Action on Aidbourne Chase, 18 September 1643 Part I

Rupert had with him around 5,000 cavalry; Lisle’s 1,000 musketeers, probably accompanied by a small artillery train (four six-pounders had been prepared for this task), were trailing behind but well ahead of the rest of the Royalist army. Their route lay almost due south from Broadway to Northleach and then southeast towards Newbury. The prince had undoubtedly been galvanised by Essex’s escape and he must have pushed his men on at a rapid pace. They rode throughout the day on 16 September and then, while Essex’s regiments slept in and around Cricklade, through the following night. It rained. Men and horses fell out of the column and were left to their own devices to catch up. Rupert was at his best as a leader in these circumstances, moving at speed to take opponents off balance. In this case, however, his efforts would be wasted if the Royalist infantry were not being marched in his wake with equal urgency.

Despite the collective lassitude of previous days, King Charles and his generals had been belatedly infected by Rupert’s energy. Hyde attributed their vigorous response to the king himself and suggested that he was angry at the ‘supine negligence’ of those he had trusted, presumably including Forth and Percy. But Forth’s experience would be essential if the infantry were to get under way quickly, regain contact with Essex and then be in a state to fight a decisive battle before the Parliamentarians could reach the security of the Reading garrison. Percy too would have a vital part to play in ensuring that the artillery arrived in time and, even more importantly, that the ammunition train kept up with the rest of the army.

Digby recorded that the march began on the morning of 16 September but Parliamentarian intelligence reported that the king, his forces and 500 wagons did not leave Evesham until the evening. The latter timing is more likely. Gathering the infantry regiments from quarters across the Vale of Evesham will have been a prolonged exercise. Some of the more remote units were given orders to follow separately. Sir William Vavasour’s brigade appears to have lagged behind, perhaps because they had been quartered on the west bank of the River Avon, beyond Pershore. The Prince of Wales’ Foot marched from Worcester east towards Banbury and Oxford, to join the main force near Newbury. Other units did not follow at all. Colonel Samuel Sandys was later accused of having remained behind with his regiment ‘contrary to his Majesty’s orders for him to march in Sir William Vavasour’s Brigade’. Orders were also sent to Oxford for reinforcements from the Thames valley garrisons to join the king on his march and, in all probability, for Sunderland and other absentees to do likewise.

The infantry marched through the night of 16–17 September to reach their former camp at Sudeley Castle at about eight o’clock in the morning. They had covered eight miles but their exertions were only just beginning. After a muster, a Parliamentarian spy saw them setting off again ‘towards Oxford’. In fact, their route was rather further to the west, towards Northleach. King Charles joined them at Sudeley after a few hours snatched sleep at Snowshill Manor and then rode with them the ten miles to Northleach, which he reached during the late morning. Here the king and his commanders reviewed the army’s progress over dinner. Their original plan had been to quarter that night at Burford, but that would put them some way north of the most direct line of march to Newbury and Royalist scouts reported that supplies were more plentiful four miles further southeast at Alvescot. At midday, the king’s decision to press on to Alvescot was set down in a letter to Prince Rupert, explaining that the army would thereby ‘save three or four miles march’. The decision to quarter at Alvescot meant that the Oxford Army infantry would have slogged through the autumn rain for thirty miles in about twenty-four hours, a feat comparable to that achieved by the Earl of Essex in taking Cirencester. There does, however, seem to have been a significant difference between the two forced marches. The inevitable stragglers aside, Essex had kept his army and its supply train together but contemporary accounts show that on the Royalist side King Charles, Forth and Percy were unable to do so.

Further ahead, Rupert had chosen to divide his forces in an effort to harry and delay the Parliamentarians. His main body pressed on southeastwards through Fairford and Lechlade towards Stanford-in-the-Vale, where he planned to give them a much-needed night’s rest. But the experienced Colonel Urry was sent with 1,000 cavalry to follow Essex’s steps. During the morning of 17 September he stormed into Cirencester and took prisoner forty Parliamentarian stragglers. When one of Luke’s scouts arrived with the news, Sergeant Foster of the Red Regiment was unsympathetic: men ‘who stayed behind drinking and neglecting to march with their colours … are not much to be pitied’.

