Yorkshire in the English Civil War: Opening Moves

The Earl of Newcastle quickly decided on a course of action. The bulk of his army would advance on Tadcaster from the east, along the main road from York, and attack Lord Fairfax’s army at Tadcaster. Newcastle’s Lieutenant-General, the Earl of Newport, would advance towards Wetherby and then attack Tadcaster from the northwest. Fairfax’s force would be trapped between the two forces and destroyed.

Lord Fairfax was well aware of his isolated and precarious position. He gathered as many troops as he could at Tadcaster and made preparations to defend the town by building a redoubt on the crest of the hill above the east bank of the River Wharfe. This fortification defended the town from any attack from the direction of York. There were several houses close to the redoubt and these may also have been fortified, although contemporary accounts make no mention of it. Another possibility is that these houses were demolished and their rubble used in the construction of the earthwork.

During 6 December the Royalist forces began their advance. Late in the day Lord Fairfax called a Council of War. The Parliamentarian commanders decided that their position was untenable. Sir Thomas Fairfax, Lord Fairfax’s son, gives a figure of only 900 men for the force his father had available and these were opposed by over 6,000 well-equipped Royalist troops a few miles to the east. Newcastle was advancing with the main body of the army, which comprised the foot, artillery and a few troops of horse: some 4,000–4,500 men. Newport’s flanking force was formed from the bulk of the army’s horse and amounted to about 1,500 men, although one Royalist account numbers them at 15,000 – obviously a zero too many!

Lord Fairfax decided that the only course of action was to withdraw his army towards the west, in the direction of Leeds. On the morning of 7 December, a large proportion of Fairfax’s men were formed up on Tadcaster’s main street ready to march, when firing broke out on the opposite bank. Fairfax had left a rearguard to defend the redoubt and this was now being attacked by Newcastle’s foot. Withdrawal was no longer an option and Fairfax had to stand his ground. Reinforcements were rushed across the bridge to support the earthwork’s defenders and the Royalist attack was brought to a halt. A second Royalist attack developed from the north along Mill Lane and succeeded in capturing a house close to the bridge and cutting off the defenders of the redoubt. A Parliamentarian counterattack recaptured the house and drove the Royalists back along Mill Lane. To prevent the Royalists repeating their attack a number of houses were set on fire. For the remainder of the day the battle degenerated into a long-range musketry exchange.

Although Newcastle’s prompt attack had prevented the Parliamentarians from withdrawing, the second half of his plan did not come to fruition. Why did the Earl of Newport not strike the town from the northwest as he had been ordered? The probable reason is that his force was accompanied by a pair of light guns and these, in combination with the state of the roads in December, conspired to slow him so much that he was unable to reach the battlefield. In Drake’s History of York a much more interesting reason is given. Drake states that Captain John Hotham despatched a letter to Newport, under Newcastle’s signature, ordering him to halt and await further instructions. If there is any truth in this it would have been a brilliant stroke by Hotham but would have meant that the Parliamentarians would have had to be aware of Newport’s flank march.

Although Lord Fairfax had held his ground, he was still in a dangerous position. In a letter to Parliament he asserted that he could have continued to hold Tadcaster had he not been low on gunpowder – a curse of armies throughout the Civil Wars. Without powder his musketeers could not oppose the enemy and Fairfax had no choice but to withdraw. It is interesting that Fairfax decided to withdraw to Selby, while Captain Hotham withdrew to Cawood. This seems a little strange as it was taking Fairfax away from his main area of support in the West Riding but it moved him closer to Hull which, as has already been mentioned, was a major magazine and a ready source of supply for him.

On the morning of the 8th the Royalists occupied Tadcaster. Newcastle then moved his army south and garrisoned Pontefract Castle. He also set up several other small garrisons, including one at Ferrybridge, which effectively cut off Fairfax from the West Riding. Elements of the Royalist army, under Sir William Saville, captured Leeds and on Sunday 18 December moved on to attack Bradford. Heavily outnumbered by the Royalist troops, the ill-equipped citizens of Bradford held their ground around the church and, once they had been reinforced by a body of men from the Halifax area, drove the Royalists off and sent them scurrying back to Leeds. During the action a Royalist officer had asked for quarter but the citizens who were attacking him did not understand what the term meant and cut him down. This led to the ominous term ‘Bradford quarter’.

