Battle of Marston Moor

An article regarding the Battle of Marston Moor by Mark Turnbull

The Battle of Marston Moor was one of the largest battles on England’s soil. The summer of 1644 saw York besieged by an army of the English Parliament, while a Scottish army had marched across the border and headed right for them. Though contrary to hundreds of years of rivalry, the Scots were actually joining with the English. This joint allied force, led by three different commanders, was to oppose another English army; one loyal to King Charles I.

Battle of Marston Moor 2nd July 1644

Mark Turnbull, the author of this article, is an author of historical fiction. His forthcoming novel, Allegiance of Blood, is set in the British Civil Wars. Find out more on his website here, or via his Facebook page here.

The 2nd July 2019 will mark the 375th anniversary of the Battle of Marston Moor, which was the turning point of the English Civil War. England was being riven apart by conflicting loyalties. Brothers fought brothers, fathers fought sons and friends put aside friendships as the nation divided over support of King or Parliament.

Scotland allies with Parliament

The Scots had sat out the first sixteen months of the war. They had watched the belligerent English battle each other and anticipated the outcome, along with what that could mean for the Scottish people. Scotland’s own war had been four years earlier when they had successfully resisted King Charles I’s attempts to unify the Church of Scotland with that of England. Now, the English Parliament’s struggle to wrest executive power from the King and move the Church of England to a decidedly Puritan form found sympathy with the Scottish. For this reason, the Scots accepted Parliament’s invitation and threw their caps into the ring on their behalf.

Charles fears for York

That July day was make or break for both King and Parliament. With the Scots entering through the back door, King Charles began losing his grip on the North East and Yorkshire as the scales tipped against him. If York was lost, the King wrote in a letter, he would esteem his crown little less. Therefore, a relief force under the command of the King’s nephew, the famed Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was sent to rescue the city and defeat the Scottish and Parliamentarian allies. That very letter would be carried on Rupert’s person until his dying day as justification for what was to come.

Battle of Marston Moor

Battle of Marston Moor. Source Wikimedia Commons

Strength at Marston Moor

Rupert commanded 15,000 men, while the allies numbered 24,000. Parliament was rapidly mopping up resistance in Yorkshire, also having the upper hand in terms of supply lines and geographical control. Ever since the Scots had crossed into England, the King’s northern army had fought a fighting retreat all the way from Newcastle down to York, and that city, surrounded on all sides, was to be throttled into submission. Yet, despite such major advantages and disadvantages, the Battle of Marston Moor would be won and lost through the mere foibles of individual characters. A mixture of resentfulness and reputation, with a pinch of daring and deceit would dictate the fates of forty thousand men.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Enter Prince Rupert. A furiously energetic, loyal and brave commander with a reputation enhanced by ruthless cavalry charges, sparkish dress and a pet poodle. Undefeated after nearly two years, he launched himself from Shrewsbury, fired up by the King’s written command to rescue York. Bolton, Liverpool and Preston all fell to him and every success fed his army with more reinforcements, while Parliament looked on nervously. Rupert’s arrival at Knaresborough Castle, barely fourteen miles from York, was close enough for the allies to sense his towering presence. They withdrew from York and decided to block the prince’s path to the city by deploying on Marston Moor to the east. But the unpredictable Rupert did not take the Roman road (the modern A59) from Knaresborough. As if following his very own seventeenth century sat-nav, he diverted and, daring as ever, made a twenty-two-mile march around the top of the allied armies. Crossing the River Ure and then the Swale, Rupert put the water between him and the enemy like a protective moat. To prevent the enemy crossing back, Rupert seized the bridge of boats that spanned it. Being on the York side of the river, he approached the city and lifted the nine-week siege; his objective had been realised and York was saved. Surely, now the King could indeed hold his crown in the highest esteem? But the clear-cut, no-nonsense Rupert read over his uncle’s letter once more and translated the hasty words and rather confusing missive. In Rupert’s eyes, he was faced with a direct command to engage the allies in a pitched battle.

“If York be lost I shall esteem my crown little less … But if York be relieved, and you beat the rebels’ army of both kingdoms which are before it, then (but otherwise not) I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive to spin out time until you come to assist me.” Letter from King Charles to Prince Rupert, full text on the British Civil War Project Website.

Upon the penning and despatch of this critical letter two weeks prior, one of King Charles’s ministers had remarked that his master was undone, for upon receipt of the letter Rupert would fight the enemy whatever happened. And having decided to do just that, Rupert, now pausing outside of York, received a second decisive letter, this time from the Earl of Newcastle who commanded York’s three thousand defenders.

“You are welcome, sir, in so many ways as it is beyond my arithmetic to number. But this I know; you are the redeemer of the north and the saviour of the crown. Your name, sir, hath terrified the great generals and they fly before it … Neither can I resolve anything since I am made of nothing but thankfulness and obedience to Your Highnesses commands.”

Prince Rupert’s strategy

Rupert, already planning how to engage the rebels, had little time for such niceties, but his eye certainly picked out the last five words. He needed Newcastle’s three thousand garrison to even up the odds and taking Newcastle up on his gushing offer, sent an officer into York instructing them to join him. In comparison, the allies abandoned their own desire to meet the prince, turned south and headed for Tadcaster in an effort to protect Hull, which had long been a royalist target.

