A ten-day chase spanning sixty miles ended in a battle at Newbury on 20 September 1643. Parliament’s Lord General, the Earl of Essex, was heading back to London, pelted by rain and lashed by royalist cavalry after relieving the city of Gloucester. In hot pursuit, Prince Rupert of the Rhine – King Charles I’s nephew – hunted down the wily fox that was Essex. Rupert succeeded in slowing the enemy down so much that the King’s field army managed to reach Newbury first and block the London road. The small town didn’t know what had hit it. A total of thirteen thousand cavalry and fifteen thousand infantry descended as if the entire nation had come to do battle.
This article has been submitted by Mark Turnbull. Mark is an author of historical fiction. Details of his work can be found on his website, Allegiance of Blood.
Battle of Newbury: the local geography
Notwithstanding the King’s early arrival, he occupied only the town. The River Kennet lay to the north of the site of the first Battle of Newbury. Beneath the river, the fields were tightly knitted with a series of lanes, hedges and enclosures. In the centre, Round Hill was a throne from which artillery could rule over the entire battleground, and further south was Wash Common, a flat expanse.
Parliament seize the higher ground around Newbury
The golden glow of dawn brought a precious sight for the parliamentarians. In spite of Lord Essex’s dire warning that the royalists would possess the hills, lanes, hedges, town and river, Mother Nature’s pendant of natural defences, draped around the west of Newbury, lay untouched by the King’s men. Beneath a sky lit up orange in sympathy with the tawny colour of Parliament, Essex had his troops seize the eighty-foot-high Round Hill and establish themselves on Wash Common. Essex’s smash and grab of the best ground robbed the royalists of the initiative; it meant that the King now had to dislodge his enemy to secure victory.
Opening contact in the Battle of Newbury
Between 6 and 7 o’clock, the royalists began their attempts. In the water meadows below the Kennet, Sir William Vavasour’s royalists closed up to Lord Robartes’ parliamentarians and their four small cannons. The action see-sawed between both sides. Philip Skippon committed the red regiment of the London Trained Bands, who ran forward to stabilise the parliamentarians, only for a whole file of men, six-deep, to have their heads blown off by a single royalist cannonball. The stakes were raised again with the deployment of the King’s lifeguard and stalemate reigned.
Cavalry clashes and the legend Prince Ruperts invincibility
Prince Rupert’s six thousand horsemen swept across Wash Common in three waves of two thousand. They did not follow protocol and draw up to discharge pistols, but instead crashed right into their enemy. Parliament’s cavalry under Sir Philip Stapleton prepared to meet this incoming storm. Clad head to toe in armour like blackened lobsters, the parliamentarians withheld fire until Rupert’s men were upon them, turning back the tide twice. But the third occasion was too much, and they were driven back. During this clash the royalist Earl of Carnarvon was run through the stomach and Prince Rupert came within an inch of his life. Parliament’s Bulstrode Whitelocke revealed that Stapleton, “Had his pistol in his hand ready cockt and fitted … when he came to Prince Rupert, whom he knew, he fired his pistol in the Prince’s face.” Rupert survived, and a myth was born that he was invincible, or protected by dark forces.
Stalemate on Round Hill
On Round Hill’s slopes the fighting was desperate. With Parliament’s men nesting in every hedge, the royalist soldiers could not break through and began chanting, “Horse, horse!” Sir John Byron felt unable to answer due to the chequered natural barriers, but the Secretary of State, Lord Falkland did. The peace-loving poet spurred his horse towards the hawthorn hedge and a small chink in it. The lone rider was peppered with lead shot and brought down onto the hedge, but his corpse forced the gap apart, while his example encouraged royalist morale. The disastrous ramifications of Falkland’s death were yet to become apparent. Though beaten back, the parliamentarians simply retreated to the next hedge, watched over by their artillery, until eventually the royalists ran out of steam. Across all sectors it was the same – neither side could dislodge the other.When rain returned at 7 o’clock that evening, it was exhaustion that had won the day. Losses were equal, and both sides could each count 1300 dead.
Return to the Field of Battle?
Battle now commenced off the field as Lord Essex and the King both held councils of war. Essex had to get back to London and the King needed to defeat him if he was to take London. Recommencement of battle seemed inevitable, until the King’s General of Ordinance, Lord Percy, revealed that they had only enough gunpowder for half a day’s fighting. This bombshell had the royalists withdraw, opening Essex’s path to the capital.
Consequences of the Battle of Newbury for the Royalists
One week later, George Digby was sworn in as secretary of State in place of the late, brave Lord Falkland. Digby’s rise led to the King’s fall, for the man’s intriguing had the royalists fighting each other and his overconfidence led to disaster at Naseby battlefield. It was Digby who oversaw the defeat of the King’s last army. As for Newbury, so good a host had it been that both sides were to return for a second encounter one year later.