The King Charles I’s military preparations got off to an uninspiring start. On his arrival in Yorkshire the local Trained Bands were called out and although they accompanied him on an abortive attempt to secure the great magazine at Hull on 29 April, it was also clear that they would not be willing to march beyond the county boundary. If he was to raise a proper army he needed to look elsewhere.
In June therefore the King began issuing both Commissions of Array, empowering the authorities in each county to muster and arm troops, and also military commissions directing named individuals to raise regiments. Although some units were raised in Yorkshire it soon became clear that a more central location should be chosen for the mustering point. To that end therefore he left York and formally set up his standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642. By this symbolic act he announced that he was taking the field not as Charles Stuart, but as King of England and that all who stood against him were rebels. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the choice of Nottingham was less than inspired.
Parliament too was busily enlisting volunteers. Backed by City money and ready access to both existing magazines and the continental arms markets, it planned to raise no fewer than twenty regiments of foot for an army to be led by Robert Devereaux, Earl of Essex. The call met with an enthusiastic response and on 18 August two of those regiments were ordered to Warwickshire. Having been joined on the road by a third regiment, they successfully brushed aside a Royalist detachment at Southam on the 22nd1 and afterwards occupied Coventry, leaving Sir Jacob Astley to pessimistically declare: ‘He could give no assurance that the King would not be taken out of his bed if the rebels made a brisk attempt to that purpose.’
On 7 September more regiments left London and Essex opened his headquarters at Northampton on the 10th. In the face of this growing threat the King was persuaded to move westwards either to Shrewsbury or Chester where he could pick up the numerous levies expected out of Wales and the North West. Accompanied by just five regiments of foot and a bare 500 horse, he evacuated Nottingham on the 13th and marching by way of Derby, Uttoxeter, Stafford and Wellington, he established himself at Shrewsbury on the 20th while his nephew, Prince Rupert took up an advanced position at Bridgenorth with the cavalry. It took a few days for Essex to learn of this move, and consequently, he did not leave Northampton until the 19th, with the intention of occupying Worcester. In so doing he precipitated the first serious clash of the campaign.
In July the Oxford colleges had pledged their silver plate to the King, but making the offer and actually delivering it were two entirely different matters. A cavalier officer, Sir John Byron was therefore ordered to Oxford with 150 horse and dragoons and instructions to secure as much of it as possible. Given that the Midlands were already infested with Parliamentarian detachments and recruiting parties this was a risky business, but any delay could mean that the plate might be seized by the Parliamentarians instead – Oliver Cromwell had already prevented a similar donation by the Cambridge colleges. In the event the first phase of the operation went smoothly enough. Byron and his newly raised regiment were convoyed south as far as Leicester by Prince Rupert and apart from a minor skirmish at Brackley they arrived unmolested on 28 August. Naturally, it took some time to gather in the plate and assemble a pack-train and as the days passed Byron’s situation grew ever more perilous. This was particularly so after Rupert’s withdrawal from Leicester on 5 September. Returning to Nottingham was no longer possible, so instead spurred on by the news that Essex was establishing him self at Northampton, Byron evacuated Oxford on the 10th and headed westwards.
Slowed down by the heavily laden pack-train he took ten days to cover the sixty-odd miles from Oxford to Worcester and, having thrown himself into the dubious shelter of the city’s crumbling walls on the 20th, he decided to dig in there and wait for help. As the King was also on the move he may in any case have been uncertain as to where to go next. At any rate Rupert, alerted to his plight, moved south and two days later was at Bewdley, but by that time the Parliamentarians were also closing in fast.
At dawn on the morning of the 22nd a detachment of about 1000 of Essex’s horse and dragoons led by Colonel John Brown made a half-hearted attempt to force the city’s Sidbury Gate. The guard refused to be intimidated but although Brown made off before Byron could mount a sortie, he had no intention of giving up. Hauling off to the south he crossed the Severn at Upton and then headed back up the west bank to take up an ambush position just south of the river Teme at Powick shortly before dawn on the 23rd. Worcester itself lay on the east bank and Brown correctly foresaw that when Essex arrived Byron would try to make a run for it up the west bank. As soon as the convoy broke cover Brown planned to move forward and snap it up in open country and so although the dragoons took up a covering position on a low ridge overlooking the Terme he kept his cavalry mounted and ready to move at a moment’s notice.
