OnThisDayin1642: The stand-off at the Battle of Turnham Green


Turnham Green is a public park, around seven miles from the centre of London. With its George Gilbert Scott-designed church, war memorial, and old Town Hall, it’s typical of the capital’s civic green spaces.


But 375 years ago today, it played host to a stand-off that helped change the course of British history.

After the indecisive battle of Edgehill, King Charles found he had an open road to London after a strategic mistake by the Earl of Essex, leader of the Parliamentarian army. Prince Rupert advised Charles to authorise an immediate cavalry strike against London before Essex’s army could return.

However, the King – hoping for Parliament to negotiate and offer terms – decided to make a more cautious advance with his whole army, which allowed Essex time to march back to London unopposed – he was greeted with a morale-boosting hero’s welcome for Essex upon his arrival on 7 November.

During Essex’s absence, Parliament had commissioned the Earl of Warwick to raise a further seven regiments for the city’s defence and the 6,000 men of the London Trained Bands were mobilised. Sir James Ramsay was sent with 3,000 troops from Essex’s main army to defend Kingston, the first crossing of the River Thames above London Bridge, and detachments were posted at Acton and Brentford to guard the western approaches to the City.

The King advanced on the capital via Banbury, Oxford, Reading and Windsor – not only had Parliament rejected Charles’ suggestion that the castle at Windsor be turned over to him as a venue for peace talks, but Rupert had then failed to take it.

On 12 November, the 13,000-strong Royalist army mustered on Hounslow Heath, 12 miles from London. Although he had agreed to meet a delegation of Parliamentarian commissioners at Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire, the King wanted to strengthen his position by intimidating his opponents and approved Prince Rupert’s proposal to attack an Parliamentarian outpost. Three Royalist regiments were resupplied with ball, powder and match and ordered to attack Brentford. Two regiments of foote under Denzil Holles and Lord Brooke held fortified positions in the town, which was a strategic river crossing. Rupert’s cavalry and dragoons advanced to the outskirts of the village under a thick early morning mist. His initial attack was repulsed by Parliamentarians around the house of Sir Richard Wynne, but Rupert ordered in a regiment of Welshmen to press the attack. They successfully captured the outpost and carried their attack into Brentford, driving Holles’ troops over a bridge into the defences manned by men commanded by Lord Brooke. These in turn were driven out of the town into open fields. The fighting continued into late afternoon until the survivors were able to disengage under the protection of John Hampden’s infantry, which arrived from Uxbridge to cover the withdrawal. Nevertheless, a large number of Holles’s men drowned while trying to escape by swimming across the Thames.

Having captured 15 guns, 11 colours and about 300 prisoners, the victorious Royalists looted Brentford. One of the prisoners was a Captain John Lilburne, the future Leveller leader. He had tried to escape by jumping in the Thames but was taken as a prisoner to Oxford (as the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists wanted to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal, Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer. He later joined the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester)

Parliamentary propaganda played up the ferocity of Rupert’s attack and stressed the King’s duplicity in sanctioning the raid while peace negotiations were in progress. With enthusiastic support from the citizenry, the Earl of Essex brought together all available Parliamentarian forces to block any further Royalist advance. With his army reinforced by the Trained Bands and freshly recruited regiments under the Earl of Warwick, Essex fielded a force of more than 24,000 men to face the King.

The two armies drew up on 13 November to face one another in an open area formed by Turnham Green, Acton Green and Chiswick Common on the western outskirts of London.


Essex sent six regiments under the command of John Hampden to outflank the Royalists by occupying high ground to the north of the Royalist position, but then recalled them. He also withdrew the 3,000 men under Sir James Ramsay at Kingston and sent them to a new position on the Surrey side of London Bridge. While the reasoning behind Essex’s manoeuvres is obscure, the Royalists were in no position to exploit them, being too heavily outnumbered to risk a general assault.

The two armies faced one another all day with a few casualties resulting from exchanges of artillery fire and some skirmishing. As darkness began to fall, Lord Forth withdrew the Royalist army through Brentford to Hounslow Heath, covered by a rearguard commanded by Prince Rupert and Sir Jacob Astley.

Having prevented the Royalists from advancing on London, Essex made no move to pursue them as they withdrew westwards to Reading and then to Oxford, which became the King’s headquarters and Royalist capital for the duration of the war.

Both sides sent their main armies into winter quarters but London would never again be so closely threatened by the King’s forces. While Parliament never let up its nervous defence of the capitol, the stand-off at Turnham Green marks a turning point in the first English Civil War. Had Charles gotten to London first or persisted in his attack, the war could have been over in 1642. His reluctance to attack helped ensure there would be no swift end to the war.


