Descriptions of the action in front of Speen come primarily from Parliamentary accounts of the battle, but none sets out to provide a comprehensive narrative. Keen to gain some credit for a battle in which so little was achieved, the writers concentrate overwhelmingly on the excellent performance of Essex’s veteran infantry, who regained the reputation for bravery that they had gained at Edgehill and First Newbury but lost at Lostwithiel. Of the Royalist accounts Walker and Mercurius Aulicus merely mention that the barricade was captured and with it the village of Speen, whilst Murray claimed that the performance of some of Prince Maurice’s foot was ‘ill’. Bulstrode is less terse. He gives a short account of the stout resistance against overwhelming odds made by the Cornish regiments supported by the Earl of Cleveland’s cavalry brigade, until both were pushed back. As Cleveland fought on the right of the Royalist position between Donnington Castle and Speen Lawn, the Cornish cannot have been the defenders of the barricade, despite some claims that they were. Instead they were probably deployed on a small rise in the ground that can be seen immediately to the north-west of Speen village. Circumstantial evidence for this is provided by what Parliamentary accounts do not say about the capture of the barricade. They make much of the retaking of several guns lost in Cornwall and the emotion shown by Essex’s foot soldiers as they greeted their lost friends. In such circumstances if the Cornish regiments had been the defenders of the barricade they would probably have mentioned it.
After the artillery barrage a division of the right wing of the Parliamentary cavalry cleared a small brigade of Cornish horse from the heath, thus preparing the way for an infantry assault. According to Skippon Aldridge’s brigade carried out a frontal assault on the barricade, whilst Essex’s regiment attacked the Royalist infantry position to its right. The assault was apparently delivered with great vigour and valour, but nevertheless it seems to have taken the Parliamentarians about an hour to drive the enemy from Speen village and down the hill towards Speenhamland. Possibly the Royalist infantry continued to resist for some time after the barricade had fallen, thus holding up a general advance. Writers on both sides, however, agree that the retreat stopped at the hedge that separated the enclosures to the east of Speen from Speenhamland itself, but there is no evidence of Colonel Blagge’s brigade being drawn in to stop the rout, as Reid claims. Although there would have been at least half an hour’s daylight left, Waller did not attempt to storm the hedge. It would have been difficult to feed fresh troops through Speen village into the gathering gloom in the valley below; and there was no sign of the Parliamentary cavalry, whose support Skippon described subsequently as being essential if a full victory was to be achieved.
Bulstrode, Sir Edward Walker and Mercurius Aulicus all agree that George Goring, the king’s lieutenant general of cavalry, put himself at the head of the Earl of Cleveland’s brigade and charged the enemy, but Bulstrode saw the objective as being to relieve pressure on the Cornish regiments defending Speen, whilst for Walker and Mercurius Aulicus its purpose was to prevent the enemy horse deploying in a position that threatened the king’s reserves on Speenhamland. Cleveland’s brigade apparently hit the foremost troop of Cromwell’s vanguard in overwhelming numbers as they were in the process of crossing a ditch. Brushing off a counter-charge as they sought to establish a position on the enemy side of the ditch, Cleveland’s brigade moved forward under flanking fire from several bodies of enemy musketeers, and then attacked an infantry brigade, possibly as many as three times, without any attempt by the Parliamentary cavalry to intervene. In the process the brigade lost many officers including Cleveland himself, who was captured when his horse was killed under him. Interestingly, the earl was taken prisoner by an officer belonging to Barclay’s regiment of foot, which was probably in reserve on the Parliamentary left. This indicates the depth to which Royalist horse had penetrated the enemy position. It also implies that the Parliamentary horse on that wing had fallen back into the enclosures around Wood Speen. Otherwise, they would have been able to charge Cleveland’s troopers in the flank as they made their way uphill towards Barclay’s brigade, which would have been somewhere near Dean Wood. However, the Royalist push quickly came to an end. Cleveland’s brigade, like Sir Charles Lucas’s at Marston Moor, did not have the strength to overwhelm a brigade of veteran infantry, whilst the king had insufficient foot to exploit the achievements of his right wing horse without compromising the safety of his troops elsewhere in the fortified triangle.
