The High Tide of King Charles’ War?!




Militarily and politically, Parliament’s position at the beginning of October 1643 was demonstrably far stronger than in late July. With hindsight, the capture of Bristol was the high tide of King Charles’ war, his best and only chance of ending the conflict on his own terms. Hyde conceded as much by reflecting that Massey had given

a stop to the career of the king’s good success, and from his pertinacious defence … the Parliament had time to recover their broken forces, and more broken spirits; and may acknowledge to this rise the greatness to which they afterwards aspired.

If the months of July and August 1643 were indeed the tipping point of the Civil War, what can we draw from a detailed reconstruction of events to add to Hyde’s succinct explanation of the reasons why?

Though Sergeant Foster and contemporaries on both sides gave generous credit to the Almighty for their successes, God’s traditional support for the big battalions was tempered by an unusual preference for the numerical underdog. Even after sending Maurice back to the west, King Charles was able to gather the largest army he would ever command for operations against Gloucester, putting around 18,000 men in the field. But his generals were unable to manufacture circumstances in which that theoretical advantage could be brought effectively to bear. Neither on the Cotswolds, in the Severn valley nor at Newbury was Essex forced to fight except when the Parliamentarians enjoyed a local superiority in numbers. This failure to concentrate force at the right place and the right time was finally decisive at Newbury where the Royalists’ superiority evaporated to the extent that they found themselves outnumbered by around 1,000 men. By contrast, Essex and Pym built a 15,000-strong relief army from unpromising beginnings and the earl then conserved his forces successfully throughout the campaign. Equally important were the structural differences between the armies. The Royalist shortage of musketeers, which put them at a real disadvantage in the enclosures south of Newbury, was in part an unavoidable consequence of supply constraints but it also reflected an overinvestment in cavalry that absorbed disproportionate resources, limited strategic and tactical options, and unbalanced the Oxford Army on the battlefield. While Essex compensated for his much lamented paucity of cavalry by tactical ingenuity and firepower, Rupert’s brigades of horse failed to live up to their fearsome reputation and were repeatedly driven off by massed infantry formations and their supporting artillery.

Quality counted most with the infantry. Man-for-man and regiment-for-regiment, the Royalist infantry were outperformed. Massey’s garrison soldiers won the honours in the siege-line skirmishing around Gloucester; Essex’s men retained a higher level of cohesion during the march to Newbury; and the Oxford Army infantry were rightly criticised for their gun-shyness on Newbury Common. Essex’s officers were more professional and proved better able to maintain morale and effectiveness under pressure. And the London Trained Bands, untried yet well trained and socially cohesive, defied expectations by standing firm against infantry, artillery and cavalry alike. A similar disparity is evident in the relative professionalism of the Royalist and Parliamentarian artillery. The failure of the Royalist guns at Gloucester was the consequence of unsuitable equipment and inadequate ammunition supplies, while the evidence suggests that at Newbury they were handled poorly as well. Essex, who had been mocked for his insistence on marching with such a large train, proved his detractors wrong by deploying field guns to keep the Royalist cavalry at arm’s length on the Cotswolds and at Aldbourne Chase, and then to batter their horse and foot to a standstill at Newbury. In no other Civil War battle did artillery play such a critical role.

Sir John Merrick’s achievement in ensuring that Essex could fight at Newbury with, apparently, no concerns about ammunition was one of the main factors in the Parliamentarian success. Despite its deep financial crisis, money could be raised quickly when there was the political will to do so in London, and logistic support was an unheralded strength of Parliament’s military organisation. The earl had, however, taken a conscious risk by requiring his army to live off the land for their food. While this undoubtedly increased their mobility, Essex’s efforts to provide for his men, whether altruistic or prompted by fear of declining morale, contributed to the slow rate of progress from Cirencester to Newbury, and therefore to the unfavourable terms on which the battle was fought. As for the Royalists, it is received wisdom that logistic inadequacies were one of the main reasons for their failures at both Gloucester and Newbury, but the evidence suggests that though Lord Percy could conceivably be blamed for not preparing an adequate supply of artillery ammunition in advance of the campaign, he and his subordinates responded well to the king’s changes in strategy, fed the army around Gloucester, made the best use of limited stocks of gunpowder and successfully mobilised different sources to manufacture cannon balls. As for the powder shortage on 20 September, Newbury was not the battle the Royalist generals had planned or expected, and the 100 barrels of powder carried from the Severn valley would have sufficed in almost every other contingency. The decision to send to Oxford for re-supply should of course have been taken earlier but the withdrawal from the battlefield was ultimately a failure of nerve rather than logistics.

