The last major battle of 1644 took place close to Newbury on 27 October. During the summer the king and his forces in the south of England had fought an effective defensive campaign. Avoiding battle in late May and early June when faced in the Oxford area by the armies of both the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller, they took full advantage of the Committee of Both Kingdom’s over-optimistic appraisal of the strategic situation, which had resulted in Parliament’s armies going their separate ways. With Essex and his regiments well on their march towards the Royalist-held south-west of England, the king’s generals humiliated Sir William Waller’s army at Cropredy Bridge near Banbury at the end of the month. They then combined with Prince Maurice’s Army of the West to force Essex’s infantry and artillery to surrender near Lostwithiel in Cornwall in late August. His infantry regiments were allowed to return to Parliament’s quarters, but the king retained his cannon, arms and other military supplies. In the meantime Rupert, having abandoned the hopeless task of trying to maintain a strong Royalist presence in the north of England without gunpowder, had moved his headquarters to Bristol, whilst quartering his remaining troops in the southern part of the Welsh Marches.
During September the victorious Royalist armies made their way slowly eastwards, their progress delayed by various initiatives designed to enable the four counties of south-west England to defend themselves. The original strategic plan for the late autumn, agreed at discussions with Prince Rupert at Sherborne Castle in Dorset in early October, was for the King’s and Prince Maurice’s armies to march to Marlborough in Wiltshire, where they would be joined by forces under Rupert’s command including the Northern Horse and a new corps raised by Charles Gerard in south-west Wales. The Royalist army group would begin by relieving three besieged garrisons in what can be loosely described as the Thames valley theatre of war, Banbury, Donnington Castle near Newbury and Basing House near Basingstoke, all of which were close to surrendering. It would then march into East Anglia to take up winter quarters.
Opposing the king’s forces was a cavalry screen stationed on the Wiltshire-Dorset border composed of elements from Essex’s and Waller’s armies, and also from Manchester’s, which the Committee of Both Kingdoms had ordered to march south just before receiving news of the disaster in Cornwall. By the end of the Sherborne conference, Manchester’s infantry regiments were quartered between Newbury and Reading, whilst Essex’s infantry were re-equipping at Portsmouth after the long march back from Cornwall into Parliament’s quarters.
Within a week of Rupert’s return to Bristol, the king was persuaded to try to attack the scattered Parliamentary forces before they could combine. It was a bold plan, but it failed because the royal armies were too slow. Goring’s attempt to take Waller’s cavalry by surprise at Andover on 19 October was frustrated by the failure of Prince Maurice’s infantry to arrive on time, and the king failed by two days to prevent Essex’s infantry making a rendezvous with the rest of Parliament’s three armies and a corps of the London Trained Bands at Basingstoke on 21 October. Charles’s next intention was to relieve Basing House, but to proceed any further eastwards would be like walking straight into the jaws of a trap. The two Royalist armies therefore turned north and set up camp at Newbury where, well supplied with foodstuffs and ammunition and surrounded by friendly features in the landscape – rivers, woods, enclosures and passes – they could spin out the time until either Rupert came to the rescue or the enemy forces withdrew through lack of food, fodder and adequate shelter. Such was the Royalist Council of War’s confidence that, having arrived at Newbury and thus relieved Donnington Castle, it sent three of the king’s best cavalry regiments under the Earl of Northampton to break up the siege of Banbury. However, the Parliamentary generals, probably aware that the enemy facing them at Newbury was not as numerous as intelligence had earlier suggested,8 decided on an attack rather than a stand-off.
On 25 October 1644 the Royalist armies began fortifying an area of land covering the northern approaches to Newbury. Shaped like a narrow letter V pointing eastwards, it was situated on the opposite bank of the Kennet to the town and to Wash Common and Round Hill where the First Battle of Newbury had been fought. Its sides, some two miles in length, followed the course of the Kennet and its tributary the Lambourn. Between the two was a spur of chalk along the crest of which ran the road from Bath to London. The descent through the village of Church Speen to the Kennet valley was steep, as was the slope between the road and the river. The slope facing the Lambourn, however, was much less steep with a much larger gap between the road and the river. Despite John Gwyn’s allegation that taking up so restricted a position hampered the king’s forces’ ability to manoeuvre, the Lambourn in particular was to provide a good line of defence for the royal armies.
