Hello and welcome to Revolutions.
Last time we left off with Charles’s attempt to arrest the leaders of the parliamentary opposition. The attempt sparked an angry reaction from the parliamentary incline mobs of London, forcing Charles to flee the city in January 1642. This week we are now going to plunge into the chaotic mess that is the first English Civil War. And it really was a chaotic mess.
Aside from a few intrepid adventurers who had privately volunteered for service on the Continent, the generation that waged the English Civil Wars had no military experience to speak of. And it will show. Caesar and Pompey, they were not.
The early months of 1642 were tied up in an acrimonious exchange of letters between the King and Parliament, full of unreasonable demands and barely concealed paranoia about the intentions of the other side. Then the King made a tactical blunder by summoning the Lords to attend to him personally. He was trying to shift the center of political gravity away from London. But of course, the only peers who responded were his allies, which meant that the only resulting shift in political gravity occurred in the House of Lords, which now skewed decisively radical.
As we discussed last week, the Irish rebellion still loomed over all of this, but Parliament was now firmly convinced that any army the King raised would be used against them first, and half of them actually believed that the rebellion had been orchestrated by Charles to justify raising an army to crush them. So in March, Parliament unilaterally attempted to take control of the situation by passing the Militia Ordinance.
The ordinance authorized Parliament on its own authority, to raise an army, pay for it, and appoint its commanders. Now, you legal scholars out there might be thinking, hey, doesn’t the King have to sign a bill before it can become a law? And the answer is, of course he does, which is why the militia ordinance was merely an ordinance and not the militia law, because an ordinance does not require Royal approval. And so, yes, we are getting into pretty murky constitutional waters here. But desperate times do call for desperate measures.
By mid March, the King had moved up north to York, where he planned to regroup and launch his triumphant return to London. And though he didn’t move on it right away, the key to this triumphant return would be controlling the arsenal in the northern port city of Hull. There were only a few of these major powder and weapons caches scattered across England, so making sure the whole Arsenal was firmly in hand was pretty important. But the King was still affecting a conciliatory posture, so he didn’t attempt to lock down Hull until mid April. But when the King did make his move, the Parliamentary leaders were tipped off that the King was leaving York, and so they ordered Sir John Hotham to ride north as fast as he could and lock the gates to the city. When the King arrived on April 23, he discovered, much to his consternation, that the drawbridge was raised. This led to an absurd exchange where Hothman told the King he couldn’t open the door without an order from the King. So the King ordered him to open the door, and Hotham said, no, I mean an order from the sovereign authority of the King, which is ultimately vested in Parliament. Flumxed by this novel political theory that the King and the King were not necessarily the same thing, Charles was forced to withdraw.
But all this public posturing was really about trying to win the propaganda war. So as Charles headed back to York, he was able to argue that he was an aggrieved victim, while Parliament was able to argue that the King was trying to make war on his own people.
The flurry of public letters and pamphlets and declarations reached its peak in early June, when Charles asked Parliament to send him a list of final demands, and Parliament responded by drying up the 19 propositions. But the 19 propositions, which included things like approval of privy counselors and the right to appoint tutors for the King’s children to keep them from being brought up Catholic, were not the basis for negotiation. Because we’re pretty much at the point now where both sides are trying to make sure the other side gets blamed when armed conflict inevitably breaks out.
This is also the point when the so-called Constitutional Royalists in the House of Commons, the guys who had initially supported clipping the King’s wings but who had been alienated by things like the Grand Remonstrance and the proposals to radically reform the Church of England, started slipping out of London and physically joining the King’s side. The King, of course, welcomed these defections, but unfortunately, as when he had summoned the Lords, the withdrawal of the Constitutional Royalists only made the House of Commons a more extreme body, further polarizing the political struggle and pushing a peaceful settlement off the table. With these two opposing sides coalescing, this makes for a nice opportunity to introduce the traditional names we use for each of them: Cavaliers and Roundheads.