Several days after the attack on Bradford Sir Thomas Fairfax arrived at the town with reinforcements. He immediately put out a call for volunteers to carry out an attack on Leeds. By the morning of the 23rd he had gathered 1,200–1,300 musketeers and horse and a substantial body of clubmen – ill-armed local volunteers – possibly as many as 2,000. The town was defended by Sir William Saville who had 1,500 foot and five troops of horse and dragoons.

The course of the storming of Leeds is straightforward to trace on the ground. At the time Leeds comprised three main streets: the Headrow, Briggate and Kirkgate. All of these streets still exist. At the bottom of Briggate a bridge crossed the River Aire and the road continued on to Hunslet. All the exits to the town had been barricaded and an earthwork ran from close to St John’s church, across the Headrow and then down to the river.

Fairfax’s force approached the town along the Headrow and summoned Saville to surrender. When this summons was refused Sir Thomas began his assault. Fairfax attacked along the Headrow while Sir William Fairfax attacked the area around St John’s church. Neither of these attacks made much progress. Sergeant-Major-General Forbes had been despatched to attack the enemy earthwork where it approached the river, while Captain Mildmay had been sent on a more circuitous route to approach the town from the far side of the Aire and prevent any enemy escaping in that direction. Forbes, supported by musket fire from Mildmay’s men, managed to break into the town and was soon reinforced by Mildmay’s men who had stormed the defences of the bridge. The combined force then attacked up Briggate towards the Market Place which stood at the top of Briggate close to the Headrow. The success of this attack allowed the Fairfaxes to force their way into the town and Sir Thomas led a cavalry charge along the Headrow into the Market Place. Many of the Royalist garrison were killed or captured and some were drowned trying to swim the Aire. The survivors continued on to Wakefield but their arrival seems to have panicked the garrison of that town which promptly withdrew to Pontefract. A force of Parliamentarian troops from Almondbury, near Huddersfield, occupied Wakefield on 24 January 1643.

In the aftermath of the loss of Leeds and Wakefield, Newcastle pulled the bulk of his army back to York. Before he could turn his attention fully on defeating Lord Fairfax he had two tasks to carry out. The first was to escort an ammunition convoy from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Earl despatched James King, his Lieutenant-General, with a body of horse to carry out this mission. Sir Hugh Cholmley attempted to intercept the convoy at Yarm in North Yorkshire on 1 February. Cholmley was defeated and King moved on to deliver the precious gunpowder to the army at York. Cholmley’s defeat may have been one of the main contributory factors to his subsequent change of sides.

Newcastle’s second task was to secure the Queen after her impending arrival and aid her march to join her husband at Oxford. The Queen arrived at Bridlington Quay – the town and harbour were separate at this time – on 22 February. Newcastle immediately set off with a large force to escort the Queen to York but while she was awaiting his arrival she was still in danger. Several Parliamentarian ships arrived and began a bombardment of the town and the Queen and her ladies had to take shelter in a ditch. Help was at hand when the Dutch admiral, van Tromp, who had escorted the Queen’s ship from the Continent, threatened the Parliamentarian commander that his ships would engage if the Parliamentarian ships did not withdraw. This had the desired effect and Newcastle was able to escort the Queen to safety at York on 7 March.

On 25 March Sir Hugh Cholmley changed sides. His defeat at Yarm and the Queen’s arrival finally decided him on this course of action. His defection was a great boon to the Royalist cause and gave them control of much of the East Coast of Yorkshire. It also seems to have had an effect on the Hothams who began a correspondence with the Earl of Newcastle and became very uncooperative with Fairfax.

Fairfax found himself in an unenviable position. The main Royalist army was at York and considerably outnumbered his own force. The East Riding was now under Royalist control and, to his rear, the Hothams had withdrawn their troops into Hull and were refusing to cooperate with him. His main base of support was in the West Riding, around the mill towns and he took a decision to withdraw to Leeds. His first action was to call his son, Sir Thomas, from Leeds with a small force of horse and musketeers and a large body of clubmen. His plan called for Sir Thomas to carry out a diversionary attack on Tadcaster with the troops he had brought from the West Riding, while his father with the main force marched directly from Selby to Leeds. On the morning of 30 March the Fairfaxes put this plan into action.

