In mid-summer, the expedition reached Metemma, where they found the remains of positions dug by Wolseley’s troops fourteen years earlier, along with the graves of those who had died at Abu Klea and Abu Kru. Supplies were again built up, and the troops, Egyptian and British alike, were spoiling for a fight. By the end of August Omdurman was almost in sight, and on September 1, 1898, the Sirdar halted his army on the bank of the Nile fifteen miles above the city. There he began preparing for the battle that would seal the fate of the Mahdyyah.

As dawn broke that morning, Kitchener sent the British and Egyptian cavalry, with the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery in support, out in advance of the army, where it quickly formed a screen for the infantry and advanced toward Omdurman for a distance of about eight miles. The 21st Lancers took up positions on the left flank, anchoring the line on the Nile, while the Egyptian horse covered the front and right flank, deploying in a vast arc that stretched back into the desert. At the same time the gunboat began chugging up the river, keeping pace with the land forces.

As the cavalry advanced, just ten miles north of Omdurman, they came up to the Kerreri Hills, which to their surprise were undefended, although an abandoned Dervish camp was found. It had evidently been shelled by the gunboats the day before. It was about this time that the men of the 21st Lancers noticed that a flock of enormous vultures, numbering as many as a hundred, had suddenly begun hovering over the regiment. The belief was widespread throughout the Sudan that this was an ill omen, a sign the troops over which the birds circled would suffer heavy losses. The regiment halted at the foot of the hills, and the senior officers and a party of scouts made their way to the highest crest. From there they could behold a sight no British soldier or civilian had seen for thirteen years: Khartoum. The advance resumed and shortly every man with a pair of field-glasses or a telescope could make out not only Khartoum but also the now-yellowish dome of the Mahdi’s Tomb and the city of Omdurman.

The cavalry screen began its descent from the Kerreri Hills and onto a wide, gently rolling sand plain, some six to seven miles wide, interrupted here and there with patches of coarse grass and straggling bushes. On the left, to the east, was the Nile, with a small, deserted mud-hut village perched on its bank. The remaining three sides of the plain were surrounded by low, rocky hills and ridges, while a single low black hill and a long, low ridge running from it bisected the plain from east to west. The ground behind the ridge, that is, to the south of it, was invisible to the British and Egyptian cavalry.

Sharp-eyed observers among the Lancers noticed a long black line with white spots running along the ridge. It appeared to be a dense zeriba, or barricade, of thorn bushes. The cavalry continued to move forward in a vast line, khaki-colored on the left where the 21st Lancers were positioned, black in the center where the dark-skinned Egyptians sat on their black horses, and mottled on the right, where the Camel Corps and Horse Artillery jostled for position. As they closed with the zeriba, they could make out enemy horsemen riding about the flanks and front of the Ansar line.

It was now nearly eleven o’clock and the sun was getting hot. Suddenly the whole black line which had seemed to be the zeriba began moving—it wasn’t a thornbush barricade, it was a mass of fighting men. Behind it thousands upon thousands of Ansar and Dervish soldiers began to appear over the crest of the ridge. It was the whole of the Mahdist army. Stretching across a front of four miles, formed into five huge divisions, it moved with astonishing swiftness. A cloud of banners—black, white, and green, embroidered in gold with inscriptions from the Koran—floated above them, while their spearpoints glittered in the noon sun. It was an army of more than 50,000 men.

The Khalifa had assembled every able-bodied fighting man he could muster at Omdurman, determined to achieve the victory over the British that had eluded Muhammed Ahmed. But remembering only the victory over William Hicks’ Egyptian conscripts in 1883 and forgetting the slaughter at Abu Klea three years later, he ordered his soldiers forward into the attack rather than make a stand on the plains of Kerreri. On August 30 his scouts informed him that the enemy was nearing Omdurman, and the next day he assembled his army. Some sense of what was to come seeped through his forces, however, and nearly six thousand men deserted the night before the battle. Still it was an imposing force that advanced toward the British and Egyptians, forty-eight thousand foot soldiers and four thousand horse.

The first shots of the battle were fired at just after 11:00 AM by the gunboats on the Nile. Spotting batteries of Mahdist artillery on the riverbanks, the Royal Navy gun crews immediately opened fire on them. The Arab batteries replied as best they could, as did the forts along the river. It was a one-sided exchange, for though the Arabs had some fifty guns that could be brought to bear, the Royal Navy’s weapons were heavier and better served, and the combination of better accuracy and greater weight of shells soon took the Arab guns out of the battle. Rifle pits along the riverbanks were swept by machine-gun fire. Under cover of this barrage, the Arab Irregulars under Major Wortley began clearing out the forts and their outlying villages, which were defended by Dervishes. Most of the Irregulars refused to move closer to the buildings than five hundred yards, but Wortley’s reserve—Jaalin tribesmen who despised the Dervishes—moved in and began methodically clearing out each building, executing every Dervish they captured.

A battery of the Royal Artillery began shelling Omdurman, scoring at least three hits on the Mahdi’s Tomb. The damage to the tomb was an unfortunate consequence of its proximity to Omdurman’s arsenal, but the Arabs took it as a deliberate insult, and in their anger they sped up their advance. The Egyptian cavalry and the Horse Artillery began to withdraw, followed by the Camel Corps; the 21st Lancers remained on the army’s left flank. The Mahdist army maintained its order and began to close with the six brigades of infantry that made up the main body of the British force. The collision of the two armies, if it came, would be shattering.

Kitchener quickly issued orders that drew up the British and Egyptian infantry in lines of parade-ground precision, anchoring each flank on the Nile, the whole of the army forming an arc along the river. When a junior officer named Winston Churchill reported to the Sirdar that the advancing Arab army would be within range within the hour, Kitchener informed his staff: “We want nothing better. Here is a good field of fire. They may as well come today as tomorrow.”

As soon as the troops’ mid-day meal was finished the whole of the army stood to arms, awaiting the approaching Arabs. But instead, just before 2:00 PM, the Dervish army halted. Their riflemen loosed a single volley into the air, then the entire force went to ground. There would be no engagement that day, but it was certain that the battle that both Kitchener and the Khalifa wanted would take place on the morrow.

The rest of that day, September 1, and night were marked by a handful of desultory skirmishes between small groups of British infantry and Ansar on the Kerreri Plain. The steamers took up positions on the Nile to cover the flanks of the army, and throughout the night shone their searchlights up and down the riverbanks to prevent any surprise attacks.

Kitchener had ordered his troops to bed down for the night in the positions they had occupied during the day, so rather than establishing the checkerboard arrangement of brigade squares which had been typical of the British Army at night, each brigade had constructed rough zeribas of thorn bushes about its position and posted double sentries, while patrols roamed the intervals between brigades. It was a tactic through which Kitchener displayed his intimate knowledge of the Arab way of making war. Knowing that they despised night attacks, he gave himself the advantage of having his units sleep in their lines, which in the morning would save valuable time by not requiring the brigades to maneuver into position in the face of the enemy.

As the pre-dawn grayness crept across the sky on September 2, 1899, bugles sounded the morning stand-to across the British camp. Cavalry patrols were sent out, and by 6:30 AM the first reports were coming in: the Khalifa’s army had spent the night in the same place it had halted the day before. Suddenly the cavalry scouts realized that the entire Mahdist army was on the move. A roar of righteous fury arose from the Arab mass as they rode and marched to the attack, a sound so loud that it was faintly heard in the British camp, still nearly five miles distant.

The British and Egyptians were ready. As the morning light grew, the banners of each Khalifa and Emir became visible to the waiting infantry: on the extreme left the bright green flag of Ali-Wad-Helu; next to his followers flew the dark green flag of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din, surrounded by a mass of spearmen, preceded by long lines of warriors armed presumably with rifles; on the right a host of Dervishes surged forward under a collection of white flags, while visible among them was the red banner of Sherif; in the center flew the sacred Black banner of Abdullahi himself. Within the ranks of this army were, as Churchill later described it, “Riflemen who had helped to destroy Hicks, spearmen who had charged at Abu Klea, Emirs who saw the sack of Gondar, Baggara fresh from raiding the Shillooks, warriors who had besieged Khartoum—-all marched, inspired by the memories of former triumphs and embittered by the knowledge of late defeats, to chastise the impudent and accursed invaders.”

While the Khalifa was committed to attacking Kitchener’s army, he had no intention of simply flinging his Dervishes and Ansar into a headlong assault. Instead he formulated a clever plan that, had he not so greatly underestimated the destructive power of modern weaponry, might actually have succeeded in driving Kitchener’s army into the Nile. His first move was to send fifteen thousand of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din’s Dervishes forward to deliver a frontal attack on the Anglo-Egyptian line. He waited with a similar force near a rise known as Surgham Hill to watch the outcome.

Though he almost certainly didn’t expect it to succeed, if it did the assault would have been followed by Abdullahi’s own bodyguard, the elite of the Arab army. As every man in the British and Egyptian Armies knew by now, the Dervishes were extraordinarily brave men and dangerous opponents. The purpose of this attack was two-fold: it might actually succeed in breaking the enemy line, and at the same time it would cover a movement by the rest of Osman Sheikh-ed-Din’s soldiers, who were to move to the northern flank and swing around to strike at the Egyptian brigade, not by any means Kitchener’s best or most reliable troops. But that was not the most clever part of the Khalifa’s plan. Ali-Wad-Helu had been instructed to keep some twenty-two thousand men in reserve behind the Kerreri Hills, out of sight and out of range of the British. If the first two attacks failed—and by his planning it seems that Abdullahi was to some degree anticipating that they would—when the Anglo-Egyptian army advanced on Omdurman, believing they had won an easy victory, the remaining Ansar would swoop down from the hills, catching the enemy out in the open plain, in marching order, unable to form their habitual square. Caught by Ali-Wad-Helu’s twenty-two thousand to the north and the Khalifa with sixteen thousand to the south, with the Nile behind them and the open desert before them, the British and Egyptian soldiers would be doomed. It would be the Hicks disaster all over again.

But it was not to be. The British artillery opened up when the Dervish center came within range. Four batteries began firing at a range of about 3,000 yards. Gaps momentarily appeared in the Arab ranks. They were quickly filled, and the advance continued. The gunboats joined in the cannonade, and soon shells were bursting all along the Arab line. Still the Arabs closed with their British and Egyptian foes.

At a thousand yards the infantry opened fire, the crash of their massed volleys of rifles punctuated by the chatter of machine-guns. The gaps in the Arab lines grew larger and were filled less quickly now, the approach becoming a bit ragged—yet they still came on. The artillery was firing shrapnel shells over the heads of the advancing Dervishes and Ansar, the fragments raining down on them. It was here that two mistakes caught up with the Khalifa, dooming his plans. The first was that in one of those quirks of fate which can often decide battles and which no commander can ever completely avoid, both divisions of Dervishes attacked simultaneously rather than in succession. This meant that the Anglo-Egyptian infantry would only confront a single charge, rather than being forced to divide their fire, and would only have to endure a single shock action if the Arabs were able to come to close combat instead of the succession of impacts that Abdullahi had anticipated. It also meant exposing them to the devastating rifle volleys of British and Egyptian troops and the raking fire of the Maxim guns. The second mistake was the Khalifa’s apparent ignorance of the effectiveness of his enemy’s weapons.

The British Army and its Egyptian counterpart, now thoroughly reorganized along British lines, were now equipped with the .303 calibre Lee-Metford, a bolt action rifle which had replaced the old Martini-Henrys. The Lee-Metford fired a round at nearly twice the velocity and twice the range of the Martini, with almost double the rate of fire. When the Arab army advanced toward the Anglo-Egyptian lines, they marched into a veritable wall of fire, as the 300 rounds-per-minute rate of fire of the Maxim guns was added to the fifteen rounds per minute each infantryman was capable of producing.

The effect was devastating. Entire ranks of Ansar and Dervishes were brought down in bloody heaps before they could get within range with their own weapons. With each volley the charging Arabs seemed to draw a little closer to the British ranks, but in ever dwindling numbers. Finally, at about 800 yards from the British lines, the Dervishes could do no more—it was impossible to advance another foot against such firepower.

On the Anglo-Egyptian right, a force of cavalry, the Camel Corps, and Horse Artillery, supported by the Egyptian Brigade, brought the Dervish left to a halt, preventing the turning movement that Abdullahi had thought possible there. The fighting was fierce and the British suffered significant casualties, though the Dervish losses were just awful. Several British officers would recall how the Dervishes continued to close relentlessly, heedless of the artillery shells exploding within their ranks. When one of the gunboats stood in close to the shoreline and began firing at the Dervish soldiers at almost point-blank range, the situation became unbearable even for those incredibly brave men, and they fell back in confusion, harassed by the British cavalry, effectively out of the battle.

