1645: The Storming of Leicester and the Battle of NasebyIn the spring of 1645, the Committee for Both Kingdoms ordered Sir Thomas Fairfax, Captain-General of the recently-formed New Model Army, to march to relieve the siege of Taunton. Fairfax marched from WIndsor on 30 April 1645 to rendezvous at Newbury with Lieutenant-General Cromwell, who was active with a cavalry brigade around Oxford, raiding Royalist garrisons and rounding up all the draught animals he could find in order to immobilise the King's artillery train. From Newbury, Fairfax advanced towards Blandford, where he arrived on 7 May, while Cromwell remained in the vicinity of Oxford.
On the day that Fairfax arrived at Blandford, the King's army marched from Oxford to rendezvous with Prince Rupert and Lord Goring at Stow-on-the-Wold, where a council of war was held on 8 May. The Royalist high command was divided over strategy. King Charles wanted to march the main Royalist army into Scotland to join forces with the Marquis of Montrose; Prince Rupert and Sir Marmaduke Langdale were eager to relieve the siege of Chester and to strike against Lord Leven's Covenanters in the hope of regaining Yorkshire and the north of England; Lord Goring and Lord Digby wanted to concentrate Royalist forces in the west to challenge Fairfax and the New Model Army before it had time to establish itself. King Charles finally decided on a compromise that divided his forces. Lord Goring rode with three thousand cavalry to the west, while the King and Prince Rupert marched north with the main body of the Royalist army.
Even without the additional threat of Goring's cavalry, the condition of Colonel Robert Blake's garrison at Taunton was desperate. By 9 May, the besieging Royalists had captured the town and forced the garrison to retreat into the castle. However, the Committee for Both Kingdoms abruptly ordered Fairfax to abandon the march into the west. A detachment was to be sent to Taunton while the main body of the New Model Army was ordered to turn north and attack the Royalist capital Oxford. Fairfax continued his march as far as Dorchester before sending Colonel Ralph Welden with four regiments of foot and one of horse on to Taunton. Convinced by Fairfax's feint that the whole New Model Army was on its way, Sir Richard Grenville ordered the Royalists to withdraw on 11 May and Welden's detachment occupied the town. Despite the reinforcement of the garrison, however, Lord Goring's return to the region meant that Taunton remained under threat.
Meanwhile, the King's army continued to march northwards, shadowed by Cromwell's cavalry brigade and some infantry from Abingdon under the command of Major-General Richard Browne. Threatened by the King's advance, Sir William Brereton abandoned the siege of Chester on 18 May. Two days later, Lord Byron met the King at Market Drayton in Shropshire with news of the abandonment of the siege. The Royalist army turned eastwards towards Newark, with the probable intention of marching from there into Yorkshire. In London, this move was interpreted as an advance towards the Eastern Association counties and Cromwell was ordered to East Anglia to organise its defences against a possible Royalist invasion.
Further south, Fairfax and the main body of the New Model Army arrived before Oxford on 22 May. With the Royalist capital under siege, the King's march to the north was abandoned. Lord Goring was ordered to bring reinforcements to the main Royalist army, while the Committee for Both Kingdoms ordered Colonel Massie at Gloucester to keep Goring occupied in the west. Massie stormed and captured Evesham on 26 May to disrupt supply lines and communications between Oxford and Worcester; Goring apparently made no attempt to rejoin the King's army. Anxious that Oxford should not fall, the King and Prince Rupert decided to attack the Parliamentarian stronghold of Leicester, in the hope of luring the New Model Army away from Oxford.
Leicester had been the headquarters of Lord Grey of Groby since the beginning of the war. However, Grey left the region late in 1644 after a quarrel with Sir Arthur Hesilrige. There was no response when the town committee petitioned Parliament for Grey to return as governor but Sir Robert Pye arrived with cavalry to reinforce the Leicester garrison immediately before the Royalist attack.
Sir Marmaduke Langdale's Northern Horse surrounded Leicester on 29 May, cutting off all approaches to the town. A Royalist battery was set up on Raw Dykes, the derelict banks of a Roman aqueduct to the south. Prince Rupert issued a summons to surrender around noon on 30 May. Some three hours later, a messenger was sent out from the town to request a delay of one day before replying to the summons. The defenders hoped to gain time in order to complete the construction of earthworks to strengthen Leicester's Roman and medieval walls but the request breached the terms of the summons, which prompted Rupert to order the bombardment to begin immediately.
The Royalist artillery concentrated on the Newark ("new work"), a section of the town wall next to Leicester Castle. By six o'clock a breach had been made. That night, Rupert launched an assault from three directions at once. George Lisle led the main force, which stormed the breach on the south side. Sir Henry Bard and Sir Bernard Astley led two smaller storming parties with scaling ladders against the north and east gates. Three assaults on the Newark were repulsed with heavy loss but the resistance faltered when Bard and Astley forced their way into the town. The gates were thrown open and the Royalist cavalry charged in. The defenders continued to resist, fighting street by street and making a last stand in the market square before finally throwing down their weapons. Exasperated by the town's resistance even after the walls were breached, Rupert and his officers made no attempt to restrain the Royalist troops from sacking Leicester. Although severe, comparisons made in London newsbooks to the terrible sack of Magdeburg during the Thirty Years War were greatly exaggerated. Up to twenty-five thousand people were massacred at Magdeburg; around three hundred defenders were killed in the storming and sack of Leicester; the Royalists lost around four hundred men.