The plan worked well. Lord Fairfax and his men arrived safely at Leeds while Sir Thomas drove the garrison of Tadcaster out of the town. He may have exceeded his father’s orders at this point, which may have been to demonstrate against the town, not to capture it. Unfortunately, Sir Thomas tarried in Tadcaster for too long and as he began to march up onto Bramham Moor a pursuing body of Royalist horse came into sight. The Royalists, under Colonel George Goring, comprised twenty troops of horse and dragoons, some 1,000 mounted men. To oppose them Fairfax had only three troops of horse, amounting to around 150 troopers. The rest of his force was made up of musketeers and a large body of clubmen. When attacked by horse it was usual for the pike to provide protection against them for the musketeers. As Fairfax had no pikemen with him his force was in considerable danger from the Royalist horse, particularly as they had to cross two large areas of open moor-land before they reached the safety of Leeds.

As Fairfax ascended the road onto Bramham Moor he had to pass through an area of enclosures. This was ideal terrain for his horse to hold up the larger enemy force, while his foot crossed the first area of open ground and reached the shelter of the next area of enclosures. Having held the enemy for what he deemed to be a sufficient amount of time, Fairfax pulled back his horsemen and set off in pursuit of his foot. Imagine his surprise when he found his foot were waiting for him and had not yet crossed the open ground. The Parliamentarian force continued to march westwards and Fairfax spotted the enemy horse on a parallel road several hundred yards to the north. The Parliamentarians successfully reached the next area of enclosures and continued onto the open ground beyond – Seacroft Moor. By now Fairfax’s men were beginning to straggle and Goring timed his attack perfectly. Although the pitifully small force of Parliamentarian horse attempted to protect the foot, the force was quickly broken as Goring’s horsemen mounted an unstoppable charge. Fairfax and most of his troopers were able to escape to Leeds but most of the foot were killed or captured. Sir Thomas summed up the action as ‘the greatest loss we ever received’.

The storming of Wakefield

After the defeat at Seacroft Moor, Lord Fairfax concentrated his men into two garrisons: Bradford and Leeds. It was during this period that one of the most mysterious battles of the Civil War in Yorkshire took place, at Tankersley, just off junction 36 of the M1. Little is written about this action, either by contemporary or modern authors, but it was a sizeable affair with up to 4,000 men taking part. A force of Derbyshire Parliamentarians marched north and were intercepted and defeated by a force of local Royalists. These Royalist troops may have been the advance guard of a planned advance into the south of the county.

The Earl of Newcastle still had one major task to perform before he turned his attention fully to defeating Lord Fairfax – the safe despatch of the Queen to the south. His first move was to lay siege to Leeds, but after a few days the Royalist army moved to Wakefield, where Newcastle left a garrison of 3,000 men, before moving into South Yorkshire. On 4 May Newcastle captured Rotherham. Accounts of the siege are contradictory – the Duchess of Newcastle’s account states that the town was taken by storm, while a letter from Lord Fairfax to Parliament states that the town held out for two days and then yielded. Fairfax goes on to state that the Royalists then plundered the town and forced many of the prisoners to join their army.

Two days after the capture of Rotherham the Royalist army moved on Sheffield but found that the town and castle had been abandoned by the garrison. Newcastle installed Sir William Saville as governor of the town and gave him orders to use the local iron foundries to produce cannon. The Royalists then spent the next two weeks consolidating their position in the south of the county until, on 21 May, Newcastle received startling news – Wakefield and the bulk of its garrison had fallen to the Parliamentarians.

