In the summer of 1651, Charles II and David Leslie marched south towards London. Closely shadowed by Cromwell with a massive force of 30,000 men, they decided to take refuge in Worcester. The King’s supporters numbered just 12,000.
Charles’ army made for Carlisle on July 31 and kept marching south; it had reached the north bank of the Mersey by 16 August and finally reached Worcester (22 August) – too tired to proceed further. Despite Charles’ hopes, virtually no English rallied to his cause.
Cromwell’s army followed hard on the Scots’ heels. It reached Kelso on 8 August, Newburn on the 12th, was near Doncaster on the 21st, and joined with the forces of Lambert on 24 August. By the time he reached Evesham (27 August) Cromwell had about 28,000 men under his command; the Scots numbered only about 16,000.
Having destroyed the bridges over the River Severn to the north and south of Worcester, King Charles hoped to channel Cromwell into a costly frontal attack on Worcester’s strong eastern fortifications. However, Cromwell hit on the audacious plan of dropping pontoon bridges in the very face of the enemy. This enabled part of his force, under Lieutenant-General Charles Fleetwood, to launch an unexpected attack from the southwest.
Despite the originality of this plan, Fleetwood’s advance was stalled by the fierce resistance of the Royalist and Highland troops west of the Severn. Anxious to maintain the momentum of the attack, Cromwell personally led three brigades of reinforcements across the pontoon bridge; thus weakening his right flank in order to strengthen his left.
This movement was observed by the young King, watching from the tower of Worcester Cathedral. Charles dashed down the tower steps, rallied what forces he could and ‘made a very bold sally … with great bodies of horse and foot’ out of Worcester’s eastern Sidbury Gate. By the time that Cromwell had rushed back over his pontoon, his right flank was on the brink of defeat.
For the next three hours the area to the east of Worcester was fiercely contested as the Parliamentarians battled to win back lost ground. Despite the valour of the Scottish foot, ‘fighting with the butt-ends of their muskets when their ammunition was spent’, the King’s forces were gradually edged back. Had Leslie come to the King’s assistance with his cavalry, the city might yet have been saved, but he had sunk into a deep depression and could only ride up and down ‘as one amazed’.
As Cromwell’s general advance came on, with drums beating behind battle-torn banners, the King’s lines finally disintegrated into a panic-stricken mob streaming back towards the city’s Sidbury Gate. By the time Charles rode up, this passage had become blocked by an overturned ammunition cart and the King was forced to dismount and enter the city on foot. Within the walls of Worcester he mounted a fresh horse and tried to rally his forces; ‘I had rather you would shoot me,’ he declared ‘than keep me alive to see the sad consequences of this fatal day. His efforts were in vain, ‘ … [the troops] were so confused that neither threats nor entreaty could persuade them to charge with His Majesty.
Meanwhile on the Parliamentarian left flank, Fleetwood’s attack had begun to gain momentum, forcing more of the Royalist troops back into Worcester. With darkness falling, the battle became a vicious street-fight. The Royalists, caught like rats in a trap, battled desperately for avenues of escape. In their frenzy, according to one survivor, men trampled ‘one upon another, much readier to cut each other’s throat than to defend [themselves] against the enemy.’
With all hope of victory gone, the King was finally persuaded to flee. Though he had lost both his army and his Kingdom, it had not been for want of personal courage. A witness was later to comment: ‘What became of His Majesty afterwards I know not, but God preserve him for certainly a more gallant prince was never born. Although the final death-toll is hard to estimate, it is clear that the Royalist army had virtually ceased to exist. One of the inhabitants of Worcester wrote that’ … the number of slain is certainly great … the dead bodies lay in the way from Powick bridge to the town. Many lie killed in the houses, in the College and Church, on the Green, and in the cloisters and quite through Sidbury and about a mile that way.
Appropriately the last battle of the Civil Wars had taken place where the first war began. It had been nine long years since Prince Rupert’s first victorious charge across the Worcester water meadows at Powick Bridge. Now the wheel had turned full circle and Cromwell’s army had marched across those same meadows to win the final victory. Afterwards his chaplain, Hugh Peter, advised the weary Parliamentarian foot soldiers, ‘When your wives and children shall ask where you have been, and what news: say you have been at Worcester, where England’s sorrows began, and where they are happily ended.’
David Leslie, (1601–1682).
Scots general in the English Civil Wars. He fought under Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and as lieutenant-general to the Earl of Leven early in the English Civil Wars (1639– 1651). He fought alongside Oliver Cromwell at Marston Moor, and beat Montrose at Philiphaugh (1645); he took the surrender of Charles V at Newark on May 5, 1646. He joined the Whiggamore Rising in 1648. He took over command of the Covenanter army from his uncle, the Earl of Leven, and led it to disaster at Dunbar against Cromwell in 1650. He was beaten again by Cromwell at Worcester in 1651, where he was taken prisoner. He was imprisoned in the Tower of London until the end of the Commonwealth.