Naseby 1645

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Naseby 1645

A near run thing

by Bill Astin

The Battle of Naseby, fought on the 14th June 1645, was perhaps the single most important battle of the English Civil War in that the defeat suffered that day by King Charles I marked the beginning of the end for the Royalist cause. It was also the first battle fought by the newly organised New Model Army (NMA) whose success that day was a triumph for the new system of discipline and organisation introduced by Oliver Cromwell.  The battle itself was a near run thing and could easily have ended in a Royalist victory had it not been for the ill discipline of Prince Rupert’s Cavaliers.

The battlefield itself lies almost at the geographical heart of England and consisted largely of open country. The Royalists deployed on a gentle hill known as Dust Hill while the NMA deployed on a similar hill a mile away called Mill Hill.  The ground between, known as Broadmoor, was level with some swampy ground.  One flank was marked by a line of hedges, the other by a rabbit warren that posed a serious problem for Cromwell's Ironsides.

The Royalists were commanded by the King, although he was more or less a simple figurehead the real decisions being taken by his nephew Prince Rupert. The NMA was under the command of the highly experienced Sir Thomas Fairfax.  The Royalist right flank consisted of veteran cavaliers under Prince Rupert and his younger brother Prince Maurice.  The centre was made up of the Royalist foot under Sir Bernard Astley, the left flank was covered by Sir Marmaduke Langley's near mutinous Northern Horse who were the poorest troops on the Royalist side.  The Royalist reserve was under the command of the King himself.  In all the Royalists fielded between 10,000 - 11,000 men as opposed to the NMA's 13,000 - 14,000 who also enjoyed a considerable advantage in cavalry.  Against this was the fact that the Royalists were more experienced and in wargame terms would have a considerable morale advantage.

The NMA's left flank consisted of cavalry under Cromwell's son-in-law, Henry Ireton.  Their centre contained the foot under Sir Phillip Skippon while the left was made up of more cavalry under Cromwell.  The dispositions of both armies were conventional following the Swedish pattern with foot in the centre and cavalry on either wing.  Both sides had artillery but it played only a very minor role and made no real contribution to the battle.  The hedge on the NMA's right was lined by 1,000 Dragoons under Okey with one man in ten acting as horseholders.  In front of the NMA's first line were 300 detached musketeers, the 'forlorn hope', who were to act as skirmishers. 

The NMA’s foot were largely raw recruits or press ganged men, many of whom had only been given their weapons on the march to Naseby and man for man were no match, for Astley's veterans.  Cromwell's Ironsides outnumbered Langley's cavalry by 3,500 to 1,500 and were the best troops on the Parliamentarian side.  Cromwell's numerical advantage was offset somewhat by the presence of the rabbit warren which forced him to concentrate on a narrow frontage.  At the sight of the Royalists deploying the NMA's foot began to show signs of alarm and Fairfax took the dangerous step of moving them to the reverse side of the hi1l crest in order that they could no longer see the enemy.  Their disciplined officers managed to control them and calm them down but any retrograde movement in face of the enemy is always a tricky manoeuvre and this must have given Fairfax a few bad moments.  Skippon became so nervous that he rode up to Fairfax to check his orders, the Royalists too were bemused by this movement and Prince Rupert had difficulty controlling his Cavaliers.

Fairfax gave his field word for the day as "God our strength", while the King chose "Queen Mary" as his.  Field words were essential during the ECW as in the heat of battle both sides, who were similarly dressed and equipped, greatly resembled each other.  At one point in the battle Rupert was mistaken for Fairfax by the NMA's baggage guard who held their fire until he was properly identified.  At 10 a.m. the NMA's artillery fired it's first and only rounds which all sailed over the heads of Prince Rupert's men.  The forlorn hope began to edge forward at which point Prince Rupert raised his arm and the whole royalist army moved down the hill. 

