The interest of this battle resides in its strategical rather than its tactical aspect. In this it is unique among all the battles of the great Civil War.
The situation leading up to the battle is somewhat involved and needs a map of Southern England by which to follow it. Stated in the broadest terms, the Royalist army, on its return from its victorious campaign in the west over the Earl of Essex, had by mid-October, 1644, reached Salisbury. The Roundheads at this moment had three separate armies in the field. The Earl of Manchester was at Reading, the Earl of Essex was reforming his defeated army at Portsmouth, and Sir William Waller was falling back before the King and was now at Andover. In addition the Roundheads had three sieges on their hands, Donnington Castle (a mile to the north of Newbury), Basing House (a mile east of Basingstoke), and Banbury. The approach of the Royal army seemed to threaten the first two. The very threat had this effect on the besiegers of Donnington Castle, who, faced by the resolute defence of Colonel Boys, abandoned the siege and fell back on Reading on October 18th. There remained Basing House. With the object of relieving it, the King resumed his advance on October 18th, driving Waller out of Andover the same day.
Meanwhile the three Parliamentary armies were steadily converging. On the 16th Manchester reached Basingstoke from Reading. On the next day Essex, advancing from Portsmouth, reached Alresford (12 miles south of Basingstoke), and on the 19th joined Manchester there. Meanwhile Waller was also drawing near from Andover, and on the 21st all three armies were united at Basingstoke. The total now concentrated came to 19,000 men, one of the largest armies on either side that had yet appeared in the field. But if formidable in numbers it was less so in its command. Instead of appointing one commander-in-chief for this army, the egregious Committee of Both Kingdoms placed it in commission under a council composed of Manchester, Essex, Waller and other officers, and even two complete civilians; (reminding one of the Dutch Deputies that accompanied Marlborough’s army in the field).
Undeterred by this formidable concentration in front of him, the King pushed boldly forward and reached Kingsclerc on October 21st. Here he was midway between the two threatened posts, Donnington Castle and Basing House. But he was too late to relieve Basing House, so he now turned north towards Donnington Castle, entering Newbury next day, the 22nd.
From Newbury Charles sent a force of horse under the Earl of Northampton to the relief of Banbury, which was speedily effected by it. But this left him with only 9,000 men at Newbury. The Roundheads’ Council of War decided to attack the Royalist army without further delay, and set out for the purpose on October 25th. Next day they were established on Clay Hill, one mile to the northeast of Newbury.
Thus the situation on the evening of October 26th was that the Roundheads, 19,000 strong were confronting the Royalists, 10,000 strong, the two armies facing respectively west and east, immediately to the north of Newbury. It looked as if the King had been outmanoeuvred; but there were certain points in his favour which appeared to justify his decision to stand his ground. The first was the natural strength of the position that he occupied. His right flank was protected by the river Kennet and the town of Newbury in which he kept a garrison; his left by a small tributary, the Lambourn, while still further to the left rear, stood the formidable Donnington Castle, under its heroic defender, Colonel Boys (whom the King knighted on the field for his spirited defence, shortly before the battle). So much for the flanks. The centre rested on a large house occupied by a Mr. Dolman and now called Shaw House. Round three sides of the garden, forming a sort of courtyard, were some ancient embankments. The house formed a veritable fortress, like Hougoumont in a later and more famous battle. The Royalists had another but intangible advantage, namely the weak and divided command of their opponents. We have seen that the command was vested in a Council—a notoriously bad form of command in war. Moreover, the senior general on that Council was probably the most inefficient commander of a considerable army that ever fought in England. The Earl of Manchester, to do him justice, never set up to be a soldier; he preferred to regard himself as a civilian who had only assumed command at the call of duty. Apparently even the Parliamentarians were influenced by the desire to have a commander with ‘a handle to his name’; whereas Cromwell, though fresh from his triumph at Marston Moor, was relegated to a subordinate command of horse. The Earl of Essex had gone sick and his army was itself given a divided command in the persons of Skippon and Balfour.