Wakefield is one of the best examples of the storming of a town and is worth looking at in detail. Newcastle’s march into the south of Yorkshire presented the Fairfaxes with an ideal opportunity to strike back. Sir Thomas Fairfax gives the reason for the attack on Wakefield as an attempt to capture Royalist troops to exchange for the prisoners taken at Seacroft Moor. Prisoner exchanges of all ranks were a common occurrence during the Civil War. A good example of this is the case of Colonel George Goring. As will be described shortly, Goring was captured at Wakefield and remained a prisoner for almost twelve months. He was exchanged during the spring of 1644 in time to take part in the Marston Moor campaign. Many of the Parliamentarian troops captured at Seacroft Moor were not soldiers but clubmen – ill-armed local volunteers. On a number of occasions – Bradford, Leeds, Seacroft Moor and Adwalton Moor – Lord Fairfax used clubmen to supplement his limited supply of regular troops. As these men were agricultural workers and tradesmen their imprisonment had a major effect on the local economy of the areas from which they came. One of the reasons that Wakefield was chosen as a target was that Lord Fairfax had received intelligence that it was held by only 800–900 men, a serious underestimation of the garrison’s actual strength.

During the evening of 20 May a force of 1,500 men gathered at Howley Hall, near Batley, from the garrisons of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and the hall itself It comprised 1,000 foot, probably all musketeers, and eight troops of horse and three troops of dragoons. The mounted troops were divided equally between Sir Thomas Fairfax and Sir Henry Foulis, while the foot was commanded by Sergeant-Major-General Gifford and Sir William Fairfax. There is no mention of any artillery being present, which is hardly surprising as this was a raiding force. Sir Thomas Fairfax had overall command.

The Parliamentarian force moved on Wakefield via Stanley, where they attacked the small garrison, capturing twenty-one prisoners in the process. They then moved on to Wakefield where, alerted by survivors from the Stanley garrison, the Royalist horse and musketeers were waiting for them, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reported:

About four a clock in the morning we came before Wakefield, where after some of their horse were beaten into the town, the foot with unspeakable courage, beat the enemies from the hedges, which they had lined with musketeers into the town.

The Parliamentarians first encountered a strong patrol of horse from the town which they quickly drove back. They then found 500 musketeers manning the enclosures outside the town and again, after a short fight, these were driven back. With the approaches to the town cleared the Parliamentarians could put their plan into action. It should not be imagined that Wakefield was a fortified town. Its defences were formed by the hedges and walls of the houses along its four main streets – Kirkgate, Westgate, Warrengate and Northgate. The end of each street was barricaded. Fairfax’s plan was to attack along two of these streets: Northgate and Warrengate. No account states who attacked along which street but it can be surmised from subsequent events that Sir Thomas Fairfax and Gifford attacked Warrengate while Foulis and Sir William Fairfax attacked Northgate. The reasoning behind this is that Sir Thomas and Gifford were the first to reach the Market Place and the route along Warrengate is shorter, and that Gifford was able to plant a captured gun in the churchyard to fire on the Market Place. If he had attacked down Northgate he would have had to cross the Market Place, which was full of Royalist troops, to get to the churchyard.

The Royalist defences held out for some considerable time: one and a half to two hours are mentioned by contemporary accounts. Sir Thomas Fairfax wrote two accounts of the action, one immediately after the battle and one in his memoirs many years later. In his memoirs he reports that:

After 2 hours dispute the foot forced open a barricade where I entered with my own troop. Colonel Alured and Captain Bright followed with theirs. The street which we entered was full of their foot which we charged through and routed, leaving them to the foot which followed close behind us. And presently we were charged again with horse led by General Goring, where, after a hot encounter, some were slain, and himself [Goring] taken prisoner by Captain Alured.

The account written shortly after the action is very much in agreement:

When the barricades were opened, Sir Thomas Fairfax with the horse, fell into the town, and cleared the street where Colonel Goring was taken, by Lieutenant Alured, brother to Captain Alured, a Member of the House.

It is interesting to note the difference in the ranks of the Alured brothers given in the two accounts. The first gives their ranks at the close of the Civil Wars while the second gives their ranks at the time of the action.