By late afternoon, a report from Urry that Essex ‘was no so far out of reach as was feared’, and perhaps ‘not much further than Cricklade’, had reached Rupert at Stanford-in-the-Vale. Within three hours, the king at Alvescot had been briefed by letter from the prince. It is clear from the surviving correspondence between them that Rupert was now in the driving seat. At eight in the evening, Digby signed a reply on the king’s behalf seeking urgent guidance on how the main army should proceed on the following day. If the intelligence picture remained favourable, ‘His Majesty’s desire’ was that Rupert should ‘send speedily your opinion which way, and to what place it will be fit for the king to march with his army tomorrow’. Seen from Alvescott, ‘we conceive that Wantage will be the aptest place: but in this His Majesty conceives he is to be governed wholly by directions from Your Highness’.

Rupert was best placed to take these decisions but he was not given a clear picture of the condition of the main force to help him do so. Digby wrote that the army was ‘all, except stragglers, well up hither to Alvescot’, which was at best wildly optimistic. Moreover, in a postscript, Digby added: ‘I am commanded to add, that you should consider to allow the foot here as much rest as can well be without losing the opportunity’. Rupert was rightly sceptical about the state of the infantry. By one in the morning, the king had received another message, asking for details and suggesting a plan of campaign. This time, the Duke of Richmond replied. He confirmed that the king ‘is loath to weary the foot after so great a march’ but admitted that many of them had fallen out and been left behind. In addition, Vavasour’s brigade had not arrived, although it was expected that day together with the Prince of Wales’ Regiment, which had spent the previous night at Warmington, over twenty-five miles to the north. More importantly, however, Richmond confirmed that Rupert’s proposals for coordinating the Royalist campaign: ‘I have let the king see what you writ who approves all in it, and will accordingly perform his part, only desires to have certain knowledge when Essex moved or shall move from Cricklade, that if his Majesty’s army can come time enough … he will take up his quarter this night at, or about, Wantage, so to reach Newbury as you propose’. Forth had been marginalized; the king would ‘acquaint my Lord General’ with the new plan.

No matter how hard the king pushed the infantry, Rupert did not believe that they would reach Newbury before the Parliamentarian army. Perhaps he had been sufficiently startled by the dash to Cirencester to reappraise the normally pedestrian earl. His plan therefore required the cavalry to intercept and delay Essex, a task they had signally failed to achieve around Stow-on-the-Wold during the advance from London. On the morning of 18 September, Rupert led his tired regiments southwest from Stanford-in-the-Vale, past the ancient white horse below the Ridgeway and up onto the Wiltshire Downs. His scouts must have been in contact with the Parliamentarians, and he will have known that their pace had slowed since Cirencester. They had spent that night in and around Swindon and now had to cross sixteen miles of open down-land to reach the relative safety of the River Kennet at Hungerford, during which they would for the last time be vulnerable to the Royalist cavalry. Ideally, the Royalists would hope to catch Essex with his men spread out in line of march on Aldbourne Chase, where there was little natural or man-made cover. Lisle’s musketeers were now well behind but Urry had rejoined the prince after Cirencester and was now sent ahead with 1,000 men. Behind them, the main body of Royalist cavalry streamed across the downland, a stiff ride of some twelve miles. Arriving on the Chase in early afternoon, they found Essex’s army still strung out on open ground, well short of Aldbourne village. The advantage he had seized between Tewkesbury and Cirencester had somehow been lost in the subsequent three days, and the earl again faced the prospect of one of Rupert’s trademark cavalry actions, and perhaps even the threat that the king’s infantry would soon appear as well.

From Swindon, there had been four possible routes for Essex to reach the security of the Kennet Valley. The first, south past Chiseldon and then down the Og valley to Marlborough, reached the Kennet soonest yet was by far the longest march, twenty miles to Hungerford along the external sides of an isosceles triangle. Marlborough was also used as a quarter by the Royalists and may have been garrisoned (if so, Luke should have known since he had despatched one of his spies there on the previous day). Essex therefore dismissed it.