But this peculiar council now nerved itself to a remarkable decision—one that gives this battle its distinctive interest. Not liking the look of the Royalist position from the front, the council decided—on whose proposition does not appear—to attack it simultaneously from front and rear. To encompass this would entail a wide detour by the outflanking column owing to the position of Donnington Castle on the left rear—a site that might have been purposely selected to frustrate such a manœuvre. The route decided on was as follows: three miles north-east nearly to Hermitage—west, via Chieveley to North Heath—south to Winterbourne—west to Boxford—south to Wickham Heath—south-east to Speen. Total 13 miles. It was a bold decision to take, even though the Royalist army was in great inferiority; for the council could not have known the exact strength of their opponents, and the tendency is to overrate the size of the opposing army. Including a period for rest and sleep the march would take the best part of 24 hours, and during that time the remainder of the army risked being attacked by the whole force of the Royalists. But this decision is a good example of the profound truth that in war risks must be taken. In actual fact there was never much prospect of the King attacking the main army during this period. By some means he managed to get wind of the flanking move, and in order to counter it he also divided his forces and detached Prince Maurice’s detachment to occupy a position to the west of Speen, facing west.
The reserve, consisting of horse and the artillery train, was stationed in the open in a large field, which can still be identified, stretching from the northern outskirts of the town to the banks of the Lambourn River. Maurice took up his position on the rising ground just to the west of Speen village, and spent the morning of October 27th busily entrenching his position.
Meanwhile the outflanking force—Essex’s army, under Skippon and Balfour, with Waller’s and Cromwell’s horse—was steadily plodding on its long, circuitous march. Skippon, Balfour and Waller appear to have shared the command—a strange arrangement! It had set out shortly after midnight and halted to bivouac at Heath End. This outflanking force constituted the greater part of the army—probably two-thirds of it, though exact figures are not given.
We must now for a moment consider the strategy of operations on ‘exterior lines’, such as this was: i.e. a concentric attack from two or more different directions. To make success probable, the army undertaking it should be in superior strength to its opponents, else there is the danger that the enemy, making use of his central position on ‘interior lines’, will attack and overwhelm each opponent in turn. To diminish the risk of this, and to add to the effectiveness of the blow, it is necessary that both forces should attack simultaneously. Therein lies the snag—or rather, there it used to lie before the days of improved communications, telegraphy and telephony, wireless, etc. For two widely separated forces, out of sight of each other, found it difficult, if not impossible, to co-ordinate their attacks. It is for this reason that the operation was so seldom attempted, and if attempted, so seldom was successful in olden days. Indeed, the second Battle of Newbury is the only clear-cut example of it in the course of the Civil War.
But in spite of the difficulties and hazards inherent in an operation on exterior lines in the seventeenth century, there remained one form of communication common to both ancient and modern times—sound. Manchester arranged very sensibly in my opinion, that Skippon should fire his cannon as a signal that he was in position and about to attack; on hearing that signal Manchester would also attack; thus co-ordination would be achieved in the simplest possible manner. It seemed almost foolproof—but nothing is foolproof in war.
Manchester attempted a feint attack in the early morning. The tendency of such attacks is either to be transparently feints, or to be pushed too far. The latter happened in this case and the attacking troops were only extricated with difficulty.