Easter: The Devil’s Holiday


Much like their more famous ‘war on Christmas’, the Puritans of the early 17th Century also had Easter in their sights.


The 1647 order banning the celebration of Christmas, Easter, Whitsun, and “all other Festivall dayes”

It has been said that the transformation of Easter into a secular festival second only to Christmas has accelerated in recent years. With the long weekend affording many families the chance to come together, commerce has not been slow in sensing an opportunity to capitalise and the profusion of Easter-related paraphernalia – gifts, cards, and confections – only seems to grow. “Easter”, one commentator wryly noted, “is the new Christmas”.

This would have been no surprise in late medieval England, where Easter outranked Christmas as the key festival of the Christian year and was surrounded by a schedule of feast days, public events, and rituals.

But the English Reformation saw much of the Roman Catholic ceremony associated with Easter striped away, in favour of the more austere – and, to the Puritan mind, more fitting – fasting, contemplation, and prayer.

Historian Ronald Hutton traces the downgrading of Easter to the lead-up to the English Reformation led by its chief architect, Archbishop Sir Thomas Cranmer, who energetically pursued a policy of destruction of many of the medieval rituals associated with the festival, such as the dressing of special ‘Easter sepulchres’ – an arched recess generally in a church’s chancel which, from Good Friday to Easter day, would have had a crucifix and sacred elements placed within it – a long standing English tradition that was effectively snuffed out as early as 1548.

As the effects of the break with Rome continued to spread throughout the kingdom, so too did the efforts to transform Easter from a time of celebration akin to the Twelve Days of Christmas into a strict religious affair. As the 17th Century dawned, Puritans mostly objected to what they saw as the immoral behaviour and Popish ceremony that surrounded these ‘festival days’, from mid-fast feasting, to a special ‘Easter-ale’ given to the labourers in Northamptonshire, and even a demand for free victuals in 1623 in Storrington, Sussex: “our parishioners claim of our parson by ancient custom to have bread and cheese and a barrel of beer in the church on Easter day immediately after evening prayer; which custom in regard of the place and day our parson admonished them to be unlawful, yet delivered the accustomed on Easter Monday; and most of the parishioners had into the churchyard without our approbation or consent.” (quoted from The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain by John Spurr)

Sunday was to be the only day of rest, and it was to be spent in prayer and quiet worship, not carousing and drinking. In the 1640s, along with their efforts against Christmas, they demanded a stricter observance of Sundays along with banning the ‘immoral’ celebration of Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days.

Easter itself posed a problem because of its anchoring to a Sunday in the calendar – it is always the first Sunday after the 14th day of the lunar month that falls on or after the vernal equinox on or around 21 March. Whereas Parliament could order churches closed and shops open on a normal weekday Christmas, they couldn’t do the same with a Sunday. In The Quest for Purity: Dynamics of Puritan Movements, Walter, E. a Van Beek says “Because Easter invariably fell on a Sunday, this was a problem for Puritan preachers who were consistent with their repudiation of of the traditional calendar. The usual solution was to preach a sermon that had no direct connection with Easter.”

As the First English Civil War reached its climax in 1645, The Long Parliament issued the Directory for the Public Worship of God, which replaced the hated Book of Common Prayer (which had helped spark the Civil Wars in the first place). It stated that the only holy day, according to biblical scripture, was the Lord’s Day and other ‘festival days’ were not to be continued. The diktat was widely ignored.

King Charles was quite keen on Easter and even when Parliament’s prisoner, tried to challenge its relegation. In the pamphlet “Certaine queries, proposed by the King, to the Lords and Commons Commisssioners from the Honourable Houses of Parliament, attending his Majesty at Holdenby, touching the celebration of the feast of Easter”, issued on 24 April 1647, he said:

“I desire to be resolved of this question why the new Reformers discharges the keeping of Easter? I conceive the celebration of this feast was instituted by the same authority which changed the Jewish Sabbath into the Lords Day or Sunday, for it will not be found in scripture where Saturday is discharged to be kept, or turned into the Sunday, wherefore it must be the Churches authority that changed the one and instituted the other; therefore my opinion is that those who will not keep this feast, may as well return to the observation of Saturday and refuse the weekely Sunday; when any bodie can shew me that herein I am in an error I shall not be ashamed to confesse and amend it.”

The reply, presented by Parliamentary commissioner Sir James Harrington, dismissed Charles’ argument, fired numerous ecclesiastical justifications back at him, and arrogantly stated that since God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh it follows that it is the Jews who were wrong and Christians correct, concluding “But for the observation of Easter to be an annuall festivall to Christians I finde nothing in the holy Scriptures.”. In a patronising postscript, the pamphlet ends by quoting Francis Waldack, the German Lutheran Prince-Bishop who brutally suppressed the Anabaptist revolt of Munster in 1534: “O Lord! What have we done that thou shouldst suffer us to stray thus? And in knowing times to be so strangely deluded?”


