In American libraries, the shelves virtually groan with volumes written about the American Civil War. We sometimes forget that two centuries prior there was a bloody civil war fought across the Atlantic in England. In this article, our historian, General Johnny Rickett, delves into the first major battle of the English Civil War, the Battle of Edgehill, that was fought on 23rd October 1642.
Battle of Edgehill: The First Battle of the English Civil War
By General Johnny Rickett
The period of the English Civil Wars 1642-1651 was perhaps the bloodiest time of conflict in British history. Nearly 200,000 or close to three percent of the population of the British Isles died as a result. This is a death rate even greater than that of WWI. Without going into the detail of the events leading up to the war, suffice it to say that the causes of the war between the King Charles I and the Parliament were: power, money and religion. This begs the question “Has anything changed?!”
Events came to a head when the King tried to arrest the five ringleaders of the Parliamentarians. They had been tipped off and had escaped resulting in that well known quotation by the King “the birds have flown.” War was now inevitable and the King left London and after moving around the country gathering troops, he raised his standard in Nottingham on August 22nd; ominously it was blown down the next day!
The Civil War was not a class war, gentry were split as indeed families were; the ordinary folk did not care one way or the other, they followed their local squire or Lord and if they weren’t paid they plundered. In fact, the very word plunder derives from this period. The King recruited in the north, Wales and the South West, while The Parliament’s areas of influence were in the East, the South and the South East. By dominating these areas, Parliament controlled the navy and most of the ports.
The weapons used by both sides in the war were swords, pikes (16 foot with a metal tip), matchlock muskets, which were frequently more dangerous to the weapon’s user than to the enemy! Wheel lock pistols (similar to flintlock muskets introduced later in the war) and pistols and swords for the cavalry. The cannons were still in technological infancy, bulky and rarely could fire off one shot more than once in three minutes.
Early on, there were a few skirmishes in the Midlands, the most famous one being at Powick Bridge near Worcester. This was where Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew, put the Parliamentarians to flight. Rupert was a professional soldier, who had learned his skills fighting in the many wars on the continent. He used his cavalry much like we would use the tank today, as a means of creating “shock action.” His cavalry was totally invincible throughout the civil war up until 1645, when by that time, Oliver Cromwell, the most successful General on the side of the Parliament, had perfected his own brand of cavalry, known as “the Ironsides.”
Both sides clashed at a village called Edgehill in the open country of Warwickshire, about seven miles from Banbury. The strength of both armies was roughly equal at about 14,500 men, with the King’s forces being slightly stronger in cavalry. The Parliamentarian Commander was the Earl of Essex, also a professional soldier, and he was under orders to block the King’s advance on the capital. Yet somehow the King’s army had outmaneuvered him and took a position between the Parliamentarian army and London. Essex seems to have made a habit of this during the war until he was relieved of command in 1644, as he always found himself in a strategically disadvantaged position in relation to the Royalist armies.
The Battle started with the Parliamentary artillery loosing off a few rounds which did little harm or damage to the Royalists. Both Royalist cavalry divisions on either flank, one under Prince Rupert and the other under Lord Wilmot, then charged and put the Parliamentary cavalry to flight. Their success actually became a detriment because they pursued the enemy for too great a distance. As a result they did not return to the battlefield until that evening. Meanwhile the Royalist Infantry commanded by Sir Jacob Astley, whose prayer before the battle is so well known, “Oh Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day, if I forget thee, do not forget me,” was having considerable difficulty. Their centre was broken and this necessitated their rapid withdrawal. The King, however, accompanied by his 50 “Pensioners,” was able to save the day. He rallied his men and they stood firm.
By this time, darkness had fallen and Prince Rupert and his brother had returned, their horses utterly blown. Both sides lay down in the bitter cold that night and both sides began withdrawing the entire next day (in one day of fighting, casualties and indefinite results it was somewhat similar to the American Civil War Battle of Antietam in 1862). In the evening The King withdrew to a stronger position on the high ground overlooking the Battlefield, while Essex marched off to the north leaving all his colours, artillery and the spoils of war to the Royalists.
In truth, the Battle was a drawn affair, although the Royalists retained the field. Strategically, however, the Royalists had scored a victory, as the road to London was open to them and the capital was theirs for the taking. The King’s timid advisers however advocated strongly that the Royalist Army should now take Oxford. Rupert argued forcibly that they should go for London then and there. He was overruled, the Parliamentary forces were able to reorganize a defense of London and this decision unquestionably lost the war for the King. He had missed the opportunity to quash the rebellion.
About General Johnny Rickett
Johnny Rickett was born in Wales and entered Military Service in 1959. He became a regular in the Welsh Guards and left the Army as a Brigadier after 35 years. He has served all over the world principally in the Middle East, Far East, East Africa, Europe and the USA. He speaks Arabic, German and French fluently. Johnny saw active service in Aden, Northern Ireland and commanded his battalion in the Falklands War in 1982. His final job in the Army was Military Attaché in Paris where he began intense study of WWI and WWII.
After leaving the Army in 1994 he ran the Union Jack Club in London for 15 years. Since retirement he has been active in charity work as Honorary Life President of Veterans Aid and the President of Colonie Franco-Britannique near Paris. He is President of the RAF Air Cadets Squadron at Chipping Norton near his home and is a Freeman of the City of London.
While his passion is military history, his hobbies are shooting, fishing, falconry and gardening. He is married and has two children and three grandchildren.