The Dervish frontal attack on the center continued, but still could make no headway against the fearsome British firepower. Though they quickly learned that the dense ranks in which they advanced presented targets impossible to miss and so began advancing in more dispersed formations, eight hundred yards was the closest any of the Ansar could approach to the British lines. Yet, though they were unable to advance, they were unwilling to retire. Here and there Arab riflemen would find a fold of ground that allowed them to take shots at the British troops, but the range was long, their weapons old, and their effect was negligible. Slowly, reluctantly, the Arabs withdrew. Their courage had been unquestionable, but it hadn’t been enough against the measured volleys of a modern army supported by machine guns and artillery. By eight o’clock more than four thousand of the Dervish warriors lay dead or wounded on the open ground before the British lines.

As the Arabs withdrew, artillery started picking off the small groups of riflemen who were still doing their best to harass the British line. Small pockets of warriors, seeking shelter from the British volleys, were flushed into the open and, deciding that they had endured enough for the moment, quickly fled the field. Lee-Metford and Maxim fire followed them, until they were lost to sight behind the far ridge of the Kerreri plain.

Once the Arab attack had been broken, Kitchener and his officers agreed that they had to occupy Omdurman before the Dervish army could retreat into the city. The British unit on the extreme left of the Anglo-Egyptian position, the 21st Lancers, was sent orders to ride for the city and cut off the retreat of the Arab army: “Advance and clear the left flank, and use every effort to prevent the enemy re-entering Omdurman.”

Initially facing the Lancers was a small force of seven hundred Arabs, positioned to prevent any blocking movement of the Khalifa’s line of retreat to Omdurman. As soon as the Lancers began moving toward Omdurman, Abdullahi sent an additional twenty-four hundred of his fighting men to support the blocking force. While the Arabs raced to get into position, the 21st methodically went through the drill preparatory to advancing against an enemy—or if need be, charging one.

This was not a demonstration of British dedication to military orthodoxy or the commanders’ lack of imagination or sense of urgency. To be truly effective, cavalry charges had to be carefully organized and staged: in real life they were a far cry from the spectacles depicted in countless motion pictures, where a bugle sounds the “Charge” and a mass of horsemen spring forward in a mad, headlong gallop. The success or failure of a charge came down to one single moment—the instant when the horsemen met the foot soldiers. Unformed infantry, that is troops not in a column or square, were vulnerable at all times to cavalry, but formed troops could only be defeated if the cavalry met them in a single, cohesive mass, relying on the shock of the impact to break the infantry formation. Maintaining that cohesion and mass was the purpose of the careful preparations the 21st Lancers were now undertaking.

They first formed into line of squadron columns, and continued forward at a walk until they came to within three hundred yards of the Arabs. Wheeling left, the squadrons broke into a trot as they moved across the Dervish front. The Arabs quickly opened fire on the cavalry, inflicting casualties among the troopers and the horses. The order rang out, “Right wheel into line,” and at that, four hundred horsemen swung round into a single line and began working up to the gallop.

It was the first charge the regiment had ever made in its history. The fact that the unit had never before been in battle was an embarrassment to all of its officers and troopers. Though the regimental motto was “Death or Glory,” cynical officers from other cavalry units scorned the 21st by declaring that its actual motto was “Thou shalt not kill.” Now the 21st was given a chance to prove its mettle. What was about to happen would be a costly demonstration of regimental pride.

The horsemen were still some two hundred and fifty yards from the Arab riflemen who were still firing away at them, when the rising, ten-note bugle call of the “Charge!” was sounded and the regiment broke into a full gallop. Before half the distance to the riflemen had been crossed, a khor—a dry watercourse—appeared that had been invisible until the riders were virtually on top of it. Out of it sprang a screaming, surging mass of white-clad Arabs, the twenty-four hundred reinforcements the Khalifa had sent to support the blocking force.

The Lancers crashed into and through the Arabs, down into the khor and up the other side. Seventy-one officers and troopers fell in that first clash, and as its impetus carried it through the Arab position, the regiment wheeled about-face, reformed, and charged once again. By this time, though, the unit had lost much of its cohesion and the pace of the charge was slower. Soon a hand-to-hand melee was underway between Dervish and trooper, and it was only decided when one squadron of the Lancers drew off, dismounted and opened fire on the Arabs with their carbines. It was the last cavalry charge ever made by the British Army, and it was over in barely ten minutes.

It had been a desperate, ferocious, and ultimately needless action. Winston Churchill, who had not only been an eyewitness to the charge but a participant, painted a memorable picture of the aftermath of one of the last stands of the Mahdi’s army:

The Lancers remained in possession of the dearly bought ground. There was not much to show that there had been a desperate fight. A quarter of a mile away nothing would have been noticed. Close to, the scene looked like a place where rubbish is thrown, or where a fair has recently been held. White objects, like dirty bits of newspaper, lay scattered here and there—-the bodies of the enemy. Brown objects, almost the color of the earth, like bundles of dead grass or heaps of manure, were also dotted about—-the bodies of soldiers. Among these were goat-skin water-bottles, broken weapons, torn and draggled flags, cartridge cases. In the foreground lay a group of dead horses and several dead or dying donkeys. It was all litter.

It had been a costly action. The seventy-one dead and wounded Lancers amounted to nearly a fifth of the regimental strength, while close to a thousand Arabs lay dead or dying on the field. The remainder fled while the surviving Lancers collected their casualties and reformed their ranks. At about the same time, a heavy barrage of cannon fire began and seconds later the crackle of small arms could be heard from behind the ridge. It was just on 9:00 AM and the whole of the British Army had swung over to the attack.

As soon as the Mahdist soldiers in the center began to withdraw, Kitchener had ordered his British and Egyptian brigades to advance toward Omdurman. It was a bold move, for there were still more than thirty-six thousand Ansar and Dervishes on the field, many of them mounted—more than sufficient forces to block Kitchener’s advance and inflict heavy losses in the process.

The infantry brigades wheeled left in echelon formation and began marching toward Surgham Ridge. At the same time, the Khalifa’s reserves, fifteen thousand horsemen and foot-soldiers, turned on the northernmost British brigade, that is, the last in the line. Surging over the ridge, the Arabs charged with as much ferocity as the Dervishes had shown earlier. Seeing the looming threat, Kitchener instantly responded with a series of crisp orders that completely realigned his army. Whereas it had begun the fight facing to the southwest, it was now facing almost due north.

The Khalifa, watching from the far side of the plain as his warriors attacked the British line, saw a possibility that his original plan might still come to pass—catching the British and Egyptians in the open desert—if his widely separated divisions could manage to attack both British flanks simultaneously. It would create a crisis for Kitchener, compelling him to divide his reserves, denying him the opportunity to move units from one part of the line to support threatened sections. But even as he watched he saw that the assault against the British left would begin too soon. On the other side, the divisions of Ali-Wad-Helu and Osman Sheikh ed-Din were still reforming on the Kerreri Hills, and their attack on the British right would come too late.

The British front was nearly a mile in length, and all along it the Lee-Metfords and Maxims took a savage toll of the Arabs. Many of the Ansar and Dervish leaders lay dead in the sand, surrounded by their bodyguards and warriors. Field batteries ranged artillery fire up and down the Arab ranks. With the Sirdar in the center, the entire Anglo-Egyptian line began to move forward against what was left of the Mahdist army. Shiekh Yakub and his bodyguards made a defiant stand under their Black Flag, refusing to give up their ground, and were killed where they stood. The remnants of Abdullahi’s other divisions began to dissolve, fleeing into the desert. Thousands straggled toward Omdurman, where survivors of the 21st Lancers harried the flanks of the fugitive column. One group of some four hundred Arab horsemen formed up and charged the British brigade on the far left of the line, only to be shot down to a man before they reached the khaki-clad infantry.

Kitchener pressed his attack until the Ansar and Dervishes were driven into the desert, left in a state of chaos and confusion, and no longer a threat to his army. At 11:30 AM, the Sirdar turned to his staff and announced that the enemy had been given “a good dusting.” He then gave orders that the march to Omdurman be resumed. The “Cease Fire” sounded up and down the line, rifles brought to the slope, and columns of march reformed.

As they departed the field, the British left behind nearly twenty thousand Arab dead, with another five thousand trailing behind under guard as prisoners. The Arab wounded totaled more than twenty-two thousand. British and Egyptian losses, in contrast, were forty-eight dead and less than four hundred wounded. Abdullahi had escaped, but his power was broken, his eventual capture a mere formality—at least, that was what Kitchener and his officers believed.

The Sirdar and his staff rode into Omdurman with their troops in the late afternoon. The rumor had been spread by the Khalifa that should the city be taken the British would massacre all the inhabitants as revenge for the murder of Gordon, but when this proved to be false there was a tremendous celebration in the streets. British troops were scouring the city, hoping to find Abdullahi, only to learn that as the Arab army was collapsing under the weight of Kitchener’s final assault, the Khalifa had fled into the city, spent two hours in prayer at the Mahdi’s tomb, and then just as Kitchener was entering the city by the north, Abdullahi mounted a donkey, took a Greek nun with him as a hostage, and fled out the southern gate. There he joined thirty thousand refugees, the remnants of his army, who were trudging their way south toward El Obeid.

Kitchener’s troops did find Rudolf Karl von Slatin, the Austrian officer who had been a prisoner of the Mahdi and the Khalifa for fifteen years, along with Karl Neufeld, a German trader who had been held captive for twelve. Kitchener himself paid a visit to the Mahdi’s tomb, which had been badly damaged when the British gunboats had shelled the city’s arsenal, and initiated what was probably the most disturbing incident of his entire career. Arriving at the tomb, he ordered Muhammed Ahmed’s body removed, its head cut off, and its remains thrown into the Nile. What he intended to do with the skull is unknown, although rumors later had it that he either intended to turn it into a drinking cup or send it to the Royal College of Surgeons as a curiosity. In any event, once word of this incident reached the public the outcry was fierce—even Queen Victoria expressed outrage at the desecration, remarking that it “savoured too much of the Middle Ages.” Chastened, Kitchener then sent the skull to Cairo, where Evelyn Baring took possession of it and had it buried according to Moslem custom in a cemetery at Wadi Halfa.

In the meantime, Kitchener and his troops occupied Khartoum, now falling into ruin, and there found a handful of reminders of General Gordon. Though his body was never found, a funeral service for Gordon was held on September 4 with full military honors. As gunboats on the Nile fired a salute and three cheers were raised, first for the Queen, then for the Khedive, the British and Egyptian flags were once again unfurled above the Governor’s Palace. Kitchener, who had long admired Gordon and had taken the news of Khartoum’s fall fourteen years earlier very hard, was so moved by the ceremony that he was unable to give the order to dismiss the troops on parade, and had one of his subordinates issue the command. In the days to come he would be seen spending long hours in solitary contemplation walking in the courtyard where Gordon had met his death. When Queen Victoria received Kitchener’s report of the funeral service, she confided to her diary with some satisfaction, “Surely he is avenged.”

A part of Kitchener’s solitary walks were no doubt devoted to a set of orders he had been given before departing Cairo, but was not permitted to open until he had taken Khartoum. Upon reading them, he discovered that he had been ordered to take his army further up the Nile into the Sudan to a small mud-fort called Fashoda, once held by the Egyptians but now occupied by a column of French soldiers who had marched out of the Congo. Once there, Kitchener was to remove the French and place the fort and the surrounding territory firmly under Anglo-Egyptian control.

Setting out from Khartoum in a small flotilla of riverboats on September 10, Kitchener reached Fashoda eight days later, and through a remarkable demonstration of tact and diplomacy, persuaded the French commander to leave the fort. It took two months for the details of the two officers’ agreement to be settled by their respective governments, but on December 11, the French departed. Kitchener took his time returning to Khartoum, securing the Nile along the way by building small forts and leaving Egyptian garrisons to man them.

When he arrived in Khartoum at the beginning of March, he discovered that a grateful nation, by an act of Parliament, had awarded him the sum of £30,000, and that he had been elevated to an earl—styling himself “Kitchener of Khartoum,” he would be known throughout the Empire as simply “K of K.” At the same time he had also been given the authority to rebuild the Sudanese capital. Seven thousand new trees were planted as five thousand workmen began repairing the buildings damaged during the siege or allowed to fall into ruin during the Mahdyyah. Kitchener also raised a £120,000 public subscription for the establishment of Gordon College in Khartoum. To further commemorate the General, a statue of Gordon mounted on a camel was eventually placed in the square in front of the Governor’s Palace.

But there was still one piece of unfinished business: the Khalifa. For more than a year Abdullahi had wandered in the dry hills of the central Sudan, among the Baggara, the tribe from which the Khalifa had come. British and Egyptian agents searched for him, but it wasn’t until October 1899 that definitive reports of a camp near Jebel Gedir were received. An oasis more than four hundred miles south of Khartoum, Jebel Gedir was hardly a likely focal point for a new Islamic uprising, while the Khaifa had fewer than ten thousand followers who remained loyal. It is even arguable that Abdullahi himself had given up the cause of the Mahdi. Yet there was still a cause for concern among the British and Egyptians: Jebel Gedir lay just south of Abbas Island, where the Mahdi had been born and where he had begun his jihad. There remained strong undercurrents of pro-Mahdist sentiment in the region, and that alone was reason enough for Kitchener to choose to settle the issue with the Khalifa once and for all.