London apprentices are chased off after protesting the loss of religious feast days

Moves to ban feast days prompted London apprentices to march in protest from Covent Garden to Westminster on 20 April 1647 and petition Parliament. Committed to their Puritan duty but distracted by their negotiations with the captive King and fearing further riots, Parliament only partially caved in and gave labourers a day off once a month in compensation: “all scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month as they used to have from such festivals and holy days”.

In June of that year, Parliament formally passed legislation abolishing Christmas and other holidays:

“Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding.”

Parliament much preferred the population participate in monthly fasts, which everyone – by law and regardless of the season – was meant to abide by. It seems, based on Parliament’s increasing frustrated demands for adherence in the 1650s, that few did.

In 1657, the second Parliament of the Protectorate further legislated to stop the continued ‘profanation’ of the Lord’s Day and, as described in Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merry Old England, it carefully defined the offence as “dancing, secular songs, music, wakes, revels, feasts, church ales, maypoles, `or any other sports and pastimes’. The act was to be read in every parish church by the minister on the first Sunday of each March. Anybody who published arguments against it was to be fined 4s or sent to the local House of Correction”.

Mimicking Christ’s actions at the Last Supper, Holy Communion has always been at the centre of the Easter ritual. But even that did not escape the period unscathed. The Puritans’ campaign against aspects of ‘Popish innovation’ re-introduced by Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud succeeded in many places with the breaking of alter rails, the reduction of alters, and celebrants taking communion at their seats. So successful was this pressure that – for some – even communion itself began to have the whiff of Popery. In The Post‑Reformation: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, Spurr details how the number of services featuring Holy Communion fell drastically over the 1640s and 1650s, and even those that took place would be poorly attended.

Hutton, however, cites the work of influential historian John Morrill to suggest that although occurrences of communion generally fell over the 1640s, in many parishes it remained key to marking Easter, even in the face of Puritan distaste:

“He was the first Stuart historian to make extensive use of churchwardens’ accounts, assembling a sample from 150 parishes in East Anglia and western England. He noted … that before 1643 the general pattern was for communions to be held upon great feasts such as Easter, Christmas, and Whitson. What surprised and impressed historians most was that 85 per cent of his parishes still did so in 1646, and 43 per cent still held an Easter communion in 1650. After this, the proportion rose, and did so still faster after 1657, until by Easter 1660 just over half were doing so.”

After the fall of the Puritan domination of English politics following the Restoration in 1660, the nationwide celebration of Christmas returned to normal. Easter, however, never truly recovered. Although Easter and the celebration of communion remained at the heart of the liturgical calendar, Cranmer had done his work – the rich tapestry of pre-Reformation ritual and festival was gone.

What remains – Palm Crosses, Hot Cross Buns, Easter Eggs, “Pancake Day” – is but a faint echo of what was one of the most important festivals of the year.

The pirate Prince Rupert and the Booby-Trapped Boat


It’s safe to say that Prince Rupert of the Rhine is one of the unique characters of the 1640s and 1650s. With his long hair, youthful looks, and dashing deeds not only was he the archetypal “Cavalier” but more than 360 years ago he concocted one of his boldest plots in one of the strangest moments of the English Civil Wars…

Screen-Shot-2013-12-16-at-19.59.15.pngPrince Rupert’s naval career began during the Second Civil War of 1648 when he joined Charles, Prince of Wales in an unsuccessful naval exedition using Parliamentarian ships that had defected to the Royalists during the naval revolt of 1648. Retreating to the neutral port of Helvoetsluys in the Netherlands, Rupert – now appointed admiral – was blocked until November 1648 when he began a new career as a privateer, raiding English merchantmen to help raise funds for his uncle Charles I’s soon-to-be-literally-cut-short cause.

His fleet sailed to Kinsale in southern Ireland in January 1649, Rupert travelling on his flagship, the 40-gun Constant Reformation. Here he learnt of his uncle’s execution and swore revenge on the regicides and went full-blown pirate – causing enough of a problem that the Commonwealth navy prepared a larger fleet to sail against him. Rupert’s ships were blockaded by the Irish Sea squadron, which included amongst its commanders newly-appointed general-at-sea Robert Blake, with whom Rupert would ‘enjoy’ a tempestuous relationship over the coming year.

Robert_Blake.jpgBlake is one of the less well-known figures of this period, but he helped establish British supremacy at sea that would last for centuries.

After Cromwell’s invasion of Ireland in 1649, Rupert’s position was increasingly threatened. But earlier in the year he had written to King John IV of Portugal, asking permission to base his ships at Lisbon if he should be forced to leave Ireland – John responded favourably and, in September 1649, when bad weather, repairs, and other duties reduced Blake’s blockade to just five vessels, the prince made a break for it with his seven best ships.