After the capture of Leicester, the Royalist army marched south towards Oxford. The veteran Northern Horse regiments threatened to mutiny on learning that they were ordered south while Covenanters remained active in Yorkshire. A number of them rode off to Newark, but the majority were persuaded to stay with the main army. The Royalists advanced to Market Harborough and began raiding farms and villages in Northamptonshire in order to gather supplies for a relief convoy to Oxford. Around 7 June, the Royalists took up a strong position on Borough Hill, an Iron Age hill-fort near Daventry, while the convoy was assembled and sent.
The fall of Leicester galvanised the Committee for Both Kingdoms. Still fearing that the Royalists intended to invade East Anglia, the Committee ordered General Fairfax to abandon the siege of Oxford and to march the New Model Army into the Midlands to engage the King's army. Under pressure from Independents in Parliament, the Committee authorised Fairfax to act on his own initiative rather than having to wait for further orders from Westminster. At the request of Fairfax and his officers, Oliver Cromwell was officially appointed Lieutenant-General of Horse, even though this appointment contravened the Self-denying Ordinance. The New Model Army advanced rapidly northwards. By 11 June, Fairfax had arrived at Newport Pagnell in Buckinghamshire, twenty miles south-east of the Royalist position at Daventry, where he gathered all available Parliamentarian forces.
By 13 June, the Royalists realised that the New Model Army had advanced to Kislingbury near Northampton only five miles from the Borough Hill encampment. Having heard from Lord Goring that he was still engaged around Taunton and could not come to reinforce the main Royalist army, the King and his advisers decided to fall back on Newark. As the Royalist army withdrew from Daventry to Market Harborough, Fairfax pressed forward, determined to fight. The Parliamentarians were greatly encouraged by the timely arrival from East Anglia of Lieutenant-General Cromwell with six hundred horse and dragoons during the evening of 13 June. Later that night, Colonel Ireton led a daring raid on the quarters of the King's Lifeguard in Naseby village, surprising them while they were at supper and taking a number of prisoners. Realising that the Royalist army could not get away, the King's council of war decided to turn and fight.
During the early hours and morning of 14 June 1645, the two armies manoeuvred for position near the village of Naseby, finally drawing up on opposing grassy ridges with the shallow dip of Broad Moor between them. The Royalists occupied Dust Hill to the north of the Parliamentarians. The strengths of the armies are not known for certain: estimates for the Royalist army vary from 7,500 to 10,000 men, but it was clearly outnumbered by the New Model, which fielded up to 13,500 troops.
The Royalist army was under the nominal command of King Charles, who was present at the battle, with Prince Rupert as field commander. The Royalist foot, under the command of Lord Astley, was deployed in three lines supported by squadrons of horse. The third or reserve line included the King's Lifeguard and Prince Rupert's regiment of foot, the Bluecoats. Rupert himself took direct command of the right wing of horse with his brother Prince Maurice. The Royalist left wing was made up mostly of the Northern Horse under the command of Sir Marmaduke Langdale. Both wings of Royalist cavalry were supported by detachments of musketeers.
The Parliamentarians were under the overall command of General Fairfax, with the infantry commanded by Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon and the cavalry under Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. Skippon's infantry were deployed with five regiments in the front line and three battalions in the second or reserve line. The infantry formed up just behind the crest of the ridge, with a forlorn hope of 300 musketeers deployed forward of the main body. The constraints of the terrain forced Skippon to bunch his men more closely together than was customary. The two lines of cavalry on the left wing were commanded by Henry Ireton, promoted to Commissary-General at Cromwell's request on the morning of the battle. Lieutenant-General Cromwell commanded the three lines of cavalry on the Parliamentarian right wing. Cromwell's cavalry were constricted by a rabbit warren and thick furze bushes on the extreme right of the Parliamentarian position.
The battle began at about 10am. The western edge of the battlefield was flanked by the boundary hedge of Sulby parish running at right angles from Ireton's line towards the Royalist front. From his position on the opposite flank, Cromwell saw an opportunity to disrupt the Royalist right wing of cavalry and sent a force of dragoons commanded by Colonel Okey to take up an ambush position in Sulby Hedges. Although Okey's dragoons came under fire from the supporting musketeers, their appearance on the Royalist right flank to shoot up the cavalry provoked Rupert into making a premature advance onto Broad Moor. The Royalist cavalry paused at the bottom of the slope to regain their formation then advanced steadily up the opposite slope to charge Commissary-General Ireton on the Parliamentarian left flank. Ireton came forward to meet the charge but the Royalists broke through the Parliamentarian centre, putting two regiments to flight and disrupting the rest. Having broken through, Rupert's cavalry continued on to attack the baggage train outside Naseby village, where they were eventually driven back by the musketeers guarding the train.