Sending eight thousand men up the Nile to the village of Kaka, where they began their overland trek to Jebel Gedir, Kitchener gave command of the force to Colonel Sir Francis Reginald Wingate, who had served as an aide to Field Marshal Wolseley on the Gordon Relief Expedition, spoke fluent Arabic, and was by all accounts an expert on Egypt, the Sudan and the Middle East. Moving swiftly, Wingate took part of his force westward and on November 21 overtook an Arab caravan carrying grain for the Khalifa. Two days later the Khalifa’s camp was discovered near a well at Um Diwaykarat. Wingate brought up the whole of his force and Abdullahi was trapped. With the route to the north cut off by the British, the Nile to the east, the desert to the west and impassible scrub and brush to the south, a battle was inevitable.

It was Omdurman all over again, though on a far smaller scale. As the Arabs attacked in the early morning light, the crashing British rifle volleys and chattering machine guns chewed into the ranks of the charging enemy. It was over within an hour: a thousand Arab dead lay on the field, while nearly ten thousand more were taken prisoner, including the Khalifa’s son, his designated successor. As the morning light grew brighter, an amazing sight greeted the British officers examining the battlefield. Wingate told the tale with simple dignity:

Only a few hundred yards from our original position on the rising ground, a large number of the enemy were seen lying dead, huddled together in a comparatively small space; on examination these proved to be the bodies of the Khalifa Abdullahi, the Khalifa Ali Wad Helu, Ahmed-el-Fedil, the Khalifa’s two brothers, Sennousi Ahmed and Hamed Muhammed, the Mahdi’s son, Es-Sadek, and a number of other well-known leaders.

At a short distance behind them lay their dead horses, and, from the few men still alive—among whom was the Emir Yunis Eddekin—we learnt that the Khalifa, having failed in his attempt to reach the rising ground where we had forestalled him, had then endeavoured to make a turning movement, which had been crushed under our fire. Seeing his followers retiring, he made an ineffectual attempt to rally them, but recognizing that the day was lost, he had called on his emirs to dismount from their horses, and seating himself on his “furwa” or sheepskin—as is the custom of Arab chiefs who disdain surrender—he had placed the Khalifa Ali Wad Helu on his right and Ahmed Fedil on his left, whilst the remaining emirs seated themselves round him, their bodyguard in line some twenty paces to their front, and in this position they had unflinchingly met their death. They were given a fitting burial, under our supervision, by the surviving members of their own tribesmen.

It was the end of the Mahdyyah.

Kitchener added a postscript to Wingate’s report, saying, “The country has at last been finally relieved of the military tyranny which started in a movement of wild religious fanaticism upwards of 19 years ago. Mahdism is now a thing of the past, and I hope that a brighter era has now opened for the Sudan.” As prophecies and predictions go, this was both prescient and naive.

Certainly the Sudan would prosper under British rule. Once the last remnants of the Mahdyyah were swept away the slave trade quickly withered and died, while railroads brought permanent connections to the outside world for the entire country; the Sudan would no longer be dependent solely on the Nile. Culturally the country would remain divided between the Arab, Moslem north and the African, Christian south, but as long as the British retained power, there was little friction between the two—the British simply did not tolerate it. When independence came to the Sudan in 1956, to all appearances the country, its administration, finances, industry, and agriculture were all in fine shape—the transition from colonial rule to home rule was smooth and uncomplicated.

As often happens, however, appearances were deceiving. As the Anglo-Egyptian co-dominium wound down, two political parties had emerged in the Sudan. One was the National Unionist Party (NUP), which had as its central policy a demand for a union of the Sudan and Egypt. The other was the Umma Party, backed by Sayed Sir Abdur-Rahman al-Mahdi, the Mahdi’s grandson, which wanted no links with Egypt, but rather demanded complete independence. In December 1953, in the first elections held in the Sudan in preparation for the introduction of home rule, the NUP won a resounding victory, securing a majority in the House of Representatives with al-Aihari becoming the Sudan’s first Prime Minister. The replacement of colonial officials and bureaucrats with their Sudanese counterparts proceeded smoothly, and British and Egyptian troops left the country for the last time on January 1, 1956.

Yet, less than two years later, on November 17, 1958, General Ibrahim Abboud toppled the Government of al-Aihari in a bloodless army coup. Suspending democratic institutions indefinitely, General Abboud ruled through a thirteen-member army junta until October 1964, when a popular uprising among the Sudanese drove Abboud and his junta from power. For the next five years, the Sudan once again functioned as a working, if somewhat troubled, democracy.

It was during this period, though, that a new set of troubles began to emerge, as rebellion broke out in the southern Sudan as a consequence of what was felt to be oppression of the black southern Christians by the northern Arab Moslems. The rebels were led by Major-General Joseph Lagu, who continued with his rebellion even when the civilian government fell to another military coup in May 1969 and installed Colonel Jaafar al-Numieri as the new head of state. Open warfare broke out between the north and south that same year, and the fighting continued until March 1972 when a peaceful settlement was reached between the government and the rebels.

The ghost of the Mahdi still haunted the Sudan, however, as in July 1976, al-Numieri, who now styled himself President, was almost removed from power in an attempted coup led by former finance minister Hussein al-Hindi and former prime minister Sadiq al-Mahdi, the Mahdi’s great-grandson. More than two thousand heavily armed civilians were carefully smuggled into Khartoum and Omdurman, where, once the signal to act was given, they caused widespread destruction among both civilian and military targets. The Sudanese army remained loyal to Numieri, however, and gradually crushed the coup. The reprisals were swift and severe: several hundred suspects were summarily imprisoned, while ninety-eight were executed for their part in the plot. Al-Hindi and al-Mahdi returned to exile.

It was on September 8, 1983 that President al-Numeiri brought the Sudan much closer to a return to the Mahdyyah, when he announced that the nation’s penal code would be linked “organically and spiritually” to Islamic common law, called the Sharia. All criminal offences would now subject to judgment according to the Koran. The penalties for murder, adultery, and theft suddenly became the same as they had been a century earlier. Alcohol and gambling were once more prohibited.

In the 1980s, as drought overtook central Africa and famine set in, millions of refugees poured into the Sudan, particularly to the south. Massive aid by the United Nations kept a tragedy from escalating into a disaster, but thousands still died as the Sudan’s agricultural base, though strong, was insufficient to support them all. Once regarded as the potential bread basket of the Arab world, there were now food shortages throughout the country, even in the capital of Khartoum.

Discontent with al-Numieri grew as the famine worsened and the southern provinces, now chafing under an Islamic legal system they did not recognize as legitimate, once again rose in open rebellion. In April 1985 al-Numieri was deposed in yet another military coup, this one led by Lt. Gen. Swar al-Dahab, who, in a departure from the norm for African and Middle Eastern politics, returned the government to civilian rule. The new Prime Minister was Sadiq al-Mahdi. A century after the Mahdi’s death, his great-grandson ruled the Sudan.

Like an Arabian fairy tale, the story of the Mahdi has become a fixture in the folklore and mythology of modern Islam. The young religious scholar who became the great desert warrior, dedicated to cleansing Islam, who defied and defeated great armies and generals, and who caused powerful leaders in mighty nations to tremble at his name, still holds a powerful sway over the hearts and minds of countless Moslems. Well into the twentieth century, the Mahdi remained a central figure in Sudanese history and myth, symbolic of a poor nation’s resistance to foreign aggrandizement and oppression. Nor was the lesson of his successes lost on all Western observers: historian Anthony Nutting offered an incisive analysis of how the Mahdi’s appeal still remains potent: “A boat builder’s son from the Nile had shown the world how a group of naked tribesmen, armed physically, at first, with sticks and stones but inwardly always with faith and unity, could be united and obtain superiority to a point where the greatest power on earth was held to ransom.” In emulating the Mahdi’s doctrines, his spirit, his intolerance, and his ruthlessness, it has been a lesson that modern militant Islam has taken to heart.


Illustration from Vaux Passional thought to show Henry (top) mourning his mother, with his sisters, Mary and Margaret, at age 11, 1503

The king’s grace is but a weak and sickly man, not likely to be a long-lived man. Not long since he was sick and lay at his manor at Wanstead. At that time a number of great personages discussed among themselves the shape of things that might come should his grace depart this life. Some of them spoke of my lord of Buckingham, saying that he was a noble man and would be a royal ruler. Others spoke of Edmund de la Pole. But none of them spoke of the Prince of Wales.

Sometime in 1504 or 1505 a group of royal servants, in the relative safety of England’s continental port of Calais, speculated on the future of their country. Such political gossip reflected two assumptions: the current regime of Henry VII was vastly unpopular and it would be succeeded by that of any rival to the house of Tudor who could command a large enough following among the leading magnates of the realm. The fact that the new dynasty warded off rebellions and coups and survived, for a further century, despite depending for that survival on a royal minor and two royal women, says much for the political tenacity and acumen of England’s greatest reigning house. It also reflects the preoccupation of most of the crown’s subjects with stability and continuity. Whatever scheming nobles might have thought in the twilight years of Henry VII’s reign, the people at large had no taste for a return to the carnage and dislocation of the Wars of the Roses.

The boy who was to become Henry VIII would be the most absolute monarch England ever experienced and would preside over fundamental and far-reaching changes in the cultural, political and economic life of the nation. It is tempting to put all this down to his strength of character but the truth is more complex. It has to do with the impact of revolutionary ideas over which the king had no control and with a succession of gifted royal servants able not only to give Henry what he wanted but what they wanted him to want. It also reflects the passivity of a people unwilling to engage in major rebellion until pushed beyond endurance. Yet, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, those supposedly in the know could discount the possibility of young Harry succeeding to or maintaining his hold of the crown. To begin to understand the reign of Henry VIII we, too, must expunge from our minds what we know of Renaissance and Reformation England, the matrimonial convolutions of the king’s life, the lavish royal rituals, the transfer of ecclesiastical wealth and power to the crown and the emergence of a new class of land-rich gentlemen and businessmen, who were partners in change but steadily developing an awareness of their own corporate interests. We must submit to the mental conditioning of Henry’s contemporaries. They could only predict the future in terms of the past.

At the dawn of the sixteenth century there were very good reasons for discounting the accession to the throne of Henry VII’s only surviving son, born in 1491. Twice during the previous 100 years the crown had passed to a minor and on both occasions the results had been disastrous. Henry V had been succeeded by Henry VI, a nine-month-old boy who became the pawn of aristocratic factions and was murdered, after a reign as chaotic as it was long, in 1471. Twelve years later the usurper, Edward IV, died and bequeathed his realm to the twelve-year-old Prince Edward. The new king and his brother were removed by their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, who was driven not only by his own ambition, but by the conviction that England could never be secure under the rule of a minor. As the movers and shakers of Gothic England waited for Henry VII to die, there seemed every reason to suppose that the future would lie in their own scheming hands and an effective military leader of their own choosing. The king disappointed their hopes. His last service to England was his eking out of his life until young Harry of Wales was within sight of his eighteenth birthday. The crown passed without challenge to the legitimate heir amidst demonstrations of wild rejoicing. The dynasty was secure – for the moment.

Our story, however, must start further back in time. A few months before Columbus gained his first sight of the Americas and the surviving Moors their last sight of Spain before being driven out by Ferdinand and Isabella, little Henry Tudor entered the world on 28 June 1491 in the palace of Greenwich, downriver from the fetid summer airs of the capital whither Elizabeth of York had resorted with her ladies for her lying-in. The birth process was always hazardous but the queen was robust and had already been safely delivered of one boy child (Arthur, 1486) and one girl child (Margaret, 1489). It was, nevertheless, a relief for the king to know that he had another healthy son, a ‘spare’ heir. The royal family continued to grow. Over the next few years Henry had three younger siblings, though only one, Mary (1496), survived infancy. By the standards of the day it was a good-sized brood, particularly valuable to King Henry because it enabled him to secure his position by negotiating a series of marriages with other royal houses. Childhood was short in those days. Long before puberty the young princes and princesses had become accustomed to the idea that they were destined for separation and dispersion to various European courts.

What little we can know about the upbringing of the royal children suggests that the dominant figure in their enclosed world was their grandmother. Lady Margaret Beaufort was a femme formidable in every sense. Scheming, ambitious and strong-willed, the king’s mother had been one of the principle agents in Henry VII’s acquisition of the throne. From a very early age she had been caught up in the sinister game of dynastic snakes and ladders. Because she was descended from Edward III, she was married off by Henry VI to his half-brother, Edmund Tudor, with the sole intention of producing more supporters of the Lancastrian cause. Edward lost no time in making his young bride pregnant by an act which must have been very close to rape. It left Margaret unable to have more children but she did have a son (the future Henry VII) and the two would always be very close. The bond was even stronger because Henry never knew his father, who died of plague before he was born. In 1471, when Henry was thirteen, the Yorkist Edward IV confirmed his grasp of the throne by murdering Henry VI. The young Tudor now became a theoretical rival and Margaret organized his hurried flight across the Channel. While Henry spent the next fourteen years in asylum in Brittany, his mother negotiated, plotted and schemed to gain the royal favour which would allow his return. However, the possibility of making a bid for the crown was never far from her thoughts and when Richard III’s usurpation created a backlash among many of the nobility she grasped her opportunity to place her son at the head of a rebellion. Her scheming was as audacious as it was energetic. Her agents scurried secretly to and fro among disaffected Yorkist magnates, promising not a Lancastrian takeover but the union of the rival houses by the marriage of her son to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth. Meanwhile, other conspirators bargained with the rulers of France and Brittany for the provision of men and arms. The outcome of the rebellion was by no means a foregone conclusion and there were a number of false starts to the campaign before Henry Tudor landed safely at Milford Haven in August 1485. His eventual victory at Bosworth had as much to do with defections from the royal ranks as with the accomplishments of Henry’s mongrel army.