Privateering along the way bolstered his numbers but although King John was sympathetic to Rupert’s cause, his chief minister – the Count de Miro – feared that open support for the English Royalists might damage Portuguese trade and also encourage the Commonwealth into an alliance with Portugal’s chief enemy, Spain. Despite hostility and obstruction from the local mercantile community, Rupert and his younger brother, Prince Maurice, threw themselves into a PR campaign, schmoozing with King John and Lisbon nobility, and winning the support of the local clergy.

Departure_of_fleet_from_Lisbon_harbor.jpgBut the party would soon be over. In early 1650, England’s new Council of State denounced Rupert as a pirate and commissioned Blake to destroy the Royalist squadron. Blake sailed from Portsmouth in March 1650 with a powerful fleet of fifteen ships. They arrived at Cascaes Bay at the mouth of the River Tagus on 10 March 1650 and Blake immediately demanded the use of Lisbon harbour and Portugal’s co-operation against Rupert’s pirates – his answer was warning shots fired from Portuguese forts when he tried to sail up the river.

Diplomatic negotiations resulted in Blake anchoring just two miles downriver from Rupert’s ships and a standoff ensued as each side competed for support from the Portuguese king.

As negotiations proceeded, the Portuguese agreed to allow sailors from both sides to come ashore and use the harbour. You can imagine what happened – cross Casablanca mixed with Pirates of the Caribbean and you’ll have something close. With men from both sides frequenting the same taverns, brawls inevitably broke out between crews of the rival fleets.

But the oddest part of this already-strange stand-off were the tit-for-tat assassination attempts…

After an alleged ambush attempt by Commonwealth sailors on the princes during a hunting trip, Rupert retaliated by designing an ingenious booby-trap that nearly sank one of Blake’s main warships.

On 13 April 1650, Rupert dressed a member of his crew as a merchant and employed two locals to row a small boat carrying, amongst other goods, a large barrel towards the Commonwealth vessel Leopard. Small fleets of trading boats often thronged around the opposing ships to sell provisions, and so this aroused no concern from the Leopard’s crew. When they arrived, the disguised crew member entered into discussions with the ship’s quartermaster to sell the “barrel of oil” and, after agreeing a price, the barrel was being hoisted aboard.

But the crew became suspicious and the men were seized. The barrel was found to contain a large explosive-filled shell, a string leading from the “merchant’s” boat was attached, through a bunghole, to a pistol. Pulling the string would have fired the pistol and ignited a fuse. It was clear that the plan had been to trigger the device once it had been taken aboard and, potentially, sink the ship.

It was a typically audacious plot by Prince Rupert, who maintained a lifelong interest in the sciences, but it did nothing to break the deadlock. King John refused to allow Blake to attack Rupert’s ships while they were under Portuguese protection, and Rupert could not risk leaving Lisbon harbour with the powerful Commonwealth fleet nearby. Eventually, Blake attacked and captured an inbound Portuguese fleet carrying a rich cargo of 4,000 chests of sugar from Brazil, a major blow to the Portuguese economy, and King John was forced to insist that Prince Rupert’s squadron leave Lisbon. Taking advantage of Blake sailing to Cadiz to resupply, Rupert escaped.

For more on this extraordinary episode of the English Civil Wars, we recommend John Barratt’s Cromwell’s Wars at Sea (Barnsley, 2006) as well as Frank Kitson’s Prince Rupert, admiral and general-at-sea (London, 1998).

On This Day in English Civil War history: Charles Stuart becomes king


On 27th March 1625, Charles Stuart became King Charles I. His reign would last until 1649, when his own people would execute him for treason.


With a profound belief that kings are appointed by God to rule by divine right, Charles found himself at constant loggerhead with Parliament. His eleven-year ‘Personal Rule’ stored up deep resentments among the emerging middle class and gentry, and his religious reforms alienated many. Eventually, it was a rebellion in Ireland and the revolt of the Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland against those reforms that lit the blue touchpaper of civil war. His authority weakened, disagreements with Parliament and fears of the London mob saw Charles flee the city with his family. On 22 August 1642 he raised his standard at Nottingham, declaring that he was officially at war with his own Parliament.

After defeat in the first Civil War, his deal with the Scots sparked a second Civil War, with an even more total defeat. Exasperated by Charles’ unwillingness to compromise, a cabal of MPs convened a court and tried the King for treason against his own people. Found guilty, Charles was condemned and the “cruel necessity” of his execution took place in January 1649. Charles Stuart, who had never meant to be king, was 48 years old when he died. His death ushered in the first and only English republic.


