When English Civil War resumed in spring 1644 the country lay evenly divided between Roundheads and Cavaliers. Wales, the West Country and northern England remained in royalist hands while southern and central England were under parliamentary control. Yet with the help of their new Scottish allies, the Roundheads were beginning to put pressure on the King’s forces in the north. With Alexander Leslie and his Covenanter army marching south and the father–son partnership of Lord and Sir Thomas Fairfax pushing north, the King’s commander in the north, the Earl of Newcastle, was forced to seek refuge in York. The Roundheads had him trapped. On 22 April 1644, a combined Roundhead and Covenanter force of some 28,000 soldiers gathered around the sturdy city walls to lay siege to this solitary royalist outpost.
King Charles was desperate not to lose York. The city was crucial if he wanted to maintain a strategic presence in the north. He sent an urgent letter to his nephew, Prince Rupert, who was then conducting a highly successful campaign in the north-west.
… I must give you the true state of my affairs, which, if their condition be such as enforces me to give you more peremptory commands than I would willingly do, you must not take it ill. If York be lost, I shall esteem my crown less, unless supported by your sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the South, before the effects of the northern power can be found here; but if York be relieved, and you beat the rebel armies of both kingdoms which are before it, then, but otherwise not, I may possibly make a shift (upon the defensive) to spin out time, until you come to assist me: wherefore I command and conjure you; by the duty and affection which I know you bear me, that (all the new enterprises laid aside) you immediately march with all your force to the relief of York; but if that be either lost, or have freed themselves from besiegers, or that for want of powder you cannot undertake that work, you immediately march your whole strength to Worcester, to assist me and my army; without which, or your having relieved York by beating the Scots, all the successes you can afterwards have most infallibly will be useless to me. You may believe nothing but an extreme necessity could make me write thus to you; wherefore, in this case, I can noways doubt of your punctual compliance with
Your loving uncle and faithful friend,
Despite the studied ambiguity of the letter (was he being ordered to York or to rush back to fight with Charles at Worcester?), Rupert abandoned his conquering of Lancashire and headed east to relieve the embattled Earl of Newcastle. He took with him the notoriously brutal royalist commander, Lord Goring.
By mid-June Newcastle’s Cavalier army had been under siege for two fretful months. Their daily ration of a pint of beans, ounce of butter and penny loaf had dwindled dangerously low. There was also the constant fear of an enemy incursion. On 16 June, the Roundheads almost broke through after detonating a series of mines under the city walls. For the trapped Cavaliers, Prince Rupert’s reinforcements could not arrive too soon. On 30 June it was reported that they had reached Knaresborough. The following day, the Roundhead–Covenanter army marched out to Long Marston, a small village five miles west of York, hoping to confront the Cavalier army head-on, but Rupert was too clever for them. He used a small decoy of royalist cavalry to trick the enemy into lining up for battle – then quickly sprinted north, crossed the tributaries of the River Ouse, and circled behind the Roundheads to relieve York.
Mindful of the King’s impatience for his speedy return, Rupert decided to cement his advantage and finish off the Roundhead–Covenanter army the following day. He spent the night outside York’s city walls, sending Goring in to tell Newcastle that he expected his troops ready for battle the following morning. After two months of siege warfare and selflessly defending the King’s interests in the north, Newcastle was indignant at such peremptory demands from this precocious general. He had no intention of jumping to Rupert’s orders.
With only 18,000 men at his disposal, some 10,000 fewer than the enemy, Rupert’s only hope of victory lay in speed and surprise. He rose at 4 a.m. on 2 July and marched his men out to Long Marston. The Roundheads had assumed Rupert would attempt to retreat after his relief of York and had begun to march to Tadcaster in the hope of cutting him off. When their rearguard scouts saw the Cavalier army draw up at Long Marston, the vast army had to perform a desperate about-turn. In this disarrayed state, it was essential that Rupert charged them then and there, but maddeningly, he had not been joined by the Earl of Newcastle’s men. The siege-weary troops had spent the day plundering the discarded Roundhead camp, drinking liberally and arguing over wage arrears. When they finally appeared at 4 p.m., Rupert greeted Newcastle coolly: ‘My Lord, I wish you had come sooner with your forces. But I hope we shall have a glorious day.’ Yet still the Cavaliers didn’t attack the disorganised Roundheads and instead fell to squabbling over tactics. Apart from a little cannonfire, the two armies merely glared at each other across the moor in a day-long stand-off. A Roundhead scout master, Lion Watson, describes the scene:
About two of the clock, the great Ordnance of both sides began to play, but with small success to either; about five of the clock we had a general silence on both sides, each expecting we should begin the charge, there being a small ditch and a bank betwixt us and the Moor, through which we must pass if we would charge them upon the Moor, or they pass it, if they would charge us in the great corn field, and closes; so that it was a great disadvantage to him that would begin the charge, feeling the ditch must somewhat disturb their order, and the other would be ready in good ground and order, to charge them before they could recover it.
