The size of the two army groups that faced one another near Newbury in late October is difficult to assess. Oliver Cromwell’s estimate that the Parliamentary armies comprised 11,000 foot and 8,000 horse is almost certainly too large. Other sources suggest the London brigade contained between 3,000 and 4,000 men, Manchester’s just over 3,000, and Essex’s a similar number. None of Waller’s infantry regiments was present. The number of cavalry was probably 1,000 less than Cromwell claimed, but even so the Parliamentary armies outnumbered the Royalists by a substantial margin. On 30 September the two Royalist armies are supposed to have comprised less than 10,000 horse and foot. Since then Northampton’s brigade, possibly 800 strong, had been detached to relieve Banbury Castle in cooperation with troops from the Oxford garrison, but 800 infantry had apparently joined the colours, half impressed men from the West Country, the rest musketeers from the Winchester garrison.
It took the Parliamentary generals some time to decide how to attack the Royalist armies. Initially they thought in terms of an engagement to the south of the Kennet. The king’s armies appeared to have taken up quarters in Newbury itself, and a clash between cavalry units occurred in the Aldermaston area on 24 October. When the Earl of Manchester and Oliver Cromwell fell out at the end of the Newbury campaign, Cromwell claimed that a great opportunity had been lost by not advancing on the enemy immediately after the rendezvous at Basingstoke three days earlier. However, he was surely mistaken in thinking that the king’s army would have risked a battle defending the south-eastern approaches to Newbury. The extensive open heath land around Greenham that came to within a mile of the town would have given the Parliamentarians a major advantage with their superiority in cavalry. Moreover, if the king’s forces had been unable to hold their position, a successful retreat to the north bank of the Kennet and so to Wallingford across a single bridge would have been difficult to carry out in a hurry. Falling back along the south bank towards Devizes or Bristol was problematic for another reason. The country between Newbury and Hungerford was enclosed, with plenty of passes to hold up the pursuit, but further west the Kennet valley turned into a bottleneck. There the chalk downs, which extended for miles around on all sides, would provide the ideal terrain for Parliamentary cavalry to hunt down and destroy the king’s fleeing infantry. The most logical response of the king’s commanders to the threat of a direct attack on Newbury from the south-east would have been to cross the Kennet immediately, knowing that it would be very costly indeed, if not impossible, for the enemy to force their way across the river. Indeed the Royalists may have begun doing so as early as 22 October when a substantial part of the king’s forces were drawn up on the north bank to witness the knighting of John Boys, the governor of Donnington Castle.
On learning that the Royalists had in fact crossed Newbury Bridge and were putting up defences in the narrow tongue of land between it and the Lambourn, the Parliamentary generals led their armies over the ford at Padworth and approached Newbury along the Bath road, which hugged the north bank of the Kennet. On the afternoon of 25 October they took up a position on Clay Hill between Thatcham and the Lambourn and less than two miles from the town. The following day the armies were deployed in Shaw fields in the Lambourn valley, but probing attacks revealed the strength of the Royalist position. It was therefore decided to assault it from two directions. The major attack was to be from the west. A force led by Sir William Waller comprising the Earl of Essex’s infantry and the London Trained Band regiments supported by at least two-thirds of the cavalry belonging to all three armies was to skirt around the northern flank of the Royalist position and attack it from the general direction of Hungerford. Once fighting had begun, the Earl of Manchester was to lead an assault on the enemy defences in the Lambourn valley. At his disposal were his own infantry regiments, 3,000 strong, and a mixed force of 1,800 or so horse and dragoons. The Earl of Essex played no part in the preparations for battle. Having approved the decision to move the armies to the north bank of the Kennet, he retired to Reading. For the past ten days he had been suffering from stomach problems, and these had suddenly worsened.
Cromwell at the time, and some historians since, have remarked on the risks involved in attempting to assault the Royalist position from diametrically opposite directions. The principal danger, as with all manoeuvres of this nature, was that the two attacks might not go in at the agreed times. If this happened, an alert enemy could use interior lines to throw his entire weight against one pincer and destroy it before the other could make its influence felt. On the Newbury battlefield, however, the risks of this happening were quite small. In the first place, although the plan was for the two attacks to occur almost simultaneously, this was not necessary for success. The force Waller commanded, as large if not larger than the king’s two armies combined, had the potential to win the battle on its own. The attack on the enemy position protecting the western side of the Royalists’ fortified triangle must therefore have been seen as the decisive encounter. Manchester’s force of 5,000 men or less would be too weak to achieve much on its own. Thus its role must almost certainly have been a subsidiary one, as the earl and his supporters subsequently claimed, most particularly preventing the king’s generals throwing all their military might against Waller. All the earl had to do was ensure that he was not the first to attack in case they threw most of their resources against him. Second, there was little chance of the assaults getting out of sync with one another. Waller’s was to go in first, but the initial bombardment of the enemy position would be the signal for Manchester to throw his troops against the defenders of Shaw, and even if the sound of the big guns did not carry that far, fighting around Church Speen would be easily visible from Clay Hill. Third, although the Parliamentary generals did not know it, the Royalist commanders, confident of the strength of their defences and believing the enemy armies to be demoralized, had no intention of making a pre-emptive strike against either of the pincers.
