1644: The Relief of Newark
Following the Royalist defeat at the battle of Nantwich in January 1644, Lord Byron withdrew to Chester where he was blockaded as the Parliamentarians overran most of Cheshire and Lancashire. In February 1644, however, Prince Rupert arrived at Shrewsbury with a commission as President of Wales and the Marches. With his characteristic energy and efficiency, Rupert set about reforming the civilian administration of the region, re-organising the military and building a new field army around a nucleus of regiments released from service in Ireland. Within weeks of Rupert's arrival, Byron and his officers were able to venture out and begin a brutal re-conquest of Cheshire, Shropshire and Herefordshire.
The Siege of Newark
The Parliamentarians in the northern Marches were thrown onto the defensive by Rupert's arrival in the region, but in the Midlands they were on the attack. Late in February 1644, troops from Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire under the command of Lord Willoughby and Sir John Meldrum advanced towards the great Royalist stronghold of Newark in Nottinghamshire. Newark had been secured for the King in December 1642. It was governed by Lord Byron's brother Sir Richard as a centre of operations for Royalist activity in the east Midlands. It was also a vital strategic point for maintaining communications between Oxford and York.
An attempt had been made to besiege Newark a year previously in February 1643 when Major-General Thomas Ballard led 6,000 Parliamentarians against the town. Ballard's initial attack was repulsed and he quickly realised that he had insufficient resources. The first "siege" of Newark was abandoned after only one day.
Newark's ancient castle and medieval walls were repaired and strengthened and a new defensive circuit of earthwork banks and ditches constructed around the town. The River Trent formed a natural barrier on the western approach. A large, flat, rectangular area of land called "the Island" flanked Newark to the north-west, formed by the splitting of the Trent into two streams a mile above the town and its reunion below.
On 6 March 1644, the Parliamentarian force of around 2,000 horse, 5,000 foot and thirteen siege guns approached Newark. Meldrum stormed Muskham bridge to the north-west of the town and seized control of the Island. He built a bridge of boats to connect the Island to the eastern bank of the Trent above Newark, where he set up his headquarters in the ruins of the Spittal, a mansion built on the site of the medieval hospital of St Leonard. The interior of the Spittal had been destroyed by fire during Ballard's attack in 1643, but the exterior walls were still strong. Meldrum's attempt to storm the defences of Newark on 8 March was repulsed by the defenders; at the same time, a Royalist relief force from Belvoir Castle was beaten back by the Parliamentarians.
Prince Rupert's March
On 12 March 1644, Prince Rupert was conferring with Lord Byron at Chester regarding the defence of the city when he received orders from the King to march to the relief of Newark. He hurried back to his headquarters at Shrewsbury and selected as many musketeers as could be spared from the troops returning from Ireland. By 15 March, Rupert was at Bridgnorth in Shropshire to join forces with Colonel Tillier. Gathering reinforcements from garrisons in the Midlands as he hurried across country, Rupert rendezvoused with Lord Loughborough at Ashby-de-la-Zouch in Leicestershire on 18 March. Two days later, Rupert was at Bingham, ten miles south-west of Newark with a makeshift army of 3,500 horse, 3,000 foot and three field guns. Rupert was determined to destroy the besieging Parliamentarian army rather than allow it a chance to withdraw and return to Newark at a later date. In the early hours of 21 March, he led the vanguard of his cavalry by moonlight around the south of the town to approach the Parliamentarians from the south-east, pinning them against the River Trent and cutting off their line of retreat towards Lincoln.
Prince Rupert and his advance guard occupied the crest of Beacon Hill to the east of Newark as Parliamentarian cavalry outposts fell back to the lower slopes of the hill, hoping to lure the Cavaliers towards the guns of Sir John Meldrum's main body of troops, which was massed around the Spittal and on the Island. Without waiting for the rest of his army to arrive, Rupert led an immediate attack on the Parliamentarian cavalry. Colonel Rossiter and Colonel Thornhaugh, commanding the Parliamentarian left and right wings, fought back fiercely but were eventually overwhelmed and driven back across the bridge of boats and onto the Island. Soon after the initial cavalry mêlée was over, Colonel Tiller came up with the Royalist infantry. Supported by cavalry units, Tillier worked his way around to the north-east to lead an attack on Meldrum's main position. Tillier tried to capture the bridge of boats across the River Trent, but found the Parliamentarian defences too strong and was obliged to withdraw.
The Parliamentarians were now hemmed in, with Tillier to the north-east, Rupert to the south-east and Newark itself to the south-west. After Rupert ordered part of the Newark garrison to seize Muskham bridge on the far side of the Island, the tables were completely turned on Meldrum, whose besieging force was surrounded by the Royalists with no room for manoeuvre and food for two or three days at most. With quarrels breaking out amongst the Parliamentarian commanders and a mutiny amongst some of his troops, Meldrum called for a parley. The Roundheads were allowed to march away, but all their artillery, ammunition and firearms were surrendered to Prince Rupert. Over 3,000 muskets, eleven artillery pieces and two mortars were captured.
The relief of Newark was one of Prince Rupert's most brilliant victories and ensured the garrison's survival until the end of the First Civil War. Returning his borrowed troops to their garrisons, Rupert marched back to Shrewsbury.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1958)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
Ronald Hutton, The Royalist War Effort 1642-46, (London 1999)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
P. Young and W. Emberton, Sieges of the Great Civil War (London 1978)