The Battle of Marston Moor on July 2, 1644, was the crucial battle of the English Civil War (1642-1646). The war that began in 1642 between King Charles I (r. 1625-1649) and Parliament was a struggle between royal absolutism and parliamentary rule. The English Civil War was actually only one of a series of vicious, bloody conflicts in the mid-17th century that included fighting involving England, Scotland, and Ireland. Religion was an important factor in all of them. In the English Civil War the Parliamentary side rejected the high church Anglicanism of Charles I, the notion of religious authority associated with the monarch, and the Catholicism (or crypto-Catholicism) of certain of the king’s circle. Charles I proved to be inflexible, devoid of common sense, and ultimately untrustworthy.
In January 1642 following a confrontation with Parliament, Charles I ordered the impeachment of five of its members, but the House of Commons refused to sanction their arrest. On January 4 Charles went to Parliament with a few hundred soldiers and attempted to seize the five men, but they had already fled. Charles left London on January 10, and the House of Commons, emboldened, passed bills excluding bishops from the House of Lords and giving command of the militia to Parliament. Charles, now at York, refused to sign the bills. The king was joined at York by 32 peers and 65 members of the House of Commons. Charles also had with him the great seal, required for the legality of documents.
An impasse between king and Parliament led the latter in July to appoint a committee of public safety and charge the Earl of Essex with raising an army of 4,000 cavalry and 20,000 infantry. On August 22 Charles raised the royal standard at Nottingham, and the military phase of the English Civil War began.
The king had the support of most of the aristocracy and the regions of northern and western England as well as Wales. Parliament’s strength was in the southeast, especially the city of London. With financial support from the aristocrats, Charles was able to hire mercenary troops raised for the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) on the continent. Parliament’s control of the navy was a serious handicap to the Royalists, however, for it denied the king more substantial aid from the continent.
In the Battle of Edgehill on October 23, 1642, Prince Rupert, the son of the elector palatine and Elizabeth of England (daughter of King James I), distinguished himself as a commander of cavalry. Rupert went on to become the preeminent Royalist military commander. Oliver Cromwell led a Parliamentary force known as the Ironsides, who ultimately became the best troops of the war.
A series of raids and indecisive battles followed during which the Royalists registered major gains in western England. Parliamentary naval forces were able to relieve a number of their coastal strongholds, while the king’s small fleet created after the Royalist capture of Bristol in 1643 remained too small to contest the Parliamentary side for control of the sea. Control of the English capital was a major goal on both sides in the war. Charles I marched on London but turned back at Brentford in mid-November when confronted by Parliamentary forces under Essex, a major blow to the Royalist cause for it ensured Parliamentary control of the wealthiest part of England.
On September 25, 1643, Parliament passed the Solemn League and Covenant by which the religions of England, Scotland, and Ireland were to be made as uniform as possible. Religion was to be reformed “according to the word of God, and the examples of the best reformed churches.” All religious and military officials were required to sign the covenant. Nearly 2,000 priests refused and lost their livelihood as a result. The Scots now agreed to make common cause with the English, and a Scottish army crossed into England. Charles enlisted Irish Catholics, a step that allegedly proved his Catholic tendencies and angered many Protestant Englishmen.
On June 14, 1644, Charles I ordered Prince Rupert to raise the Parliamentary siege of York, in northern England. Learning of the approach of the Royalist army, on June 30 the Scots and Parliamentary forces broke off siege operations and marched to Long Marston to intercept Rupert.
The battle occurred some six miles west of York during a long evening on July 2, 1644. The Royalists occupied a strong position on high ground known as Marston Moor, just north of the road between the villages of Rockwith and Long Marston. They took up position behind a ditch north of the road and running parallel to it. The Scots and Parliamentary forces were south of the road. The battle line extended the full 1.5 miles between the two villages. On both sides cavalry held the flanks, with infantry in the center.
In terms of numbers of men engaged, it was the largest battle ever to be fought on English soil. Some 18,000 Royalists (7,000 cavalry and 11,000 infantry) opposed some 22,000-27,000 Parliamentary and Scottish forces (8,000 cavalry and the remainder infantry). Both sides possessed some artillery, although the 25 pieces for the allies far outnumbered those available to the Royalists. Prince Rupert and William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, were the principal Royalist commanders, while Fernando Fairfax, 2nd Baron of Cameron, along with Alexander Leslie, Earl of Levin, had charge of the allied force.
Newcastle was opposed to battle. He held that the allied army would eventually dissolve and that an engagement was unnecessary. Rupert was adamant that the letter from the king, which he never showed to Newcastle, was a command to immediately engage and defeat the enemy.
There was intermittent artillery fire as the lines formed during the afternoon. At about 7:00 p. m. a thunderstorm swept the area, and some 3,000 left-flank allied cavalry under Oliver Cromwell and David Leslie charged some 4,100 cavalry on the Royalist right. Lord Byron commanded Rupert’s personal force of 2,600 cavalry, which was supported by a regiment of some 1,500 additional cavalry in reserve. Rupert had also positioned musketeers among the cavalry. Byron now charged forward to meet Cromwell head-on, in the process separating his cavalry from the musketeers and masking the fire of the latter. Byron’s first line and part of the second were routed.
At the same time Scottish dragoons (mounted infantry) succeeded in clearing part of the ditch of Royalist musketeers, and the allied infantry went forward and captured the Royalist cannon. On the allied right (Royalist left), a charge by Sir Thomas Fairfax’s 5,000 cavalry was in trouble from the beginning against Lord Goring’s smaller number of Royalist cavalry supported by musketeers. Royalist musketeers in the ditch and on that ground unsuitable for a cavalry charge broke the Parliamentary attack on that flank.
Rupert rushed with his lifeguards to meet the threat from Cromwell’s horse, and only a stand by the Scottish horse under Leslie saved Cromwell from defeat. Cromwell’s forces then rallied and drove Rupert and his cavalry from the field. Resisting the impulse to drive on York and plunder it, Cromwell kept his men together to turn the tide of the infantry battle in the center of the line, which had thus far gone the Royalist way. Royalist infantry under Cavendish, their ammunition exhausted, were pinned against a hedgerow and slaughtered. Following the defeat of the Royalist infantry, Goring’s cavalry scattered.
In the Battle of Marston Moor the Royalists lost some 3,000 to 4,000 men killed. Another 1,500 men were captured along with all the Royalist cannon. Only about 300 men on the allied forces were killed, although many more were wounded.
Marston Moor broke Royalist cohesion and, more important, gave the Parliamentary forces control of the north of England. York surrendered on July 16, and most of northern England was overrun thereafter. Charles I continued to hold much of Wales, western England, and the southern Midlands. After the Battle of Marston Moor, Charles I rejected advice to negotiate with Parliament; he again rejected negotiations in January 1645. Charles’s sense of legitimacy proved the major stumbling block. Meanwhile, Parliamentary forces were reorganized as the New Model Army with a unified command structure: Sir Thomas Fairfax as commander in chief and Oliver Cromwell in command of the cavalry.
References Bennett, Martyn. The Civil Wars in Britain and Ireland, 1638-1651. London: Blackwell, 1997. Kenyon, John. The Civil Wars of England. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1989. Newman, Peter. The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644. Chichester, UK: Anthony Bird, 1981. Woolrych, Austin. Battles of the English Civil War. London: Batsford, 1961. Young, Peter, and Richard Holmes. The English Civil War. London: Eyre Methuen, 1974.