It was inevitable that Margaret Beaufort would exercise considerable influence in the new regime. Henry relied heavily on his mother’s advice and she enjoyed greater prominence than Henry’s new wife, Elizabeth of York. She assumed the royal coat of arms, signed documents ‘Margaret R.’ and appeared at court rituals beside the king. She maintained a large, magnificently appointed household not a whit less impressive than her that of her son. She wore sumptuous jewellery and beautifully tailored gowns, though almost always these were of simple cut and in chaste black. The portrait of her in Christ’s College, one of two centres of learning she founded at Cambridge, reveals an austere woman in a nun-like habit, reading a devotional book.

There is no contradiction here. Margaret managed to combine worldly pomp and power with genuine religious devotion. Although she never entered a convent, she separated from her third husband in order to organize her daily life around a ritual of prayer and worship. She endowed ancient religious houses but was interested in modern developments in theology and religious art. And technology: she was the foremost patroness of the new, revolutionary printing industry. She ordered several devotional works from the presses of William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde and bought copies as gifts for friends and protégés.

The most devout King David. . .taught the people of Israel to praise God with their whole hearts and with voices full of melody to bless and praise him every day. If so great devotion was then used. . .what reverence and devotion ought now to be preserved by me and all Christian people during the ministration of the sacrament.

These words from the early fifteenth-century devotional classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, were translated personally by Margaret for the first English edition and it is no surprise to learn that she took the writer’s advice. Her chapel staff rivalled that of the king for numbers and musicality and was an important centre for the development of English polyphony. As a widow in her fifties who had experienced – and survived – many of the changes and chances of a troubled age, Margaret was an awe-inspiring old woman who wielded immense political and moral authority. According to the Spanish ambassador, she dominated her daughter-in-law and if Elizabeth was overwhelmed by the older woman the young princes and princesses must have been even more so. They were brought up in royal manors south of the Thames – Eltham, Greenwich and Richmond – and Margaret could easily visit them from her residence at Woking or her riverside town mansion of Coldharbour, near London Bridge. The grandmother they encountered in those early years was a strict disciplinarian with firm ideas about everything and everyone – especially education and religion.

The queen mother’s confessor and closest adviser on things scholarly and spiritual was John Fisher, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University and one of the most advanced thinkers of the day. He belonged to that circle of international cognoscenti whom traditionalists dismissed contemptuously as trendy advocates of ‘New Learning’ because they had absorbed the Renaissance passion for classical scholarship and the original Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible instead of being content with the time-honoured regurgitation of accepted patristic interpretations. Margaret naturally turned to Fisher when it came to selecting those men who should be employed as tutors for the royal children. Each of the siblings was appointed his or her own household staff and the academic avant-garde featured prominently among the appointees. The man installed as tutor to Prince Henry in about 1496 was the very remarkable poet and scholar, John Skelton. He had recently been appointed poet laureate at Cambridge and probably belonged to Fisher’s circle. Skelton was in his mid-thirties and, if not exactly an ‘angry young man’, he was certainly a very intense one. His religious and moral earnestness displayed itself in his personal devotion (he took holy orders in 1498), in pedagogical books such as the Boke how Men Shulde Fle Synne and also in satirical verse. In 1499 he turned his pen to invective against the hypocrisy of the royal household in The Bouge of Court, in which he described an allegorical dream where certain characters representing established courtiers offered to guide him in the workings of the court:

The first was Duplicity, full of flattery,

With fables false, that well could feign a tale.

The second was Suspicion which that daily

Misjudged each man, with face deadly and pale,

And Deceiver, that well could pick a quarrel,

With other four of their affinity:

Disdain, Riot, Dissimulation, Subtlety.

It seems that Skelton was determined to make his young charge aware of the unreality and false values of the enclosed little world in which he was growing up. The tutor certainly took his job very seriously. We know of several treatises written by him on subjects, such as grammar and the theory of government, which would have been useful for the education of a prince.

The queen, the queen mother and the king were all concerned to see the next generation of Tudors brought up not only by the best intellects of the day, but also by men who were at the cutting edge of intellectual enquiry. It was, perhaps, a concern inspired by their desire to establish the family as a dynamic dynasty, looking to the future, not the past. Henry VII had spent most of his formative years on the continent among cultivated men and women influenced by the Renaissance airs blowing across the Alps. He was well aware that England was regarded as culturally backward and he made a point of bringing into his realm the best artists and craftsmen who could be induced to come and work in the land of fogs and damp humours. Among the members of Prince Henry’s entourage was William Blount, Baron Mountjoy, a scholarly young man who was a friend of Fisher and also of a London lawyer just beginning to create a name for himself called Thomas More. Blount made an intellectual pilgrimage to Paris in order to sit at the feet of the doyen of the avant-garde movement, the great Dutch scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, and the two became close friends. When Erasmus arrived to visit his pupil in 1499, Mountjoy arranged for the great scholar to be received by the royal children. Thus it was that Erasmus and More made the brief journey from Mountjoy’s house to Eltham Palace. Erasmus’ account of the visit, written many years later, gives us the only word picture we have of Henry VIII as a child. Arthur was not present, for he had already left the nursery to begin his serious training as future king. The eight-year-old Henry assumed the role of host, greeting the visitors and engaging them in self-assured conversation. He graciously received a Latin tribute More had thoughtfully composed for the occasion and asked whether the visiting international celebrity might have a similar offering for him. This caught Erasmus on the hop, for he had not thought to equip himself with a suitable present. Only after returning to Mountjoy’s home and burning the midnight oil was he able to make good the omission. According to Erasmus, Henry already had a good command of Latin and French (the languages of scholarship and diplomacy) and to these he later added some facility in Spanish and Italian.

However, Henry never fully embraced fashionable humanism. Traditional influences were just as strong as challenging new ideas and the favourite part of his educational syllabus was history – or what, then, passed for history. This was a mix of courtly romance, moral tales and propaganda. Europe was in the grip of a revolution in information technology. The invention of the printing press with its unlimited potential for the instruction of children in well-to-do households raised the question of what texts should be set before them. No one doubted what the author of The Book of the Knight of the Tower, published by Caxton in 1484, pointed out: that the past was a repository of improving stories from which the young could learn how to conduct themselves in the present. The immediate appeal of such tales in the classroom, however, was the Boy’s Own Paper–style heroism lauded in accounts of knightly derring-do. Prince Henry, like many sons of royal and noble parentage, was brought up on the chivalric adventures recorded in Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (published in English by Caxton in 1485) and a wealth of other books and manuscripts of the same genre. They glorified personal combat and just war while extolling the pure code of honour which supposedly inspired all true knights. Such stories received vivid real-life illustration in the feats of arms performed in the ‘lists’, the enclosures where tournaments were held.

Here the young prince could thrill to the glorious spectacle of heraldically accoutred knights dashing their lances on one another’s shields and enjoy the atmosphere created by cheering crowds, the clash of steel and the whinnying of horses. Henry longed for the day when he could take his place as a hero of the joust and the battlefield. As soon as he could handle small swords and bows he began to practise for that day.

Learning the martial arts intermeshed completely with the prince’s religious and moral education. The business of bashing heads, besieging castles, burning villages and wasting farmland was to be considered highly commendable if the cause for which the knight was contending was just and holy, and as long as his own life was pure. In Le Morte Darthur, Lancelot rejects sexual temptation which would besmirch his knightly honour:

To take my pleasure with paramours, that will I refuse: firstly for dread of God, for the knight who is an adventurer should not be an adulterer nor lecherous, for then he will be neither happy nor fortunate in the wars. Either he will be overcome by a simpler knight than he is himself or else he will by mischance and the curse upon him slay better men than himself. And so whoever resorts to paramours will be unhappy and everything about them will be unhappy.

The disastrous consequences of Lancelot’s subsequent liaison with Guinevere, of course, drive home the moral.

This code of honour was subscribed to by all young noblemen and gentlemen but for the son of the king of England it carried greater weight, for was he not directly descended from the hero-king who presided over the Round Table? When Henry VII ensured that his firstborn was brought into the world at Winchester, the ancient capital of England, and christened with the unusual name of ‘Arthur’ these were propaganda acts and parts of an overall plan to use every means possible to give his regime credibility. He was deliberately linking his dynasty with ancient legend and with the genealogy proposed by Geoffrey of Monmouth, the twelfth-century chronicler in his Historia Regum Britanniae. Geoffrey claimed to have discovered ancient sources which linked the rulers of England not only with King Arthur, but also with fugitives from the fall of Troy. Fifteenth- and sixteenth-century readers had no accurate sense of chronology. ‘History’ was for them a radiant tapestry in which kings, saints, knights, magicians and heroes all had their interconnected panels.

Henry VII was determined to weave his family into this imposing fabric. He commissioned the Italian scholar, Polydore Vergil, to write an updated history of England which would be very much a narrative with a Tudor spin. Prince Henry was brought up to see himself as the inheritor of this melange of romantic, militaristic, idealized, politicized mumbo-jumbo. If he had a favourite personal hero it was Henry V, the warrior-king whose spectacular military exploits were still celebrated in legend and ballad. His cross-Channel campaigns had added Normandy and much of northern France to England’s continental possession of Gascony in the southwest. By his death in 1422, approximately one-third of what we now call ‘France’ owed allegiance to the English crown and he had been named as heir to the French throne. That was before England’s warrior-class split into factions and began to turn their swords against each other. By 1453 everything had been lost except Calais. Since then the political map of nearer-Europe had changed considerably. Louis XI (1423–83) united most of the independent duchies west of the Rhine by a combination of war and diplomacy and made of France a centralized monarchy. The union of Aragon and Castile and the expulsion of the Moors turned Spain into a formidable state. It was the relationship between these two nations which would determine the shape of European politics throughout the ensuing century and introduce the concept of the ‘balance of power’. England had ceased to be a major player. For Prince Henry, however, Anglo-French rivalry was a matter of unfinished business and the relegation of England to the status of second-rate nation, a mere spectator in the Habsburg-Valois struggle, was not to be borne. From an early age he dreamed of emulating the exploits of his illustrious ancestors.

As well as the time he spent at his lessons, Henry’s days were passed in the company of two groups of people, his female relatives and his socii studiorum. The latter were the sons of noble parents who shared the prince’s classroom and leisure hours. They were selected as suitable companions and as a means of tying their families more securely to the Tudor regime. It was with this peer group that Henry took exercise – in the tennis court, in the butts, in the hunting field and in the tiltyard. These recreational activities developed and expressed his macho self-image and his intensely competitive nature, which were also reinforced by the fact that he spent much of his time in a household of women in which he was the leading male figure. He was much in the company of his admiring mother and his sisters and always in the background was the dominatrix, Lady Margaret. Young Henry never really had a male role model. He saw little of his father and his elder brother. Arthur would always remain a shadowy figure. Francis Bacon, writing in the early seventeenth century, asserted that Henry VII’s heir was ‘strong and able’. The fact that, by his early teens, he had received various important offices and that plans for his marriage were pursued with vigour may suggest that there was no long-standing concern about his health. On the other hand, portraits of the prince show him with the rather pinched features of his father and other Lancastrians. His tutors reported that he was a studious boy and an apt learner. (We might be tempted to respond, ‘They would, wouldn’t they?’) There are no references to his appearing in the tiltyard or participating in athletic exercises apart from archery. This evidence – such as it is – may support the generally accepted opinion that Arthur was a sickly child. In any case, his contact with the brother who was five years his junior was limited. Arthur had his own household and, as the heir, received a distinctive upbringing.

It is interesting, and not entirely fanciful, to speculate about what would have happened to Henry if Arthur had lived. The two brothers were very different. One might almost see them as representing the Lancastrian and Yorkist elements of their ancestry. Henry grew up tall, athletic and passionate, like his grandfather, Edward IV. If we are at all correct in portraying Arthur as studious, reserved and pious, like his father or even the unfortunate Henry VI, there could hardly have been more difference between the siblings. Would the younger have settled happily as a loyal subject and supporter of the elder? The immediate family of Edward IV had destroyed itself by fraternal rivalry. George, Duke of Clarence, was impelled by ambition and hubris to those acts which obliged his brother to order his execution. Richard of Gloucester had come to grief as the result of grasping the crown rightfully belonging to Edward’s son. Might Henry have decided, like his great-uncles, that he was a more worthy candidate for kingship than his bookish brother? The forceful, impatient Henry known to history could only have found a subservient role irksome and, perhaps, intolerable.

