The Victory of the Covenant?

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The Victory of the Covenant

By the time of John Pym’s death from disease in early
December 1643 much of the architecture of Parliament’s eventual victory was in
place, and he must take a large share of the credit for that. A military
alliance with the Covenanters, in the service of yet another covenant, this
time between the two kingdoms, was underpinned by novel forms of taxation which
would provide the basis for public revenues for over a century (assessment,
excise and customs). These were reinforced by penal taxation and seizure from
those who opposed the aims of the Covenant. Parliamentary committees,
proliferating like mushrooms, allowed Parliament to act as an executive body,
albeit a rather poorly co-ordinated one.

Pym’s contribution to sustaining the political will to
implement these measures was considerable, but not necessarily popular, even
among those who had been riveted by his compelling speeches in May and November
1640. Although his influence grew out of those influential speeches, what he
had in the end championed was quite different from a defence of parliamentary
liberties and the Church of England. A week or so before Pym’s death,
Parliament took a further highly significant step. In early November,
Parliament had authorized the use of a new Great Seal, the highest symbol of
sovereignty, and on 30 November it was entrusted to six parliamentary
commissioners. It represented an escalation of the argument that the King
enjoyed his powers in trusteeship, exercised in partnership with Parliament.
When the King was absent or in danger of wrecking the kingdom, so the argument
had gone, then Parliament could assume trust in his place. Now, it was said,
those using the Great Seal were enemies of the state, which was not currently
entrusted to the King. The new seal made the implications of this plain: it did
not include the King’s image but that of the House of Commons, and the arms of
England and Ireland. As one commentator put it, there was consternation among
‘all the People’ who had ‘reason to believe that, at last, the divisions
between the King and Parliament would become irreparable, and that there would
be no hopes left of their being reconciled to one another, the breach made in
his Majesty’s authority being so great, that it portended nothing less than the
ruin of the state and the dissolution of the monarchy’. In all these ways,
defence of parliamentary liberty was clearly no longer the same as defence of
the ancient constitution.

Pym’s death also coincided with a reorganization of
parliamentary military command. The formal alliance with the Covenanters called
into being the Committee of Both Kingdoms, which took over from the Committee
of Safety in February 1644. It was the first body to have responsibilities in
both kingdoms. In one sense it filled the gap of a single executive body,
acting as a kind of parliamentary Privy Council. But it was also a highly
political body, on which opponents of the Earl of Essex were prominent, men
anxious for a clearer military victory in order to secure a peace on demanding
terms. Holles, for example, was not on the committee, but Cromwell was, and its
terms of reference compromised the powers granted to Essex in his commission.
Pym, man of the moment in 1640, died at a point when the parliamentary cause
had plainly moved a long way from the aims set out at the meeting of the Long
Parliament – it was now a military alliance with the Covenanters, more or less
on condition that the English church be reformed along the lines of the kirk,
in the hands of a parliamentary committee acting as an independent executive
and likely to seek a decisive military victory over their King. National
subscription to the Solemn League and Covenant was promoted from 5 February,
underpinning these aims.

In this context, the fate of William Laud has an obvious
significance – putting the issues of 1640 back in the forefront of people’s
minds, and paying an easy price to the Covenanters for their military support.
Laud had been impeached on 19 October 1643, the first step on what proved a
long path to his execution, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that
this was a narrowly calculating political act, another way of promoting
Protestant unity without raising difficulties about church government, and an
easy way to curry favour with the Covenanters. It also perhaps reflected how
Laud was the personification of the dangers of Catholic conspiracy, all too
evident following the Cessation. One newsbook argued that ‘the sparing of him
hath been a provocation to Heaven, for it is a sign that we have not been so
careful to give the Church a sacrifice as the State’. Strafford had died for
the latter, but now revenge was sought on Canterbury in the cause of God: ‘he
having corrupted our religion, banished the godly, introduced superstitions,
and embrewed both kingdoms at first in tincture of blood’. But there was a more
prosaic reason – while he lived on as Archbishop of Canterbury he had to
approve ecclesiastical appointments and, though he did his best to comply, some
appointments made demands on him that he could not in conscience approve. In
any case there can have been little to justify the prosecution of an ageing
bishop, or the ‘rancorous hatred’ with which his prison cell was searched for
incriminating evidence. The hostility perhaps bears testimony as much to the
difficulties of 1643 as to the certainties of 1640. It offered the same
comforts as the bonfire of ‘pictures and popish trinkets’ staged on the site of
Cheapside Cross in January 1644 to mark the defeat of the Brooke plot. Even so,
it was another year before the trial was concluded.