The earliest Parliamentary accounts of the Second Battle of Newbury had very little to say about the cavalry action that took place between Speen village and Donnington Castle. The first sign of a change is in a letter written by Skippon to the Earl of Essex on 30 October in which he hints that his infantry could have inflicted a heavy defeat on the Royalists had they had cavalry support. When the quarrel over the outcome of the Newbury campaign broke out in mid-November, much more information emerged, but only from the Earl of Manchester and his supporters. Criticizing Cromwell’s cavalry for doing nothing at the Second Battle of Newbury was one of the more effective ways of challenging the multiple charges of inaction that were being made against the earl by Cromwell and his allies. However, to be fair to Manchester, there is no evidence in any other primary sources that Cromwell and his Eastern Association cavalry regiments did play a significant part in the fighting. The earl’s next allegation, that Cromwell was nowhere to be seen and that Waller’s lieutenant general, John Middleton, was unable to persuade the Eastern Association regiments to charge by personally (and unsuccessfully) leading a squadron against a much larger body of enemy horse, is not substantiated by any other report, but it is possible that this is a reference to the unsuccessful counter-charge against Cleveland’s brigade mentioned above.
The inactivity of the left wing horse cannot be explained by cannon fire from Donnington Castle. It also seems most unlikely that they were taken at a disadvantage when crossing from enclosed country into open field. The belt of enclosures between Eddycroft Field and Wickham Heath at Wood Speen was narrow, and if the Parliamentary cavalry had been crossing a ditch between enclosed country and open field when the cavalry encounter began, they would have been far to the rear of their infantry brigades, which would have locked horns with the Royalist infantry at the eastern end of Speen Lawn by that time. Moreover, to get at them, Cleveland’s brigade would already have outflanked the Parliamentary infantry brigades, and therefore could not have encountered infantry only after crossing the ditch. It therefore seems likely that the ditch followed the line of the old Speen to Bagnor road (now no longer in use), which bisected the present Donnington Park, and probably formed the boundary between Worthy and Claypit Fields.
It therefore seems likely that Cromwell’s men were already deployed in open country when the cavalry engagement began, and that they were so severely trounced that they fell back to a position from which it was impossible to take pressure off Barclay’s brigade. Later, when Cleveland’s brigade had exhausted itself in fruitless attacks on the enemy infantry, a body of cavalry belonging to the Parliamentary left wing helped to herd the Royalists back across the ditch. There is a brief reference to this in the first letter to the Committee of Both Kingdoms from Johnston and Crewe, whilst Symonds describes the encounter on the Royalist right wing as if Goring’s charge had not been defeated by infantry alone: ‘the Earl of Cleveland before our charge was taken prisoner, most of his officers hurt and killed, his men beaten, being overpowered with horse and foot.’ But that was all. If the Parliamentary cavalry regiments had then tried to cross the ditch a second time, the result might have been another embarrassing spoiling attack, as there were still several brigades of uncommitted Royalist cavalry drawn up on Speenhamland.
Most of these comments concerning the performance of the left wing of the Parliamentary cavalry at Newbury commanded by Cromwell, however, are no more than speculation, as the traces of the past are so fragmented and generalized that making correlations between them is well nigh impossible. All that can be said with any degree of certainty is first that the Parliamentary horse on that wing failed to make an assault on the enemy which had any significant impact on the outcome of the battle; second that Cleveland’s brigade was able to attack an infantry brigade without initially encountering any opposition from Parliamentary cavalry; and finally that, whilst not retreating entirely under their own volition, Cleveland’s brigade was not pursued for any great distance. The extent to which the failure of Waller’s troops to push eastwards between Speen and the River Lambourn and thus threaten the centre of the Royalist position was due to the inertia of the troops commanded by Cromwell or to the valour of the Royalists can only be a matter of speculation. However, fighting on that part of the battlefield seems to have begun well before 4 p.m., when there was sufficient daylight for a major cavalry encounter to have taken place and been resolved, and where superiority in numbers and the open terrain would have made a Parliamentary victory a distinct possibility.
Matters were very different on the Parliamentary right wing where Sir William Balfour, Essex’s lieutenant general of horse, was in command, if the almost exclusively Royalist accounts of the engagement are not guilty of gross exaggeration. Here, once the Cornish brigade of horse had been driven back, nothing much seems to have happened until after 4 p.m. when the fighting on the left and centre was coming to an end. This was probably because the track linking Speen Lawn with the narrow field that lay between the south side of Speen village and the River Kennet left the London to Bath road at a point that was so close to the Royalists’ barricade that it could not be accessed until after their artillery had been silenced and their musketeers driven back. Another problem that would have impeded the quick deployment of Balfour’s cavalry in the narrow field was the steepness of the gradient on the track as it descended the escarpment. Nevertheless 500 or so of Balfour’s cavalry seem to have been able to make their way into the field, and they were supported by several companies of musketeers, who crept forward under the cover of the hedges separating the water meadows lining the Kennet from the cultivated land. Part of Prince Maurice’s regiment of horse apparently failed to see Balfour’s cavalry
The left wing of Parliamentary horse, seemingly under Cromwell’s overall command, began its advance along the Lambourn valley towards the north-eastern corner of Speenhamland soon after 3 p.m. Its progress was apparently impeded by enclosures, even though these are now known only to have covered a small area of land around Wood Speen, but it then suffered a significant setback for which there is little direct evidence in the traces of the past. Royalist reports provide some detail, but their prime concern is to make the most of one of the more positive features of their armies’ performance at Second Newbury.
off. Then Sir Humphrey Bennett’s brigade of horse fell back before them, though accounts differ as to whether it fled as far as Newbury bridge or simply retired behind some enclosures in order to find ground on which to fight more effectively. However, whatever the reason for its withdrawal, the departure of Bennett’s brigade gave Balfour’s men the chance to move forward as far as the edge of Speenhamland where they began to deploy.
