1643: Civil War in the Midlands
Early in 1643, the King's Oxford army was on the defensive, threatened from the east by the Earl of Essex at Windsor, and from the west by Sir William Waller who was active the Welsh border. The Oxford army was not strong enough to move against London without help from the Earl of Newcastle in Yorkshire or Sir Ralph Hopton in Cornwall, so during the winter of 1642-3, the King attempted to consolidate his central position. The ring of defensive garrisons around Oxford was completed by the capture of Marlborough in December 1642.
The Royalists steadily gained ground in the Midlands to the north of Oxford: local forces had established garrisons at Tamworth, Lichfield, and Stafford by the end of 1642, while a detachment from the Earl of Newcastle's northern army seized the stronghold of Newark. However, with the arrival of Queen Henrietta Maria in Yorkshire early in February 1643, the Earl of Newcastle's main northern army fell back to York to protect the Queen and the substantial munitions convoy that she brought over from the Continent.
Parliament was anxious to break the Royalist hold on the Midlands, fearing that it would allow an advance from York by the Earl of Newcastle and the Queen's convoy to join forces with the Oxford army. The commander of Parliament's forces in Staffordshire and Warwickshire was the Puritan magnate Lord Brooke, regarded by many as a potential replacement for the Earl of Essex as Captain-General of Parliament's armies. On 25 February, Brooke defeated Colonel Wagstaffe's Royalists at Stratford-upon-Avon then advanced on Lichfield which commanded the main north-south road through Staffordshire.
The Royalist Earl of Chesterfield had occupied Lichfield early in 1643. The town had neither walls nor a castle so a garrison was established in the Cathedral Close, which was encircled by a high wall. Ammunition was stored in the Cathedral itself and cannon were mounted at strategic points around the building. Lord Brooke arrived at the beginning of March and besieged the Close. The towers and spires of the Cathedral were badly damaged during the Parliamentarian bombardment. On 4 March, Lord Brooke was shot through the eye and killed whilst observing the Royalist position. The sniper who shot him from the central spire of the Cathedral was "Dumb Dyott", the deaf and dumb younger son of a local gentry family. The death of the radical Puritan peer, who had denounced cathedrals as the haunts of the Antichrist, on the festival day of St Chad, the patron saint of Lichfield, was regarded as a divine judgment by the Royalists. His deputy Sir John Gell took over the siege. The Royalist garrison surrendered to Gell two days later, but Lord Brooke's death was a serious blow to Parliament.
Alarmed at the loss of Lichfield, King Charles sent the Earl of Northampton into the Midlands to recover it. In mid-March 1643, Northampton marched north from Banbury with two regiments of horse and a small number of foot. At Stafford, he joined forces with Colonel-General Henry Hastings with several regiments of horse. The combined Royalist army numbered about 1,200 men, mostly cavalry. Meanwhile, after his success at Lichfield, the Parliamentarian Sir John Gell had turned his attention to Stafford. He arranged a rendezvous with the Cheshire commander Sir William Brereton at Hopton Heath, about three miles north-east of Stafford, intending to attack the town with their combined forces.
Gell arrived on Hopton Heath around noon on 19 March and deployed his troops defensively to await the arrival of Brereton's Cheshire contingent which was approaching from the north-west. On learning of Gell's approach, the Earl of Northampton gathered his forces and marched out of Stafford to confront the Parliamentarians. Gell deployed the main body of his infantry on rough ground, where the Royalist cavalry could not manoeuvre easily. Artillery was positioned on high ground to the rear. On Gell's left flank, hedges and walls formed a natural breastworks for his musketeers. The small force of cavalry was positioned on the right flank, and was soon joined by Brereton's cavalry ahead of the main Cheshire contingent. Lord Northampton decided to attack immediately before Brereton's infantry could deploy. The Royalists brought up a heavy demi-cannon known as Roaring Meg and opened fire on the Parliamentarian centre. Encouraged by the success of his gunners, the Earl of Northampton led the first cavalry charge, which drove most of the Parliamentarian horse from the field. A second charge overran the Parliamentarian artillery. A number of guns were captured and the main body of infantry was almost routed. However, the Earl of Northampton was unhorsed during the fighting and separated from his men. Surrounded by enemies, he refused to surrender to "base rogues". After killing several Roundheads, he was struck down and killed by a halberd blow to the head. Sir Thomas Byron led a third charge, but was unable to break the Parliamentarian infantry. Colonel-General Hastings tried to rally the cavalry for a fourth charge, but by then they were exhausted. The battle ended when dusk fell and the Parliamentarians withdrew, leaving the Royalists in possession of the field. Brereton returned to Cheshire and Gell to Derby, abandoning their attempt to capture Stafford.
Sir John Gell carried away the Earl of Northampton's body. When the Earl's son refused to return the cannon captured at Hopton Heath or the money Gell had paid to embalm the body, the corpse was paraded through the streets of Derby before its burial at All Hallows Church.
After the death of the Earl of Northampton at Hopton Heath, the King appointed Prince Rupert commander of Royalist forces in the Midlands. With the Queen and her munitions convoy still at York, it was vital to secure a safe route for her to advance south to join forces with the King. Rupert set about reducing Roundhead strongholds in the Midlands.
Rupert's first target was Birmingham, noted both for its intense puritanism and for its iron industry, which supplied the Parliamentarian armies with sword blades. The town had no walls or natural defences, but a force of 200 Parliamentarians commanded by Captain Greaves was positioned behind hastily-erected earthworks at Camp Hill when Rupert approached with 1,200 horse and 700 foot on 3 April. Although heavily outnumbered, the Parliamentarians put up a solid resistance. Rupert's troops were driven back twice under heavy fire. Greaves withdrew into Birmingham itself when Rupert sent flanking parties to work around the Parliamentarian position. The Royalists came under renewed fire as they advanced into Birmingham. They were temporarily halted by a Roundhead counter-attack in which Lord Denbigh was mortally wounded. When the Parliamentarians were finally driven out, the Royalists plundered and burnt the town before marching on.
Rupert next besieged Lichfield which Lord Brooke had captured for Parliament in March 1643. Lichfield Cathedral had been transformed into a temporary fortress. Several attempts were made to storm the walls of the Cathedral Close during the 10-day siege, but lacking heavy siege guns, Rupert called up fifty miners from Cannock Chase firstly to drain the moat around the Close and then to tunnel up to the walls. The tunnels were packed with gunpowder, and on 20 April Rupert's engineers detonated the first explosive mine to be used in an English siege to open a massive breach in the defences. Unable to defend the breach, the Parliamentarians surrendered to Rupert the following day.
Although Lichfield was taken, Prince Rupert was unable to continue his campaign to secure the Midlands for the King because of events further south. On 13 April, the Earl of Essex finally marched to besiege Reading in the first stage of his long-anticipated campaign to attack Oxford. Rupert was promptly recalled south to counter this new threat to the Royalist capital.
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S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
Hopton Heath : UK Battlefields Resource Centre