The three alternative routes took the earl’s army along the triangle’s hypotenuse, southeast over the downs between Marlborough and Lambourn, through the village of Aldbourne, and finally along a valley to meet the Kennet near Hungerford. All three were shorter marches of around fifteen miles and the bridge at Hungerford was only lightly guarded. For Essex, the question was how best to cross the exposed downland before Aldbourne. The most northerly route, east past Wanborough and Callas Hill, then southeast along a Roman road between Hinton Downs and Sugar Hill, was nearest to the Royalists, provided no protection from Rupert’s cavalry and obliged the Trained Bands to retrace their steps from Chiseldon. A better choice would have been to climb the downs between Callas and Beacon Hills, and make for Aldbourne along a wide dry valley between Sugar Hill and Aldbourne Warren, where the landscape was still open but Rupert was marginally farther away and Sugar Hill offered a potentially defensible position. More attractive again was the most southerly route, south past Chiseldon then east across Aldbourne Chase, a 1,400-acre deer park dotted with woodland and bordered by rabbit warrens. According to the earliest detailed maps (eg Andrews and Dury, 1773, William Stanley’s Ordnance Survey drawing surveyed in 1818), the Chase covered the high ground south of a dry valley that ran west to east from beneath the crest of the downs, through the hamlet of Snap to Aldbourne village. To the north was Aldbourne Warren, which conveniently shielded the Snap valley from prying eyes.

All but one of the contemporary accounts point to Essex using the most southerly route across Aldbourne Chase, which involved the shortest march across the open downs and made tactical sense since it allowed the earl to pick up the London brigade at Chiseldon. The strongest evidence for this option is Foster’s description of the position when the Royalists appeared: ‘our whole army being in a deep valley, and the enemy upon the hills on our left flank’. Even a city dweller like Foster would not have considered the broad dry valleys to the north to be worth commenting upon and visibility from the hills on either side is good, making hidden movement of the kind that took place during the action almost impossible. The Snap to Aldbourne valley has an entirely different feel. It is far narrower and both slopes are steep. It meanders in an extended S-bend and visibility within the valley and even from the hills is often extremely limited. An army caught in the valley bottom would feel very threatened by cavalry on the hills above. If those cavalry had infantry to support them, it would be hard to force a passage, yet the steepness of the slopes and the tightness of the terrain would make it difficult for cavalry on their own to exploit their apparent advantage. Mercurius Aulicus gave a similar description to Foster, reporting that the Parliamentarians were found in a ‘bottom’.

Essex had therefore marched his army from Swindon south past Chiseldon and then east across the top edge of Aldbourne Chase into the Snap valley. His scouts should have given some warning of the approaching Royalists but most of his men were still spread out in a long winding column along the valley bottom when the first of Rupert’s cavalry appeared above them on Aldbourne Warren, the spur running from Upper Upham down past the Giant’s Grave tumulus that forms the northern slope of the valley. According to Mercurius Aulicus, the prince ‘with the whole body of horse’ discovered the Parliamentarian army at about three in the afternoon. Prince Rupert’s Diary recorded that Essex’s cavalry rearguard was two to three miles adrift from the main body. Estimates of the Royalists’ strength varied considerably. The Parliamentarians reported from 5,000 to 8,000, Digby 3,000 only. The latter is probably an underestimate but some of the 5,000 or so cavalrymen that had begun the march will have fallen out and the remainder will have been tired after almost three days of hot, and often damp, pursuit. Of Rupert’s brigade commanders, Wilmot, Sir John Byron and Charles Gerard were certainly present, together with Urry, who had to all intents been acting in that role.

In the valley below the Royalist advance guard, Essex had drawn up his men in some form of battle order but they were still too widely dispersed to support each other properly. One wing of cavalry under Sir Philip Stapleton was at the head of the column, perhaps as far away as Aldbourne itself. Most of the infantry deployed along a low ridge running almost east-west along the valley floor, where they were joined by the artillery train. Some light guns were hastily prepared to provide support. They had no benefits from the terrain, which was unenclosed arable land or sheep pasture. The rest of the cavalry, under Colonel John Middleton, formed the rearguard and were ‘somewhat distant’ from the main body, probably escorting the baggage train.

Having brought Essex to bay, what were Prince Rupert’s intentions? Sir Edward Hyde had no doubt:

to get between London and the enemy before they should be able to get out of those enclosed deep countries, in which they were engaged between narrow lanes, and to entertain them with skirmishes till the whole army should come up.

In fact, however, it is clear from the correspondence between Rupert and the king that the infantry and artillery were at the time marching directly towards Newbury. This was therefore a delaying operation to allow the king to block the Kennet valley. But the form it took became a matter of dispute between those involved. Sir John Byron alleged that Rupert failed to fully brief his subordinate commanders:

notwithstanding the necessity there was of fighting (at least if they persisted in their marching to London and we in ours of preventing them) yet no orders were given out for the manner of our fighting and how the army should be embattled as usually is done on the like occasions.

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