1644: The Oxford Campaign and Cropredy Bridge
Parliament's Committee for Both Kingdoms hoped to follow up Sir William Waller's victory at Cheriton with an attack on the Royalist capital Oxford. The Committee ordered the Earl of Essex and the Earl of Manchester to rendezvous at Aylesbury on 19 April 1644 and from there to advance against Oxford, leaving Waller free to march into the west against Prince Maurice. However, the senior Parliamentarian generals were slow to obey the Committee's orders. Waller's army was weakened when his mutinous London regiments marched for home, so he returned to his base at Farnham Castle to await reinforcements. The Earl of Manchester refused to leave Lincolnshire because Prince Rupert's recent campaign to lift the siege of Newark threatened a Royalist advance into East Anglia. The Earl of Essex complained that Parliament favoured Manchester with supplies and money, and was reluctant to co-operate with Waller.
On 25 April 1644, King Charles convened a council of war at Oxford. Prince Rupert advised the King to maintain and strengthen the defensive ring of fortresses around the city and to support them with a central cavalry force. With the Royalist capital secure, Prince Maurice could complete the conquest of the west while Rupert himself went north to assist the Marquis of Newcastle, who was besieged at York. Rupert's plan was adopted but proved difficult to implement in practice because the Oxford army was short of cavalry.
By the middle of May 1644, the Parliamentarian commanders the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller were at last marshalling their forces and preparing to attack Oxford. The Parliamentarian armies were estimated at around 10,000 horse and foot each. Essex's army comprised veteran units raised at the beginning of war, reinforced by four Trained Band and auxiliary regiments from London. The core of Waller's army was the Southern Association forces recruited mainly in London, Sussex and Kent with a few veterans from the old Western Association and a brigade of Trained Bands and auxiliaries from London. Although Essex and Waller were on bad terms with one another and reluctant to co-operate, the Parliamentarian force ranged against Oxford was potentially overwhelming. The Royalist Captain-General the Earl of Brentford (formerly Lord Forth) advised abandoning Rupert's plan, withdrawing from outlying strongpoints and incorporating their garrisons into the main Oxford army. On 18 May, the Royalists duly evacuated Reading, which was a difficult garrison to support. A week later, the Royalists also abandoned Abingdon, thus conceding one of the inner ring of fortresses that protected Oxford. The Parliamentarians occupied the abandoned garrisons and began to tighten the noose on Oxford itself.
In early June 1644, Waller captured Newbridge to control crossings of the Thames above and below Oxford, while the Earl of Essex occupied Islip, a few miles north-east of the city. Rather than allow himself to become trapped in Oxford, King Charles left 3,000 pikemen and his heavy artillery in the city and set out with a force of 5,000 horse and 2,500 musketeers towards Worcester, having first made a feint towards Abingdon that induced Waller to fall back to its defence.
The King's initiative was successful. He reached Worcester unscathed on 6 June, yet his situation remained precarious. Essex and Waller bypassed Oxford to pursue the King's army. Colonel Massie, the energetic Parliamentarian governor of Gloucester, was also active in the region, having captured Malmesbury in Wiltshire during May, and Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire early in June. With Prince Rupert campaigning in the north, the King was not strong enough to take on the armies ranged against him. At this critical point, however, the Earl of Essex made an extraordinary decision to abandon his pursuit of the King and march into the west to relieve the siege of Lyme, leaving Waller to deal with the King and the Oxford army.
Despite Essex's departure, the King remained reluctant to challenge Waller. He needed a stronger army, yet could not summon Prince Rupert to join forces with him without abandoning York. The King therefore decided to return to Oxford to pick up the infantry and artillery left there. On 12 June, the King marched northwards from Worcester to Bewdley, giving the impression that he was making for Shrewsbury and a possible rendezvous with Rupert's forces. Waller hurried north to Stourbridge to intercept him. From Bewdley, the King outmanoeuvred Waller by summoning boats to ferry the Royalist infantry back down the River Severn, then doubled back to Worcester with his cavalry. From there, the Royalists hurried towards Oxford via Evesham and Witney. On 21 June, the entire Oxford army mustered at Woodstock. Reinforced by the infantry and train of artillery from Oxford, the King marched to Buckingham.
The Committee for Both Kingdoms feared that the King intended to strike East Anglia, which was undefended following the departure of the Eastern Association army for York. With the Earl of Essex beyond the Committee's control, frantic orders were sent to Waller to intercept the King's army. As he marched back towards Oxford, Waller was reinforced with units drawn from Gloucestershire, Coventry and Warwick. Another London brigade and local Trained Bands under Major-General Richard Browne was mustered at Hertford and ordered to march to support Waller.