Nor should we neglect the impact of Arthurian legend. The heir to the throne bore the magical name of the ‘once and future king’. Henry VII had sought to merge the mystical past with the promise of a radiant future, safe in the hands of a dynasty which would restore internal unity and make England once again great. Around 1500 there existed a very real sense of new beginnings. Many English men and women felt that somehow they were on the cusp of a golden age. They looked to the Tudors with expectancy. However, if the heroic mantle of ‘Arthur’ sat only loosely around the slender shoulders of a weak king might not his brother have felt that it was imperative for him to make good the deficiency? And even if Henry had given loyal support to the anointed king, what would have happened if that king had died young, bequeathing the crown to a minor? For the third time in a century England would have been faced with the disastrous reign of a child. It is difficult to imagine Henry standing passively by while noble factions once again threatened chaos. These possibilities are not just make-believe scenarios of no real interest to the historian. They certainly occurred to Henry VII and members of the political nation. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, ‘what ifs’ were certainly questions for debate and speculation among the nation’s leaders. They were no less so for members of the royal family whose very survival was bound up with the smooth transfer of the crown to men of stature able to wear it with dignity and conviction. As for little Henry, he emerged from the chrysalis of infancy not knowing what his future might be. There was even a suggestion that he might be pushed into the church, presumably to prevent him appearing as a rival for the crown.

If Henry saw little of his father during his childhood years it was only partly because he was lodged in his own residences. The king was preoccupied in establishing his throne. From 1491, the year of his second son’s birth, to 1500 Henry VII was seldom able to feel secure. He was repeatedly involved in dealing with rebellions and rumours of rebellions. Yorkist plots, centred round the pretender Perkin Warbeck, obliged him to despatch or lead armies to Ireland, Scotland and France as well as make frequent sorties into various parts of his realm. These military activities were expensive and the tax burden imposed by the government was the heaviest England had had to bear for more than a century. In the spring of 1497 the men of Cornwall had had enough. They raised the standard of revolt and marched eastwards. The five-year-old Prince Henry was staying at his grandmother’s house at Coldharbour when news arrived that the Cornishmen had reached Farnham. Margaret hastily packed her daughter-in-law and her children into barges and had them rowed down to the Tower. There, in the safety of the ancient royal apartments, they waited anxiously for news while the king gathered his forces together to confront his disobedient subjects on Blackheath Common. Defeating the ill-disciplined revolt was not difficult but simultaneous risings in other places made this the most hazardous summer of the reign. Henry sent troops northwards while he led his main army into the heartland of the revolution. In Devon the last vestiges of rebellion were dispelled and Warbeck was taken prisoner. However, the troubles were not over. Eighteen months later, another pretender, Ralph Wilford, put himself forward and no sooner were his pretensions brought to an end than the leading Yorkist contender, Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, fled abroad to make a nuisance of himself in foreign courts. It is hardly surprising that the king and his younger son were able to spend little ‘quality time’ together. By the time that all immediate military threats were past it was 1502 and in that year Prince Henry’s life changed dramatically.


Henry VIII after his coronation (1509; age 18).

From about 1496, King Henry was involved in frenetic diplomatic activity aimed at securing his own and the nation’s position by means of a network of marriage alliances. His elder daughter, Margaret, was to be espoused to James IV of Scotland. Other matches were sought for the infants Henry and Mary, while Arthur was to be wed to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. The various negotiations dragged on over several years, chiefly because, in the beginning, Henry VII was punching above his weight. In foreign eyes he was a usurping adventurer whose dynasty was unlikely to last long. However, as the English king stamped his authority within his realm other monarchs took him more seriously, realizing that his neutrality or military cooperation could be a significant factor in their rivalries. The marriage of Margaret and James (1503) bestowed much needed peace upon England’s northern border. Before the end of his reign Henry had agreed a match between Mary and the Archduke Charles (the future Emperor Charles V). Had this materialized, the course of European affairs over ensuing decades would have been very different but the proposal died with Henry. His major coup was the marriage of Arthur and Catherine, the most prestigious English dynastic alliance since Henry V’s marriage to Catherine of France in 1420. The treaty was drawn up in 1496 and the couple were betrothed the following year. It was not uncommon for such initial agreements to be set aside in the light of subsequent political or diplomatic complications and King Henry could not rest easily until the ring was on the princess’s finger. He obtained a papal dispensation to allow the union to take place before the couple reached marriageable age and Arthur and Catherine were wed by proxy in May 1499 when they were twelve and thirteen respectively. Still, there could have occurred a slip twixt cup and lip and it was November 1501 before the king could allow himself a sigh of relief. That was when Catherine arrived in her new homeland. Henry VII has often been represented unfairly as a parsimonious, cheese-paring monarch. The truth is that when he wanted to impress English and foreign spectators, no one put on a better show. To celebrate his diplomatic triumph he threw back the lid of the royal coffers.

No expense was spared in welcoming the Spanish princess and her suite with what was ‘perhaps, the supreme masterpiece of English civic pageantry’. Londoners love a parade and they turned out in their tens of thousands to catch a glimpse of their future queen. The Tudor propaganda machine did not disappoint either them or the foreign contingent. As they rode through the heart of the capital the guests were greeted by a spectacular series of allegorical scenes, the like of which the citizens had never seen. Catherine and her attendants could scarcely have understood much of the convoluted astrological and mythical allusions that confronted them but the general drift will have been clear. At each stage elaborate constructions covered in painted and gilded canvas provided platforms from which elaborately-robed figures recited adulatory verses extolling the virtues of the princess’s husband and father-in-law. Confident prophecies assured the young bride of future happiness and even an enthroned ‘God’ was enrolled to pronounce a benediction:

Blessed be the fruit of your belly.

Your substance and fruits I shall increase and multiply.

From the utter failure of this pseudo-divine promise sprang all the ills of the next half century.

However, this was only the beginning of splendours. The wedding was celebrated two days later (14 November) in St Paul’s Cathedral, magnificently draped in silken bunting for the occasion, and was followed by a week of court celebrations. These took the form of sumptuous banquets in Richmond Palace, recently enlarged and refurbished at immense cost, and tournament combats staged in an arena set up in front of Westminster Hall. Here, Henry and his guests beheld from specially-erected galleries a spectacle which was not just a feat of arms. Tournaments had taken on a highly theatrical character. Combatants and their attendants were applauded as much for their skill at ‘disguisings’ as for their athletic prowess. So, for example, one knight entered the lists on a simulated ship ‘floating’ on painted water; another appeared in a gilded carriage drawn by fabulous beasts; a third was borne along in a mobile castle, set with ‘turrets and pinnacles of curious work’.

For Prince Henry, now ten years old, this must have been the most exciting week of his life so far. For months the court had been in a fever of eager anticipation and the boy, who loved theatricality and dressing up, had particularly looked forward to the role allotted to him in the ceremonial. His most important part in the lavish rituals occurred at the marriage service. It was he who met the beautiful Spanish bride in her dazzling wedding gown at the west door of the cathedral and escorted her the entire length of the building to the high altar. Afterwards, he walked behind the newlyweds as they emerged from the church while bells rang, fountains gushed wine and crowds cheered. For anyone who, like Henry, loved an audience it was a thrilling experience – even if he was not the centre of attraction. Observers noted how much the little prince enjoyed himself, dancing with such vigour that he had to put off his outer garments. Yet, might there not have been a reverse side to the coin? It would be understandable if he had experienced at least a twinge of envy. Arthur was being feted with an expensive exuberance which would never be a younger brother’s lot. Whatever foreign princess was found for Henry, it was unlikely that such an extravaganza would be laid on for him. He would always be obliged to play second fiddle. And when Arthur and his lovely queen were crowned, Henry would be their subject.

However, if the little green demon had taken up lodging in the prince’s mind a tragic sequence of events soon drove it hence. The events of the wedding day ended, as tradition demanded, with the ceremonial ‘bedding’, a mix of good-natured Hymen worship and bawdy buffoonery during which the groom was conveyed to the bridal chamber and seen safely ensconced between the sheets with his new wife. History would love to know what happened next, not out prurient curiosity, but because the nature of the relationship between Arthur and Catherine would become a matter of the highest importance years later. The following morning the boasting prince claimed that he had spent much of the night in ‘the midst of Spain’. Catherine insisted, in the 1520s, that the marriage had never been consummated. Who should we believe – the bragging adolescent defending his macho image or the middle-aged woman clinging desperately to her reputation and her position?

Before the year’s end the newlyweds had left the capital in order to set up home for themselves. For the next stage of Arthur’s training in kingcraft it had been decided that he should assume control of his principality of Wales. Actual administration was in the hands of a council of trusted Tudor agents but Henry VII wanted to establish a dynastic presence in this distant part of the realm which had its own identity and traditions. Although Welsh support had been vital in his own progress to the throne, the loyalty of the whole country could not be relied upon and the king aimed to secure his grasp of the land beyond Offa’s Dyke and provide the people with a personal focus for their allegiance. It was important that, in any disturbance which might mark the beginning of Arthur’s reign the new king should have a strong power base in the west. The location chosen for the princely court was Ludlow Castle. This formidable Marcher fortress, set on high ground above the Teme and Corve, was an excellent stronghold but it had long been the centre of English administration and, as medieval castles went, it was comfortably appointed. With apparently no qualms, the king bade farewell to his elder son and settled down to the next priority of his diplomatic programme, the marriage of Margaret to the Scottish king. He was quite unprepared for the news with which he was awakened on a Tuesday morning four months later.

Ludlow Castle, for all its sixteenth-century mod cons, was not an ideal residence for anyone with a weak constitution. By the end of March 1502, winter had yet to relax its grip on the border country. Viruses flourished in the dank airs wafting up from the valley. Icy winds moaned round the battlements. Draughts defied the shutters and drapes covering doors and windows. Several of the castle’s inhabitants succumbed to chills and agues. The prince and princess were among them. Anxious royal physicians hovered round the curtained beds where the feverish young couple lay. They were relieved when Catherine’s temperature came down and there was hope, perhaps even expectation, that her husband would also make a complete recovery. But Arthur failed to respond to their primitive medical practices. On 2 April, the young Prince of Wales died – ‘suddenly’ according to the contemporary record. The dolorous news was rushed to London and it was Henry’s confessor who was delegated to break it to the king. A contemporary chronicler provides a touching picture of Henry’s grief and how the queen tried to comfort him:

She with full great and constant comfortable words besought his grace that he would first after God remember the weal of his own noble person, the comfort of his realm and of her. She then said that my lady his mother had never no more children but him only and that God by his grace had ever preserved him, and brought him where he was. Over that how that God had left him yet a fair prince, two fair princesses. . .and that we are both young enough.

This underlines the fact that what most concerned Henry VII was the succession. Elizabeth’s suggestion that there was still time to have more children (she was 38) was immediately acted on. Ten months later she was delivered of another daughter. Mother and baby survived the birth by only a few days.

Not surprisingly, the atmosphere in the royal court changed drastically from this time. Much of the gaiety went out of it after Elizabeth’s demise, to be replaced by a new anxiety. The king was only forty-six but he had witnessed the death of his younger wife and most of their children. He had worked with patient intensity to secure the dynasty and now, just when the Yorkist cause had been thoroughly weakened, rebellions crushed, the nobility brought to heel and the arrangement of an impressive edifice of foreign alliances taking shape brick by painstaking brick, fate had whittled the Tudor succession down to one eleven-year-old boy. If the accession of his son was to be peacefully achieved, the king would have to devote more energy to the task, be more vigilant in spying out possible trouble-makers and devise new policies to shore up the dynasty. According to contemporary chroniclers, in the last years of his reign Henry Tudor underwent a profound change of character. He became a secretive, obsessive, money-grubbing tyrant. The king who had ventured the royal person on campaign against his enemies and delighted in lavish public spectacles now secluded himself in his chamber, crouched over account books, personally supervising every penny of royal expenditure and working out ways of afflicting ‘over-mighty’ subjects in their purses rather than their bodies. Nor was it only wealthy landed magnates who, according to historian, Edward Hall, were marked for plunder:

It came into his head that Englishmen did little pass the observation and keeping of penal laws and financial statutes, made and enacted for the preservation of the common utility and wealth and, therefore, if inquisition were had of such penal statutes, there should be few noblemen, merchants, farmers, husbandmen, graziers, nor occupiers but they should be found transgressors and violators of the same statutes.

Whether or not Henry underwent quite such a dramatic, sudden and sinister transmogrification is debatable. The machinery created to explore the statute books in search of laws which might be profitably exploited and to send officials into every shire snooping into private muniments (the Council Learned in the Law) had been in existence some six or seven years before 1503. However, there is no doubt that he now focused fresh endeavours on a series of legal and financial measures which would bind substantial subjects to him with golden cords and provide the crown with a well-filled treasury capable of financing any counter-measures it might be necessary to take against military threats. Those on the receiving end accused the king of miserliness and oppression. Henry labelled his policies ‘prudence’.