Pym had died at more or less the pivotal moment in the
fighting. By not losing in 1643, when military fortunes had favoured the
royalists, Parliament had put its armies in a position to win, particularly in
alliance with the Covenanters. This was not simply because of the intervention
of the Covenanters, since the royalist momentum had already been halted,
particularly by the victories at Newbury and Winceby. The first major
engagement of the spring was at Cheriton (29 March), on the approaches to
Winchester. A decisive victory that owed nothing to the Covenanters, it led to
a royalist withdrawal and the recapture of Winchester. This not only halted
royalist advances in the west but signalled, like Winceby, that the parliamentary
cavalry was becoming a match for the royalists. It was followed within ten days
by the fall of Salisbury, Andover and Christchurch (although Winchester Castle
held out) and, by early April, Waller was on the verges of Dorset. Clarendon
felt that the impact of the defeat at Cheriton on the royalist cause was

When the Covenanters arrived, then, it can plausibly be
argued that the momentum was already with Parliament and that some of the
further progress of parliamentary arms did not depend on their presence. On the
other hand, this was also partly an illusion caused by royalist strategy. The
King’s forces now dispersed, seeking to re-establish control in the regions, a
necessary preliminary to building strength for a renewed offensive, and that
continued to be a reasonably hopeful strategy. In any case, the Covenanters”
army was undoubtedly significant in shifting the balance further in favour of
Parliament, opening a new front in the north and introducing a new field army.
In late spring there were five parliamentary armies in England. The Covenanters
and the Fairfaxes in the north put pressure on Newcastle’s position, Manchester
was besieging Lincoln, Waller was the dominant force in the west and Essex was
preparing to take the field. Against this, Rupert’s army was in the north-west
and potentially able to offer some support to Newcastle, but Charles had
sustained a presence in the centre only by amalgamating his army with the
remnants of Hopton’s. Prince Maurice was laying siege to Lyme, with a small
force, and there was no army available to confront Manchester. The Covenanters
did not turn the tide, but they did contribute significantly to the problem of
over-stretch faced by the royalist forces.

Commitment to dispersal, and the demands of the overall
situation, undoubtedly affected the movements of Rupert’s army during the
spring. He had left Oxford for Chester in March, where he was lobbied to pursue
the relief of Lathom House, but the chief priority was the relief of Newark,
which was achieved on 21 March. It was a significant victory, not least because
the besieging forces surrendered siege artillery, 3,000-4,000 muskets and large
numbers of pikes. But there was an immediate demand for Rupert’s aid in the
south. Many of his troops came from Wales and he set off there for
replenishment and supply, but was recalled to Oxford on 3 April. The order was
countermanded the following day, but it is evidence of the stretch that was now
felt in the royalist ranks. Newcastle’s pleas for support in Yorkshire
continued to go unheard and the royalists had also been defeated at Nantwich.
On 11 April, Selby fell to the Fairfaxes and Newcastle withdrew to York. This
allowed the Covenanters and the Fairfaxes to join forces at Tadcaster a week
later, threatening the extinction of the royal cause in the north.

In this situation a parliamentary advance on Oxford, where
morale was flagging, was quite possible. On 16 April the Oxford parliament was
prorogued following an address imploring Charles to guarantee the safety of the
Protestant religion; the failure of another political initiative and the death
of what Charles was later known to have called his ‘mongrel parliament’. For
Parliament, Oxford and York were the two key military objectives, and the royalist
forces were stretched to cover both. While Charles sought to strengthen the
position around Oxford with garrisons at Reading, Wallingford, Abingdon and
Banbury, Rupert left once more for the north. The Committee of Both Kingdoms
was also interested in both objectives, and as the Earl of Manchester took
control of Lincolnshire he was sent to York rather than Oxford. Nonetheless,
parliamentary advances in May put such pressure on the royalist position in
Oxford that the King decided to leave. Charles left Oxford on 3 June with 7,500
men, leaving 3,500 to defend the town, armed with all his heavy artillery, and
marched west via Burford, Bourton and Evesham. By the time he reached Evesham
it was known that Tewkesbury had fallen to Massey and he opted to take up
quarters at Worcester, arriving on 6 June. Three days later Sudeley Castle fell
and he ordered a further withdrawal to Bewdley.