That failure of nerve was in part a product of the inadequate intelligence received by the Royalist generals at every stage in the campaign. At Bristol, their intelligence under-estimated the capacity and determination of Gloucester and its leaders to resist; throughout the campaign they based decisions on faulty assessments of Parliament’s military strength; in the Severn valley, their tactical intelligence failed repeatedly; their scouts allowed Essex to disappear into the night for a second time after Aldbourne Chase; and at Newbury the Parliamentarians were able to seize Round Hill, and the initiative, unopposed despite the deployment of patrols on the Wash Common plateau. To be fair, Sir Samuel Luke’s network of agents had some equally poor material to their credit, including their failure to warn the army of Rupert’s advance to Aldbourne Chase; their misleading reporting of Prince Maurice’s whereabouts which seems to have caused the snail-like progress from Hungerford; and the unduly pessimistic picture painted of Royalist strength in front of Newbury later that day. On the other hand, Luke also provided a mass of accurate information from Oxford, the camps at Gloucester and Sudeley, and garrisons across central England. One of his men had provided real-time reporting of Rupert’s movements after Stow. Another delivered the snippet that saved Essex’s army from envelopment north of Tewksbury. Others had reconnoitred Cirencester and kept the Oxford Army under close surveillance during the hazardous disengagement from the Severn valley. It may be that Scoutmaster General Neale’s Royalist intelligence apparatus enjoyed similar successes which are not apparent today. If not, this was another major disparity between the two sides.

Throughout the campaign, the abiding sense is that Parliament’s military machine was quite simply more competent and professional than its Royalist equivalent. Despite the strong element of mythology, Massey’s achievement was as significant as Parliament’s propagandists argued. Pury’s political support and determination was invaluable but it was Massey who led the defence, and it was his tactical nous and motivational skills that gained the garrison a moral ascendancy over their besiegers and kept Gloucester in Parliament’s hands. By the same token, Essex’s brigade and regimental commanders performed with greater spirit and effectiveness than their Royalist counterparts during the marches to and from Gloucester and on the battlefield. Although Stapleton, Ramsey and Middleton did not lead the cavalry to victory, they repeatedly prevented Rupert from exploiting the Royalists’ qualitative and quantitative advantages. It was, however, the Parliamentarian infantry and their officers who won the campaign for Essex. From the outset around Stow, regiments stood firm when they might have been expected to disintegrate and in combat their leaders were able to rally them after even the most brutal tactical reverses. At the time, the Trained Bands’ courage on Newbury Common received most notice yet the resilience of the rearguards at Aldbourne Chase and Greenham Common, together with the success of Robartes’ regiments in blunting the Royalist advance on the northern slope of Round Hill, was equally praiseworthy. Most significant of all was the response of Colonels Barclay and Holburn to the potentially battle-winning breakthrough by Sir John Byron on Round Hill itself. The usual reaction of tired troops to panic amongst neighbouring units and the threat of being over-run by cavalry was to join the rout, but Barclay and Holburn successfully reformed their men whose rolling musket fire then smashed the king’s last real hope of victory.

Similar professionalism was shown by Parliament’s senior commanders. Skippon has received due, perhaps even excessive, credit for his contribution, especially at Newbury where he undoubtedly played a key role in marshalling the main and rear guards to frustrate Royalist efforts to envelop Round Hill. Though not Essex’s first choice for the post, the earl evidently trusted and worked well with his deputy, and used his gritty leadership skills to the full. It is, however, to Essex himself that the greatest plaudits should be reserved. History has tended to focus more on his strategic failures in 1642 and 1644, when he should arguably have twice won the war for Parliament, yet it is equally true that in the early autumn of 1643 it was the success of his strategy, high risk gamble though it seems with hindsight, that preserved the fragile political coalition in London and re-energised support for the war. Once aroused by Pym from the lethargy which engulfed him for most of the summer, Essex’s preparations were characteristically thorough and his handling of the campaign, though far from flawless, stood head and shoulders above the Royalist command. He can justifiably be criticised for putting the Trained Bands at unnecessary risk at Oddington, for allowing Rupert to catch him at Aldbourne Chase, and for undue caution in the advance from Hungerford and in front of Newbury on 19 September. On the other hand, his approach march across the Cotswolds was for the most part a masterly case study in combined arms tactics to neutralise the Royalist cavalry; his feint north and subsequent disengagement from the Severn valley was one of the best examples of operational deception and rapid movement of the war; and his tactics and leadership at Newbury exploited the ground, his army’s strengths and his opponents weaknesses to snatch victory in the most unpromising of circumstances. ‘Old Robin’ was a soldier’s general, most comfortable in the front line with a half-pike. But he was also a highly professional builder, organiser, equipper and motivator of armies; and in this campaign he demonstrated, for some of the time at least, genuine strategic vision and tactical flair.

Essex’s achievements were amplified by his enemies’ incompetence. Tactically and strategically, the Oxford Army’s leadership proved incapable of transcending the weaknesses endemic in its structure, equipment and morale. Compared to the Parliamentarian officer corps, Royalist colonels lacked professionalism and failed to inspire their men when it really mattered. Among brigade commanders or their equivalent, only Charles Gerard, the serial turncoat Urry and perhaps the two Byrons seem to have displayed more than routine competence, and many did not meet even that poor standard. Belasyse’s inability to move his infantrymen from the cover of the Newbury Common tumulus stands in stark contrast to the Trained Bands’ resilience in the face of cavalry attack and artillery fire. Further up the command chain, Wilmot’s tentative handling of the cavalry was the antithesis of his victory at Roundway Down and Astley had no discernable influence on events after his injury at Gloucester.