The danger to the whole Royalist position was obvious, particularly if, as Symonds suggests, the rest of the Parliamentary cavalry on that wing, possibly 2,000 strong, were not far behind the vanguard. Desperate measures were called for. However, intervention by the Queen’s regiment of horse, which brought Balfour’s men to a halt, followed by a flank attack by the King’s and the Queen’s Lifeguard led by Lord Bernard Stuart did the trick. If, as seems likely, they were deployed on the most easterly point of the spur between the Lambourn and the Kennet alongside the hedge that marked the western edge of Speenhamland, the Lifeguard would have had the advantage of momentum provided by the slope leading down towards the Kennet, whereas their opponents were strung out across the slope and probably in not as close order as they would have liked. At about the same time Bennett’s brigade reappeared and helped in the vigorous pursuit of the enemy during which many of the musketeers, deserted by their cavalry and cut off from the rest of the infantry, were apparently slain. However, that was the end of the matter. The steepness of the slope above the narrow field would have made it impossible for the king’s horse to deliver a flank attack against Waller’s infantry in and around Speen village.
Having experienced two cavalry setbacks, and stalemate in the infantry battle, Waller seems to have ordered hostilities to cease some time before full darkness fell. His and Haselrig’s report to the House of Commons describing the events of 27 October implies that, having driven the king’s forces from their prepared positions and reduced their perimeter very significantly, the generals commanding the western pincer were happy to wait for the morrow before settling the issue. However, before discussing why events did not work out as they anticipated, it is necessary to describe the fighting in and around Shaw, which, unlike the cavalry encounters around Speen, is well documented in reports written by witnesses on both sides.
Considerable confusion surrounds the time at which the Earl of Manchester launched his attack. One of the earliest Parliamentarian accounts claimed that it coincided almost exactly with the assault on the barricade to the west of Speen, but once the ‘great debate’ got under way witnesses swore to an interval of as long as two hours between the two. A gap there certainly was. Four of the five Royalist accounts are very clear about it, and even Manchester’s chaplain, who wrote a well-argued pamphlet in the earl’s support, admitted to a delay, but without offering a clear justification for it. Manchester’s enemies implied that the delay was evidence that the earl had deliberately held his men back, as he wanted the war not to end in outright victory but in a negotiated peace. Elsewhere I have defended Manchester’s conduct of operational and strategic matters prior to the Second Battle of Newbury, but traces of the past that explain his inaction are as deficient as those which might explain Cromwell’s. All I can offer is surmise supported by nothing more than circumstantial evidence.
A possible reason is that the casualties Manchester’s infantry regiments had suffered in the morning attack across the Lambourn were as high as Mercurius Aulicus claimed, and that as a result the earl was not prepared to resume the attack until he was certain that things were going very well on the other side of the battlefield. It is also possible that the attack at Speen had gone in much later than originally agreed, and as twilight was imminent Manchester was unwilling for safety’s sake to follow suit until he could clearly see that victory was assured. However, whatever the reasons behind his reluctance to order an attack on the Royalist positions at Shaw, Manchester did send his troops in soon after 4.15 p.m., by which time witnesses claim that he could see enemy infantry and cavalry running in panic from Church Speen towards Speenhamland. He may then have thought that the defenders of Shaw and Shaw House would be so demoralized by what was happening behind them that they would quickly abandon their positions. Not surprisingly, after the earl’s forces suffered even heavier casualties than they had in the morning, he blamed Waller and his fellow commanders of the western pincer for bringing fighting to a close just when total victory was within Parliament’s grasp.