These then were promising days for the parliamentary armies.
The King had withdrawn from Oxford and York was under pressure. But the
initiative was lost. Essex was sent to relieve Lyme rather than join Waller in
a pursuit of the King. This crucial and controversial decision was taken at a
council of war at Chipping Norton, at which both Waller and Essex were present.
It was an odd one, perhaps intended as a prelude to moving into the west and
cutting off the King’s supply. Historians have subsequently blamed Essex and
Waller for a crucial error, and at the time the Committee of Both Kingdoms was
shocked by the decision and ordered Essex to return, something he notoriously
failed to do, on 14 June. Having decided to take this course, and to ignore a
direct order from the Committee of Both Kingdoms, it was of course important
for Essex to succeed, and at first he did. He lifted the siege of Lyme on 14
June and took Weymouth the next day. He now resolved to push on into the west.
It is more than possible that this reflects in part personal frictions between
Waller and Essex, who had been at odds before and seem to have squabbled during
this campaign. But this disagreement was probably exaggerated retrospectively
by Waller and his supporters – he initially supported the decision. Essex
challenged Parliament to relieve him of his command and got his way – on 25
June he was ordered to move west in accordance with his wishes. This order
allowed him to continue the march he had already commenced in defiance of his
previous orders.

Meanwhile, Waller pursued the royal army, which was moving
back via Woodstock and Buckingham. He found it difficult to engage the army,
and its very mobility was a problem, since it might suggest a move either on
York or on London. Waller therefore had to have the defence of London in mind.
This rested on a small and hastily assembled force under Major-General Browne
and it appeared vulnerable until Waller made it back to Brentford on 28 June.
In the end the indecisive engagement at Cropredy Bridge on 29 June was the only
fruit of these manoeuvrings, and this must surely count as a lost opportunity
for Parliament. After the battle the royal army was able to march off in
pursuit of Essex in better spirits than the parliamentarians.

In the north, however, the parliamentary campaign was
decisive. York had been under siege by Leven and Fairfax since 22 April and the
only hope of relief lay with Rupert. In May and June he won a string of
victories in Lancashire. These mobile campaigns were frustrating parliamentary
armies in the south, but the position in York looked bleak. On 13 June the Earl
of Newcastle had been invited to negotiate its surrender and it was thought
that the city could only hold out for another six days.

On 14 June, Charles wrote a fateful letter to Rupert. ‘If
York be lost I shall esteem my crown little less, unless supported by your
sudden march to me, and a miraculous conquest in the South, before the effects
of the Northern power can be found here; but if York be relieved, and you beat
the rebels” armies of both kingdoms which were before it, then, but other ways
not, I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive to spin out time until you
come to assist me’. The loss of York would be a catastrophe except in the very
unlikely event that Rupert was able to get away and secure victories in the
south before the parliamentarian armies got there. On the other hand, if York
was relieved and the northern army defeated, Charles might avoid defeat long
enough for Rupert to come to his aid. Relief of York and defeat of the northern
army were the best hope for the royalist cause.

This was a realistic view, but it conflated the relief of
York and the defeat of the rebels: as it was to turn out it was possible to
relieve York without defeating the Scottish and parliamentarian forces. Charles
had not known this of course. His command to Rupert was:

all new enterprises
laid aside, you immediately march according to your first intention, with all
your force, to the relief of York; but if that be either lost or have freed
themselves from the besiegers, or that for want of powder you cannot undertake
that work, that you immediately march with your whole strength directly to
Worcester, to assist me and my army, without which, or your having relieved
York by beating the Scots, all the successes you can afterwards have most
infallibly will be useless to me.

Again, the possibility was not recognized here that York
might be relieved without defeating the besieging army.

On 28 June it was clear that Rupert was coming. Besiegers were too exposed between the walls of a defended city and an army able to line up in one place, rather than as an encircling force, and on 1 July the siege had been broken up. The parliamentary forces withdrew to Tadcaster and York had been saved. But Rupert seems, not unreasonably, to have interpreted the letter to mean not simply that he should relieve York but that he should engage and destroy the besieging army. He therefore decided to seek battle despite the clearly expressed view of the Earl of Newcastle that it should be avoided. Most subsequent commentators have taken Newcastle’s side: with the relief of York the King’s position had been rendered more stable and there was no good reason for risking an engagement with the besieging army. In fact Rupert had received numerous letters in the weeks before Marston Moor containing more or less the same message, and urging haste, and so he was not unjustified in seeing his orders in this way. It seems that other royalist commanders feared that Rupert, left to his own devices, would have given priority to establishing full control of Lancashire. But he was also aggressive by instinct and that he interpreted his order in that way would not have surprised Colepeper: when he heard that the letter had been sent he said to Charles, ‘Before God, you are undone, for upon this peremptory order he will fight, whatever comes on’t’.

