1645: The Siege of Chester and Battle of Rowton Heath
Following the defeat of the main Royalist army at the battle of Naseby, King Charles withdrew to Hereford, still hoping to gain support from Ireland and to raise further troops from Wales. In early July 1645, he moved to Raglan Castle in south Wales, where he rested for several weeks in retirement from the war. While the King was at Raglan, the Royalist western army was defeated at the battle of Langport and the Scottish Covenanters advanced from the north towards the Severn Valley.
After writing to the Prince of Wales warning him to prepare for the worst, King Charles set out from Raglan early in August 1645 with 2,500 horse and foot. Leaving Prince Rupert to gather what forces he could for the defence of the west, the King marched along the Welsh border with the general intention of raising support in the north of England. By 18 August, the King had advanced to Doncaster in Yorkshire where he learned that Covenanter cavalry and Parliament's Northern Association army were marching to intercept him. The Royalists promptly withdrew to the stronghold of Newark and from there to Oxford, storming and plundering the Puritan town of Huntingdon on the way.
Although the King's army was scarcely adequate for the task, he marched from Oxford on 30 August to relieve Hereford, which was besieged by Lord Leven's Covenanters. As the Royalists approached Hereford early in September 1645, the Covenanters withdrew and marched away to the north. It appeared that Leven was unwilling to fight but coincidentally, as the King approached, Leven received news of Montrose's victory over the Marquis of Argyle at Kilsyth and hurried north to the aid of the Covenanters in Scotland. The King's army occupied Hereford on 4 September and further attempts were made to raise recruits in south Wales. King Charles himself returned to Raglan Castle where, around the middle of September, he received news of Prince Rupert's surrender of Bristol to the New Model Army. Lord Digby convinced Charles that Rupert had betrayed him; the King angrily dismissed Rupert from his service.
Gathering what forces he could, King Charles set out on a march to the north in the desperate hope of joining forces with the Marquis of Montrose in Scotland. He was unaware of the decisive Covenanter victory over Montrose at Philiphaugh on 13 September. Meanwhile, the Committee for Both Kingdoms ordered Colonel-General Sydenham Poyntz of the Northern Association to cover the King's army and prevent it from breaking out into the midlands. Poyntz advanced towards the Welsh border with 3,000 cavalry and dragoons. The King hurried north through the Welsh hills, evading Poyntz until he arrived at Chirk Castle on 22 September. Here he learned that the stronghold of Chester was in imminent danger of falling to the Cheshire Parliamentarians. With the loss of Bristol, Chester was the last landing place held by the Royalists for the troops from Ireland which Charles still believed would save his cause. Sending messengers urging the defenders to stand firm, the King diverted his forces to relieve the beleaguered city.
The ancient city of Chester was a Royalist stronghold from the beginning of the war. Its circuit of Roman and medieval walls was substantially repaired and strengthened during 1642-3 and an outer ring of earthwork defences constructed. After his defeat at the battle of Nantwich in January 1644, Lord Byron withdrew to Chester from where he directed operations against Sir William Brereton, the Parliamentarian commander in Cheshire. Although Brereton gradually gained control of much of Cheshire during the spring and summer of 1645, Byron held the crossing of the River Dee into Royalist north Wales and prevented the Parliamentarians from surrounding Chester or gaining a foothold on the Welsh side of the river.
Brereton's forces stormed Chester in February 1645 and attempted to scale the walls near the Northgate. The attack was thrown back, but the Parliamentarians set up a close blockade of the city. The siege was disrupted when Prince Maurice arrived with a relief force in March; when he departed the following month, however, Lord Byron complained that he took 1,200 veterans of the Irish regiments away from the garrison, leaving only 600 regular troops and a number of armed citizens to defend the city.
On 20 September 1645, Brereton's subordinate Colonel Michael Jones led a determined assault on Chester's outer defences with 700 infantry and 700 horse and dragoons. Jones' forces advanced under cover of darkness and stormed the eastern suburbs at dawn, gaining control of the district outside the Eastgate. The Parliamentarians moved artillery into the newly-captured area and began bombarding Chester's inner walls from close range, opening a dangerous breach on 22 September.