In this posture we stood till seven of the clock, so that it was concluded on our sides, that there would be no engagement that night, neither of the two Armies agreeing to begin the charge.
By 7 p.m., Rupert decided it was too late to fight and announced he was off for supper. The Earl of Newcastle’s wife recalls her husband’s reaction:
My lord asked his Highness [Prince Rupert] what service he would be pleased command him; who returned his answer that he would begin no action upon the enemy till early in the morning; desiring my lord to repose himself until then. Which my lord did, and went to rest in his own coach… Not long had my lord been there, but he heard a great noise and thunder of shooting, which gave him notice of the armies being engaged.
On the other side of the moor, the Roundhead and Scottish commanders had no intention of retiring for the evening. After a day of endless troop marshalling, their army was now fully in place. On the left wing stood a brilliant young cavalry commander from East Anglia, Oliver Cromwell; on the right wing the leader of Roundhead troops in the North, Sir Thomas Fairfax; and in the middle the mass of infantry led by Major-General Crawford and Lieutenant-General Baillie. Through their ‘perspective glasses’ they saw the smoke rising from the Cavalier cooking fires and decided this was their moment. As the sky darkened and a summer hailstorm broke, the Roundheads lit their cannons and under a mist of cannonsmoke the infantry charged through the thick rye fields. Lion Watson was in the first wave:
About half an hour after seven o’clock at night, we seeing the enemy would not charge us, we resolved by the help of God, to charge them, and so the sign being given, … We came down the Hill in the bravest order, and with the greatest resolution that was ever seen: I mean the left Wing of our Horse lead by Cromwell, which was to charge their right Wing, led by Rupert, in which was all their gallant men: they being resolved, if they could scatter Cromwell, all were their own.
Cromwell’s cavalry, labelled the ‘Ironsides’ after Rupert’s generous nickname for Cromwell, smashed into the Cavalier right wing and sent them scurrying back. When Rupert realised what had happened, he threw down his supper, mounted his steed and shouted at his fleeing troops: ‘Swounds! Do you run? Follow me.’ And in he went with what Watson recalls as a fearsome counterattack:
Cromwell’s own division had a hard pull of it: for they were charged by Rupert’s bravest men, both in Front and Flank: they stood at the swords point a pretty while, hacking one another: but at last (it so pleased God) he brake through them, scattering before them like a little dust…
It was the bravery of the Scottish infantry supporting the Roundhead cavalry that crucially halted the Cavalier attack. In the melee, Cromwell was injured in the neck and briefly retired from the field. Rupert too was forced to retreat after his horse was killed from under him. He ignominiously hid in a nearby bean-field. While the Cavaliers fled the field, Cromwell’s Ironsides displayed their superior discipline by remaining on the battlefield to support the infantry rather than pursuing the retreating enemy or plundering baggage trains.
On the Roundhead right wing, the situation was nowhere near as rosy. Sir Thomas Fairfax’s cavalry charge had been brought to a grinding halt by a volley of musketshot, and now a royalist cavalry counter-attack led by Lord Goring and supported by the Earl of Newcastle’s troop of Whitecoats (so-called because of their undyed woollen cloth outfits) sliced through the Roundhead troops. Fearing the battle was lost, many Scots and Roundheads simply deserted the battle. Arthur Trevor, a royalist messenger searching for Prince Rupert, was overwhelmed by the number of deserters he met:
The runaways on both sides were so many, so breathless, so speechless, and so full of fears, that I should not have taken them for men, but by their motion which still served them very well; not a man of them being able to give me the least hope where the Prince was to be found; both armies being mingled, both horse and foot; no side keeping their own posts.