If the rule of the first Tudor had degenerated into tyranny the impact of his autocratic rule was most keenly felt in his own household, and especially by his son. The king’s behaviour became erratic in the extreme. He suffered long bouts of illness and was given to sudden rages, of which his son often felt the full brunt. The effect of Arthur’s death on the status of his brother was, of course, momentous – but not immediate. If he expected to be promoted to the titles and honours of the late Prince of Wales, Henry had to possess his soul in patience and remain content for the time being with the numerous honours he already held. As one aspect of the king’s policy of cutting England’s powerful nobles down to size, he had loaded numerous important offices on his infant sons rather than on ambitious barons. As well as the royal dukedom of York, young Henry had already been appointed Earl Marshal, Lord Warden of the Scottish Marches, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle. The duties attendant on these offices were, of course, carried out by deputies but the titles – and the revenues – remained firmly in royal hands. For good measure little Henry was also a knight of the Garter and of the Bath before he reached the age of four. On Arthur’s death Henry exchanged the dukedom of York for that of Cornwall. However, it was not until 18 February 1503 that he was invested as Prince of Wales. The delay was occasioned by the possibility that Catherine might be pregnant. There was lively speculation on this subject. Even Catherine’s Spanish attendants were divided on the issue. Her duenna was adamant that her charge was still virgo intacta but this did not prevent everyone else around the princess waiting and watching intently for signs that the young widow might be carrying the heir to the throne of England.

Young Henry felt the loss of his mother more keenly than that of his brother but it was the combined effects of these deaths which inevitably made an impact on his character. On the cusp of adolescence, he was deprived of the two people who, more than any other, had provided his life with its shape. At about the same time he also lost his much-loved tutor. John Skelton was paid off by the king and left the court to become a country parson. Despite his cynicism about life in the royal household, Skelton did not enjoy his new role and was eager to return. The fact that Henry VIII brought him back to court soon after his accession suggests that he, too, regretted the break in their relationship. Now that he was heir to the throne, Henry’s education entered a new phase. He was setting out on the path to an unexpected future and doing so without the support and affection of those upon whom he had relied most closely. It was unlikely that in the future he would find it easy to form and sustain close relationships.

He was subjected to a rigid regimen within a claustrophobic court. After the fate which had befallen his brother there was no question of sending Henry to the Welsh border to take charge of his principality. The heir was now confined to his father’s court where he could be protected from disease, accident and conspiracy. And, perhaps, from himself. The athletic teenager who enjoyed boisterous and potentially dangerous sports had to be kept on a tight reign. Tiltyard exercise was strictly rationed. Now there was little dancing or music in the king’s house and the prince’s leisure hours were closely monitored. He was only allowed out in the company of his bodyguard. Even within the palace his movements were restricted. We know, for example, that he was forbidden to have communication with Catherine of Aragon even when they were living under the same roof. His father was, to Henry, a grim and distant figure. The Spanish ambassador described him as ‘so subjected that he does not speak a word except in response to what the king asks him’. And always behind Henry’s father was the figure of his grandmother, the formidably pious Lady Margaret.

What explanation is there for the unwholesome regimen of Henry’s teenage years? For the king it was a matter of the utmost importance to protect his son but that does not explain the lack of love or understanding he displayed. Was it just an example of the personality clash of the old lion and the young lion? English history is replete with instances of conflicts between the monarch and the heir to the throne, e.g. Henry IV and Prince Hal, George III and ‘Prinny’, Victoria and ‘Bertie’, George V and Edward. There is an almost inevitable clash of interests between the sovereign and the sovereign-in-waiting. In the fifteenth century, tensions within royal families were particularly disruptive. The Yorkists had destroyed themselves through fratricidal strife. Henry VII was almost paranoiacally insecure in his later years. Just as Henry IV had believed rumours that the popular Prince Hal was plotting against him, so Henry VII may have feared that if his son was allowed too much freedom discontented elements (of which, as he knew, there were many) might make him a figurehead for rebellion.

Possibly, the root of the problem is more simple – Prince Henry was not Arthur. By 1503 the king’s younger son was a spoiled, ebullient, fun-loving extrovert, quite unlike his serious and bookish brother. Henry VII had been able to mould his intended heir in his own image. If Arthur had lived, the old king could have died happy in the knowledge that his policies would be continued, but the boy on whom all Tudor hopes now rested was a frivolous prince preoccupied with his own pleasures and with a head full of romantic, chivalric ideas. The young boy showed signs of growing up to be the image of his maternal grandfather – a charmer with a penchant for glitzy display and jovial camaraderie, far too easygoing to continue the ruthless work of strengthening the position of the monarchy.

We do not need to rely on pure conjecture to understand something of the relationship between father and son. Over thirty years later, Henry VIII proclaimed to the world just how he saw himself in relation to the previous king. In 1537, he commissioned an impressive mural for the privy chamber at Whitehall Palace. In it he had himself displayed, with his mother, father and third wife, grouped round a plinth whose long Latin inscription deliberately compared and contrasted the achievements of the first two Tudors:

Between them there was great competition and rivalry and [posterity] may well debate whether father or son should take the palm. Both were victorious. The father triumphed over his foes, quenched the fires of civil war and brought his people lasting peace. The son was born to a greater destiny. He it was who banished from the altars undeserving men and replaced them with men of worth. Presumptuous popes were forced to yield before him and when Henry VIII bore the sceptre true religion was established and, in his reign, God’s teachings received their rightful reverence.

Three decades after the death of his father Henry still felt the need to exorcise the old man’s ghost. Despite his parents’ lack of faith in him, he insisted, he had proved himself a better king, even outdoing Henry VII in Christian piety.

In Freudian psychoanalytical theory the Oedipus Complex is identified as one cause of neurosis. It results from the subject’s unresolved, unconscious rivalry with a same-sex parent. The young Henry’s essential self (what Freud labelled the ‘id’) was certainly repressed and confined not only by the physical restraints placed upon him, but also by the unfavourable comparisons frequently drawn between himself and his dead brother. This was underlined in the closing years of his father’s reign by the policy fluctuations concerning his marriage. The situation after Arthur’s death was that his young widow remained a ‘guest’ in England, lodged for the most part at Durham House, one of the palatial town residences on the Strand with grounds running down to the river. Her fate remained undecided while her father and father-in-law discussed what should be done about her and her dowry. Both kings were eager to maintain the alliance and Henry VII was certainly not prepared to forego any of the money he had received from Ferdinand and Isabella. Catherine was still eligible for an English royal spouse because a papal dispensation had been obtained for her to marry a close relative of her late husband. According to the wording of this document the parties had to be dispensed from the demands of canon law, not only because they were in the first degree of affinity, but because, it was conceded, Catherine’s marriage to Arthur had been consummated. At the time, this was of purely academic interest. No one could possibly have foreseen how world-changing it would prove to be. Henry’s first proposed solution was that he, himself, should marry his seventeen-year-old daughter-in-law. This was indignantly rejected by Catherine’s relatives, not out of moral repugnance at the age gap, but because the marriage would put the princess in a humiliating situation. Instead of being Queen of England after Henry VIII’s accession, she would have been merely the king’s step-mother, a political nonentity.

Thus it was that, in the summer of 1503, a contract of marriage was agreed between Catherine and Henry, Prince of Wales. However, within a couple of years, the two kings had fallen out and the marriage was off. The fourteen-year-old Prince Henry was forced to take responsibility for the change of policy and to make a humiliating climb down. He was brought before a committee of the council and obliged to make a solemn affirmation that the match had been without his permission when he was a minor and that he now renounced it. Meanwhile, as a result of the changing cloudscape of international politics, the king selected a new bride for his son. He was to be betrothed to Princess Eleanor of Austria. It can scarcely be wondered at that in later years Henry VIII was adamant about choosing his own wives on his own terms.

As long as his father lived Henry was permitted no share in government, attended no council meetings and was not consulted on the framing of policy. It was as though the old king had given up all hope of training his heir. His thoughts were increasingly turned towards the next world and calling to mind the many sins he needed to confess. If King Henry was waiting for his death, it may be imagined that his son was looking forward to it no less impatiently.

Henry’s character traits germinated in the soil of his childhood and adolescence. Therein lies his tragedy. Aristotle described tragedy as a character’s descent into catastrophe as a result of hamartia, a Greek term borrowed from archery and meaning, literally, ‘falling short of the target’. An Aeschylus or a Sophocles, dramatizing the life of Harry of England, would have pointed out those defects of character which rendered him unequal to the tasks he was set and which were later punished by the gods. The king who came to the throne at his father’s death on 21 April 1509 was a young man forced into aggressive self-assertion by years of being suppressed; an eager competitive player with something to prove; an impetuous and impatient ruler determined to assert himself and determinedly smothering self-doubt. For the time being, the gods smiled on him. Ultimately, they would vent their indignation.

Napoleon’s End

Napoleon Bonaparte on board the British ship Bellerophon by Sir William Quiller Orchardson

Riding in the Basque Roads near Rochefort on the morning of July 15, 1815, the two-decker Bellerophon rocked comfortably in the long swells as a lookout sighted a boat coming out from shore. A familiar-looking figure-running to fat and wearing a cocked hat and a flowing olive overcoat over a green uniform-huddled in the stern sheets. A general’s guard of honor snapped to attention and the boatswain’s whistle wailed a salute as he came through the vessel’s entry port. “At 7 received on board Napoleon Bonaparte, late Emperor of France,” Bellerophon’s log recorded laconically.

Napoleon had regained the empire he had lost in the mountains of Spain and the snows of Russia for a hundred days only to lose it again in the mud at Waterloo. Now, with every escape route closed, he had made arrangements to surrender to the most implacable of his enemies, the Royal Navy, in the person of Frederick Maitland, the “Billy Ruffian’s” captain.

Restive in his exile on Elba, Napoleon had escaped from his Lilliputian domain little more than three months before to find the Napoleonic legend still vibrant in France. Troops sent by the Bourbons to arrest him as he made his way to Paris went over to his standard, and crowds of Frenchmen cheered him everywhere. Facing leveled muskets and bayonets at Grenoble, Napoleon stepped forward and threw open his coat to expose his chest. “Soldiers, if there is one among you who wishes to kill the Emperor he can do so,” he declared. “Here I am!” Following a moment’s hesitation, the muskets were lowered amid cheers and cries of “Vive l’Empereur! Vive l’Empereur!”

The European sovereigns, meeting in Vienna to make the world safe for autocracy, were attending a great ball given by Metternich. As the shocking news buzzed about the ballroom, the dancers abruptly broke off the waltz and stood uncertainly on the floor. Under the menace of the dreaded Bonapart’s return, the monarchs set aside the internal quarrels that had delayed the making of peace to outlaw the Corsican ogre and to pledge themselves to his final destruction. The Continent’s armies were mobilized and the duke of Wellington was appointed to command the advance guard in the Low Countries-the doorway to France-until the immense forces of Austria and Russia could be brought to bear.

Most of Wellington’s Iberian Peninsula veterans were still in America, or on the high seas returning from that country, but every man available was sent in haste to Flanders. For the Royal Navy, the renewal of the war came after many of its ships had been paid off and were being dismantled. Ships that had just been laid up were hurriedly refitted and sent to sea to reimpose the blockade of the French coast. Lord Keith was appointed to command the Channel fleet, and Sir Edward Pellew was sent to the Mediterranean. “I am sending out all I have to look for Boney if he takes to the sea,” Keith told his wife. By mid-June some two dozen men-of-war were on station between Ushant and Finisterre.

Napoleon mustered an army of 128,000 men and marched into Belgium to prevent the Prussians and the British from uniting against him. He was brought to bay at Waterloo on June 18, and fell victim to the steadfastness of the British soldier and the timely arrival on the field of the black-clad Prussians. In one final throw of the dice, Napoleon sent the elite Imperial Guard forward to attack Wellington’s position on a plateau overlooking the battlefield. Undeterred by the pounding of enemy artillery, the guardsmen pressed forward like a rising tide. It crested the ridge, and for a moment the British line disappeared. And then, in a wild hail of bullets, the wave faltered and receded. By nightfall, Napoleon’s last campaign was over, and 50,000 men-French, British and Prussian-had been killed or wounded.

For the third time, the Emperor abandoned an army in the field and hastened back to Paris. But there was no support for him there, and the empire slipped through his fingers. He toyed with the idea of trying to run the British blockade in a French frigate or a neutral American vessel and sailing to the United States, where anti-British sentiment was strong. No decision was made and in the confusion, Napoleon left Paris for Rochefort, riding past his unfinished Arch of Triumph with a few faithful followers. On the way he stopped at Malmaison, where he had lived with Josephine before their divorce. Briefly, he lingered alone in the room where she had died the previous year. Then he said his farewells to his mother and other relatives, including his two illegitimate sons.