For a time nothing happened, but later that afternoon a number of Parliamentarian sympathisers hurried out of the city to advise him that Byron was preparing to leave. As the Royalists can have been only too well aware that Brown was waiting for them this could only mean that Essex was approaching. Sure enough confirmation of this came at 4pm and Brown decided to make his move.
Oddly enough, there appears to have been a surprising lack of enthusiasm on the part of some of his troop commanders. The MP Captain Nathaniel Fiennes for one is said to have urged caution, but Brown had his heart set on capturing the convoy and while he mounted up his dragoons Colonel Edwin Sandys led the rest of the cavalry across the narrow pack bridge and into the equally narrow lane beyond. Unfortunately, what neither Brown nor Sandys realised was that in the meantime Prince Rupert had arrived and in order to cover Byron’s withdrawal was taking up a blocking position in Wick Field, just to the north of the bridge. The hedges lining the lane were consequently stuffed full of Royalist dragoons who very properly saluted Sandys with a volley delivered at point-blank range. Sandys naturally responded by spurring forward in order to get clear of the lane and into Wick Field, but there he received a second unwelcome shock, for the field was full of Royalist cavalrymen frantically catching and mounting their horses.
Not expecting a Parliamentarian move so late in the day, the cavaliers had literally been caught napping. All or most of them had dismounted and were sleeping under the trees and now a desperate race developed as both sides deployed into a hasty battle-line. Having been forewarned by the noise of the ambush, the Royalists had a crucial few moments’ advantage and Rupert charged first, sword in hand. Only one of the Parliamentarian troops, commanded by Fiennes, seems to have put up much of a fight. Sandys himself went down and his whole command was sent tumbling back down the lane. As soon as the ambush was tripped Brown had dismounted his dragoons again and now he checked the Royalist pursuit at the bridge, but the fugitives themselves kept going, recrossed the Severn at Upton and running into Essex’s own Lifeguard troop at Pershore carried them away in the general rout.
It is difficult to assess the casualties suffered by either side in this affair and all that can be said is that the Royalists reckoned to have taken about 50 or 60 prisoners. They also put it about that they had killed and wounded as many more, but given the brief duration of both fighting and pursuit, this claim is probably more optimistic than accurate. Naturally enough, their own losses were light although a surprising number of officers seem to have managed to get themselves wounded as a result of going into action without waiting to buckle on their armour. On one thing at least both sides were agreed: Sandys’ Regiment was destroyed as a military unit and although the fight was otherwise of no real military significance it had enhanced Royalist morale and left the Parliamentarian cavalry with a decided inferiority complex.
Balked of his prey, Essex occupied Worcester on the 24th and then waited for the rest of his forces to catch up. His army had still not been fully concentrated when he took it out of Northampton and it was not until two weeks later that the last of them trudged in. On 7 October Cholmley’s Regiment was pushed up the valley as far as Bridgenorth but this was evidently considered a little too exposed, for by the 11th Essex had established a proper set of forward positions in the area of Bewdley and Kidderminster. Despite his brief to seek out the King, Essex seems to have been reluctant to act aggressively and instead his dispositions indicate that he was anticipating a Royal advance down the Valley.
Unfortunately, if one excepts the vicarious employment of spies, this tripwire was the extent of Essex’s intelligence gathering. If the King did what was expected of him the detachments at Kidderminster and Bewdley would give adequate warning of the direction and strength of the offensive and perhaps even delay it while Essex brought his main force out of Worcester to meet the Royalists on ground of his own choosing. The King, however, failed to oblige. While a march down the Valley was certainly the obvious approach, the professional soldiers advising the King successfully argued for a thrust straight at London. Essex would certainly try to intercept such a move, but it was better that the inevitable encounter should take place in the Midlands where the countryside was generally open, rather than in the Severn Valley where the numerous enclosed fields would hamper the employment of the Royalists’ best asset – their cavalry.
In order to cover this movement Rupert marched on 10 October to Shifnal and then from there to Wolverhampton and down to Stourbridge on the 14th. In the face of this advance Lord Wharton obligingly fell back from Kidderminster and confirmed to Essex that the King was indeed coming down the Valley. In reality the King had actually marched out of Shrewsbury with all his foot on the 12th, and by the 19th, when Essex at last realised what was happening, the Royalists were at Kenilworth with the road to London wide open before them. There was no question of course of their making a dash for the capital while Essex’s army remained in being, but the threat was sufficient to bring the unfortunate general marching eastwards and worse still, marching blind.