The forlorn hope rapidly scuttled back to join the main body which appeared dramatically on the crest of Mill Rill and began to descend the hill.  Langley charged downhill to contact Cromwell's first line of cavalry who were moving downhill when the crunch came.  Langley's charge then ground to a halt, Cromwell then began to feed in regiments from his second line in a series of small counter charges which proved too much for Langley's Horse who fled the field.  At this point Royalist cavalry in a similar position would have given chase and headed for the enemy's baggage.  The Ironsides however rallied and awaited fresh orders, which the cavaliers would have ignored; three regiments were ordered to pursue Langley while the remainder wheeled to attack the centre.

On the opposite flank Prince Rupert had positioned himself in the front line and ordered his Cavaliers forward into one of their famous charges against Ireton's cavalry.  Okey's Dragoons kept up a continuous fire into Rupert's flank but their fire was ineffective and did not slow the charge.  Ireton seems to have been struck with indecision and failed to order his men to counter charge.  Of the three leading regiments, one took the charge at the halt while the other two only managed to get their horses into a walk before they were caught by the charge.  The first regiment was destroyed and the remaining two, badly hit, were barely able to hold their own.  Directly behind Rupert came the Royalist second wave and again Ireton was caught wrong footed as he tried to wheel his second line to attack the Royalist foot in the centre.  The result was a smashing victory for Prince Rupert and Ireton's command began to flee. Ireton himself suffered a pike wound in the thigh, a halberd wound in the face and was captured when his horse was shot from under him.  Prince Rupert was also having his problems as he tried to rally his men who were now badly scattered and heading for the enemy baggage train 2 miles to the rear.  Prince Rupert had no choice but to give chase.  On arrival at the baggage camp the Royalist Horse were given a warm welcome by the strong guard left by Fairfax who refused to surrender.  Rupert was able to rally the more disciplined horse and return to the battle but only after a lapse of one hour by which time the battle was lost.  

The usual armour of an 'Ironside', Buff Coat (i.e. thick leather), breast and back plates, bridle guard and helmet

In the centre the Royalist foot had reached push of pike with the NMA's foot and forced them back, only the three regiments in the NMA's second line prevented a disaster.  Skippon was badly wounded but managed to stay in the saddle but was unable to give orders.  Fairfax took over command of the centre but the Royalists kept up the pressure, with his left flank gone only Cromwell was in a position to save the day.  If Rupert's men had been able to rally he could have attacked Fairfax on the flank and rolled up the NMA's foot.  Cromwell now proceeded to attack Astley's left flank left exposed by Langley's rout.  The King seeing this movement ordered the single troop of his mounted Lifeguard to charge.  He was prevented by the Earl of Carnwath, who seized the King's bridle and led him from the field followed by his lifeguard.  In the meantime Okey seeing the chance to finish the Royalist foot mounted his Dragoons who made one of their rare mounted attacks.  Astley caught on both flanks was forced to surrender.  Prince Rupert arrived on the field at this moment and joined forces with the King.  When they tried to organise a counter charge the Cavaliers refused to obey and fled hotly pursued by the Ironsides.  The pursuit lasted for 11 miles until Prince Rupert was able to rally the Royal Lifeguard and turn to fight.  At this point, their horses badly blown, the Ironsides gave up the chase.  The King lost 1,000 dead and 4,500 men as prisoners, enough powder and equipment for 8,000 men and his treasury of £100,000.  He also lost his carriage in which was found proof that he was negotiating with Catholic France in order to bring a Catholic Irish Army to England, which damaged his cause greatly.  The Royalist camp was looted and all the women found there were either massacred or had their faces mutilated on the grounds that women who followed a Royal Army must be 'sin incarnate'.

The real reason for the King's defeat lies in the inability of the Royalist horse to rally after an attack and the ability of the Ironsides to do just that.  Prince Rupert was in the front rank of the Cavaliers, not the best place for the commander of the army to be.  On the other hand his presence added much to the morale and the ferocity of the charges his men were famed for, he may also have been loath to let his younger brother command the charge.  Cromwell on the other hand stayed in the second line where he could control his men and launch attacks that were well co-ordinated and timely.  His tactics were not new being utilised by both Gustavus Adolphus and Pappenheim in Germany but this was the first time they had been used to effect in England and they took the Royalists by surprise.

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