For those interested in contingencies then, the moment at
which Charles drafted that clause, or the moment when Rupert read it, was
crucial to the course of the war in England. With York relieved, the King in
what turned out to be a successful pursuit of Essex, and Oxford secure, honours
might have been said to be even. But Rupert chose to engage numerically
superior forces, with catastrophic results for the royalist cause.

Battle was joined at Marston Moor on 2 July. Rupert’s forces
were considerably outnumbered, particularly the cavalry. His relieving army and
the force garrisoning York numbered about 18,000. The parliamentarians, by
contrast, probably had around 28,000 men, the result of the confluence of
forces under the command of Leven, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Manchester. The bulk
of the parliamentary forces, about 16,000, were Scottish and Leven was in
overall command both as the ranking officer and as a man of formidable
experience in the European wars. His forces were drawn up with the infantry in
the centre, cavalry on the right under Fairfax and on the left under Cromwell
and Leslie. Opposite Cromwell were Rupert’s cavalry, commanded by Byron, and
Fairfax was opposed by Goring. Infantry numbers were fairly equal – around 11,000
on either side – but the parliamentary advantage in horse was considerable.
This was not a guarantee of success, however, because the ground on which the
battle was fought did not favour horse riders – furze, gorse, ditches and
rabbit holes broke up the ground, making rapid advances difficult. Byron, in
particular, was protected by rough ground.

The initial deployment was not complete until late
afternoon, and several hours of inconclusive skirmishing had achieved little by
7 p.m. At that point Rupert thought the battle would be postponed until the
next day, and Newcastle was repairing to his coach to enjoy a pipe of tobacco.
But as a thunderstorm broke, the parliamentary infantry began to advance. The
rain interfered with the matchlocks of the royalist advance guard and the
parliamentarians” infantry successfully engaged with the main body of the
royalist infantry. But the royalist riposte was very successful. Goring
advanced on the parliamentary cavalry ranged against him, and his men began to
inflict heavy losses. Byron, perhaps encouraged by the sight, advanced on
Cromwell, but in doing so had to tackle the difficult ground himself. Perhaps
that contributed to the ensuing rout, in which Cromwell’s cavalry were
triumphant. But with Fairfax’s cavalry now defeated and Goring’s men inflicting
heavy losses on the infantry it seemed as if Rupert’s decision might be
vindicated. Many Scottish troops fled and at one stage all three
parliamentarian generals appeared to be in flight, thinking that a royalist
victory was in the offing.

It was the discipline of Cromwell’s cavalry that transformed
this position. Fairfax made his way behind royalist lines to tell Cromwell what
had happened on the opposite flank. Cromwell was able not only to rally his
cavalry but to lead them back behind the royalist lines before leading a
devastating charge on Goring’s forces from the rear. This was utterly decisive
– the royalist infantry were now completely exposed, and outnumbered. Most
surrendered, and the parliamentary victory was total. It is likely that the
royalists lost at least 4,000 men, probably many more, and a further 1,500 were
captured. Rupert left York the next morning with only 6,000 men and Newcastle
refused to make a fist of the defence of York, preferring exile, he said, to
‘the laughter of the court’. York surrendered two weeks later and the
parliamentary forces in the field now easily outnumbered the royalists. This
was the worst case that Charles’s letter had sought to avoid: the loss of both
York and his field army.

Marston Moor was certainly a massive blow to royalist
morale, and decisive for the war in the north, but Parliament was robbed of an
outright victory in England by a combination of poor military judgement and
political hesitancy. The military adventure launched by the Earl of Essex and
the reluctance of the Earl of Manchester to pursue a complete victory allowed
the King to recover his position in the west and enter winter quarters in
Oxford in triumph.

