Wars of Three Kingdoms > First English Civil War
BATTLE OF NASEBY (1645)
Following the troubled campaigns of the previous year, Parliament's reformed and re-organised New Model Army engaged Royalist forces at the Battle of Naseby. Significantly outnumbering the opposition, the Parliamentary force annihilated the King's Army ultimately determining the outcome of the first English Civil War.
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In June 1645 the English Civil War had been dragging on for three years. Despite the success at Marston Moor, which had seen a combined Parliamentary-Scottish force destroy the Royalist army in Northern England, 1644 had concluded on a low point for Parliament. Defeat at Lostwithiel (August) and strategic failure at the second Battle of Newbury (October) prompted a major Parliamentary re-organisation.
In the first instance the failure at Newbury had largely been a result of the effectiveness of the combined forces of the three Parliamentary armies - those of Edward Montagu Earl of Manchester, Robert Devereux Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller - being hampered by the competing interests and political aspirations of the three Generals. In order to remove a number of personalities from the Command, the Self Denying Ordnance (described below) was passed; legislation barring individuals from being a Member of Parliament and holding military rank. Whilst Members of Parliament for the Commons could resign, no such option existed for members of the House of Lords and thus in one stroke the Parliamentary army would now be commanded by professional soldiers rather than the nobility.
A second change was re-organisation of the Army into a single fighting force with defined regimental sizes, a standardised uniform and a fixed musket/pike ratio. This 'New Model Army' was the weapon with which Parliament would fight the 1645 campaign and whilst it was far from achieving all the aspirations of its founders, it was a significant step towards an unified military command. Sir Thomas Fairfax was appointed as the overall Commander-in-Chief with Oliver Cromwell as his Lieutenant-General of Horse (the latter avoiding his own Self Denying Ordnance by a series of temporary commissions) and Phillip Skippon as Major-General of the infantry.
The King's Army commenced their Spring campaign on 7 May by marching north from Oxford intent on relieving Chester which had been under siege from a Parliamentary force under Sir William Brereton. Parliament now set their sights on Oxford and ordered Fairfax to besiege the town that acted as the Royal Capital. Fairfax moved his army into place intending to sustain a close siege whilst concurrently training his soldiers. However, faced with the approach of the significantly larger force, Sir William Brereton lifted his siege of Chester on 25 May and retreated north. The Royalists, rather than turn back to directly engage the Parliamentary Army, opted for a display of military power with the aim of enticing the New Model Army to move away from Oxford. Leicester was chosen as the target.
The town, which was held by a Parliamentary garrison, was not particularly significant to the war but was a substantial but relatively easy target. The earthworks dug around the town for the war had pandered to the desires of its wealthy residents and enclosed a large number of properties on the outskirts of the area. Accordingly the earthworks were over 3 miles long and very difficult to defend. The town was stormed on the evening of 30 May 1645 with the 2,000 man garrison being no match for the King's Army of circa-10,000 men. The bait worked; Fairfax applied to the Committee of Both Kingdoms to abandon his siege of Oxford and pursue the King. On 3 June he received permission to do that and marched his New Model Army north.
Following the victory at Leicester, the Royalists had resolved to march south to relieve Oxford but only once reinforcements were received from Lord Goring in the South West and/or from Wales. But Fairfax was advancing north and the speed of his advance surprised the Royalists; he arrived at Stony Stratford, just 10 miles from the King's position at Daventry, on 11 June. Still awaiting reinforcements, the Royalists attempted a feigned move to the west towards Warwick but by the 14 June it was clear this strategy had failed; Fairfax was upon him with a significantly larger force. Some within the Royal Council, Prince Rupert being key, recommended continued attempts to disengage but he was overruled by the King's reliance on the advice of Lord Digby who held the New Model Army in little regard.
Fairfax moved up to Naseby on the morning of 14 June and deployed on a ridge of high ground to the east of the village. The position was strong - a high ridge with boggy ground in between - but too much so as the Royalists would never have attacked. Fairfax abandoned the position and the two armies, both resolved to fight, moved west in parallel eventually drawing up with the Parliamentary force on a gentle hill directly to the north of Naseby.