At this critical point, Lord Byron received word that the King was marching from Wales with 4,000 cavalry to Chester's aid.
The King arrived at the beleaguered city of Chester on 23 September with his Lifeguard, a handful of infantry and Gerard's brigade of about 600 cavalry. The King's party entered the city from the Welsh side of the River Dee, which was still controlled by the Royalists. Sir Marmaduke Langdale rode with the main body of 3,000 Royalist horse to cross the Dee at Holt Bridge south of Chester, from where he planned to work around behind the Parliamentarians besieging the city on the eastern side, thus trapping them between his cavalry and the Chester garrison.
Langdale crossed Holt Bridge at dawn on 24 September and advanced northwards. At Miller's Heath, near the village of Rowton, he became aware of a large force of Parliamentarian cavalry also advancing towards Chester: Colonel-General Sydenham Poyntz with around 3,000 Northern Association horse had made a night march from Whitchurch in the hope of intercepting the King's army. Langdale deployed dragoons to fire on Poyntz's vanguard as the Parliamentarian column advanced along the Chester road. Poyntz counter-attacked against Langdale's position on Miller's Heath but was driven back. The two sides were stalemated; neither could advance any further towards Chester with the other in its rear.
For several hours, Langdale and Poyntz faced one another at a distance of about half a mile, both reluctant to take further action without reinforcements. At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, Colonel Michael Jones detached 500 horse and musketeers from the besieging force before Chester and marched down the Whitchurch road to support Poyntz. Langdale withdrew a mile or so closer to Chester and took up a new position on open ground at Rowton Heath. The Royalists in the city observed Jones' movements and sent out a force of around 1,000 horse and foot under Lieutenant-General Charles Gerard to attack the rear of the Parliamentarian column. However, Gerard could not march directly out through the eastern suburbs because of the besieging army; he had to manoeuvre around from the north. At Hoole Heath, on the fringe of Chester's eastern suburbs, Gerard was attacked by Colonel Lothian with units of the besieging Parliamentarian army. Pinned down in heavy fighting, Gerard was unable either to attack Jones or support Langdale.
On Rowton Heath, Colonel Jones joined forces with Poyntz and his cavalry. Parliamentarian musketeers were deployed in the hedgerows and lanes around the village of Rowton; others were positioned to cover the flanks of the cavalry. Poyntz then advanced towards Langdale, who led his cavalry forward to meet the attack. Parliamentarian musketeers poured in volleys of shot from the flanks at Langdale's advancing troopers. Badly disrupted by the musketry, the Royalists were soon broken by the Parliamentarian cavalry when they clashed in the centre. The Royalists scattered, some fleeing back across Holt Bridge into Wales, others following Langdale himself towards Chester.
The final stage of the battle was a confused mêlée in the early evening beneath the walls of Chester as Langdale's retreating cavalry blundered into the fighting between Gerard and Lothian. More infantry were sent out from the city to cover the withdrawal of Gerard and Langdale, but they too were driven back by the triumphant Parliamentarians; the King's youthful kinsman Bernard Stuart, Earl of Lichfield, was among those killed. King Charles is said to have watched the disaster unfold from the Phoenix Tower on Chester's walls, accepting with dignified stoicism the defeat of his best remaining cavalry.
On 25 September 1645, King Charles fled Chester accompanied by just 500 horse. He retreated to Denbigh then made his way back to Newark. Lord Byron rejected all calls to surrender Chester. The Parliamentarians constructed siege works to encircle the city and maintained a constant bombardment. Under the severity of Byron's command, the defenders repulsed attempts to take Chester by storm and mounted raids of their own to harass and disrupt the besiegers. Conditions worsened as the siege continued into the winter. With many citizens dead or dying of starvation, the mayor finally persuaded Byron to surrender in January 1646. Sir William Brereton's forces occupied Chester on 3 February.
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Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
P. Young and W. Emberton, Sieges of the Great Civil War (London 1978)
Rowton Heath: UK Battlefields Resource Centre
Chester in the Civil War : British History Online
Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls