his troops were then hidden behind the crest of the ridge. By 10 a.m., the two armies were in their new positions, having completed all their preliminary manoeuvres. Apart from broken ground to the right of the Parliamentarian position and some marshy ground on the left, the battlefield was favourable for cavalry and perhaps for this reason the outnumbered Royalists took the initiative. They began a general attack, advancing slowly across the half mile of moorland which separated them from the New Model. As they approached, Fairfax moved his line forward back over the crest of the ridge to confront them.

A Battle on Two Flanks:

The Royalist infantry began the battle well in the centre of the Parliamentarian front line, forcing their regiments back, concentrating their attack in support of Prince Rupert’s successful cavalry charge on the left flank and causing Ireton’s horse to veer to the right.

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Woolrych’s map of the Field of Battle, showing physical features.

The charge at first seemed a typical one, aiming at the centre of Ireton’s position, but as Ireton’s men veered somewhat to the right, a flank attack of musket fire from Okey’s dragoons (hidden behind Sulby Hedges) slowed Rupert slightly, and both Ireton’s and Rupert’s squadrons halted for a few moments within a short distance of each other. For once, Rupert succeeded in keeping his cavalry in check so that Astley’s infantry were the first Royalist troops to engage the New Model’s. Ireton’s squadrons were already in confusion for while some of them advanced to meet the Royalist horse others stood fast. Rupert charged right into Ireton’s left, settling down to cut and thrust with sword. This was a tough, bloody engagement which the Royalists got the better of, forcing their way through. The first line of the New Model foot buckled and fell back in disorder. A Royalist eye-witness of the battle recorded:

our forces advanced up the hill, the rebels only discharging five pieces at them, but over shot them, and so did their musquetiers. The foot on either side hardly saw each other until they were within the Carabine Shot, and so only made one Volley; ours falling in with Sword and butt end of the Musquet did notable Execution; so much as I saw their Colours fall, and their foot in great Disorder…

After a short time the regiments in the parliamentarian front line broke, as their diarist and cartographer Sprigge recounted:

The right hand of the foot, being the General’s Regiment, stood, not being much pressed upon: Almost all the rest of the Battail being overpressed, gave ground and went off in some disorder, falling behinde the Reserves.

Colonel John Pickering’s Regiment, was one of the regiments at the very centre of the parliamentarian infantry which took the main force of the combined royalist assault. Baille, a presbyterian, wrote that the Independent Collonels Pickering and Montague flee lyke men. Glenn Foard has contended that although the New Model Army had more infantry than the royalists, it is not clear whether, as enumerated above, in this initial assault the royalists were actually outnumbered. The royalists concentrated their attack against the infantry on parliament’s left and centre. Sprigge described how,

The Colonels and Officers, doing the duty of very gallant Men, in endeavouring to keep their men from disorder, and finding their attempts fruitless therein, fell into the Reserves with their Colours, choosing rather there to die, than leave the field.

Skippon was severely wounded, but he refused to leave the field. Despite the loss of one of his officers, Captain Tomkins, who was killed in this fight, Pickering was undoubtedly also one of those who chose to keep himself and his men with the body, choosing rather to die than leave the field. To his left the charge of the two princes, Rupert and Maurice, carried all before it, putting much of Ireton’s cavalry to rout. Ireton, promoted earlier that morning to commisary-general (second-in-command of the cavalry), was also wounded, and temporarily taken prisoner. When Rupert’s second line joined the melée, the Roundhead cavalry on the extreme left broke and were swept from the field. Rupert forced his way through Ireton’s line, and was then in a position to regroup. Instead, he decided to press on, but achieved little by doing so. The Royalists pursued Ireton’s troopers until they came upon the Parliamentarian baggage train to the west of Naseby. A vain attempt was made to overcome the baggage guard, and nearly an hour passed before Rupert was able to rally his troopers and lead them back to the battle.

Rupert was careful not to waste too much time, not wanting to be accused of another mistake like the one he had made at Edgehill, but his absence from the field at this time was disastrous for his side. In the centre the Royalist infantry had begun well and were forcing the Ironsides back. In attacking Ireton, Rupert, though pushing back the left wing, had left the right half and its commander intact. Ireton now used this part to attack Astley on the flank, as the latter’s magnificent foot stormed up the hill. Then Okey’s dragoons advanced in a cavalry charge. Meanwhile, Fairfax and Skippon had brought the reserve to the support of the Parliamentarian centre and its superior numbers began to tell against the Royalist pikes and muskets. The reserves held the royalist advance.

Thomas Fairfax and his subordinate Oliver Cromwell (right), rout the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby, 14 June 1645.
A detail from the contemporary engraving of the Battle shown above..

