Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July 1644. This was an important battle in English history but few people know much about it. So why was there a battle on Marston Moor? Who was fighting and what impact did this have?
The English Civil War of the 17th century pitted Parliament against the King and was one of the defining moments in the development of the United Kingdom as a parliamentary democracy. There were a number of battles and skirmishes during the two civil wars (the first with King Charles leading his forces and the second whilst he was being held prisoner by Cromwell and Parliament), the three major battles being Edgehill, Naseby and Marston Moor.
The Battle of Marston Moor, which took place in the evening of 2nd July 1644, was critical for the control of the north and is believed to have been the largest battle ever fought on English soil in terms of numbers of combatants. Surprising as it may seem for a battle of such massive proportions and such a pivotal role it only lasted for about two hours. The action took place on open fields and moorland which still exist relatively unchanged, this has enabled historians to get a very good understanding of how the battle unfolded as most of the key features of the local landscape are still there to be seen by historians and visitors alike.
At the outbreak of the conflict England was divided along lines of political persuasion and religious beliefs, families were torn apart and no community was immune to the terrible divisiveness of civil war yet, on the whole, the north of England tended to side with Parliament and was a centre of opposition to King Charles in the early part of the war. The prosperous city of York was the major religious centre in the north so control there was seen as vital – whoever held York would have a distinct advantage over their enemies.
The Marquis of Newcastle led a Royalist army to York in the spring of 1644 and although he took possession of the city he soon found himself besieged there by Sir Thomas Fairfax who was leading a joint force of Parliamentary and Scottish men. King Charles was desperate to hold on to York and sent his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, to try to relieve the siege. Although young, Rupert had a reputation as a good leader in battle and so when Fairfax heard about the approach of the relief force he abandoned the siege and moved out towards Marston Moor (7 miles from York). Prince Rupert led the King’s forces into York on 1st July 1644 and, together with his command team, decided to pursue the enemy the following day. Unfortunately for Prince Rupert some of his commanders allowed their men to loot the city or take rest so his forces marched at different paces and only arrived on the moor near the village of Long Marston in dribs and drabs, disorganised and perhaps a little over confident after taking York. They arrived to find that Parliament already had control of the roads and so Rupert was forced to marshal his men on the desolate moors, setting up his front in fits and starts as his men arrived whilst the Parliamentarians were already organised in a good defensive position.
Although Rupert was at a disadvantage numerically – both sides had more or less equal cavalry forces of around 7,000, but the 20,000 combined infantry of the Scots and Parliament far outnumbered the 11,000 Royalists – he did have the advantage of protection offered by the varied geography of the moorland. The Royalists were able to position themselves amongst the numerous ditches and hedges which would impede attacks by the enemy, whether on horse or foot. Rupert felt confident that his left flank was particularly well defended in this way.
Fairfax’s Parliamentary forces occupied a low hill (barely 100 feet high) which gave them the advantage of higher ground on the flat moor and farmland, although a number of cornfields did make it difficult for him to deploy all of his forces. The Royalists tried to take advantage of this and seize a rabbit warren to the west of the fields so that they could infiltrate the Parliamentary positions, but they were forced back and Cromwell put the left wing of his cavalry there. Next to this was a very strong central force made up of more than 14,000 infantry and almost 40 artillery pieces; Sir Thomas Fairfax held the right wing with a cavalry of at least 2,000. Both cavalry wings were interspersed with musketeers and dragoons.
The Royalists were positioned on the moor, below the enemy and behind a drainage ditch which it was hoped would prevent, or at least disrupt, any cavalry charge. Like the enemy forces opposite, their wings were made up of cavalry and musketeers, the centre consisted of infantry and 14 artillery pieces, whilst Rupert held 600 cavalry in reserve behind these. As evening approached on 2nd July Rupert could hear the enemy singing psalms and presumed that they were getting ready to bed down for the night and there would be no attack before the morning. Yet, as the Royalists settled down to supper, the enemy attacked just as a thunderstorm broke over the moor.
The cavalry on the Royalists right wing was almost immediately driven back and Rupert was forced to commit his reserve of cavalry there, far earlier in the battle than he would have liked. The fighting was fierce but Cromwell eventually broke Rupert’s men and the Prince himself only avoided capture by hiding in a bean field!
There was also success for the Parlimentarians in the centre although their right wing initially had more difficulty when some of Fairfax’s forces were caught in a ditch where they were an easy target for the Royalists who forced them back. The battle ebbed and flowed chaotically for a time; at one point during the confusion of battle and the thunderstorm a number of Fairfax’s infantry believed they had been defeated and fled the field. Yet the Parliamentary centre stood firm against repeated charges by Royalist cavalry.
By this point it was almost dark, but the full moon was rising and it was possible to see confused men from both sides running away across the field. Taking advantage of the confusion Cromwell led his cavalry in a last charge against the tired and disorganised Royalist cavalry which eventually withdrew and retreated towards York. The final desperate stand was made by Newcastle’s ‘Whitecoats’ who fought fiercely, giving no quarter and refusing to surrender until just thirty of their number remained. In just two hours the Royalist forces had been defeated and, although a number of areas such as Bolton and Scarborough still held for the king, the north belonged to the Parliamentarians.
In the course of a battle which only lasted for two hours the Royalists lost around 4,000 men killed with an estimated 1,500 taken prisoner. In contrast the Scottish and Parliamentarian loses may have been as few as 300 killed (although some historians put this figure at over 1,000). During the battle Oliver Cromwell was able to show how a well-trained, disciplined and well-equipped army could win against the more experienced Royalists, and cemented his reputation as a great commander.
Marston Moor was a pivotal point during the English Civil War and, as such, I felt that I could not write ‘The Cavalier Historian’ without a description of the battle as seen through the eyes of one of my main characters, Thomas Hardwyke, a member of the Royalist cavalry and staunch supporter of Prince Rupert and the King.