Skippon came into contact with Prince Maurice’s detachment at about 3 p.m. The exact time is disputed; even to-day it is difficult to ascertain exact times of occurrences in the course of an encounter battle, and naturally it was much more difficult then. It is important to fix this moment though, in view of what transpired, and anyway it cannot have been far from 3 p.m. There remained two hours of daylight (it was November old New Style). If Manchester’s attack was to prove effective against the strong Shaw House position there was no time to lose. But no sound came from that part of the field. Meanwhile the attack on Prince Maurice was being launched. In spite of their fatigue after their long march, the Roundheads attacked resolutely. The trenches to the west of Speen had not been completed, and the position was, after a sanguinary struggle, overrun, and the guns defending it, captured from Essex at Lostwithiel, were, by a curious coincidence, recaptured by Essex’s own men. The Royalist foot was sent reeling down the road into and through the village of Speen, and even further. The situation for the Royalists looked critical. The King himself was with the Royal princes, standing at the head of his reserve in the open field, when some fleeing cavalry came charging past him. Charles did his best by his own personal efforts to rally them, but without marked success. At this critical moment a small reinforcement to either side would decide the issue, as so often happens in war. There was an obvious quarter from where it might be reasonably expected. Hitherto we have not spoken of the redoubtable Oliver Cromwell, whose cavalry had added such lustre to his name on the field of Marston Moor, only three months before. He held the left, or northern flank of the line (Balfour held the southern) and hitherto had been but lightly engaged. Accounts as to his action on this day are conflicting. But though we cannot credit the assertion of Manchester that ‘on that day there was no service at all performed by Cromwell’ (for the two were at enmity), it does not seem that Cromwell exerted himself or intervened at this decisive moment. Excuses are made for him, the commonest being that his troopers were harried by the artillery fire from Donnington Castle. This will not do. Though we have no record of the number of guns in the castle it cannot have been very great; there was not room for a large number. Moreover, the fire of these guns was exceedingly slow, and even at the present day the cavalry would not constitute an easy target moving quickly across the front. The range was about 1,000 yards, and the most they can have effected was to be a ‘nuisance value’ to Cromwell’s men. I conclude, therefore, that either Cromwell feared overmuch the potential danger residing in the armament of Donnington Castle, or else his heart, to put it bluntly, was not in the affair. He gives the impression of being slightly disgruntled on this occasion. Even the greatest of men suffer from human frailties.
Whatever the cause, Cromwell failed to effect a successful intervention; on the contrary it was a Royalist, Lord Cleveland, who seized this critical moment to charge with his brigade. The battle fluctuated uncertainly for some time, but it was decided in this sector by two further charges by Sir John Cansfield and the King’s Life Guards. The Roundheads were hurled back to Speen, the King’s personal safety was secured, and the battle on this portion of the front became stationary for the remaining few moments of daylight.
Meanwhile what was happening on the opposite side of the field? Again we are in the presence of controversy. The commonly accepted story is that Manchester refused, despite the reiterated appeals of those around him, to intervene, in spite of the engagement he had made to do so. But those who assert this do not explain how it then came about that Manchester did eventually intervene. Who, or what was it that caused him eventually to change his mind? Critics are silent on this point. In point of fact, his troops did attack, though as in the previous case it is impossible to ascertain precisely at what hour this happened. Partly these conflicting accounts are due to the fact that the precise moment of the commencement of such an attack is not clear-cut or clearly defined; there would be no established ‘zero hour’ with watches synchronized, and so on. One narrator might consider the beginning of the attack the moment at which the commander issued his orders for the attack; another might consider it the moment when they actually started to advance; a third, when they got to ‘push of pike’. Moreover, the clash would come at slightly different moments in different parts of the front. What I suspect happened was that Manchester was so doubtful as to whether the attack would take place that day at all, that he did not issue any ‘warning order’ to his troops, preferring to wait until the moment actually arrived when he would issue the orders that seemed appropriate to the occasion. This would not be a prudent or far-seeing method of procedure (Manchester was a bad general), but that is very different from saying that the Earl of Manchester left his comrades in the lurch.