Waller’s force set out from Clay Hill on the afternoon of 26 October, bivouacking for the night at North Heath, halfway along its sixteen-mile journey. Initially it marched in a northerly direction as if Sir William’s intention was to block the king’s retreat to Oxford via Wallingford. No attempt was made to conceal the march from the Royalists. Writing to Prince Rupert on the morning of 27 October, Lord Digby advised him that a twofold attack was probably under way, but left open the possibility that Waller’s march was merely intended to cut the Royalists off from their supplies, presumably in the hope of forcing the king’s forces into a Lostwithiel-type capitulation. Suspicion of an attack from the west became a certainty when Waller’s force, having crossed the Lambourn unopposed at Boxford, climbed the hill to their front, and turned eastwards to march along Wickham Heath towards Church Speen.
Before nightfall on 26 October the king’s commanders took steps to defend the rear of their position against attack. The whole of Prince Maurice’s infantry, supported by the Duke of York’s regiment of foot from the king’s army, about 2,500 men in total, and nine artillery pieces, were ordered to take up a position to the west of Speen village where several tracks converged. Here a formidable barricade was constructed. Its defence was entrusted to 400 musketeers; the rest of the foot were deployed in the enclosures slightly to the rear but in front of Speen village. The exact position of the Royalist barricade, however, is unclear. It could have been immediately to the west of Speen where the road from Wickham met the Bath road, or it could have been half a mile to the west in Stockcross. The former looks the more likely. Sir Edward Walker’s account describes the Parliamentary troops as advancing the last few hundred yards across a small heath with a wood behind them to attack the barricade. This does not fit Wickham Heath, which extended over an area of six or more square miles and could not be described as small. It also did not have a wood adjacent to it in Rocque’s map. Speen Lawn on the other hand, to the east of the enclosures that Rocque depicts at Stockcross, was a tenth of its size and bordered by Dean Wood, which has since been cut down. Second, Walker explained that adjacent to the barricade on its south side was a narrow field and then a steep escarpment. This dovetails with the enclosure map of 1780, and with Skippon’s description of the engagement at Speen, which implies that there was little ground to the right of his infantry’s line of march in which it might deploy when it got close to the Royalist position. Rocque’s map, however, shows that a barricade at the Stockcross position would have been a mile away from the escarpment. Moreover, one contemporary stated that the Royalist position dominated all the lanes leading westwards from Church Speen and was within range of the cannon in Donnington Castle, whilst a second portrayed Waller’s horse and foot as having an easy march across a heath, then passing with difficulty through lanes and enclosures, and only then having sight of the Royalist barricade a quarter of a mile ahead. These descriptions can only fit the western outskirts of Speen, where the lane from Wickham joins the London to Bath Road.
Thus the Royalist defence line facing westwards appears to have been well sited. However, the king’s men apparently had insufficient time or lacked the inclination to improve it by digging trenches. Another near contemporary account was critical of the decision not to try to slow down the enemy advance, but there may be an explanation for this. Walker claimed that Sir James Douglas was sent with a body of 300 horse and 200 foot to hinder the enemy’s crossing of the Lambourn, but his force would have been far too small to have much of an impact. Moreover, Douglas appears to have been sent north from Donnington, not west from Speen, and may therefore have failed to make contact with the enemy. The only opposition Waller apparently faced before crossing the Lambourn was even tinier, the Donnington Castle troop of horse.
On the other hand the defenders of the positions at Shaw facing the Earl of Manchester on Clay Hill apparently had all the time they needed to strengthen them still further by filling up gaps in hedgerows and deepening ditches. The two centres of resistance, the enclosures around Shaw village and Shaw House, also had one major advantage over the position at Speen, as they could be easily reinforced from Speenhamland. Their defence was entrusted to 1,200 musketeers and pikemen drawn from the most experienced infantry brigades in the king’s army, those of Thomas Blagge and George Lisle. Lisle himself was in command of the troops defending the enclosures, whilst Lieutenant Colonel Page of Sir James Pennyman’s regiment was in charge at Shaw House. In support was a single regiment of veteran cavalry, the Prince of Wales’s, some 200 strong. The rest of the Royalist horse, apart from some of Maurice’s regiments that were at Speen, was kept in reserve on Speenhamland. So also was the third brigade of Royalist foot, Colonel Bernard Astley’s, and the pikemen and the remaining musketeers belonging to the other two. However, despite such careful preparations, the opening engagement in the battle, the breaching of the line of the Lambourn, was an unpleasant surprise for the king’s commanders.