While there has been a general effort to rehabilitate his reputation in recent years,  the Revolutions podcast described him as “a terrible leader, a terrible judge of character, he had terrible political instincts, almost no friends and was so insufferably pigheaded that he more or less forced his own subjects to behead him, even after they presented him with 72 different ways to get out of it and go back to being King like, y’know, everyone wanted”. Whether you take the side of King or Parliament, Charles was a fascinating man full of “contradictions and controversy” as historian John Philipps Kenyon puts it, and his actions had a profound effect on the history of the British Isles far beyond the scaffold.

And he was, of course, 5’6″ at the start of his reign but only 4’8″ tall at the end of it…

On This Day in the English Civil Wars: the Battle of Boldon Hill (1644)


The Battle of Boldon Hill was a skirmish fought in March 1644, between a Royalist army trying to bring the army of the Scottish Covenanters to battle.

It was one of a number of skirmishes and inconclusive battles in the North East of England between the Royalist general William Cavandish, The Marquess of Newcastle (pictured left), and the commander of the Scottish ‘Covenanter’ army, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven.


The Covenanters (so-called because of the ‘National Covenant’ virtually the entire country had signed, promising to defend their national church against King Charles’ attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer, which had sparked the earlier Bishops’ Wars) had invaded England after Parliament secured their support in their on-going war with the King.

Held by the Royalists, Newcastle was a key target – not only because of its strategic location on the road from Scotland but because of its vital coal supplies.

After an attack on the city was unsuccessful, Leven’s army crossed the River Tyne higher upstream and attempted an attack against the defences on the southern end of the bridge over the river, which led directly into the walled fortification.

William_Cavendish,_1st_Duke_of_NewcastleCavandish led his army out of Newcastle in pursuit of the Scots. The two sides met but bad weather made a battle impossible and the Marquess retreated into the Royalist stronghold of Durham.

In the following days, Leven made raids on Chester-le-Street, a vital crossing point of the River Wear and crucial to the Marquess of Newcastle’s communications with the rest of England, and also on the Royalist garrison at South Shields. While initial attempts at a raid failed, the second raids of 20 March were successful for Leven. In response to this, the Marquess led his army out of Durham.

On the morning of 25 March, the Scots occupied Cleadon Hills and the Royalists took Boldon Hill. The present day village of East Boldon lies between these two hills. The Boldon topography was not favorable for a battle – neither force could see an advantage and were hesitant to engage with one another.

They chose to exchange cannon fire across what is now East Boldon and Cleadon but Cavendish was unable to force an entry into Sunderland itself.

The two sides met again, indecisively, at Hylton Castle near Sunderland at the end of the month but news reached the Marquess of a major defeat for the Royalists at Selby, directly threatening York and his communications with the King. The Marquis had a simple choice – continue the defence of Newcastle and lay siege to Sunderland or put his efforts into that of York, a strategically more important location that the Covenanters were now marching towards.

He chose York, situated in the county where most of his forces were from. However, the Covenanters subsequently took nearby Selby just days after Boldon Hill, before the Marquis could get there and an end game was being played once he arrived in York, outnumbered and without support. By fleeing towards York the Marquis left Newcastle open to conquest. Besieged by a Scottish army of 40,000 troops, and with scant hopes of relief, the city of Newcastle refused to surrender until its defensive walls were finally breached. The garrison of 1,500 made a last-stand at the Castle Keep, Sir John Marley – the Royalist mayor whose statue is one of four on the façade of 45 Northumberland Street – eventually handing over the city on October 20th 1644.

That summer the Royalists were soundly beaten at Marston Moor near York, a massive victory that effectively ended Royalist control of northern England. With his famous ‘Whitecoats’ destroyed and having futilely spent his fortune in the King’s services, Cavendish insisted he would not endure the mockery of Charles’ court and sailed for the Continent the following day. He stayed in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and then Antwerp, where he settled for a time due to his past friendship with people in the city, including the family of the Flemish baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck. He remained in exile until after the 1660 Restoration.

#OnThisDay – Fortify London!


On 7 March 1643, Parliament issued orders for the fortification of London.

After the indecisive Battle of Edgehill in October 1642, the King had marched slowly towards London, allowing the outmanoeuvred Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Essex, to once again get between him and the capital. At Turnham Green on 13 November 1642, the two armies faced off against each other – the King unwilling to risk an attack against a larger Parliamentarian army and Essex wary of using his inexperienced troops. Despite desultory artillery fire, neither side fully engaged and Charles and his army were forced to retreat to Oxford for the winter.

Turnham Green was a terrifying wake-up call for the men behind Parliament’s war effort. With Oxford just 60 miles away, London remained vulnerable and the city scrambled to protect itself.