Estimates of the size of the Parliamentary forces places it around 13,000 to 15,000 strong. It consisted of a roughly equal split between infantry and cavalry plus a small number of Dragoons (mounted soldiers that dismounted and fought as infantry once in position).
The Royalists had a significantly smaller force at between 9-12,000 men strong. On the right flank Prince Rupert had around 2,000 horse whilst on the left - facing Cromwell - Langdale had a similar number to counter Cromwell's force that was almost twice that size. His position was further complicated by the proximity in front of him of a conery; a series of rabbit warrens used as a source of meat. In the centre the infantry was led by Lord Astley.
All units were deployed by 10am standfast Royalist artillery which had failed to keep up with the main body moving along the ridge. The chronology of how the battle started is unclear - it was either the Royalist infantry who advanced first or Prince Rupert's cavalry charge. For this article the former is assumed but it makes limited difference to the overall action.
- Stage 1: Infantry Attack
The Royalist infantry attack was initiated by Lord Astley who advanced his force against Skippon's position on the crest of the gently sloping hill. In fact Skippon had wisely kept the bulk of his forces behind the summit as many were new recruits who had not seen an enemy army in full battle formation. As the Royalist infantry advanced he moved them onto the crest and down to engage. Fierce fighting ensued but the Royalists, although outnumbered, outperformed the Parliamentary foot and slowly drove them back.
- Stage 2: Prince Rupert's Cavalry Attack
The cavalry battle began with Prince Rupert's force on the Royalist right. Okey's force of dragoons had deployed and dismounted behind hedgerows at Sulby Close - a fairly exposed position but one that gave them the ability to launch direct, effective fire against the Royalist force. Rather than pointlessly stand and take fire, Rupert ordered his force to attack and charged the Parliamentary left which was commanded by Ireton.
- Stage 3: Ireton Breaks
Rupert's charge broke both lines of Ireton's force which fled back towards Naseby village pursued by the Royalists. However Rupert's charge had been misaligned against the Parliamentary frontline and a portion of Ireton's force was left intact.
- Stage 4: Flank Attack
Rupert's force had left the field entirely chasing after the bulk of Ireton's cavalry. The portion left intact now found themselves unopposed and charged into the left flank of the Royalist infantry. They were supported by the dragoons under Oakey but their assault was repulsed by the Royalists. Concurrently with this action Langdale, on the Royalist left flank, started moving his own cavalry force forward. His task was complicated by the maze of rabbit warrens in front of his position and his initial movement was at a slow canter at best.
- Stage 5: Cromwell Attacks
Cromwell, lined up against Langdale on the Parliamentary right, timed his attack perfectly. He had three lines of cavalry significantly outnumbering his Royalist opponents and sparingly used them. Before Langdale's force had re-assembled after traversing the warrens, he sent his first line only against them.
- Stage 6: Langdale Breaks
Cromwell's first cavalry attack broke Langdale's force who fled the field. Two lines of Parliamentary horse remained ready for deployment on the right. Concurrently the infantry battle was going well for the Royalists. On their right they had defused the attack by Ireton and Okey whilst continuing to push the frontline of the New Model Army back and it was questionable whether the second line would hold.
- Stage 7: Cromwell's Flank Attack
With no Royalist cavalry remaining to oppose him, Cromwell now used his unengaged cavalry force to charge the exposed left flank of the Royalist infantry. Now surrounded and outnumbered with fighting on all sides, the Royalist advance faltered and they started to give ground. Units started surrendering or retreating and a rout ensued.
- Stage 8: Retreat to Leicester
At this time the King considered leading a charge with the remnant of his horse but was dissuaded and, in reality, this probably wouldn't have made a difference given the spare capacity Cromwell had in cavalry to deal with such a threat. Prince Rupert's own Infantry Regiment fought a gallant but futile rearguard action whilst the King's army retreated towards Leicester but nevertheless thousands of troops were lost and the King's baggage and camp followers were attacked. Rupert and Maurice, after having been repulsed in their attack on the Parliamentary baggage train, returned to the field too late to make a difference and simply joined the general Royalist retreat. Rearguard actions were fought at Moot Hill and Wadborough Hill as the remnant of the army made for Leicester. The King stayed at Ashby de la Zouch Castle that evening and then moved west towards Chester.