It was at this point that the evil effects of the Powick Bridge debacle first became apparent. Essex ought to have had his cavalry out observing the Royalists but instead he kept them close at hand and lacking proper intelligence the two armies blundered into each other by accident. Contact was established not through aggressive patrolling but through the chance encounter of two parties of Quartermasters seeking billets at Wormleighton in Warwickshire on the 22nd. The Royalists were evidently taken just as unawares but they won the fight which followed and on further investigation found Essex moving into quarters around the small market town of Kineton.
At midnight orders were given for the Royalists to concentrate later that morning on Edgehill, a three-mile-long ridge lying astride the Kineton to Banbury road. They were also as it happened forming up between Essex and London. Bad weather on the march had been forcing both armies to disperse each night in search of shelter and consequently they were slow to concentrate. Rupert seems to have been on the ridge by daybreak but it was after two before the King’s army was fully concentrated and some of Essex’s regiments were still arriving as the battle ended.
Edgehill proper is rather too steep and commanding to invite an attack and so the Royalists descended about as far as the 350-foot contour line which represents the point at which the slope rather abruptly begins to level out and fall away rather more gently towards the north-west and the village of Kineton. Most of the ground was taken up with an open expanse of unenclosed ridges and furrows known as Red Horse Field, which offered no impediment to a textbook deployment and thanks to the preparation of a map by the Walloon engineer Bernard de Gomme it is a relatively straightforward matter to reconstruct the Royalist dispositions.
The cavalry deployment at first glance appears quite straightforward, although a close examination throws up some interesting questions. In the first place de Gomme omits any mention of the Royalist dragoons, but it is clear from other sources that four regiments were present – and not three as is usually assumed – under the overall command of an experienced professional soldier named Sir Arthur Aston. According to the Duke of York, Aston (who had just been commissioned as Major General of Dragoons) took post on the right and a number of sources also testify to the presence there of Colonel James Usher’s Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Washington. The second regiment in his little brigade is unidentified, but there is no reason to doubt that it was Sir Edmund Duncombe’s since both regiments on the left can be identified. Colonel Edward Grey’s Regiment was certainly there and Bulstrode refers to the dragoons on that flank being commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Lisle and Lieutenant Colonel John Innes. The latter is known to have commanded Prince Rupert’s Dragoons and therefore Lisle presumably fought under Grey, who also appears from the Duke of York’s account to have served as acting brigade commander. While both Washington and Grey were to be employed in clearing the hedges to their immediate front the role played by Rupert’s and Duncombe’s dragoons is less certain, although Belayse asserted that: ‘before every body of foot were placed two pieces of cannon, and before them the dragoons and 1,200 commanded musqueteers as Enfants Perdu.’ If true this would suggest that in addition to covering the flanks the dragoons formed a rudimentary skirmish line ahead of the infantry brigades.
There is no evidence that any of these regiments were particularly strong, and as the Royalists are generally credited with having around 1,000 dragooners it can be assumed that both Aston’s and Grey’s brigades mustered 500 men apiece.
As to the Horse, de Gomme’s representation of their deployment appears at first glance to be quite straightforward with both wings being drawn up in ‘checquer’, that is with three regiments in the front line and two more in the rear covering the gaps between.
On the extreme left of the front line stood three squadrons of Lord Wilmot’s Regiment, and then Lord Grandison’s and Lord Caernarvon’s regiments with two squadrons apiece. In the second line were Sir Thomas Aston’s and Lord Digby’s regiments, each forming only a single squadron. With the exception of Lord Wilmot’s Regiment the number of cornets depicted by de Gomme corresponds to the number of troops known to have been mustered with each regiment and the additional cornet in Wilmot’s outermost squadron may represent the troop commanded by ‘Blind Harry’ Hastings, whose whereabouts are otherwise unknown. Assuming this to be the case it would seem likely that the first line, commanded by Wilmot himself, numbered about 850–900 officers and men, with a further 300 or so in support.
Turning to the right wing, however, there at first appears to be an odd discrepancy both as to the number of comets depicted by de Gomme and in the apparent strength of Sir John Byron’s Regiment. On the extreme right of the front line stood the King’s Lifeguard comprising a single squadron said by Sir Philip Warwick to have been 300 strong. Its proper place should have been with the King himself, but stung by unkind jibes from the rest of the cavalry they insisted on taking part in the attack.