Simultaneously with Rupert's attack, the Royalist infantry in the centre began to advance. Sir Bernard Astley's tertia on the Royalist right moved first, then Sir Henry Bard in the centre, then George Lisle on the left. The staggered advance was necessary in order to bring the opposing infantry lines into parallel formation. The Royalists crossed Broad Moor and advanced up the slope towards the Parliamentarian front, driving back the forlorn hope of musketeers, while the Parliamentarians moved forward to the crest of the hill to meet the attack. A shallow depression on the face of the hill had the effect of funnelling together the Royalist infantry in the centre so that a powerful wedge formation developed. Two of the frontline Parliamentarian regiments were broken by the initial impact of the Royalist charge and Skippon was wounded under the ribs by a musket ball that splintered his armour. He refused to leave the field, but the Parliamentarian infantry seemed on the point of collapse. As the first line fell back, Fairfax fought at the head of the second line to stabilise the position. Meanwhile on the Parliamentarian left flank, Ireton rallied the cavalry units that had not been broken in Rupert's charge and led an attack on the second line of the advancing Royalist infantry. Although he was wounded and taken prisoner, Ireton's intervention stalled the Royalist advance and gave Colonel Pride time to bring up the Parliamentarian infantry reserve. As superiority of numbers began to tell, the Royalist advance in the centre faltered.
On the Parliamentarian right flank, where the constraints of the terrain allowed only a narrow front, Cromwell's Ironsides advanced to meet Langdale's Northern Horse, with the regiments of Colonel Whalley and Sir Robert Pye bearing the brunt of the fighting. In a fierce struggle, the Northern Horse were steadily driven back by weight of numbers towards Dust Hill, where the Royalist reserve was stationed. Prince Rupert's regiment of foot, the Bluecoats, advanced to cover the retreating cavalry. As his front-line regiments pursued the retreating Royalists, Cromwell seized the opportunity to order his second line to wheel left and attack the exposed flank of the Royalist foot. This proved to be the decisive stroke of the battle. Attacked from three directions at once and with no cavalry support, units of the Royalist infantry began to surrender while the rest fell back across Broad Moor towards Dust Hill.
As the Royalist infantry retreated, the Bluecoats made a gallant stand on the forward slope of Dust Hill, repulsing two Parliamentarian attacks. General Fairfax ordered his regimental commander Colonel D'Oyley to renew the attack on the Bluecoat front while he took his Lifeguard around to attack from the rear. Under attack from all sides, the Bluecoats were finally broken and overwhelmed. The ensign who carried the colours was killed by Fairfax himself.
The defeat of the Bluecoats decided the battle. Pursued by the Parliamentarians, the Royalist infantry made a fighting retreat northwards, with parties of musketeers covering the withdrawal of their comrades before themselves falling back under covering fire. Although Prince Rupert had by this time rejoined the King, the Royalist infantry had no organised cavalry support. King Charles is said to have made a gallant but futile attempt to lead his Lifeguard in a charge on the advancing Roundheads, but the Earl of Carnwath riding next to him seized the bridle of the royal charger and roughly pulled him away. The Royalist infantry made a desperate last stand on Wadborough Hill, two miles north of the main battlefield. In the aftermath of the battle, fleeing Royalists were pursued and slaughtered all along the road to Leicester. The baggage train was plundered and a number of female camp followers murdered or mutilated.
The defeat was a disaster for the Royalists. The King's Oxford army was shattered and all its artillery and stores captured. The King's private papers fell into the hands of the Parliamentarians, revealing the full extent of his negotiations to bring over Irish Catholics to fight against Parliament, and his efforts to secure foreign mercenaries and money from abroad. Parliament lost no time in publishing these papers, which caused further political damage to the tottering Royalist cause. Although the First Civil War dragged on for another year, the Royalists had no realistic chance of victory after the battle of Naseby.
Naseby Battlefield Project
The battle of Naseby in June 1645 was the decisive battle of the English Civil War and marks an important turning point in British history.
The Naseby Battlefield Project works to promote awareness of the significance of Naseby and to enhance visitor facilities at the battlefield itself. The Project website includes photographs, maps and a detailed account of the battle augmented by field research and archaeological evidence.
Thanks to Martin Marix Evans of the Naseby Battlefield Project for help in revising this page.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1959)
Martin Marix Evans, Peter Burton, Michael Westaway, Naseby, June 1645 (Barnsley 2002)
Martin Marix Evans, Nasby 1645: the triumph of the New Model Army (Osprey 2007)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. ii (London 1889)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746, (Ware 1997)
Austin Woolrych, Battles of the English Civil War (London 1961)
Battle of Naseby: UK Battlefields Resource Centre
Battle of Naseby: The Naseby Battlefield Project