The Ironside Lieutenant-General:

Everything now hung on what Cromwell’s veteran troopers could do on the right of parliament’s forces, where they had a distinct numerical advantage. His control of them saved the day for the New Model. He had calmly watched the advance of Langdale’s Northern Horse, finding their way over the broken ground at the foot of the hill. It was full of rabbit-warrens and bushes, and anyone caught there would be at a disadvantage. Cromwell launched a powerful, yet disciplined charge, smashing into Langdale’s cavalry, which had been slowed by this difficult terrain on the Royalist left. He needed only to use his leading regiments to wreak havoc in this area, but even these squadrons were impossible for him to recall when their task was done. In the rear, he still had uncommitted troops. He led his remaining squadrons in a spirited but controlled charge which broke the the outnumbered Royalist horse. They were completely victorious, but it was his control of them that saved the day for parliament. Detaching just enough of them to pursue Langdale’s fleeing horsemen, he kept the remainder intact and used them to turn the tide of battle on the rest of the field. This was the turning point of the battle.

As Astley’s Foot stormed their way up Red Hill Ridge, they were met with an unguarded attack from Ireton’s recovering ironsides, supported by a mounted charge from Okey’s dragoons, who had emerged, re-mounted, from behind Sulby Hedges. As Astley’s troops reached Skippon’s Foot, they not only met spirited resistance from the Parliamentary Infantry, but also received a terrible blow from Cromwell’s cavalry on their other flank.

The Ordnance Survey map of the battlefield, with positions of the two armies overlaid.

Having dealt with Langdale’s horse on the royalist left wing, Cromwell turned his cavalry against the royalist infantry. The remaining Parliamentarian cavalry – both Cromwell on the right and the dragoons on the left – charged the flanks of the royalist foot. Even the forward units, who had ridden down Langdale, returned to the fight, and the second and third lines went in completely fresh. The Royalist infantry were now boxed in on three sides, between two cavalry regiments and the crack infantry of the Parliamentary Army. This also gave the opportunity for the parliamentarian infantry regiments that had broken to be rallied and brought back into the action, ensuring the final destruction of the royalist infantry and deciding the outcome of the battle. It was too much even for Astley’s veterans who, abandoned by their own cavalry, were forced to surrender. The Parliamentary victory was complete and Rupert’s return to the battlefield could not retrieve the position. By the time he got back to to where the infantry battle had been raging, the day was all but lost. Cromwell had caught Astley’s gallant men without cavalry support, and Fairfax, who was never out of the thick of the fighting, had re-grouped his forces in a fresh order of battle.

Glenn Foard’s Plan of the battle of Naseby, 1645.

Rupert’s Return:

At this point Rupert came back to the field, but with his horses blown could do no more than be a spectator. The sight he saw was enough to sicken anyone, heroic though it was. Astley’s infantry, having fought their way up the ridge, having been attacked on three sides, were now being forced down again. They fought to the last, and were wiped out almost to a man, four thousand of them. Nearly a thousand were killed on the battlefield, with the others wounded or taken prisoner. Many of the cavalry fought it out to the end too, although it could not effect the result. The King himself was prevented to lead a desperate attempt to turn the tide, and less than three hours after battle had commenced he was in flight with whatever of his forces could get away. As the King and Prince Rupert left the field for their personal safety, Langdale’s cavalry fought on courageously, trying to cover the retreat of what was left of the Royalist Infantry. With the King and Rupert gone, those who could tried to leave the field. As on all battlefields the scenes of the heaviest fighting may be traced by names or by grave pits: ‘Red Hill Ridge’ and ‘Red Hill Farm’ need no explanation.

With eight or more hours to go before nightfall gave them cover, Charles’ fleeing cavalry were pursued with heavy slaughter to within sight of Leicester. Fewer than four thousand got away to safety. His infantry had no choice but surrender, and over 4,500 prisoners were on the march to London the next day. About five hundred more were too badly wounded to be moved far, and the total number of royalist dead, including those killed in flight or dying of wounds, probably came to at least on thousand. By contrast, the New Model probably lost no more than two hundred (some contemporary estimates put the losses at as between fifty and a hundred), including the wounded who did not recover. We can gain a better indication of the true impact of the battle on the regiments from those listed as seriously wounded. Forty-nine men from Pickering’s were listed, four of whom died of their wounds. The other regiments hard-pressed in the front line were Montague’s with thirty-nine seriously wounded, Hardress Waller’s with fourteen and Skippon’s with 140. The remaining infantry regiments suffered far lower numbers of casualties. The most pitiable casualties were the women who followed the Royal Army, many of whom were taken to be Irish, though they were probably the wives of Welsh soldiers. At least a hundred were slaughtered in the baggage train, while most of the rest had their faces slashed or noses slit to mark them as whores.

How decisive was Naseby?