The Lifeguard aside there were, as on the left, three regiments in the front line: the Prince of Wales’ Regiment, Prince Rupert’s and Prince Maurice’s Regiments. All three were formed in two squadrons and all three according to de Gomme’s plan mustered four troops apiece. Maurice’s Regiment certainly had only four troops but the other two were rather stronger with Rupert’s mustering six troops and the Prince of Wales’ perhaps as many as eight. Conversely, however, Sir John Byron’s Regiment in the second line is depicted with six troops organised in two squadrons. As he had mustered no more than 200 horse and dragoons at Worcester only a month before this looks rather unlikely. It is rather more probable therefore that the two squadrons which de Gomme shows under Sir John Byron’s command is actually an ad hoc brigade comprising his own embryonic cavalry regiment and the reserve troops of the Prince of Wales’ and Prince Rupert’s regiments.
Assuming that one third of both regiments went into the reserve, as was certainly a common practice, then the front line ought to have numbered close on 900 officers and men, while Byron’s two reserve squadrons may have mustered anything from 300 to 500 men depending on just how strong his own regiment was. Both wings of horse were therefore of a similar size except for the addition of the 300 Lifeguards on the right.
The equally neat-looking deployment of the infantry forming the centre masks a furious row over their deployment. Like the cavalry, they were initially drawn up in ‘checquer’ with three brigades in the front line and two in the second.
From right to left stood Colonel Charles Gerard’s brigade, comprising his own, Sir Lewis Dyve’s and Sir Ralph Dutton’s regiments. In the centre of the front line Colonel Richard Fielding’s brigade was made up from Sir Thomas Lunsford’s, Colonel Richard Bolle’s, Sir Edward Fitton’s and Sir Edward Stradling’s regiments, but apparently not his own one which may have been part of a small force covering Banbury. Finally, on the left Colonel Henry Wentworth’s brigade comprising Sir Gilbert Gerard’s, Sir Thomas Salisbury’s and Lord Molyneux’s regiments. Covering the substantial gaps between these brigades were the two standing in the second line; on the right, Sir John Belasyse’s brigade which again consisted of his own, Sir William Pennyman’s and Thomas Blagge’s regiments, and on the left; Sir Nicholas Byron’s brigade comprising the King’s Lifeguard of Foot (de Gomme depicts the Royal standard with the right hand division of this brigade), the Lord General’s and Sir John Beaumont’s regiments. On the basis of a pay warrant dated 16 November 1642, just three weeks after the battle, it has been estimated that the strength of these brigades was probably in the region of 1800 or 1900 men apiece.
The operational deployment of these brigades proved to be controversial. The King’s Lord General, the Earl of Lindsey intended to array them in the conventional Dutch or German manner, that is with two battalions up and one back. Each of these battalions would have been drawn up with a stand of pikes in the centre and musketeers on each wing. Instead a furious row broke out when the Field Marshall Patrick Ruthven insisted on employing a quite different formation known as the Swedish Brigade.
This was essentially a diamond formation comprising four battalions. The point battalion was drawn up with its stand of pikemen forward and the musketeers behind. To the right and left rear of this battalion were two more, deployed with their pikes towards the centre of the formation and the musketeers on the outside. The fourth or reserve battalion was deployed like the first and standing directly behind it.
There is no doubting that this was a complicated formation, which required the constituent regiments to be broken up and their personnel redistributed throughout the brigade. At first sight therefore it seems to have been asking too much of the inexperienced Royalist infantry and it has been suggested that the adoption of the ‘Swedish’ brigade contributed to their poor performance in the battle. However, the decision was not blindly based upon dogma but upon a very sensible appreciation of just how poorly equipped those infantrymen really were.
It is clear from de Gomme’s map and from the surviving records of arms and ammunition issued in the months after the battle that at this early stage of the war most regiments could only muster equal numbers of musketeers and pikemen – and some perhaps more pikemen – rather than the two musketeers for each pikeman required to form German-style battalions. This shortage of musketeers was obviously going to place the Royalists at a significant disadvantage in a firefight so Ruthven decided to form them up in the old ‘Swedish’ brigade which was in fact an assault formation quite literally spearheaded by pikemen.
As to the King’s artillery, little needs to be said. A pair of light guns were attached to each infantry brigade and six heavier ones appear to have been emplaced just to the north of Radway, some 300 metres behind Gerard’s brigade.