First, let’s note that this is not what they called themselves. These were derogatory names supplied by the other side. The stereotypical Royalist Cavalier had long, flowing hair, fancy clothes, a plumed hat, and a carefree aristocratic manner, which is to say, a total disregard for commoners. He was also portrayed as a hard-drinking, frivolous atheist, a corrupt dilettante who hated God almost as much as he hated the poor.
The stereotypical Roundhead, meanwhile, was an upstanding Puritan defending the rights of freeborn Englishmen unless you talk to a Royalist, in which case, said Roundhead is mocked for his ridiculously short cropped hair (hence the name), his joyless puritanism, and his unconscionable desire to undo the natural order of things and put the Kingdom of England in the hands of lowborn religious fanatics. Both stereotypes only occasionally fit an extreme Royalist on one side or an extreme Puritan on the other. But the names have stuck and I might from time to time deploy them here instead of Royalist or Parliamentary.
The drift to war picked up through June, when the King appointed a new Lord Admiral of the English Navy. Parliament countered by appointing the Earl of Warwick to the same post. Warwick, an old sea dog popular with the sailors, quickly secured their support, and just like that, the King had lost control of his own Navy. Charles then issued something called the commissions of array, an old medieval statute that allowed the King to raise forces without the approval of Parliament, just as the militia ordinance was allowing Parliament to raise forces without approval from the King. These contradictory declarations then circulated through the country, and everyone had to decide for themselves whether to follow the militia ordinance or the commissions of array, whether to become a Roundhead or a Cavalier. Both of these troop levies were legally dubious, but they were also being carried around by men with pikes and guns.
In July, Parliament established a Committee of Safety, which formerly resolved to raise the army it was already raising. The choice to lead this army by unanimous acclamation was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. Essex had long been alienated from the Royal court. His father had been executed for launching a rather quixotic rebellion against an aging Queen Elizabeth in 1601. And then his first marriage had been annulled by King James in 1613 for the very public and very humiliating reason of impotence. He spent the 1620s serving as a volunteer in the Dutch armies, making him one of those few Englishmen with any military experience, which is one of the main reasons he was selected as major general by Parliament in the first place. The other reason is that he was one of those hardline Lords in the Warwick camp who had demanded Strafford’s head. No if’s, and’s or but’s. So the parliamentary leadership could be assured that they were putting troops in the hands of a man who both knew how to fight and who was willing to fight. But on both counts, they would find themselves disappointed.
Now, just so we don’t forget about them, remember that as the militia ordinance and commissions of array are circulating the countryside, the English forces over in Ireland are still desperate for reinforcements. But the King and Parliament have more or less forgotten why they had started caring about who gets to raise an army. They were now so completely locked in on each other that for the time being, the Irish garrisons are just going to have to fend for themselves, which awesome! Thank you! Hey, did we mention the Catholic old English have decided to make common cause with the old Irish for the first time in history? Because they have. Ok, we’ll just be here waiting for reinforcements.
On August 22, 1642, King Charles formally raised his banner at Nottingham. This was merely a symbolic act at this point, but it was the King’s official declaration that he was at war with the enemies of England and everybody needed to rally to his colors. Except that after he raised the banner, no one showed up. The turnout was pathetic. The commissions of array were turning out to be a dismal failure. Parliament, meanwhile, was quickly putting together an army that numbered some 15,000 men by early September. So Charles had to quickly shift gears and start granting individual commissions, allowing Lords to raise troops on their own authority and thus follow old client patron lines rather than the impersonal commissions of Array. Duty to your local Lord, after all, is easier to understand and easier to enforce than some abstract duty to a faraway King. Once he had enough troops, though, Charles’s plan was to march on London and retake the capital.
On September 9th, the Earl of Essex marched out of London with his 15,000 men and went looking for the King. The first real action of the war took place on September 23 at Powick Bridge, where an advanced guard of Parliamentary cavalry met an advanced guard of Royalist cavalry, and in the ensuing skirmish, the Parliamentary force was quickly broken and driven off. It was a minor Royalist victory, but it does present a nice opportunity to introduce Prince Rupert.