Following a survey of these defences by Alderman Randall Mainwaring, a proposal was put to the Court of Common Council – the City of London’s government – and then ratified by Parliament on 7 March 1643 for the “Order for intrenching and fortifying the City of London”. Over the next year a massive series of earthworks and defences were thrown up around the city.


Antiquarian George Vertue’s 1738 plan of the London Lines of Communication

‘The Lines of Communication’, as they were known, were initially made up of street barricades, blocking streets with barriers or chains, the building of guardhouses and small earthworks by main roads. But in 1643 a major construction effort was made to provide a comprehensive ring of fortifications around the city, creating one of the largest urban defence systems in Europe.

Much of the work was done by volunteer labour, organized by the city’s militia – the ‘Trained Bands’ who already formed a major part of the Earl of Essex’s army – and the livery companies, which were the descendents of the city’s medieval trade guilds. Up to 20,000 people – including men, women and children – are thought to be involved and the works were completed in under two months, finishing in mid-May.

Thought to have been designed by Dutch siege engineers (the Dutch were experts at major defensive works thanks to their on-going wars against the Spanish), this continuous earthen rampart with 23 forts, redoubts, and sconces surrounded London at a distance of one and a half to two miles from the city centre.

Map courtesy of www.englishcivilwar.org

Although the Royalists never again approached or even attacked London, the fortifications failed their only test when the New Model Army easily entered London in 1647. They were levelled by Parliament the same year and although evidence of their existence remained for many years, the constant expansion and rebuilding of London over the centuries means that they are now lost.

You can read Parliament’s original oder from 7 March 1643 at Wikisource, there is a fascinating article that goes into much details about the location, size, and shape of the defences at Fortified Places and you can even take a walk along the line of the defences north of the River Thames thanks to this handy map from The Londonist.


Seven reasons why the Battle of Naseby changed British history forever


On 14th June 1645, the fields between the Northamptonshire villages of Naseby and Sibbertoft saw one of the most significant battles in British history.

Royalist troops loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarian ‘New Model Army’ led by Sir Thomas Fairfax met in the culmination of a three-year bloody civil war that had pitted families and friends against each other and the fates of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland rested in the balance. 

It’s known as one of the key battles in British history, but why is Naseby so important?

There are acres and acres of writing about the most “pivotal” moments in history, those occasions when the future seems to turn on a single act and everything after it owes its existence that that moment.

In lists of British history, the Battle of Naseby is one such moment.

Fought on gently sloping fields next to a quiet Northamptonshire village on 14th June 1645 by the Royalist forces of King Charles I and the English Parliament’s New Model Army, Naseby is exactly one of those moments that changed British (and to a certain extent world) history forever.

So what are the top reasons why this battle, in this place, at this time, had such a profound effect?


1. It decided the first English Civil War.

In 1645, the English Civil War could have gone either way – there was no obvious indication that either Parliament nor the Royalists had a clear military advantage over the other. Both sides had large armies filled with a mix of battle-hardened veterans and fresh newbies, plus solid supply bases and well-provisioned garrisons. Although King Charles had lost the North at Marston Moor in 1644, his forces in Scotland were doing well and he still controlled the West and Wales.

Yet his decision to fight the New Model Army at Naseby was arguably one of the single biggest military blunders in British history.

IC100813battle-22Not only was he heavily outnumbered by Thomas “Black Tom” Fairfax’s New Model Army – 10,000 versus 15,000 – but his men still fought the way they had fought back in 1642 when the war started.

However, Parliament had raised a new army imbued with fresh ideas (see below) and created for one purpose – to strike the decisive blow against the king. At Naseby it did just that.

By concentrating his best forces into one army, leaving his fortified capital of Oxford, and then dithering around in the Midlands, Charles gave Parliament the best chance it had to catch and destroy his forces.

Ironically the battle started well for Charles – Prince Rupert smashed the Parliamentarian left wing with a dashing charge and the King’s pikemen and musketeers pushed Parliament’s infantry back almost to breaking point. However, Rupert’s charge left his men scattered and on the other flank Marmaduke Langdale was routed by Parliament’s golden boy Oliver Cromwell, whose cavalry then turned on the Royalist infantry. A running retreat/rout over 12 miles took place, with thousands of the king’s men captured or killed.

Naseby destroyed the veteran infantry Charles relied on, condemned him to spend the rest of the summer being chased around the Midlands and West Country, and gave the New Model Army the impetus to sweep up the remainder of his forces. Although the King himself believed he could still win the war and fighting dragged on into 1646, his military machine was irrevocably broken and the overwhelming success of the New Model Army at Naseby was the moment King Charles lost the English Civil War.

2. It helped assert the right of Parliament over the monarch.

englicher-buergerkriegIgnore what you may have been taught at school – the English Civil War did not start because some people wanted a king and others wanted a republic. That happened, almost by accident, later.