In this horrible abstraction did I coast the country; here meeting with a shoal of Scots crying out Weys us, we are all undone; and so full of lamentation and mourning, as if their day of doom had overtaken them, and from which they knew not whither to fly: and anon I met with a ragged troop reduced to four and a Cornet; by and by with a little foot officer without hat, band, sword, or indeed anything but feet and so much tongue as would enquire the way to the next garrisons, which (to say the truth) were well filled with the stragglers on both sides within a few hours, though they lay distant from the place of fight 20 or 30 miles.
Seeing his fellow Roundheads in trouble on the right wing, Oliver Cromwell led his Ironsides along with a troop of Covenanter cavalry across the field of battle to take on the victorious Goring. Under the glimmering light of a harvest moon, Cromwell’s men slammed into the Cavaliers. Lion Watson recounts the vital moment:
Just then came our Horse and Foot…seeing the business not well in our right, came in a very good order to a second charge with all the enemies Horse and Foot that had disordered our right wing and main battle. And here came the business of the day (nay almost of the kingdom) to be disputed upon the second charge….The enemy seeing us to come in such a gallant posture to charge them, left all thoughts of pursuit, and began to think that they must fight again for that victory which they thought had been already got. They marching down the hill upon us, from our Carriages, so that they fought upon the same ground, and with the same front that our right wing had before stood to receive their charge…our Foot and Horse seconding each other with such valour, made them fly before us, that it was hard to say which did the better out of Horse and Foot….To conclude, about nine of the clock we had cleared the Field of all enemies recovered our Ordnance and Carriages, took all the enemies Ordnance and Ammunition, and followed that chase of them within a mile of York, cutting them down so that their dead bodies lay three miles in length.
In the wake of this Roundhead onslaught, only Newcastle’s Whitecoats stood firm. Despite sustained musket fire, they would:
Take no quarter, but by mere valour for one whole hour kept the troops of Horse from entering amongst them at near push of pike; when the Horse did enter they would have no quarter, but fought it out till there was not thirty of them living; whose hap [fate] it was to be beaten down upon the ground, as the troopers came near them, though they could not rise for their wounds, yet were desperate as to get either pike or sword or a piece of them, and to gore the troopers’ horses as they came over them or passed them by… every man fell in the same order and rank wherein he had fought.
As Cromwell wiped up the remnants of Goring’s cavalry, the rest of the Cavalier army retreated to York. There Rupert and the Earl of Newcastle had a full and frank exchange of views concerning the conduct of the battle, after which the Prince headed north to Richmond while Newcastle fled to Scarborough and then abroad to Holland. He could not bear to endure ‘the laughter of the court’. With some 4,500 dead (as well as Prince Rupert’s infamous dog, Boy) and 1,500 taken prisoner, Marston Moor was a calamity for the royalist cause. The commander who had done so much to crush the Cavaliers offered up his thanks to God. In the wake of the battle, Oliver Cromwell wrote a letter to one Colonel Valentine:
It’s our duty to sympathise in all mercies; that we may praise the Lord together in chastisements or trials, that so we may sorrow together.
Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given unto us, such as the like never was since the war began. It had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord’s blessing upon the godly party principally. We never charged but we routed the enemy. The left wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince’s horse. God made them as stubble to our swords, we charged their regiments of foot with our horse, routed all we charged. The particulars I cannot relate now, but I believe, of twenty-thousand the prince hath not four-thousand left. Give glory, all the glory, to God.
Sir, god hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon-shot. It broke his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.
Sir, you know my trials this way; but the lord supported me with this: that the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant after and live for. There is your precious child full of glory, to know sin nor sorrow any more. He was a gallant young man, exceeding gracious. God give you His comfort.
… few knew him, for he was a precious young man, fit for God. You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious saint in heaven, wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice. Let this drink up your sorrow; seeing these are not feigned words to comfort you, but the thing is so real and undoubted a truth. You may do all things by the strength of Christ. Seek that, and you shall easily bear your trial. Let this public mercy to the church of God make you to forget your private sorrow. The Lord be your strength; so prays
Your truly faithful and loving brother,