Military historians broadly agree that Naseby was the most decisive battle of the war and that, arguably, Charles should never have fought it: He was outnumbered and was particularly short of cavalry. But it was, again, the indiscipline of Rupert’s own cavalry after its initial success, in moving off the field in the wrong direction, which sealed the fate of both the royalist cavalry and infantry left without cover on the field. The hard fact is that the Royalist officers undervalued their opponents and paid dearly for it. Besides losing his infantry, King Charles also lost his baggage train, his artillery, his private papers and, effectively, his throne, though it was to take another year for that to become evident. His papers included secret correspondence with the Queen which laid bare his hopes of bringing an army of Irish Catholics into England and of obtaining money and mercenaries from foreign princes, as well as his readiness to consider granting toleration to English papists. These letters, published as The King’s Cabinet Opened, created a sensation throughout the country and did him immense harm.

Naseby naturally gave a great boost to the New Model’s morale. Fairfax lost far more men through desertion than in battle, for many of his foot soldiers slipped off home with the booty they had scavenged from the royalist dead, wounded and prisoners. In the pursuit Cromwell had forbidden his troopers to dismount for plunder on pain of death, an unpopular order which seems to have been obeyed. In a memorable dispatch to the Speaker dictated late on the very day of the battle, he rightly praised Fairfax’s conduct in it but said nothing about his own. He gave all the glory to God, but did not forget the soldiery:

Honest men served you faithfully in this action. Sir, they are trusty; I beseech you in the name of God, not to discourage them. … He that ventures his life for the liberty of his country, I wish he trust God for the liberty of his conscience, and you for the liberty he fights for.

Cromwell’s portrait in 1652-53, by Samuel Cooper

The Commons, in ordering his dispatch to be printed, deleted this whole passage. Fortunately the Lords sanctioned its publication intact, so both versions appeared on the bookstalls. The Lords also assented to Cromwell’s appointment as lieutent-general, though only for three months, whereas the Commons voted to extend it indefinitely. Clearly, there were political battles to come, but for the time being it was the military one which was decisive. The day after the battle, as the thousands of royalist prisoners were escorted towards London, the New Model marched north where they joined Cromwell’s cavalry, who were already facing Leicester. On the 16th, Fairfax summoned the city to surrender, but the royalist governer refused. The next day gun batteries were raised and a breach was made in the defences of the Newark gate, where the royalists had stormed the city two weeks before. Soon after the barrage began Lord Hastings, the royalist commander, proposed surrender. Pickering, together with Rainsborough, was appointed as commissioner to treat with the governor over the articles of surrender. Negotiations went on throughout the night, but early on the 18th the garrison marched out, leaving its weapons. So, to add to his misfortunes, Charles’ garrison in Leicester was forced to surrender just three days after the battle.

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Glenn Foard’s map of the campaign of 1645

Moving West:

Following a muster at Leicester on the samed day, the New Model advanced through Warwickshire and Gloucestershire, securing these Midland counties, and arrived in Wiltshire by the 3rd July. At Naseby, it had served notice that Parliament at last had an army which could win the war. If the King was was to avoid defeat he must concentrate his forces against the New Model and destroy it. Charles arrived at Hereford on 19 June, while his courtiers were soon engaged in diplomatic ‘damage limitation’ tactics. Within a week of the battle, Digby was writing that the consequences of this disaster will not have great extent, and Charles himself was putting a brave face on his terrible defeat. But on 23 June he wrote a letter to the fifteen-year-old Prince of Wales in terms which show that he was now, perhaps for the first time, contemplating the possibility that he would go on to lose the war. He solemnly commanded his son that should he, his father, ever be taken prisoner, not to yield to any conditions that were dishonourable, or derogatory to regal authority, even to save his father’s life.

In more sanguine moments, however, Charles was still hoping to rebuild an army as good as ever he had commanded. He was able to muster four thousand cavalry that had survived Naseby, but his three thousand infantry replacements were of indifferent quality, certainly compared with Astley’s seasoned soldiers he had lost on 14 June. They were mainly the Welsh levies he had failed to collect before Naseby. But he was also looking to Ireland for help, as he had been throughout the first half of 1645, whither he had dispatched of the Earl of Glamorgan by the end of June, to negotiate on his behalf for a ten-thousand-strong Irish Catholic army. It was this decision, more than any other, as revealed by the secret letters discovered in the baggage train, which sealed his ultimate fate as king.

(… to be continued).


David Smurthwaite (1984), The Ordnance Survey Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Exeter: Webb & Bower.

Philip Warner (1976), Famous Battles of the Midlands. Glasgow: Fontana.

Austin Woolrych (2002), Britain in Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glenn Foard (1994), Colonel John Pickering’s Regiment of Foot, 1644-1645. Whitstable: Pryor Publications.

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