Ah, Prince Rupert, the archetypical Cavalier. Just 22 years old when the war broke out. He was the third son of Charles’s older sister, Elizabeth. He had spent his life in exile along with the rest of his family, after his father, Frederick V, had failed to gain the throne of Bohemia in 1620, basically starting the 30 Years War. Living in Holland, Rupert embraced the military as a way of life and went on his first campaign with the Dutch Prince of Orange at the age of 14. Five years later, he was captured by the Holy Roman Empire and held as a prisoner for three years, finally being released in late 1641, largely due to the diplomatic intervention of his uncle, King Charles. The grateful Rupert hopped over to England just in time to join the Royalist side the night before Charles raised his standard in Nottingham. As we will see, Rupert was probably the most talented cavalry officer of the war, at least until Cromwell shows up, usually on the side of good sense when it comes to big picture strategic decisions, but maddeningly undisciplined in the field, as we are about to see.
On October 13, the King finally felt like he had enough men to move on London. As he marched, he picked up further reinforcements, swelling his ranks to about 14,000 men, putting him basically on equal terms with the Parliamentary Army. As Charles moved southeast, Essex headed northwest to intercept him, but displaying the downright, unprofessional soldiering that was the hallmark of the early fighting, neither side sent out advanced scouts, so neither side knew where the other side was until they were right on top of each other. And even then, when the two armies realized they were right on top of each other, and so it’s time to fight, Charles wound up lining up between Essex and London, even though Essex was supposed to be the one blocking the King’s path back to the capital.
Everyone’s big assumption heading into the Battle of Edgehill is that this was going to be it. The two sides would have one big, decisive battle and let the chips fall where they may. And it almost worked out that way. Except that Prince Rupert never came back. For a brief moment, it did look like Edgehill was going to be decisive. As the two ranks of pikemen in the middle advanced on each other, Prince Rupert’s cavalry barreled forward and broke the Parliamentary horse. But as their beaten enemy fled in disarray, Rupert and his men, flushed with the glory of the whole thing, chased after them and kept chasing after them and never came back. Meanwhile, back at Edgehill, the Parliamentary infantry was steadily pushing the Royalist infantry until evening forced both sides to call off the fight. Had Rupert simply wheeled around and come charging into the rear of the Parliamentary line, we probably wouldn’t be talking about the First English Civil War right now. We’d be talking about the Battle of Edgehill and how it marked the end of an obscure Parliamentary revolt in the 1640s.
After the fighting, both sides were pretty well battered. The Parliamentary Army, even after being bolstered by a force led by John Hampden, was only half of what it had been the day before, and the King was no better off. Rupert offered to make a run for London with his triumphant cavalry, who had finally come back when the sun went down. But the King chose the more cautious strategy of keeping what remained of his army together, which meant that the march to London was painfully slow, which of course meant that Parliament had time to organize a defense. By the time the Royalist Army neared London on November 13, a massive army of 24,000 stood at Turnham Green ready to stop them. Well, it wasn’t really an army. It was more like a hastily raised mob of London apprentices backed up by the trained bands. But still, 24,000! That’s enough to spook anyone, and it spooked Charles. So he withdrew his force to Oxford, where he planned to spend the winter.
If you’re thinking that the break in fighting brought on by winter would be a perfect time to negotiate a peace before things get any worse, you’re both right and wrong. Parliamentary envoys did come to Oxford over the winter, and the two sides did start negotiating. But it quickly became apparent that the recent fighting had only made everyone dig in even harder. Both sides made ridiculous demands because neither side was ready to concede a thing. This was going to be settled on the battlefield.
Come the spring of 1643, the war really got going in earnest. So from here on out, we’re not going to be talking about two armies dancing around each other. We’re going to be talking about fighting in three separate but interconnected theaters. The northern theater was defined by a rivalry between the Royalist Earl of Newcastle and the Parliamentary Lord Fairfax and, of course, his son, Sir Thomas Fairfax. Sir Thomas Fairfax, you’re going to want to write that down. In the middle, we’ll have the on again, off again maneuvering between Charles and Essex. And in the quote unquote west, we have a host of commanders duking it out. But at least for now, the really interesting campaign pitched the Royalist Sir Ralph Hopton against his old friend and comrade in arms, Sir William Waller.