After a lengthy dispute, Gifford’s foot managed to break into the end of Warrengate and open the barricade. This allowed Fairfax to lead his four troops in a charge down the street which was packed with enemy foot. These were quickly dispersed. Fairfax was then counterattacked by a body of horse led by George Goring. The Royalist horse was defeated and Goring captured by Lieutenant Alured. During this phase of the fighting Sir Thomas became separated from his men:

And here I cannot but acknowledge God’s goodness to me this day, who being advanced, a good way single, before my men, having a Colonel and a Lieutenant Colonel (who had engaged themselves as my prisoners) only with me, and many of the enemy now between me and my [men] I light on a regiment of foot standing in the Market Place. Thus encompassed, and thinking what to do, I spied a lane which I thought would lead me back to my men again; at the end of this lane there was a corps du guard of the enemy’s, with 15 or 16 soldiers which was, then, just quitting of it, with a Sergeant leading them off; whom we met; who seeing their officers came up to us. Taking no notice of me, they asked them what they would have them do, for they could keep that work no longer, because the Roundheads (as they called them) came so fast upon them. But the gentlemen, who had passed their words to be my true prisoners, said nothing, so looking upon one another, I thought it not fit, now, to own them as so, much less to bid the rest to render themselves prisoners to me; so, being well mounted, and seeing a place in the works where men used to go over, I rushed from them, seeing no other remedy, and made my horse leap over the works, and so, by good providence, got to my men again.

Sir Thomas’s bravery can never be doubted but sometimes his common sense can be. This would not be the last time his impetuous courage would leave him stranded on his own in the midst of the enemy.

Gifford had continued his attack along Warrengate, bringing the captured cannon with him. As he reached the Market Place he realised that it contained three troops of enemy horse and a regiment of their foot, as Fairfax reported:

Yet in the Market Place there stood three troops of horse, and Colonel Lampton’s Regiment [foot], to whom Major General Gifford sent a trumpet with offer of quarter, if they would lay down their arms, they answered they scorned the motion; then he fired a piece of their own ordinance upon them, and the horse fell in upon them, beat them out of the town.

In his memoirs Fairfax mentions that Gifford set the cannon up in the churchyard. Having given the Royalist troops an opportunity to surrender, Gifford ordered his men to open fire and then ordered Fairfax’s rallied troopers to charge the enemy. This was the last straw. Those who could, escaped; the remainder threw down their arms and surrendered. By nine o’clock Wakefield was firmly in Parliamentarian hands. Accounts do not give figures for the dead and wounded but do give a list of captured men and material: thirty-eight named officers, 1,500 common soldiers, four cannon, twenty-seven foot colours and three horse cornets, along with weapons and a large amount of powder, ball and match. The weapons, powder and ammunition were a great boon to the Parliamentarian cause. In a letter to Parliament Lord Fairfax summed up the victory:

And truly for my part I do rather account it a miracle, than a victory, and the glory and praise to be ascribed to God that wrought it, in which I hope I derogate nothing from the merits of the Commanders and Soldiers, who every man in his place and duty, showed as much courage and resolution as could be expected from men.

How had this ‘miracle’ taken place? The Parliamentarian victory at Wakefield flies in the face of military wisdom. The victors had taken a town garrisoned by twice their number and had captured more prisoners than they had soldiers. There are a number of reasons for the Parliamentarian victory. Firstly, they attacked the barricades at the end of the streets, which meant that only a limited number of Royalist troops could defend at any given time. Once the attackers had penetrated the barricades, the enemy troops, packed in the streets behind, were unable to defend themselves, as was also the case with the troops packed into the Market Place. There also seems to have been a breakdown in the Royalist command structure, with troops standing still instead of reacting to the changing situation. One possible reason for this is given by Dr Nathaniel Johnstone, a contemporary who left the following anecdote:

There was a meeting at Heath Hall upon the Saturday, at a bowling, and most of the officers and the governor were there, and had spent the afternoon in drinking, and were most drunk when the town was alarmed. It was taken fully by nine o’clock in the morning, and more prisoners were taken than the forces that came against it. It seems probable that Sir Thomas Fairfax had notice of their festivities at Heath, and perceived the advantage which they might afford him.

It has been reported that Goring had arisen from his sick bed to lead the mounted counterattack but Johnstone’s account may give another reason for Goring being seen reeling in his saddle – he was still drunk. His later record would point to this being a strong possibility.

Whatever the reasons for the Royalist defeat, Sir Thomas and his men had won a remarkable victory. They had no plans to remain in the town and expected a rapid response from Newcastle. Sir Thomas led his men out of Wakefield and back to their garrisons, complete with the spoils of their victory. The Fairfaxes had their prisoners for exchange but we do not know whether this ever took place.