But though they may not have known it the men who fought at Naseby were setting their country on the path to both a constitutional monarchy and a modern Parliamentary democracy.

The war had begun as the culmination of a long, drawn-out argument over who controlled the levers of power with few, if any, people arguing for a kingless state. Even before Charles had ruled without Parliament during his ’The Personal Rule’ (also known as the ‘Eleven Years’ Tyranny’ depending on who you asked), MPs had been clamouring for more control over the country, especially with foreign policy, religion, and taxes. That argument eventually boiled over into all out war, which the King would go on to lose.

The victory at Naseby established Parliament’s right to a permanent role in the government of the kingdom.

3. It gave us the Armed Forces.

Before the English Civil War, the British were naturally suspicious of soldiers. To have lots of them hanging around was a recipe for disaster, either because they’d get bored and go on a rampage or it meant the king wanted to use them against his own people. And the people didn’t like either of those options. So armies were only raised when they were needed – either to defend the country or invade somewhere else – and would then be disbanded.

The New Model Army was different.


Before 1645, winning battles mostly came down to good fortune, surprise, soldiers who wouldn’t immediately turn and run (who were common), and commanders who knew what they were doing (who were not). Also, many of the troops Parliament relied upon from London and what we now call the Home Counties had been raised as defensive troops, so as soon as the threat to their counties was over they’d either refuse to move or simply pack up and head home.

The Second Battle of Newbury in October 1644 was a wake up call for Parliament. They had won but only on paper; arguments between the commanders let the King’s defeated forces escape virtually intact. So MPs became convinced that to win the war, rather than several armies led by individual commanders, it needed a single national army committed to the cause. This lead to the New Model Army or, as it was called at the time, “The Army, Newly Modelled”.

To remove political interference in tactical decision making, MPs and Lords(with a few notable exceptions) were forbidden from being officers by the Self-Denying Ordnance while rank was awarded on merit, meaning the brave and militarily gifted rose quickly. Rather than ranks of fresh or conscripted men without adequate arms and provisions, the New Model was to be made up of properly trained, well supplied, and regularly paid professional troops (side note: the latter of these wasn’t exactly followed through).

The New Model Army was Britain’s first professional army and was the beginning of the modern British Army that we know today (in fact, two existing regiments – The Coldstream Guards and The Blues and Royals – can trace their history all the way back to the New Model).

It was a truly revolutionary idea and, at Naseby, it worked.

4. It turned Oliver Cromwell into the historical leviathan we know today.

oliver_cromwell_samuel_cooper1He’s been dubbed “God’s Englishman” and was voted amongst the top ten Britons of all time but, despite what many think, Oliver Cromwell neither started nor ended the first English Civil War, nor was the conflict “Cromwell vs Charles I”. In fact, he didn’t come to totally dominate English politics until after the King was dead and the second Civil War in 1651 tipped off his beloved and (arguably) more capable superior, Lord Fairfax, as to which way the wind was blowing so that he stood down as leader of the New Model Army.

Cromwell was, however, very good at being a cavalry commander.

At the start of the war in 1642, he was just a lowly Huntingdonshire squire with little in the way of prospects, who only really got elected as an MP because of his family connections. At the outbreak of the war, he organised a local troop of cavalrymen but turned up late to the Battle of Edgehill just in time to witness Parliament’s cavalry get their backsides handed to them by the dashing Prince Rupert’s men.

Cavalry tactics at the time involved two wings of cavalry charging at each other and trying to drive the other side off, the winners then chasing their defeated foes across the countryside in a disordered gallop and maybe stoping off for a pint or two afterwards. Once that initial job was done, the cavalry usually took no more part in a battle. Cromwell realised that if you trained your cavalry properly you could drive off the enemy, get back into order, and then wheel round and attack the enemy’s infantry – and if there’s one thing infantry don’t like, it’s enemy cavalry. Thus were born Cromwell’s elite cavalry, The Ironsides, who turned the tide in pretty much every battle they fought in.

This was certainly the case at Naseby, where he commanded Parliament’s right wing. While Prince Rupert smashed Parliament’s left wing, he couldn’t control his men and by the time they got back to the fighting it was all over – thanks to the Ironsides. Cromwell’s reputation was well on the rise by this point anyway, but Naseby made him a Parliamentarian hero. And the rest, as they say, is history.

(Oh, and for the record he didn’t ban Christmas. Or mince pies. Or dancing. Or the theatre. Or much of anything.)

5. It showed what King Charles was really up to.

Charles_Landseer_Cromwell_Battle_of_NasebyAfter the battle, the victorious Parliamentarians rampaged through the Royalists ‘baggage train’ – which is where an army keeps its supplies. While capturing great amounts of powder, arms, and food, they also seized the carriage carrying the king’s private papers, which had been left behind in the rout.