There is no way I am going to cover every skirmish, battle, and siege of the First Civil War, but we are going to hit the big stuff. I posted a map of all this to help keep things straight, so here we go.
We’ll start up in the north, where the Earl of Newcastle had been commissioned to lead the Royalist forces. Newcastle was a rich and influential northern magnate who had actively supported Charles during the Bishop’s Wars with men and money and been rewarded with a seat on the Privy Council in 1639. As the Civil War got going, he had managed to raise an army of 8,000 men in short order. But perhaps even more important than that, he recruited some of the most capable officers to fight on either side of the war, including Continental veterans Sir George Goring and Sir Marmaduke Langdale. Newcastle was opposed by Ferdinando Fairfax, who had also fought for the King during the Bishop’s Wars, but who would switch sides when the Long Parliament convened. Fairfax was ably supported by his 30 year old son, Sir Thomas. Have you written his name down yet? Sir Thomas Fairfax. Okay, good.
During the summer of 1642, while Essex and Charles were dancing around each other down south, Newcastle and the Fairfaxes had signed a local neutrality agreement, obviously in the hopes that the war would be over before they had to fight each other. But come the spring of 1643, there was no putting off hostilities. Newcastle advanced on York and forced the small parliamentary army of 3 or 4 thousand to withdraw to Leeds. From there, the Fairfaxes were forced to move onto the city of Bradford. Knowing they would be unable to withstand a siege, father and son launched a daring surprise attack on Newcastle’s army of now 10,000 men at Edwalton Moor on June 30. They nearly pulled the rabbit out of their hat. But the Royalists regrouped and turned the parliamentary flank, forcing the Fairfaxes to fall back to Hull, seeding the Royalist control of all Yorkshire. So basically, it was a terrible opening round for Parliament in the north.
Meanwhile, down in the west, the war started no better for Parliament. As I just mentioned, there were a couple of different forces running around, but the key armies were led by William Waller and Ralph Hopton. Waller was a staunch Parliamentarian, despite not having any sympathy for radical Puritans. He had fought at Edgehill but had been among the cavalry scattered by Rupert at the outset of the battle. Hopton, meanwhile, had joined the Royalist cause despite supporting the impeachment of Strafford and being a member of the delegation that had formally presented the grand remonstrance to Charles in December 1641. Waller and Hopton had also served together on the Continent as volunteers in the lifeguard of Elizabeth of Bohemia, aka King Charles’s older sister, and Prince Rupert’s mother. They were friends, they were neighbors, but now they found themselves on opposite sides in a civil war they both clearly had mixed feelings about. In fact, after they had spent some time fighting and skirmishing around each other in early 1643, Hopton sent Waller a letter asking if there wasn’t some way for them to just settle things and take no further part in the war. Waller replied in a letter that has become part of the lore of the English civil wars. In the most famous passage, he writes: “The great God, who is the searcher of my heart, knows with what a sad sense I go upon this service and with what a perfect hatred I detest this war without an enemy, but I look upon it ascent from God, and that is enough to silence all passion in me. We are both upon the stage and must act such parts as are assigned us in this tragedy. Let us do it in a way of honor and without personal animosities. Whatever the issue be, I shall never willingly relinquish the dear title of your most affectionate friend and humble servant.”. And then they went back to trying to kill each other.
After barely winning a difficult fight at Lansdowne Hill on July 5, Hopton was badly injured when a powder kick exploded as his army was preparing to withdraw the next morning. Waller took advantage of his friend’s misfortune and boxed the Royalist army in a few days later. But a blind and half paralyzed Hopton ordered his cavalry to break for the King at Oxford and beg for reinforcements, and they managed to slip away before Waller could completely seal his lines. Amazingly, the King responded quickly, and overnight 1,800 horse were riding out of Oxford. Waller’s army numbered 2,500 foot and about 2,000 horse, but with the arrival of the Royalist reinforcement, he found himself pressed between Hopton’s besieged 2,000 infantrymen on one side and the 1,800 cavalry troopers on the other. So he pulled his forces up to a defensive position at Roundway Down on July 13. But the Royalist cavalry, who had been riding all night, basically just kept right on riding until they hit Waller’s army. After intense fighting, the Parliamentary cavalry was scattered, but they accidentally retreated over a concealed cliff, ending up, as John Kenyon writes in The Civil Wars of England, “a shattered tangle of flesh and bone, equine and human at the bottom of what is still known as Bloody Ditch”. Gross!