The King's Oxford army arrived at Buckingham on 22 June 1644 and was quartered there for four days before advancing towards Banbury in Oxfordshire. This hiatus allowed Sir William Waller's army, which was advancing from the west, to catch up with the King. The two armies came into contact on 28 June. Cavalry skirmishes broke out around Banbury, during which attempts by the Parliamentarian advance guard to secure a crossing of the River Cherwell were repulsed.
Early in the morning of 29 June, the Royalists began marching northwards towards Daventry. King Charles and his general-in-chief the Earl of Brentford intended to draw Waller out and to fight him on ground of their own choosing. Brentford led the van of the Royalist army with the King in the centre; the rearguard comprised the cavalry brigades of the Earl of Cleveland and the Earl of Northampton supported by 1,000 commanded foot under Colonel Thelwell. As the Royalists advanced along the eastern bank of the River Cherwell, the Parliamentarians shadowed them on the western bank. The two forces were in full view of one another and little more than a mile apart.
As the Royalists approached the village of Cropredy, news came in that a force of 300 Roundhead cavalry had been sighted two miles ahead, probably on its way to join Waller. Brentford covered the left flank of the Royalist column by sending a force of dragoons to guard the crossing at Cropredy Bridge then ordered the advance guard to ride ahead and secure Hay's Bridge, the next crossing over the Cherwell.
Observing from Bourton Hill, Sir William Waller noticed that the rapid advance left the Royalist column widely strung out as the main body of infantry struggled to keep up with the vanguard. Seizing his chance, Waller sent a detachment of 1,500 horse, 1,000 foot and eleven guns under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Middleton to seize Cropredy bridge, cross the river and cut off the Royalist rearguard. The infantry, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Baines, easily scattered the dragoons guarding the bridge while Middleton led Heselrige's and Vandruske's regiments of horse across the river and advanced towards Hay's Bridge. Meanwhile, Waller himself advanced with his remaining cavalry across the ford at Slat Mill, a mile south of Cropredy, intending to isolate the rearguard.
The Royalist vanguard and centre had nearly all crossed over Hay's Bridge onto the north bank of the Cherwell when Middleton's cavalry approached. The Royalists overturned a wagon to block the bridge and posted musketeers to defend the crossing. Having no infantry support, Middleton fell back towards Cropredy. At the head of the Royalist rearguard, the Earl of Cleveland drew up his cavalry on rising ground facing Cropredy Bridge then led a counter-attack. A running cavalry fight developed. With Hay's Bridge secure, Lord Bernard Stuart advanced with the King's Lifeguard to assist Cleveland. Middleton's cavalry were routed and the Parliamentarian guns that had been prematurely moved across the Cherwell were captured by the Royalists, along with the artillery officer Lieutenant-General Wemyss.
Sir William Waller's advance across Slat Mill ford met with firm resistance from the Earl of Northampton's cavalry. Dismayed, Waller withdrew most of his forces to his unassailable position on Bourton Hill, leaving detachments to guard the river crossings against Royalist attacks. Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Birch, the Tower Hamlets regiment stoutly defended Cropredy Bridge itself and the Royalists were unable to recapture it. Royalist infantry forced a crossing at Slat Mill, but Waller's heavy guns on Bourton Hill prevented them from advancing any further.
The two armies remained in position facing one another across the Cherwell for the rest of the day and for most of 30 June. Waller and his senior officers suffered an unfortunate accident when the floor of the room in which they were meeting collapsed and they all fell into a cellar. That evening, the Royalists received word that Major-General Browne's London Brigade had reached Buckingham and was marching to join forces with Waller. At dawn on 1 July, the Royalist army marched away westwards, arriving at Evesham two days later.
The battle of Cropredy Bridge had lifted the morale of the King's army but had the opposite effect on Waller's men. The Midlands regiments, the London regiments and the Kentish horse demanded to return home. By the end of July, the withdrawal of the garrison troops and heavy desertions from other regiments had reduced the strength of Waller's army by half. Badly disrupted, it no longer presented a threat to Oxford, which allowed the King's army to march to the south-west in pursuit of the Earl of Essex.
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A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1959)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
Robert Morris, The Battle of Cropredy Bridge 1644 (Bristol 1994)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
Laurence Spring, The Campaigns of Sir William Waller's Southern Association 1643-45 (Bristol 1997)
Cropredy Bridge : UK Battlefields Resource Centre