Marston Moor. 2nd July 1644

At 9am on 2nd July 1644, Rupert crossed the bridge of boats and arrived on Marston Moor to find the enemy had already departed. Parliament and the Scots were vulnerably strung out on a march south when they heard that the volatile young royal had appeared to do battle. The alarm was given immediately. They turned their men about and streamed north once more to the moor they had so recently abandoned, and where Rupert, the new host, chose the best ground.

With his permanently short fuse tested to the limits, the Prince was, however, forced to wait impatiently for Lord Newcastle and the York garrison. The hours passed by with much recrimination over their absence, and all the while the allies began drawing up. As long as Lord Newcastle was absent without leave, Rupert held back his army, even refusing to pounce on the opportunity provided by the enemy drawing up into battle formation. It was noon when Lord Newcastle finally arrived, though without any of his soldiers and full of pessimistic warnings about any forthcoming battle. Having dragged his heels so long, he risked turned his warnings into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The three enemy armies, Newcastle insisted, would soon split up and then each one could be picked off.

Opening bombardment

But Rupert argued that time was not on their side. He had a written command from the King to fight, and that was exactly what he was going to do – as soon as Newcastle’s men showed their faces. By two in the afternoon, now in battle formation and on high ground one hundred foot above the royalists, the allies’ cannons opened up. Their mouths spewed roundshot while the mouths of their soldiers sang psalms.

Rupert decides to wait

The cornfields waved lazily at the despondent royalists as a humid air enveloped them all and warned of a coming storm. At four o’clock the three thousand York men finally arrived under gathering clouds that were as dark as Rupert’s mood. The prince suspected deceit, or at the least, incompetence. Newcastle for his part was filled with resentment at the peremptory summons he’d received from this young man, who hadn’t even given it in person. As rain drummed down upon the heads of the forty-two thousand men with less than half a mile between them, Rupert gave instruction that supper be doled out to his troops. In his mind it was too late in the day to countenance any hostilities. He told Newcastle that although he wished his York men might have come sooner, tomorrow when the storm lifted, a glorious day would present itself on Marsten Moor.

Parliament and the Scots advance

From the high ground, the allies’ Scottish commander, Lord Leven, observed the wispy smoke of Rupert’s campfires. At seven-thirty he loosed his men, sending them on the offensive and down the slopes just as thunder rolled overhead. Oliver Cromwell and his cavalry on their left wing headed straight for Lord Byron’s royalist horsemen who were strategically posted behind a ditch with musketeer cover for defence. But the hot-headed Byron advanced, losing the ditch, masking the fire of his musketeers, and was thus routed.

Fairfax repulsed

On the allies’ right wing, Sir Thomas Fairfax led their cavalry, but this time the natural terrain proved its value. Ditches hampered Fairfax’s horsemen, royalist musketeers lined hedges and lanes, firing on their every advance, and then the royalist cavalry swooped in to finish Fairfax off. Foolishly, most royalist cavalrymen chased the defeated allies and only stopped to loot their baggage train, and therefore absenting themselves from the battle. The remaining royalist horsemen, together with their infantry, attacked the allied centre right and after fierce fighting, took the upper hand. The first and second lines of allied infantrymen broke and fled. Meanwhile Fairfax, removing the field sign from his hat that signified his allied loyalty, rode across the battlefield unrecognised by the royalists, and informed Cromwell of his defeat.

Prince Rupert commits the reserve

Rupert, from his command post, had no sooner spotted Bryon’s struggling horsemen than he led the cavalry reserve off in support. By committing himself to the fray, the prince relinquished the ability to have both sight and control of the overall battle, and he was enveloped in a mammoth struggle against Cromwell’s men. From the allied command post, it seemed like the evening was lost and the trio of commanders, Lord Manchester, Lord Fairfax (Sir Thomas’s father) and Lord Leven fled the field. Their hasty departure meant that they did not witness the eventual defeat of Rupert’s reserves, the prince himself being driven from the field by Cromwell’s men and forced to hide in a bean field. Cromwell, now with the run of the moor, darted behind the royalist infantry and across to the opposite wing to drive off all remaining royalist cavalry, before smashing the royalist infantry. For Rupert’s soldiers, attacked front and rear, defeat was imminent and they were cut down one by one.

Parliament victorious

As darkness tried to obliterate sight of the carnage, a full moon relentlessly picked out the haunting faces of four thousand royalist dead. One regiment refused to surrender. After arriving late, it was Lord Newcastle’s men who stubbornly and courageously fought on, making their stand in a small parcel of land that was protected by ditches. When recruited, their white tunics had been left undyed and they had declared that they would colour them in the blood of their enemies. Now it was their own blood that turned their coats, and the soil about them, crimson. As royalist refugees fled through field and forest, trickling back to York, the whitecoats were felled until only thirty remained. And one other notable casualty was jubilantly reported by Parliament’s press; that of Rupert’s dog, Boye, who had slipped his collar and was killed searching for his master. Portrayed throughout the war as Rupert’s talisman, demonic and of magical ability, the poodle’s death also signified the demise of Rupert’s reputation and his invincibility. Two hours of fighting at Marston Moor was all it took to decimate the King’s cause in the north and York would fall two weeks later.

British and Irish Civil Wars

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Battle of Newbury

Battlefield Trust

British History Online – John Rushworth, ‘Historical Collections: Proceedings in the North, 1644’, in Historical Collections of Private Passages of State: Volume 5, 1642-45 (London, 1721)

Other British Wars

The Anarchy

The Wars of the Roses

The Williamite Wars

The Jacobite Rebellion