In mid-June, having lifted the siege of Lyme and captured
Weymouth, Essex set off into the west. Waller could not offer support partly
because of the reluctance of the London Trained Bands to serve for long away
from home. Nonetheless, supported by the navy under Warwick’s command, Essex
initially enjoyed considerable success. By early to mid-July he was threatening
Exeter, where Henrietta Maria was recovering from the birth of her daughter,
Henrietta Anne, on 16 June. Essex refused her safe conduct to Bath and offered
instead personally to escort her to London. Given what subsequently happened,
this would have been a considerable boon to the parliamentary cause, but
Henrietta Maria refused – as both she and Essex knew she faced impeachment in
London. Instead she fled to France, on 14 July, and never saw her husband

Influenced by the threat of the northern army moving south,
and also perhaps by this threat to his wife’s safety, Charles moved decisively
after Essex. On 26 July he reached Exeter and rendezvoused with Prince Maurice,
who was at the head of 4,600 men, at Crediton the following day. Essex,
meanwhile, was further west at Tavistock, where he had been received
triumphantly – Plymouth had been secured. Cut off by a royal army and having
secured Plymouth this might have been the moment for discretion, but instead
Essex resolved to push on. On 26 July he decided to go on into Cornwall,
arriving at Lostwithiel on 3 August. The King had pursued him, arriving at
Liskeard the previous day.

Now bottled up, with the King’s army behind him, Essex had put
himself in a desperate position. On 30 August he prepared to withdraw. The
following night his cavalry were able to ride away, itself something of a
puzzle since the King had been forewarned and yet apparently failed to cover
the likely route of escape. The infantry fought a retreat to Fowey but were cut
off by the arrival of a force under Goring, which commanded the road. That
night Essex instructed Skippon to make such terms as he could while Essex
himself slipped away on 1 September. The King offered surprisingly generous
terms to Skippon, given the dire position in which Skippon found himself.

This was a massive blow to morale. Mercurius Aulicus was
withering in its scorn, asking ‘why the rebels voted to live and die with the
earl of Essex, since the earl of Essex hath declared he will not live and die
with them’. According to the terms of surrender negotiated by Skippon the army
was to be allowed to march out with its colours, trumpets and drums, but
without any weapons, horses or baggage apart from the officers” personal
effects. They were offered convoy, the sick and the wounded were to be given
protection, and permission was given to fetch provisions and money for the
defeated troops from Plymouth. These could be claimed as honourable terms, but
they did not stick, and the defeated army was subject to humiliations amounting
to atrocity. The royalist convoy could not protect the unarmed soldiers from
attack and local people, men and women, joined in the assault. They were
stripped by the women, and left lying in the fields. Some were forced ‘to march
stark naked, and bare footed’, and pillage and assault continued. One victim
was a woman three days out of child bed, stripped to her smock, pulled by her
hair and thrown into the river. She died shortly after. Ten days later the
survivors, perhaps 1,000 of the 6,000 who surrendered, marched into Poole,
‘insulted, stripped, beaten and starved’. Their numbers had been winnowed by
desertion, but there were many who died on the road, after an honourable surrender.
If the propaganda effect was dire, the strategic importance could not be
exaggerated: ‘By that miscarriage we are brought a whole summer’s travel back’.
Essex’s adventure, for which he was solely responsible, had gone a long way
towards grabbing stalemate from the jaws of victory.

Worse was to come, at least in political terms. Fairfax,
Leven and Manchester apparently felt that Marston Moor would force Charles to
seek terms, and they did little to pursue an outright victory. In Manchester’s
case, at least, this reflected his belief that a lasting peace would be one
recognized as honourable by all parties, and could not be delivered by total
military victory. War was a means to peace, and had to be treated with caution.
This hesitancy allowed Charles to consolidate his position during September.
Following his triumph over Essex, Charles moved eastwards again, arriving in
Tavistock on 5 September. Having abandoned the attempt to retake Plymouth he
sought to relieve garrisons further east and his forces established themselves
at Chard, and both Barnstaple and Ilfracombe were retaken. His aim was to
strengthen the garrisons at Basing House and Banbury to shore up the position
of Oxford. This began to look like a potential threat to London and it finally
spurred Manchester to bring his Eastern Association forces into the King’s way.
It proved difficult to co-ordinate and supply the parliamentary armies, and the
Trained Bands contingents were reluctant to move too far, so Waller was forced
to pull back from the west in early October, unable to gain support for his
position in Sherborne. As Charles continued to advance Parliament began to
consolidate forces, calling off the siege of Donnington on 18 October. The
King’s next objective was to lift the siege of Basing House, but Essex and
Manchester joined forces there just in time, on 21 October, and the King was
forced to withdraw to Newbury. Together with Waller’s remaining forces, and
levies from the London Trained Bands, the parliamentarians were finally able to
bring a large force, perhaps of 18,000 men, to bear on a royal force which on
some estimates was only half as strong.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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