English Civil War: The Battle of Marston Moor | Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours

English Civil War: The Battle of Marston Moor

Battle of Marston Moor 1644
Battle of Marston Moor 1644

When we last left the English Civil War it was at the First Battle of Edgehill in October 1642. The Royalists serving King Charles I had defeated the Parliamentary forces, however they did not take the opportunity to move on London. The rebellion continued and military historian Johnny Rickett takes us forward almost two years to the Battle of Marston Moor to see if the tide has turned for the Parliamentarians or the Royalists.

The Battle of Marston Moor – 2nd June 1644

By General Johnny Rickett

Going into 1644, things generally had been going in the Royalists’ favour in the English Civil War. They had defeated the Parliamentarians at Edgehill in October 1642 and although they didn’t march on London after this battle they happily settled down in Oxford, which became their headquarters throughout the war. Their army was very much intact, recruiting was going well and Prince Rupert’s cavalry was seemingly invincible in most encounters.

1643 was a good year for King Charles I. In the West Country the Royalists won a string of victories under Sir Ralph Hopton, which led to the capture of Bristol after a siege by Prince Rupert on August 6th; this was a great coup as it gave them a vital port. In central England, the Royalists carried all before them, a particular decisive victory for them was at Chalgrove Field on June 10th near Oxford, where Rupert defeated the Earl of Essex again and where Member of Parliament John Hampden, “one of the birds who had flown,” was killed.

Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell, leader of the Parliamentarians or “Roundheads” that opposed the Royalists

In the north of England, the Royalists under the Earl of Newcastle had had a victory over Lord Fairfax and his brother, Sir Thomas at Adwalton Moor on June 30th and bottled them both up in Hull, near the coast east of York. However, Oliver Cromwell later relieved Hull on October 11th. In addition, the Earl of Manchester captured Lincoln for the Parliament on October 20th. These successful battles turned out to be the only bright spots for Parliament in 1643, because the Royalists had scored major strategic victories. They seemed to be poised to win the war with a concerted assault on the Home Counties surrounding London.

A significant shift in the balance of power came occurred in 1644. The Scots Army under the Earl of Leven crossed into England on January 19th, after working out and agreement between the Covenanters (low church Presbyterians) and Parliament and proceeded to lay siege to York. In the Midlands, Rupert conducted a brilliant tactical campaign and relieved Newark on March 22nd; he continued North clearing all before him, out manoeuvering both the Parliamentarians and the Scots as he advanced.

Rupert relieved the Earl of Newcastle in York on June 1st. For a reason, which is not very well known, Rupert decided to fight the combined Parliament/Scots Army the next day on June 2nd. In a postscript to a letter, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the King had urged him to defeat the Scots; Rupert most likely kept this letter to justify his actions. The joint Parliamentarian/Scots Army was in the act of withdrawal after York had been relieved and there was no need for him to have fought this battle. (an apt comparison might be Robert E. Lee before Gettysburg). He drew up his line of Battle at Marston Moor, not far from York, but seeing no moves from the Parliamentarians he stood his troops down at 7pm.

The Allied Army under Fairfax, Cromwell and Leven numbered 27,000 men including cavalry, dragoons, (infantry mounted on ‘nags’, who were armed with muskets and then dismounted to fight) and infantry; they outnumbered the Royalists by some 8,000. Suddenly the Parliamentarians surprised Rupert, who was having his dinner, and attacked. The fighting occurred partly in a thunderstorm and partly under a harvest moon. Goring’s cavalry on the Royalist left wing seemed to be undisciplined and in their usual way smashed into the Parliamentarians and then departed the field. Sadly, for the Royalists Rupert was not in sole command of the cavalry since he was the overall commander of the Royalist Army. There was one exception to this lack of discipline and it was Colonel Sir Charles Lucas’ Division; Lucas was a professional soldier and he managed to control his men as he had at Edgehill in 1642. He rode around the Parliamentarians, after he had managed to stop his men, which was an extraordinary feat when in the middle of a full-blooded charge. However, by that time this manoeuvre was too late to influence the outcome of the Battle.

Cromwell now came to the fore as an excellent trainer of cavalry, which became known as the Ironsides. They advanced in a very tight and disciplined way at a steady trot initially before breaking into a charge and firing their pistols at the last minute. He completely routed the Royalist right wing and then turned inwards on to the rear of the Royalist infantry. Newcastle’s famous White Coats, who chose their white uniforms and were sometimes called the “lambs,” fought gallantly and against superior numbers. Eventually they were forced to withdraw into White Syke Close. The Parliamentarians demanded their surrender and when they refursed and continued to fight, they were slaughtered to a man.

Battle of Marston Moor
Rupert’s Standard at Marston Moor c.1824 Painted by Abraham Cooper 1787-1868

Rupert, seeing that all was lost, gathered the remnants of cavalry he could muster and fled the battlefield. The results were a disaster for the Royalist cause and the north of England was lost to the King. Cromwell’s Ironsides came into existence from that day and formed the nucleus of the New Model Army, and they became the forerunner of the modern British Army. Rupert’s legend of invincibility was now shattered.

The success of Cromwell’s Ironsides on the other Flank turned the tide of the battle. He had learned from Rupert that cavalry should be used to create shock action but that they should advance at the fast trot and not disappear after the charge, which somehow mostly bedeviled Rupert’s charges. It was the first time that the nucleus of the New Model Army was demonstrated.

Marston Moor was the most significant Battle of the Civil War. It was the largest Battle ever fought on British soil since the Battle of Towton fought in a snowstorm on Palm Sunday in 1461 during the War of the Roses.

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.



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