Naseby was a disaster for the Royalist war effort which effectively saw the infantry element of the King's army destroyed. In the immediate aftermath of the battle, Leicester was re-taken by the New Model Army but the impact of the battle was much greater. Whilst there were still small Royalist forces in the field (under Lord Goring and James Graham, Marquis of Montrose - both defeated by September 1645), the strategic initiative was now exclusively controlled by Parliament. Attacks were now inevitable on the Royalist held ports at Bristol and Chester, both essential if the King was to import a new army from Ireland or the continent. Parliament would move against Chester in Summer 1645 and the King's attempt to stop them, using his surviving cavalry, met with defeat at Rowton Heath (September 1645). Bristol fell in September 1645 and Chester in February 1646 ending any Royalist hope that a Catholic Irish or continental army of sufficient size could be imported to defeat the New Model.
The remainder of the war was spent reducing Royalist garrisons (the last to surrender was Harlech Castle in March 1647). Charles himself now sought to defeat his enemies by politics and his surrender to the Scottish forces besieging Newark on 5 May 1646 was the start of two and a half years of political wrangling ending in his execution in January 1649. Even this failed to end the fighting but, whilst further wars would be fought with the Scottish and principles of the Civil War wouldn't be enshrined in law until the 1689 Glorious Revolution, Naseby ultimately created an environment where the concept of the supremacy of Parliament would develop into a constitutional principle.
Self Denying Ordnance
Following the Second Battle of Newbury (1644) it became clear that command and control of the Parliamentary armies had become untenable. When the three armies of the Earls of Manchester and Essex plus that of Sir William Waller were merged, the three leaders squabbled and only became partially functional when they formed a ‘council of equals’. Just weeks after the battle the issue came to a head when the Earl of Manchester criticised the conduct of his second-in-command, Oliver Cromwell. There was some justification here as Cromwell had been roundly defeated at Newbury but the motivation for criticism was religious/political; Manchester supported the Presbyterian church whereas Cromwell was an Independent.
Cromwell defended himself by proposing the self denying ordnance; a measure whereby everyone should deny private ambitions for the public good. This manifested itself into legislation barring anyone from both military office and Parliament. This hit the nobility – Manchester and Essex in particular – as there was no mechanism or ability for them to resign from the House of Lords. By contract the MPs of the House of Commons could resign (although Cromwell would by-pass this legislation by a series of temporary commissions). In one stroke the nobility lost control of the army paving the way for professional soldiers such as Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell himself to command the army.
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The battlefield has remained largely undeveloped since the battle but significant changes - addition of many hedges and trees - will confuse the unsuspecting visitor. Nevertheless the importance of the battle has prompted two monuments plus two separate dedicated ‘viewpoints’ and a number of interpretation panels.
Naseby Obelisk. Whilst most visitors find the Cromwell Monument at the site of the substantive battle, many miss the obelisk to the north east of Naseby. This marks the original location of the Naseby Windmill and is where the New Model Army rendezvoused prior to the battle. View to the north was obscured so the Royalists could not see the Parliamentary army gather.
Battlefield viewed from the Cromwell monument. The Royalist army advanced towards camera.
In vicinity of Broadmoor Farm. The infantry battle was fought here with the Royalists pushing the Parliamentary foot back towards the crest of the hill.
Road. The road running north/south through the battlefield did exist in 1645 but it was not banked by hedges as it is today. This is the same across the whole site (other than the Sulby hedges in the east).
Long Hold Spinney. The treeline on the horizon marks the position where Langdale’s Royalist cavalry initially deployed. The trees weren’t there in 1645 and in front of their position was a conery; a man made enclosure for keeping rabbits which presented a significant hurdle through which his cavalry would need to negotiate before they could charge at speed..
Fairfax Viewpoint - Sir Thomas Fairfax couldn’t see over the ridge at the rendezvous at Naseby windmill so rode here and saw Royalist force on horizon.
Prince Rupert Viewpoint - Initially hidden behind the high ground on the horizon, Rupert spotted the New Model Army as they moved onto the ridge.
Battlefield is increasingly recognised as important with good signage to the key locations. Car parking is possible in all locations; a lay-by is positioned near each monument, dedicated car parks at the two viewpoints and Moot Hill. Sulby Hedges is accessed via foot only from Sibbercroft.
Prince Rupert Viewpoint