What it contained was sheer dynamite. Confirming all Parliament’s worst fears and suspicions about Charles, the papers showed that he had been trying to raise an army of Roman Catholic soldiers from Ireland to invade England, as well as negotiating help from French and Spanish mercenaries – all of them also Catholic.

What was wrong with them being Catholic? Bear in mind that Protestant England had been at war with Roman Catholic powers such as Spain and France pretty much ever since Henry VIII had broken from Rome and established the Church of England. Henry and his daughter Elizabeth had mixed Protestantism up with a bombshell cocktail of religious zealotry, national pride, and plain old xenophobia; the despotic reign of Bloody Queen Mary, the Spanish Armada, and the plots against Elizabeth were all still strong in the collective memory and Charles’ dad and King of Scotland, James VI, had only become King James I of England because he was Elizabeth’s closest Protestant relative. So hated were the Catholics that Irish-sounding Royalist soldiers were routinely hanged, Irish-Scottish regiments were given no mercy, and when Parliament’s soldiers overran the Royalist baggage train at Naseby, they infamously raped, mutilated, and killed many of the female camp followers – later justifying it by saying they thought they were Irish Catholics (they undoubtedly weren’t).

Parliament wasted no time in publishing copies of this damning correspondence for the whole nation to see. Charles was shown to not only to be duplicitous but also that he seemingly only cared about being in power and he didn’t care a jot about how he got it.

This moment, combined with his sparking of the second English Civil War by getting the Scottish to invade in 1648, was what sealed his fate and led him to the executioner’s block in 1649.

6. It destroyed the idea of the divine right of kings.

Sir_Anthony_Van_Dyck_-_Charles_I_(1600-49)_-_Google_Art_ProjectCharles believed, as his father and many others before him, that he was divinely appointed to be king by God himself. Therefore, whatever he wanted to do was – naturally – what God wanted and those who were against him were against the deity himself. Unfortunately, Parliament was becoming increasingly dominated by ultra-devout Puritans who believed THEY were the ones divinely appointed by God and their mission was to overcome the tyranny of fallible Earth-bound kings.

While the war was sparked by issues over forms of worship, money, and power, it soon took on a dangerously dogmatic religious tone. With the removal of their critics in a purged Parliament and the decisive defeat of the King’s army at Naseby, it seemed to the Puritans that God now agreed with them.

After Naseby, the Puritan ‘Independent’ faction would become a political force to be reckoned with. And with one stroke of the executioner’s axe, they irrevocably changed the relationship between England’s monarch and England’s people forever.

7. It was a stepping stone to a political revolution.

In the New Model Army, Parliament had unwittingly created a pet bulldog that it could not control.

Once it had won the war and disposed of the king, and with no military force that could match it, the army quickly came to realise that IT carried the balance of political power and it became a hotbed of radical politics and discontent. Many, including political agitators within the army dubbed Levellers (because, their critics claimed, they wanted to bring rich and poor to the same level), demanded a greater say in government and a famous meeting called The Putney Debates in 1647 was the first time common people and their social superiors had sat down to discuss the very question of the nation’s governance.

putneyIt hinged on the question of why had they fought in the first place. Surely, said leading Leveller sympathiser and friend of Cromwell Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, even the lowliest Englishman has the same right to a say in England’s affairs as the highest?

This, and The Leveller’s idealism, has echoed down the centuries ever since. Some claim them as proto-socialists, others as anarchistic radicals, but either way Putney set the terms of the argument for almost 370 years – an argument that is still going on today.

After Charles was executed in 1649, England (soon to be joined, whether they liked it or not, by Scotland and Ireland) became a republic called ‘The Commonwealth of England’. A limited form of Parliamentary democracy was now in practise and it finally seemed like the tyranny of absolute monarchs that had begun with the Norman invasion in 1066 was over.

However, grand words are just that – words. After the army smashed the Scots and invaded Ireland, they were in no mood to compromise with anyone about anything and the purging of anti-army MPs from Parliament, Cromwell’s elevation to ‘Lord Protector’, and the military dictatorship that followed turned hopes of a peaceful, tolerant, and free English republic to dust.

After the death of Cromwell in 1658 it was ironically part of the army itself, led by General George Monck (who had been cunningly keeping out of things up in Scotland), that helped usher in the return of the monarchy in 1660.

But absolute monarchy had had its day in England and, following the invasion of the William of Orange’s Dutch forces in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688, England’s one and only true “revolution” came to a close with the constitutional monarchy that still stands, more or less in the same shape, today.


A panoramic view of the battlefield from the Naseby Memorial, Northamptonshire