Early on the morning of the 27 October several companies of Manchester’s musketeers made ready to cross the Lambourn somewhere to the south of Shaw village, probably near Shaw Mill but possibly close to Ham Mill situated adjacent to the broken down bridge that had carried the Bath road over the river. The Royalists, possibly heartened by the departure northwards of most of the enemy regiments, were merely patrolling this section of the west bank of the river, which was almost certainly in flood. Crossing it by anything other than a bridge would therefore have been very dangerous, but Manchester’s men had brought a portable footbridge with them and were over the river and into Speenhamland in no time. However, foot soldiers belonging to Bernard Astley’s brigade, which had originally formed part of Hopton’s corps in the Western Army, marched down from Speenhamland and pushed the enemy back across the river, inflicting some casualties. Even if the encounter took place exactly as Simeon Ashe described, he may have been wrong to follow it up with the claim that it had satisfied the primary objective of Manchester’s corps, namely to force the enemy to commit his reserves to the less important sector of the battlefield, ‘long before our friends on Speen Hill did engage’ (with the enemy). Hopton’s men are described in another source as being withdrawn from the Lambourn valley in the late afternoon to strengthen the western defences of Speenhamland against a possible attack from the direction of Church Speen.
After crossing the Lambourn Waller’s forces met with no resistance in their march towards the barricade to the west of Speen. When they were less than a mile from the barricade, they were drawn up in conventional battle formation for open country, infantry in the centre and cavalry on the wings, but it is most likely that the regiments were stacked up three or four deep. This almost certainly explains why many never appear to have seen action that day, most particularly the London brigade. In Parliamentary accounts they are described as having fought well, but there were no casualties amongst their officers and in Royalist accounts they do not receive a mention.
There are two descriptions of the way in which the infantry of the western pincer of the Parliamentary army was deployed. Samuel Bedford, Sir Samuel Luke’s deputy as scout master general and his principal correspondent in the Earl of Essex’s army, describes Essex’s regiment and two regiments of the London Trained Bands as being on the right. In reserve was Colonel Aldridge’s brigade, and on the left Colonel Barclay’s brigade supported by another London regiment. Several days after the battle Skippon described the infantry formation in a letter to the Earl of Essex as follows: the Lord General’s own regiment on the right, Colonel Aldridge’s brigade and a forlorn hope of about 800 musketeers in the centre, and two London regiments also on the right and behind giving covering fire, with one London regiment and Colonel Barclay’s brigade in reserve and apparently to their left. The two accounts, however, are not incompatible. Bedford was describing how Waller’s forces were deployed on Wickham Heath a mile before they reached the Royalist line, Skippon their positioning at the start of the assault on the barricade. When Waller’s forces emerged from the enclosures at Stockcross and entered Speen Lawn, the fact that the main Royalist defence work was constructed seemingly to the south of their line of advance, namely across the Bath road rather than the lane from Wickham, might have caused Essex’s and the two London regiments to veer to the right, thus skewing the entire formation and necessitating some redeployment. This may account for the length of time between the march across Wickham Heath and the attack on the barricade.
The right wing of the cavalry, commanded by Sir William Balfour, included most of Essex’s regiments supported by one of Manchester’s, the left most of the remainder of the Eastern Association regiments under Oliver Cromwell and Sir William Waller’s horse under Lieutenant General Middleton. Waller himself seems to have ridden with the cavalry regiments of his own army instead of managing the reserves, as he specifically states that he charged with ‘my troopers’. This seems odd from a command and control point of view, given the strength of the reserves, but he may have thought that the decisive cavalry breakthrough would take place between Speen and the Lambourn where the going was easier, rather than between Speen and the Kennet. If this was indeed the case (and the only evidence for it is Waller’s own words) his escape from death in a mêlée that followed a charge by the Parliamentary horse is difficult to place, as other sources state outright or strongly imply that the left wing saw very little in the way of fighting. It is, however, possible that Waller was with the forlorn hope, as described below. As for the Parliamentary artillery pieces, Walker describes them as being deployed in a wood, presumably Dean Wood, which would have been to the left rear of the Parliamentary infantry as it marched towards the barricade, but their deployment in a wood is not confirmed by any of the Parliamentary sources.
The hour at which Waller’s troops launched their attack seems to slip backwards in time as divisions emerged between the Parliamentary commanders. Most of the earliest reports of the battle opt for 4 p.m., as does Simeon Ashe; later ones place it between 3 and 3.15 p.m., and Cromwell at 2 p.m. Cromwell was almost certainly lying or repeating the lies of others in order to cast doubt on the commitment of the Earl of Manchester to outright victory. There is no doubt whatsoever that preparations began at about 3 p.m. with an artillery barrage. This is what was reported in Royalist accounts written straight after the battle and they, unlike the Parliamentarians, had no reason for falsifying the time. However, none of the eyewitness accounts says how long the bombardment lasted. The assault itself could therefore have been launched at 3.30 p.m. or even later, as the earliest written report of the battle implies.