At each stage in the campaign, there is evidence of growing dissension within the Royalist leadership. The Bristol council of war set the tone with its factionalism and incoherent strategic thinking. At Gloucester, the king’s refusal to risk casualties constrained his generals, sacrificed the momentum of the early summer and condemned the army to weeks of morale-sapping inactivity. Forth conducted siege operations competently enough but appears little more than a cipher for the king’s increasingly pro-active involvement in strategic decisions. Whether or not he had been ordered to avoid combat during the Parliamentarian relief march, once the siege was raised Rupert played a much more active leadership role. Yet he seems to have done so in opposition to a strategic consensus formed around Forth, Percy and the king himself, and his influence over his uncle and Royalist decision-making was often surprisingly limited. The farce surrounding contradictory intelligence reports of Essex’s counter-march to Cirencester; the squabble between Rupert and an aristocratic cabal at Aldbourne Chase; the clear sense in Prince Rupert’s Diary that he was at odds with Forth over the march to Newbury; and his unhappiness over the decision to withdraw overnight on 20–21 September all demonstrate the prince’s good judgement (he was right in at least three of these cases), the growing tendency of well-born officers to challenge that judgement and, as at Bristol, the king’s willingness to overrule his nephew on vital strategic issues. Rupert’s inspirational leadership won the race to Newbury and flamed across the battlefield but without his immediate presence the Royalists lacked drive and initiative, and nobody else from the king downwards was able to galvanise the army to anything like the same extent.

It is hard not to conclude that, as in so many things, Charles I was the author of his own tragedy and that the die was cast once he decided to join the army at Bristol. As he had shown earlier in the year, the king could not resist interfering in military decision making, his judgement remained poor and his advisers were unable or unwilling to contest the royal will. Had he remained in Oxford, it is improbable that such an unsatisfactory strategy would have evolved or that casualty and risk aversion would have been so decisive in campaign decision making. The withdrawal from Newbury Common was especially, though not uniquely, damaging to the Royalist cause. This subordination of military expertise to the prejudices of an amateur strategist and tactician exemplifies the relative lack of professionalism in key aspects of the Royalist war-making machinery. Essex may have been pedestrian but he was competent, most of his officers knew their business, and John Pym protected him from political meddling in strictly military matters; Rupert was touched by genius yet neither he nor solid soldiers like Forth could overcome the influence of factionalism and a weak absolute monarch.

That contrast in political contexts is a key aspect of the campaign. Both King Charles and ‘King Pym’ stood at the head of loose coalitions combining profoundly different war aims. In London, the political battle was bloody and public, and gave an impression of continuous discord and fundamental weakness. There was truth in this perception but Pym (who was perhaps the first Englishman of non-noble blood to qualify for the description of war leader) was able to outmanoeuvre his enemies and impose a strategy, based on Scottish intervention and enforced Presbyterianism, which widened the war, ruled out political compromise and ensured that Parliament would eventually triumph. Since Massey’s defence of Gloucester and Essex’s campaign made all of this possible, it is difficult to exaggerate their importance as contributory factors to Parliament’s ultimate success. More immediately, Massey and Essex together frustrated the king’s political agenda for exploiting the Royalists’ run of military victories. The difference was that whereas Pym was able to gain temporary acquiescence to his strategy, reinforced by Essex’s successful campaign, which gave Parliament a prospect of battlefield success in 1644, Charles was unable to impose or otherwise create a consensus among his supporters, and the aftermath of Newbury both increased these divisions and weakened the Royalists’ war-making potential for the following year. Rupert’s ‘promotion’ to build his own army in the west midlands can be seen as much a result of his impotence in strategic decision making and isolation on the council of war as Charles’ wish to reward his nephew with an independent command. That the Oxford schisms took place largely behind closed doors and were shrouded by common loyalty to the king should not obscure their debilitating impact on the Royalist war effort, nor the profound consequences of the military failures in front of Gloucester and on the hills south of Newbury.

The Earl of Manchester summed up the campaign’s ultimate significance more than a year later when the soldiers of king and Parliament confronted each other yet again across the Newbury countryside. In November 1644, a Parliamentarian council of war debated whether to fight or allow the Royalists to march away unscathed. Oliver Cromwell argued that they should seek to defeat the king in battle before he could receive reinforcements from France. Manchester disagreed:

in fighting we venture all to nothing. If we fight a hundred times and beat him ninety-nine times, he will be king still. But if he beat us but once, or the last time, we shall be hanged, we shall lose our estates, and our posterities be undone.

In late 1644, Manchester was being unduly pessimistic about the risks of defeat. In September 1643, however, Parliament’s position was as Manchester described. Pym and Essex had been prepared to fight, perhaps recklessly so, and King Charles had the capability to defeat his opponents in battle. In the Severn valley and then at Newbury, Essex could have lost the Civil War in a single day’s fighting. Never again would that be the case. By depriving Charles of military victory and bringing his own army back to London, the earl ensured that the revolution to which he was ambiguously attached would eventually take his monarch’s head.

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