Four bridges crossed the Lambourn within the letter V. The most northerly carried the Newbury to Oxford road, which passed through the village of Donnington immediately after crossing the river; the second, which connected Newbury with the countryside to the north-east, carried a road that passed through the village of Shaw in a similar manner. The third, probably no more than a footbridge, was at Shaw Mill. All three were left intact by the Royalists, but they had almost certainly destroyed the large bridge close to the confluence of the Lambourn with the Kennet half a mile to the east of Newbury which carried the Bath road. Small water meadows lined the north bank of the Kennet as far as the only bridge over the Kennet within the V, which led to the town itself. This bridge also remained intact, probably because it might serve as a vital, if narrow, escape route should the fortified area have to be abandoned for any reason.
The side of the letter V facing Donnington and Shaw was defended by two strong-points. A force trying to cross the Lambourn at Donnington bridge would have to face heavy fire from cannon and several hundred musketeers of Sir John Boys’s regiment stationed in Donnington Castle, which was situated on a piece of high ground on the north bank of the river. Also on the north bank of the Lambourn, and a mile or so closer to its confluence with the Kennet, was Shaw House, known at the time as Mr Dolman’s house. Close to the bridge that carried the road from Newbury to Shaw, it was described in one of the Parliamentary accounts of the battle as a second castle ‘being set about with earthworks, hedges and a dry moat’. Moreover, between Shaw House and the bridge at Shaw were other hedge lines that could provide cover for musketeers and field artillery. All these would have to be cleared of the enemy before an army could cross the river from the east.
The remainder of the north bank of the Lambourn between Donnington and Shaw appears to have been open field arable, but within a short distance the land rose rapidly to Clay Hill, which provided a panoramic view over the whole of the battlefield and a convenient assembly point for a force intending to attack the fortified area from the east. Here a corps of the Parliamentary armies was stationed between 26 and 28 October, and from here two major attacks were launched against the Royalists defending Shaw in the early morning and the late afternoon of the 27th.
However, the strength of the position between the Kennet and the Lambourn was compromised by the decision of the Parliamentary generals to launch their main attack from the west rather than the east, using the ford at Boxford, some two miles above Donnington. Here there was no river to assist the defence, but the third side of what now needed to become a fortified triangle was not that easy to attack. Wickham Heath, the most prominent feature in the landscape between Boxford and Church Speen, was set about with small fields and woods, and no more than half a mile across at its widest point. As a result a large army approaching from the direction of Lambourn or Hungerford would find it impossible to deploy there in conventional battle array without much bunching up of units. Moreover, as it came closer to Speen, it would first have to make its way through some enclosures at Wood Speen and Stockcross, and then pass down a narrow heath in the shape of a funnel known as Speen Lawn. This was a potential killing ground if the Royalists placed musketeers and artillery pieces in the hedges and woodland that surrounded it.
The enclosures also extended in a narrow band around the south of Church Speen, but they were most thickly concentrated to the east of the village along both sides of the Bath road. Beyond these enclosures in the low ground where the Lambourn joined the Kennet was Speenhamland, two large, relatively flat open fields extending from the lane connecting Church Speen with Donnington to the road leading from Newbury bridge to Shaw bridge. Speenhamland’s southern boundary for some of its length was the London to Bath road, but as it neared the outskirts of Newbury it crossed the edge of one of the open fields. Its southern boundary then became the hedge that bordered the water meadows which lined the Kennet.
The two open fields were of great advantage to the king’s generals as they enabled troops to be moved quickly from one point to another within the fortified area as the military situation developed. Not surprisingly, it was there that they placed their reserves. However, gaps in the defensive perimeter gave an enemy advancing on Speenhamland along the river valleys direct access to the heart of the Royalist position. First, despite the steep slope separating the Bath road from the Kennet, it was possible with difficulty to bypass Church Speen to the south and enter Speenhamland via a long narrow field that separated the enclosures around the village from the water meadows lining the river. However, the narrow field was not ideal cavalry country. The gradient between Speen village and the Kennet, which steepened as it approached Speenhamland, would make it difficult for squadrons riding across the slope to maintain formation.
A second and much more serious problem was caused by the wider corridor of land that lay between Church Speen and the river Lambourn. A body of troops advancing on Speenhamland from Boxford would not have to pass through a wide belt of enclosures and then across Donnington Park, as the first edition of the six-inch Ordnance Survey map of the Newbury area would suggest. Instead most of the route would be across an extensive area of open field arable. This covered not only the whole of present-day Donnington Park, it also extended back past the northern edge of Dean Wood, the principal piece of woodland bordering Speen Lawn, as far west as a thin belt of enclosures at Wood Speen separating Wickham Heath from Worthy Field. It was without doubt the Achilles heel of the Royalist position.