From a window of the grim, gray house on the Gironde where he took shelter, the Emperor could see Bellerophon standing offshore like a sentinel blocking his escape. No ship better epitomized the British sea power that had always stood in the way of his conquests. The old ship had fought at the Glorious First of June, the very first fleet action of the war against France in 1794; at the Nile, where his dreams of oriental glory were dashed; and finally at Trafalgar, where his fleet had been annihilated. One morning, he heard Bellerophon firing her guns to celebrate the allied capture of Paris and the return of the Bourbons.

Always a master of the unexpected, Napoleon had one final surprise. Realizing at last that escape was impossible, he decided to throw himself on the mercy of the British. Writing directly to the prince regent, he asked permission to retire to the English countryside outside London and made arrangements to surrender to Captain Maitland. Like all other British naval officers who might capture Napoleon, Maitland had instructions to immediately return with the prisoner to the nearest English port. While the problem of what to do about him was debated, Napoleon remained on board Bellerophon, which went first to Tor Bay and then to Plymouth, where she remained offshore.

As close as Napoleon Bonaparte ever got to the United Kingdom- as ‘guest’ aboard HMS Bellerophon (74). Beautiful oil painting by John James Chalon: Scene in Plymouth Sound in August 1815

As she lay in the sound there, the ship became a tourist attraction. Hundred of small boats surrounded her, and Napoleon enjoyed the attention of his foes. Each day, no matter what his anxiety about his fate, he appeared on deck in plain view of the tourists, wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Imperial Guard. Sometimes he smiled and raised his hat to the ladies. He also expressed a keen interest in the operation of Bellerophon, questioning her officers and men about their duties. Language was no barrier; a number of the ship’s complement spoke some French or Italian, his two languages. A midshipman would recall with delight many years later that when he gaped at the emperor, “the great Napoleon” smiled at him, cuffed his head lightly, and pinched his ear.

On July 31, Napoleon learned his fate. Much to his anger, he was told that he was to be banished to the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, from which it was thought he would be unable to escape and again upset the balance of Europe.* With a handful of oddly assorted followers, he sailed a week later in Northumberland, seventy-four, for his place of exile. Once at St. Helena, he entered into a strange half world between freedom and prison. There he spent the remaining six years of his life, gazing out to sea, rewriting history, and placing on others the blame for all that had gone wrong.

The navy that had played such a vital role in bringing about Napoleon’s downfall did not long survive his reign. As soon as peace was assured, the ships were paid off, and the crews were mustered out. One by one, the twenty-seven ships of the line that had fought at Trafalgar met their fates: Agamemnon, “Nelson’s favorite,” had already broken her back in the River Plate; Defence was wrecked off Jutland and Minotaur at the mouth of the Texel; Defiance was degraded to a prison ship, and the same fate befell Leviathan as well as Bellerophon after her moment in the limelight; Ajax caught fire and blew up at Tenedos; Collingwood’s Royal Sovereign was not even allowed to keep her name but finished her career as Captain, the receiving ship at Plymouth; Téméraire-“The Fighting Téméraire”-went to the shipbreakers, but not before being immortalized by J. W. Turner in a famous painting. Wreck, fire, convict hulk, target ship, the breaker’s yard complete the roll. With the exception of Victory. Nelson’s Victory. all vanished, leaving only a glorious memory.

In the end, Napoleon Bonaparte best summed it all up. While on board Bellerophon, the Emperor discussed with Captain Maitland the defense of Acre, in which the captain had taken part. Napoleon concluded by saying:

If it had not been for you English, I should have been emperor of the East;

but wherever there is water to float a ship, we are to find you in our way!

Yorkshire in the English Civil War: Opening Moves

The Earl of Newcastle quickly decided on a course of action. The bulk of his army would advance on Tadcaster from the east, along the main road from York, and attack Lord Fairfax’s army at Tadcaster. Newcastle’s Lieutenant-General, the Earl of Newport, would advance towards Wetherby and then attack Tadcaster from the northwest. Fairfax’s force would be trapped between the two forces and destroyed.

Lord Fairfax was well aware of his isolated and precarious position. He gathered as many troops as he could at Tadcaster and made preparations to defend the town by building a redoubt on the crest of the hill above the east bank of the River Wharfe. This fortification defended the town from any attack from the direction of York. There were several houses close to the redoubt and these may also have been fortified, although contemporary accounts make no mention of it. Another possibility is that these houses were demolished and their rubble used in the construction of the earthwork.

During 6 December the Royalist forces began their advance. Late in the day Lord Fairfax called a Council of War. The Parliamentarian commanders decided that their position was untenable. Sir Thomas Fairfax, Lord Fairfax’s son, gives a figure of only 900 men for the force his father had available and these were opposed by over 6,000 well-equipped Royalist troops a few miles to the east. Newcastle was advancing with the main body of the army, which comprised the foot, artillery and a few troops of horse: some 4,000–4,500 men. Newport’s flanking force was formed from the bulk of the army’s horse and amounted to about 1,500 men, although one Royalist account numbers them at 15,000 – obviously a zero too many!

Lord Fairfax decided that the only course of action was to withdraw his army towards the west, in the direction of Leeds. On the morning of 7 December, a large proportion of Fairfax’s men were formed up on Tadcaster’s main street ready to march, when firing broke out on the opposite bank. Fairfax had left a rearguard to defend the redoubt and this was now being attacked by Newcastle’s foot. Withdrawal was no longer an option and Fairfax had to stand his ground. Reinforcements were rushed across the bridge to support the earthwork’s defenders and the Royalist attack was brought to a halt. A second Royalist attack developed from the north along Mill Lane and succeeded in capturing a house close to the bridge and cutting off the defenders of the redoubt. A Parliamentarian counterattack recaptured the house and drove the Royalists back along Mill Lane. To prevent the Royalists repeating their attack a number of houses were set on fire. For the remainder of the day the battle degenerated into a long-range musketry exchange.

Although Newcastle’s prompt attack had prevented the Parliamentarians from withdrawing, the second half of his plan did not come to fruition. Why did the Earl of Newport not strike the town from the northwest as he had been ordered? The probable reason is that his force was accompanied by a pair of light guns and these, in combination with the state of the roads in December, conspired to slow him so much that he was unable to reach the battlefield. In Drake’s History of York a much more interesting reason is given. Drake states that Captain John Hotham despatched a letter to Newport, under Newcastle’s signature, ordering him to halt and await further instructions. If there is any truth in this it would have been a brilliant stroke by Hotham but would have meant that the Parliamentarians would have had to be aware of Newport’s flank march.

Although Lord Fairfax had held his ground, he was still in a dangerous position. In a letter to Parliament he asserted that he could have continued to hold Tadcaster had he not been low on gunpowder – a curse of armies throughout the Civil Wars. Without powder his musketeers could not oppose the enemy and Fairfax had no choice but to withdraw. It is interesting that Fairfax decided to withdraw to Selby, while Captain Hotham withdrew to Cawood. This seems a little strange as it was taking Fairfax away from his main area of support in the West Riding but it moved him closer to Hull which, as has already been mentioned, was a major magazine and a ready source of supply for him.

On the morning of the 8th the Royalists occupied Tadcaster. Newcastle then moved his army south and garrisoned Pontefract Castle. He also set up several other small garrisons, including one at Ferrybridge, which effectively cut off Fairfax from the West Riding. Elements of the Royalist army, under Sir William Saville, captured Leeds and on Sunday 18 December moved on to attack Bradford. Heavily outnumbered by the Royalist troops, the ill-equipped citizens of Bradford held their ground around the church and, once they had been reinforced by a body of men from the Halifax area, drove the Royalists off and sent them scurrying back to Leeds. During the action a Royalist officer had asked for quarter but the citizens who were attacking him did not understand what the term meant and cut him down. This led to the ominous term ‘Bradford quarter’.

Several days after the attack on Bradford Sir Thomas Fairfax arrived at the town with reinforcements. He immediately put out a call for volunteers to carry out an attack on Leeds. By the morning of the 23rd he had gathered 1,200–1,300 musketeers and horse and a substantial body of clubmen – ill-armed local volunteers – possibly as many as 2,000. The town was defended by Sir William Saville who had 1,500 foot and five troops of horse and dragoons.

The course of the storming of Leeds is straightforward to trace on the ground. At the time Leeds comprised three main streets: the Headrow, Briggate and Kirkgate. All of these streets still exist. At the bottom of Briggate a bridge crossed the River Aire and the road continued on to Hunslet. All the exits to the town had been barricaded and an earthwork ran from close to St John’s church, across the Headrow and then down to the river.

Fairfax’s force approached the town along the Headrow and summoned Saville to surrender. When this summons was refused Sir Thomas began his assault. Fairfax attacked along the Headrow while Sir William Fairfax attacked the area around St John’s church. Neither of these attacks made much progress. Sergeant-Major-General Forbes had been despatched to attack the enemy earthwork where it approached the river, while Captain Mildmay had been sent on a more circuitous route to approach the town from the far side of the Aire and prevent any enemy escaping in that direction. Forbes, supported by musket fire from Mildmay’s men, managed to break into the town and was soon reinforced by Mildmay’s men who had stormed the defences of the bridge. The combined force then attacked up Briggate towards the Market Place which stood at the top of Briggate close to the Headrow. The success of this attack allowed the Fairfaxes to force their way into the town and Sir Thomas led a cavalry charge along the Headrow into the Market Place. Many of the Royalist garrison were killed or captured and some were drowned trying to swim the Aire. The survivors continued on to Wakefield but their arrival seems to have panicked the garrison of that town which promptly withdrew to Pontefract. A force of Parliamentarian troops from Almondbury, near Huddersfield, occupied Wakefield on 24 January 1643.

In the aftermath of the loss of Leeds and Wakefield, Newcastle pulled the bulk of his army back to York. Before he could turn his attention fully on defeating Lord Fairfax he had two tasks to carry out. The first was to escort an ammunition convoy from Newcastle-upon-Tyne and the Earl despatched James King, his Lieutenant-General, with a body of horse to carry out this mission. Sir Hugh Cholmley attempted to intercept the convoy at Yarm in North Yorkshire on 1 February. Cholmley was defeated and King moved on to deliver the precious gunpowder to the army at York. Cholmley’s defeat may have been one of the main contributory factors to his subsequent change of sides.

Newcastle’s second task was to secure the Queen after her impending arrival and aid her march to join her husband at Oxford. The Queen arrived at Bridlington Quay – the town and harbour were separate at this time – on 22 February. Newcastle immediately set off with a large force to escort the Queen to York but while she was awaiting his arrival she was still in danger. Several Parliamentarian ships arrived and began a bombardment of the town and the Queen and her ladies had to take shelter in a ditch. Help was at hand when the Dutch admiral, van Tromp, who had escorted the Queen’s ship from the Continent, threatened the Parliamentarian commander that his ships would engage if the Parliamentarian ships did not withdraw. This had the desired effect and Newcastle was able to escort the Queen to safety at York on 7 March.

On 25 March Sir Hugh Cholmley changed sides. His defeat at Yarm and the Queen’s arrival finally decided him on this course of action. His defection was a great boon to the Royalist cause and gave them control of much of the East Coast of Yorkshire. It also seems to have had an effect on the Hothams who began a correspondence with the Earl of Newcastle and became very uncooperative with Fairfax.

Fairfax found himself in an unenviable position. The main Royalist army was at York and considerably outnumbered his own force. The East Riding was now under Royalist control and, to his rear, the Hothams had withdrawn their troops into Hull and were refusing to cooperate with him. His main base of support was in the West Riding, around the mill towns and he took a decision to withdraw to Leeds. His first action was to call his son, Sir Thomas, from Leeds with a small force of horse and musketeers and a large body of clubmen. His plan called for Sir Thomas to carry out a diversionary attack on Tadcaster with the troops he had brought from the West Riding, while his father with the main force marched directly from Selby to Leeds. On the morning of 30 March the Fairfaxes put this plan into action.

The plan worked well. Lord Fairfax and his men arrived safely at Leeds while Sir Thomas drove the garrison of Tadcaster out of the town. He may have exceeded his father’s orders at this point, which may have been to demonstrate against the town, not to capture it. Unfortunately, Sir Thomas tarried in Tadcaster for too long and as he began to march up onto Bramham Moor a pursuing body of Royalist horse came into sight. The Royalists, under Colonel George Goring, comprised twenty troops of horse and dragoons, some 1,000 mounted men. To oppose them Fairfax had only three troops of horse, amounting to around 150 troopers. The rest of his force was made up of musketeers and a large body of clubmen. When attacked by horse it was usual for the pike to provide protection against them for the musketeers. As Fairfax had no pikemen with him his force was in considerable danger from the Royalist horse, particularly as they had to cross two large areas of open moor-land before they reached the safety of Leeds.

