This Saturday and Sunday, the Earl of Manchester’s Regiment of Foote and the Sealed Knot will be re-enacting a skirmish from the Siege of Chester, which took place in 1645.
But what was the siege and why was Chester so important in the first English Civil War?
Chester was a Royalist stronghold right from the beginning of the war in 1642. Its Roman and medieval walls were substantially repaired and strengthened while an outer ring of earthwork defences were built. After his defeat at the Battle of Nantwich in 1644, the local Royalist commander Lord Byron withdrew to Chester from where he directed operations against Sir William Brereton, the Chester MP and Parliamentarian commander for Cheshire.
Chester was important because it controlled the crossing of the River Dee into the Royalist territories of North Wales. It was also one of the few major ports in Royalist hands, allowing goods and men to flow from Ireland and other territories under the King’s control, and had already survived a siege in 1643.
In June 1645, King Charles was decisively defeated at the Battle of Naseby by Parliament’s New Model Army. Not only did Charles lose thousands of his veteran infantry but his private correspondence was captured; Parliament gleefully published documents that showed Charles had been negotiating for a foreign, Catholic invasion of England, which dealt his cause a mortal blow.
Charles withdrew to Hereford and then to Raglan Castle, still hoping for support from Ireland and to raise further troops in Wales, but there was further bad news – his western army was defeated at the Battle of Langport and Parliament’s Scottish allies were advancing from the north. After marching to Yorkshire and then back to Oxford, Charles’s forces went to relieve the siege of Hereford, which the King occupied after the Scots withdrew – they marched north after receiving word of the Marquis of Montrose’s stunning victories against their comrades in Scotland. After the fall of Bristol to Parliament, the King then marched north with what meagre forces he had raised in the desperate hope of joining up with Montrose. But it was too late, the Covenanters crushed Montrose’s army at Philiphaugh on 13 September. Charles was rapidly running out of armies with which to fight.
Avoiding a small Parliamentarian force sent to cover his advance Charles rushed to relieve his stronghold at Chester, which was in danger of falling to the local Parliamentarians. With Bristol lost, Chester was the last place held by the Royalists where troops from Ireland – which Charles still believed would save his cause – could be safely landed.
Meanwhile, Brereton’s forces maintained a tight blockade of Chester, while their assaults were thrown back by the defenders. Prince Maurice had arrived with a relief force in March but when he left a month later he robbed Lord Byron of many of his best troops. leaving only 600 troops plus armed citizens to defend the city. That September, a determined raid on the outer defences led to Parliamentarian troops gaining control of the area outside Eastgate, allowing them to move artillery within close range of Chester’s inner walls and a significant breach was opened up by the bombardment. Help was on its way though – Lord Byron received word that the King was en route to Chester from Wales with 4,000 cavalry.
It seemed as if the relief of Chester was at hand. King Charles arrived in the city on 23 September while the main body of horse under Sir Marmaduke Langdale crossed the Dee from Wales to the south, hoping to loop behind the Parliamentarians and trap them against the walls. But as he neared the city, he became aware of a large force of Parliamentarian cavalry also advancing towards Chester: Colonel-General Sydenham Poyntz and around 3,000 Northern Association horse had made a night march in the hope of intercepting the King’s army.
What transpired is described by the British Civil Wars website:
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 with just 500 horse, retreating to Denbigh and then back to Newark. Lord Byron rejected calls to surrender Chester and for more than four months the defenders repulsed Parliamentarian attacks while also sallying forth from the walls to raid and disrupt the siege. However, conditions worsened as winter came and, with many people dead or dying of starvation, the mayor of Chester – William Ince – finally persuaded Byron to surrender in January 1646.
Sir William Brereton’s forces occupied Chester on 3 February and the last stronghold of King Charles fell.
Byron himself retreated through north Wales to Caernarfon. His undisguised contempt for civilians had made him extremely unpopular and an attempt was made to assassinate him when he tried to enforce his authority on Angelsey. He sailed away into exile in June 1646 where, after the failed Royalists campaigns of the Second and Third English Civil Wars, he died in Paris in 1652.
After the First Civil War was over, Brereton was richly rewarded, being given Eccleshall Castle in Staffordshire and acquiring Croydon Palace, the former home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. However, he came to step away from public duties, declining to be one of the King’s judges in 1649 and playing little part in the subsequent Commonwealth and Protectorate. He died in April 1661.
So, now you know the history of the great siege of Chester – which we’ll be bringing to life this weekend on Deans Field, beneath the very tower where King Charles is reputed to have watched the defeat of his army at Rowton Heath.
Here’s what will be on offer over this weekend:
- Taking place on Deans Field in the heart of Chester
- Saturday 9th & Sunday 10th August
- Historical camp open from 10am to 5pm
- Spectacular FREE battles at noon and 2pm
- Activities for kids
- Dramatic scenes on Eastgate all weekend
Directions to Deans Field: walk north along the city walls from Eastgate Clock & Cathedral or follow signs down Abbey Street from Northgate Street
For more details, go to our website at www.earlofmanchesters.co.uk