Meanwhile, Hopton’s Royalist infantry, who had been slow to mobilize because they had not expected help to come so quickly, finally got moving, and Waller’s infantry was helpless now before the oncoming pincer. A few died where they stood, most surrendered and a bunch more ran off. Waller managed to get away, but his army, the Parliamentary army in the west, was destroyed. So by mid-summer 1643, Royalists controlled the north and the west. And then, just to compound things, Prince Rupert rode off and sees the supposedly impregnable city of Bristol on July 26, after convincing the Parliamentary garrison commander to surrender without a fight. So as the autumn of 1643 approached, Parliament was in it in a bad way.
But all was not lost. Parliament still had money to draw on from the London merchants and fertile recruiting grounds in the eastern counties where Royalists dared not tread. Indeed, when Waller made it back to London in early August, he was greeted as a hero despite the thrashing at Roundway Down, and Parliament immediately voted to raise him an army of 11,000 that he could use to defend London. A few days later, they voted to grant our old friend Lord Mandeville, who had become the second Earl of Manchester when his father died the previous November, a commission to raise 20,000 men to form a new Eastern Association Army.
With everything going so well for the Royalists, though, Charles decided to once again shoot himself in the foot when he made the inexplicable decision to besiege Gloucester in late July. Had Charles consolidated his forces in the middle and west, it is likely he could have ended the war before Parliament could regroup, but instead he bogged himself down pointlessly besieging a strategically unnecessary city. Before the King came to his senses, Essex took off with an army that once again numbered about 15,000 to lift the siege. They ran Charles out of Gloucester on September 4, but then, like the year before, the two armies just sort of wandered around until they bumped into each other at Newbury two weeks later. Once again, the King wound up standing between Essex and London.
As with Edgehill, everyone hoped that the First Battle of Newbury would be decisive enough to end the war. That we call it the First Battle of Newbury should tell you everything you need to know about that. On the morning of September 20, the two sides lined up on a north-south axis. The north end was bounded by a river, the south end by a flat area called the Wash Common, and the middle was a mess of hedgerows and rough terrain surrounded by a high point called Round Hill, which the Royalists, despite having arrived first, just didn’t occupy for some reason, allowing the Parliamentary forces to waltz in and take it. When the battle started, the north had generated into a bloody stalemate. The middle turned into a vicious fight over Round Hill when the Royalist suddenly realized, oh, yeah, we need that. And the south saw a fierce back and forth between Prince Rupert’s horse and a this time not totally overmatched Parliamentary cavalry. The south end of the fight then turned into a wicked artillery duel that saw the London trained bands who were supposed to be the weak link of Essex’s army for some reason decide to hold their ground in the face of alternating artillery bombardments and cavalry attacks.
When night fell, Newbury turned out to have been just as bloody and just as indecisive as Edgehill had been. Both sides were preparing to get back to it the next day but Charles decided to withdraw after taking stock of his gunpowder stores and realizing he didn’t have anymore.
With the civil war approaching its second winter the parliamentary cause was reeling. But the moderately positive end to the first battle of Newbury gave them a shred of hope that they could still pull this thing off. But they would not be able to do it without help.
Next week, it will be time to call the Scots back onto the field of play. It will also be time to officially meet a man who has been sculpting around on the sidelines since the Parliament of 1628 but who has until now been neither important enough nor influential enough to merit a second glance. A man who was about to command the attention not just of his fellow Englishman, but of the entire world: Oliver Cromwell.
Return to The English Revolution >>