Assuming then that he set about launching an attack as soon as he heard the cannonade opening, it might easily take about one hour before the attackers actually came to blows with the enemy. His plan was not a particularly simple one; the attack was to be delivered by two columns, one to attack Shaw House from the north-east, and the other from the south-east. From the top of Clay Hill, where his troops were drawn up, to Shaw House is 2,000 yards. It would take the foot a good 30 minutes to cover this distance, without any delays, once they had been marshalled in order. An allowance of one hour is not in the least excessive to allow from the time when Manchester, having formed his plan, sent it out to the recipients, to the time when the first clash occurred. If Skippon’s attack started at 3 p.m. that means that Manchester’s, under these circumstances, would materialize at about 4 p.m. which is probably what actually occurred. The sun sets at 4.2 p.m. on that day, and the moon had not risen. The fight therefore took place in the gathering darkness, as is agreed on all hands. My contention receives support from Simeon Ashe, the Earl’s chaplain. According to this worthy, Manchester was able to see from Clay Hill the attack on Speen (the contours show that this should be possible) and ‘animated with this encouraging sight, the Earl prepared to descend to the more difficult work of forcing the strong position at Dolman’s house’. Money states that Manchester, ‘busy with his preparations for advancing in force, rode to and fro and spiritedly addressed his men’.
So the attack was launched, while still the action was in full swing on the opposite flank. Thus were the two essential conditions of an operation on exterior lines—superior numbers, and a simultaneous attack—observed. The enemy was thus not in a position to turn his central position to account by concentrating against first one and then the other of his opponents. I can find no evidence that Charles even attempted this. His reserves in the field to the north of Newbury nearly midway between Shaw House and Speen, were in a good position to execute this if they got the chance, and were given enough time; but the nearly simultaneous hostile attack rendered that impossible. What then saved the Royalists? Undoubtedly the night. Manchester’s attack, after a homeric contest in the garden of Shaw House, was decisively repulsed, and some of his troops were chased back as far as Clay Hill; but the far more serious attack on the west would have completely borne down its vastly inferior opponents, despite the intervention of the guns at Donnington Castle, had darkness not put an end to the battle. Thus was a risky and enterprising plan justified by its success.
The King, who had decided that morning that if he were attacked on both sides he would slip away to the north by night and try to regain Oxford, carried out his plan to the letter. He left his guns in Donnington Castle, and while he himself with an escort rode to join Prince Rupert at Bath, the army marched through the night, over King Alfred’s famous battlefield of Ashdown, to Wallingford, and reached Oxford next day. Meanwhile the Roundheads were fast asleep, and when morning dawned were still ignorant of the departure of the royal army. The upshot of First Newbury had repeated itself.
PROBLEMS OF THE BATTLEFIELD
This battlefield, unlike that of First Newbury, presents few problems. The three key points, Shaw House, Speen Village, and Donnington Castle are all unambiguous. It is an extremely easy battle to follow either on foot or in a car. All that is necessary is to leave Newbury by the Hermitage road, and after crossing the Lambourn you come to Shaw House. Inside the house you may see the bullet mark in a first-floor room which, tradition relates, nearly hit the King. Round the garden the old embankment is still in existence. Immediately beyond the garden to the east is a knoll surmounted by a water-tower. From here Clay Hill, from which Manchester attacked, is plainly visible, and the course of this attack can easily be followed. A short walk through the village of Donnington then takes up to Donnington Castle. From the battlements of the Gatehouse, or even from the ground at its foot, the Speen battle can be followed in detail. It requires but little imagination to picture the excitement of the Royalist gunners as they spotted the approach of the Parliamentary army. It would be visible for over a mile along the ridge before it contacted Maurice’s entrenchments. A few shots were fired at this point, the range being about 1,800 yards. Then when Cromwell’s troopers appeared in the meadows almost at their feet the excitement must have been intensified, the range shortening to 800 yards. Sir John Boys, possibly accompanied for part of the time by the King himself, no doubt stood in the corner of the nearest (south-west) turret of the gatehouse, with his eye glued to his ‘perspective glass’—if he possessed one. In short, the layout is so straightforward that no further space need be devoted to describing this battlefield.
Alfred H. Burne