The eastern pincer began its attack with a cannonade, which, like Waller’s, was of unknown duration. It was followed by an assault on the hedges adjacent to the bridge over the Lambourn to the south of Shaw house. Initially the Eastern Association foot had some success, the Royalists being driven from one hedge line, but this opened up the Parliamentary flank to devastating fire from Shaw House and the attack petered out. Manchester’s next move was against Shaw House itself, but this was completely ineffective and was followed by a counterattack in which the Royalists recaptured the hedge line and in the process took two field pieces, which had been brought forward to support the assault. Manchester’s infantry then retreated to the top of Clay Hill pursued by the single regiment of Royalist cavalry deployed on that side of the Lambourn. After darkness had fallen, Manchester’s horse tried to recover the cannon their infantry had lost, but were driven off by concentrated musket fire. There had been few losses amongst the defenders, many amongst the attackers. To make matters worse, some Parliamentary formations had fallen victim to friendly fire in the confusion caused by the gathering gloom. The assaults on the Royalist positions defending the eastern approaches to Speenhamland had therefore failed to influence the course of the battle. On the other hand it was unfair of one of Cromwell’s supporters to blame Manchester for attacking the Royalists at their strongest point rather than attempting to cross the Lambourn between Shaw and Speen where the river was not guarded. As has been explained earlier, the high levels of water in the river on 27 October would almost certainly have made that impossible.
After dark, fighting died down in all parts of the battlefield, but the situation for the Royalists looked bleak. Despite the resilience of the forces defending the line of the Lambourn, what took place on that sector of the battlefield was no more than a sideshow. The next day the enemy could throw a vastly superior force against the hedge lining the western edge of Speenhamland; Prince Rupert’s forces were too far away to provide assistance; and even if the Royalists retained control of Newbury bridge, there was no avenue of retreat southwards or westwards that did not ultimately lead into open country where the Parliamentary generals’ superiority in cavalry was likely to be decisive. However, there was an escape plan that had been agreed by the Royalist council of war on the morning of the battle. Before 9 p.m. the king’s forces began abandoning their positions defending Speenhamland and Shaw. They then crossed Donnington bridge and assembled in the narrow valley of a tributary of the Lambourn that flowed northwards just under Donnington Castle.
Soon afterwards, the king, who cannot have had much confidence in the plan, rode off with the Prince of Wales and a guard of 500 cavalry to join Prince Rupert. Then Prince Maurice, assisted by Goring, Astley and Hopton, led all the remaining Royalist troops in a march out of the valley and across the Berkshire Downs towards the Thames valley, helped for the vital first few hours by a full moon. Speed was essential if they were not to be caught by the Parliamentary cavalry before they reached the safety of the garrison at Wallingford. The generals therefore left the remaining artillery and the wounded (including the Lord General, the Earl of Forth) at Donnington Castle. Soon after first light the task was successfully accomplished. Both horse and foot reached safety at Wallingford without experiencing the slightest disturbance from the enemy. Crossing to the north bank of the Thames, they headed for the Woodstock area where they had the option of either defending the line of the Cherwell or sheltering in Oxford until Rupert arrived with reinforcements.
But why had the Parliamentary generals done nothing to prevent the Royalists from escaping? Manchester suggested during the great debate that sentries would have heard the king’s forces leaving Speenhamland and reported this to their officers, as Cromwell and Waller’s horse, the nearest troops to the lane leading to the bridge over the Lambourn at Donnington, were only half a mile away, whilst Essex’s infantry on the edge of Speenhamland were nearly as close. Gwyn put them even closer. His brigade retreated, probably from Speenhamland to Donnington, through a narrow filthy pass of puddle and mire just by the hedge side that ‘parted us and the two armies … which were as quiet as if they had taken the same opportunity of drawing off too’. Subsequently, however, it was the Earl of Manchester who got the blame for not noticing the enemy retreating from Shaw on the grounds that his troops were ‘little more than a musket shot away’. However, the charge is a spurious one. The earl’s troops had returned for the night to Clay Hill.
There is no doubt in my mind that Manchester was right. Waller and Haselrig had given the game away in their report to the House of Commons in which they stated that they had expected the Royalists to offer battle the following day in a position directly under Donnington Castle. Another Parliamentary source written immediately after the battle is more explicit. It admitted that the generals knew the Royalists were abandoning their defensive triangle, but this information was hidden from contemporaries and historians, probably through the actions of Lord Wharton. Putting the two together, there is now very clear evidence that the generals commanding the western pincer knew before 9 p.m. that the Royalists were falling back, but were probably delighted that they were heading northwards across the Lambourn rather than southwards towards Newbury. If they crossed the Kennet breaking down the bridge behind them, it might take days before another confrontation took place. By marching in the opposite direction the enemy was heading straight into a trap. The valley to the north of Donnington, like that of the Kennet beyond Hungerford, led straight into open downland where Waller may have seen himself inflicting on the Royalists a carbon copy of the disaster they had visited on him at Roundway Down in July 1643, namely the routing of their cavalry followed by the surrender of their infantry. What, of course, the Parliamentary generals did not anticipate was that the Royalists would withdraw so far and so fast.