As Fairfax ascended the road onto Bramham Moor he had to pass through an area of enclosures. This was ideal terrain for his horse to hold up the larger enemy force, while his foot crossed the first area of open ground and reached the shelter of the next area of enclosures. Having held the enemy for what he deemed to be a sufficient amount of time, Fairfax pulled back his horsemen and set off in pursuit of his foot. Imagine his surprise when he found his foot were waiting for him and had not yet crossed the open ground. The Parliamentarian force continued to march westwards and Fairfax spotted the enemy horse on a parallel road several hundred yards to the north. The Parliamentarians successfully reached the next area of enclosures and continued onto the open ground beyond – Seacroft Moor. By now Fairfax’s men were beginning to straggle and Goring timed his attack perfectly. Although the pitifully small force of Parliamentarian horse attempted to protect the foot, the force was quickly broken as Goring’s horsemen mounted an unstoppable charge. Fairfax and most of his troopers were able to escape to Leeds but most of the foot were killed or captured. Sir Thomas summed up the action as ‘the greatest loss we ever received’.

The storming of Wakefield

After the defeat at Seacroft Moor, Lord Fairfax concentrated his men into two garrisons: Bradford and Leeds. It was during this period that one of the most mysterious battles of the Civil War in Yorkshire took place, at Tankersley, just off junction 36 of the M1. Little is written about this action, either by contemporary or modern authors, but it was a sizeable affair with up to 4,000 men taking part. A force of Derbyshire Parliamentarians marched north and were intercepted and defeated by a force of local Royalists. These Royalist troops may have been the advance guard of a planned advance into the south of the county.

The Earl of Newcastle still had one major task to perform before he turned his attention fully to defeating Lord Fairfax – the safe despatch of the Queen to the south. His first move was to lay siege to Leeds, but after a few days the Royalist army moved to Wakefield, where Newcastle left a garrison of 3,000 men, before moving into South Yorkshire. On 4 May Newcastle captured Rotherham. Accounts of the siege are contradictory – the Duchess of Newcastle’s account states that the town was taken by storm, while a letter from Lord Fairfax to Parliament states that the town held out for two days and then yielded. Fairfax goes on to state that the Royalists then plundered the town and forced many of the prisoners to join their army.

Two days after the capture of Rotherham the Royalist army moved on Sheffield but found that the town and castle had been abandoned by the garrison. Newcastle installed Sir William Saville as governor of the town and gave him orders to use the local iron foundries to produce cannon. The Royalists then spent the next two weeks consolidating their position in the south of the county until, on 21 May, Newcastle received startling news – Wakefield and the bulk of its garrison had fallen to the Parliamentarians.

Wakefield is one of the best examples of the storming of a town and is worth looking at in detail. Newcastle’s march into the south of Yorkshire presented the Fairfaxes with an ideal opportunity to strike back. Sir Thomas Fairfax gives the reason for the attack on Wakefield as an attempt to capture Royalist troops to exchange for the prisoners taken at Seacroft Moor. Prisoner exchanges of all ranks were a common occurrence during the Civil War. A good example of this is the case of Colonel George Goring. As will be described shortly, Goring was captured at Wakefield and remained a prisoner for almost twelve months. He was exchanged during the spring of 1644 in time to take part in the Marston Moor campaign. Many of the Parliamentarian troops captured at Seacroft Moor were not soldiers but clubmen – ill-armed local volunteers. On a number of occasions – Bradford, Leeds, Seacroft Moor and Adwalton Moor – Lord Fairfax used clubmen to supplement his limited supply of regular troops. As these men were agricultural workers and tradesmen their imprisonment had a major effect on the local economy of the areas from which they came. One of the reasons that Wakefield was chosen as a target was that Lord Fairfax had received intelligence that it was held by only 800–900 men, a serious underestimation of the garrison’s actual strength.

During the evening of 20 May a force of 1,500 men gathered at Howley Hall, near Batley, from the garrisons of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax and the hall itself It comprised 1,000 foot, probably all musketeers, and eight troops of horse and three troops of dragoons. The mounted troops were divided equally between Sir Thomas Fairfax and Sir Henry Foulis, while the foot was commanded by Sergeant-Major-General Gifford and Sir William Fairfax. There is no mention of any artillery being present, which is hardly surprising as this was a raiding force. Sir Thomas Fairfax had overall command.

The Parliamentarian force moved on Wakefield via Stanley, where they attacked the small garrison, capturing twenty-one prisoners in the process. They then moved on to Wakefield where, alerted by survivors from the Stanley garrison, the Royalist horse and musketeers were waiting for them, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reported:

About four a clock in the morning we came before Wakefield, where after some of their horse were beaten into the town, the foot with unspeakable courage, beat the enemies from the hedges, which they had lined with musketeers into the town.

The Parliamentarians first encountered a strong patrol of horse from the town which they quickly drove back. They then found 500 musketeers manning the enclosures outside the town and again, after a short fight, these were driven back. With the approaches to the town cleared the Parliamentarians could put their plan into action. It should not be imagined that Wakefield was a fortified town. Its defences were formed by the hedges and walls of the houses along its four main streets – Kirkgate, Westgate, Warrengate and Northgate. The end of each street was barricaded. Fairfax’s plan was to attack along two of these streets: Northgate and Warrengate. No account states who attacked along which street but it can be surmised from subsequent events that Sir Thomas Fairfax and Gifford attacked Warrengate while Foulis and Sir William Fairfax attacked Northgate. The reasoning behind this is that Sir Thomas and Gifford were the first to reach the Market Place and the route along Warrengate is shorter, and that Gifford was able to plant a captured gun in the churchyard to fire on the Market Place. If he had attacked down Northgate he would have had to cross the Market Place, which was full of Royalist troops, to get to the churchyard.

The Royalist defences held out for some considerable time: one and a half to two hours are mentioned by contemporary accounts. Sir Thomas Fairfax wrote two accounts of the action, one immediately after the battle and one in his memoirs many years later. In his memoirs he reports that:

After 2 hours dispute the foot forced open a barricade where I entered with my own troop. Colonel Alured and Captain Bright followed with theirs. The street which we entered was full of their foot which we charged through and routed, leaving them to the foot which followed close behind us. And presently we were charged again with horse led by General Goring, where, after a hot encounter, some were slain, and himself [Goring] taken prisoner by Captain Alured.

The account written shortly after the action is very much in agreement:

When the barricades were opened, Sir Thomas Fairfax with the horse, fell into the town, and cleared the street where Colonel Goring was taken, by Lieutenant Alured, brother to Captain Alured, a Member of the House.

It is interesting to note the difference in the ranks of the Alured brothers given in the two accounts. The first gives their ranks at the close of the Civil Wars while the second gives their ranks at the time of the action.

After a lengthy dispute, Gifford’s foot managed to break into the end of Warrengate and open the barricade. This allowed Fairfax to lead his four troops in a charge down the street which was packed with enemy foot. These were quickly dispersed. Fairfax was then counterattacked by a body of horse led by George Goring. The Royalist horse was defeated and Goring captured by Lieutenant Alured. During this phase of the fighting Sir Thomas became separated from his men:

And here I cannot but acknowledge God’s goodness to me this day, who being advanced, a good way single, before my men, having a Colonel and a Lieutenant Colonel (who had engaged themselves as my prisoners) only with me, and many of the enemy now between me and my [men] I light on a regiment of foot standing in the Market Place. Thus encompassed, and thinking what to do, I spied a lane which I thought would lead me back to my men again; at the end of this lane there was a corps du guard of the enemy’s, with 15 or 16 soldiers which was, then, just quitting of it, with a Sergeant leading them off; whom we met; who seeing their officers came up to us. Taking no notice of me, they asked them what they would have them do, for they could keep that work no longer, because the Roundheads (as they called them) came so fast upon them. But the gentlemen, who had passed their words to be my true prisoners, said nothing, so looking upon one another, I thought it not fit, now, to own them as so, much less to bid the rest to render themselves prisoners to me; so, being well mounted, and seeing a place in the works where men used to go over, I rushed from them, seeing no other remedy, and made my horse leap over the works, and so, by good providence, got to my men again.

Sir Thomas’s bravery can never be doubted but sometimes his common sense can be. This would not be the last time his impetuous courage would leave him stranded on his own in the midst of the enemy.

Gifford had continued his attack along Warrengate, bringing the captured cannon with him. As he reached the Market Place he realised that it contained three troops of enemy horse and a regiment of their foot, as Fairfax reported:

Yet in the Market Place there stood three troops of horse, and Colonel Lampton’s Regiment [foot], to whom Major General Gifford sent a trumpet with offer of quarter, if they would lay down their arms, they answered they scorned the motion; then he fired a piece of their own ordinance upon them, and the horse fell in upon them, beat them out of the town.

In his memoirs Fairfax mentions that Gifford set the cannon up in the churchyard. Having given the Royalist troops an opportunity to surrender, Gifford ordered his men to open fire and then ordered Fairfax’s rallied troopers to charge the enemy. This was the last straw. Those who could, escaped; the remainder threw down their arms and surrendered. By nine o’clock Wakefield was firmly in Parliamentarian hands. Accounts do not give figures for the dead and wounded but do give a list of captured men and material: thirty-eight named officers, 1,500 common soldiers, four cannon, twenty-seven foot colours and three horse cornets, along with weapons and a large amount of powder, ball and match. The weapons, powder and ammunition were a great boon to the Parliamentarian cause. In a letter to Parliament Lord Fairfax summed up the victory:

And truly for my part I do rather account it a miracle, than a victory, and the glory and praise to be ascribed to God that wrought it, in which I hope I derogate nothing from the merits of the Commanders and Soldiers, who every man in his place and duty, showed as much courage and resolution as could be expected from men.

How had this ‘miracle’ taken place? The Parliamentarian victory at Wakefield flies in the face of military wisdom. The victors had taken a town garrisoned by twice their number and had captured more prisoners than they had soldiers. There are a number of reasons for the Parliamentarian victory. Firstly, they attacked the barricades at the end of the streets, which meant that only a limited number of Royalist troops could defend at any given time. Once the attackers had penetrated the barricades, the enemy troops, packed in the streets behind, were unable to defend themselves, as was also the case with the troops packed into the Market Place. There also seems to have been a breakdown in the Royalist command structure, with troops standing still instead of reacting to the changing situation. One possible reason for this is given by Dr Nathaniel Johnstone, a contemporary who left the following anecdote:

There was a meeting at Heath Hall upon the Saturday, at a bowling, and most of the officers and the governor were there, and had spent the afternoon in drinking, and were most drunk when the town was alarmed. It was taken fully by nine o’clock in the morning, and more prisoners were taken than the forces that came against it. It seems probable that Sir Thomas Fairfax had notice of their festivities at Heath, and perceived the advantage which they might afford him.

It has been reported that Goring had arisen from his sick bed to lead the mounted counterattack but Johnstone’s account may give another reason for Goring being seen reeling in his saddle – he was still drunk. His later record would point to this being a strong possibility.

Whatever the reasons for the Royalist defeat, Sir Thomas and his men had won a remarkable victory. They had no plans to remain in the town and expected a rapid response from Newcastle. Sir Thomas led his men out of Wakefield and back to their garrisons, complete with the spoils of their victory. The Fairfaxes had their prisoners for exchange but we do not know whether this ever took place.

The Battle of Adwalton Moor

30 June 1643

The Earl of Newcastle’s reaction to the storming of Wakefield must have been of considerable concern to the Fairfaxes. It must have come as a great surprise when Newcastle tamely withdrew his army to York. The Earl’s main task was still the protection of the Queen and her safe despatch to the south. In early June Newcastle put his plan into operation. On the 4th his army, accompanied by the Queen and her arms convoy, left York and marched to Pontefract. A Council of War was then held to decide on the next course of action. The main question was: should Newcastle and his whole army escort the Queen? Many of Newcastle’s officers were Yorkshire men and did not like the idea of leaving the county in the possession of the Parliamentarians. A decision was made for the bulk of the army to remain in the county while the Queen, with a strong escort, travelled to Newark, where she arrived safely on 16 June.

With the departure of the Queen, Newcastle was now free to move against Lord Fairfax in the West Riding. The Earl spent a number of days at Pontefract, gathering his forces and recruiting and training replacements for the troops that had accompanied the Queen. Newcastle first moved his troops to Wakefield in preparation for an advance on Bradford, where Fairfax’s main army was stationed. On 21 June he captured Howley Hall but was unable to carry on his advance due to the unseasonal heavy rain. By 30 June the roads had dried enough to allow him to begin his approach march to Bradford.

While Newcastle waited for a change in the weather at Howley Hall, Fairfax gathered his commanders, and troops, at Bradford and tried to come to a decision. The town was untenable. Bradford sits in a bowl and is overlooked from all sides. It was also unfortified and would take a lot of men to defend. If Fairfax could gather enough men he would not be able to supply them, so defending the town was discounted. He could attempt to skirt around the Royalist army and head for Hull but, as the Hothams were becoming less and less cooperative, this was not an attractive option. A withdrawal into Lancashire, a Parliamentarian stronghold at this time, seems to have been discounted. This left one course of action – to fight. The success of the attack on Wakefield may have caused the Parliamentarian command to have a ‘rush of blood to the head’. They had defeated twice their number at Wakefield; could a surprise attack on the Royalist encampment at Howley Hall not have the same success? A decision was made and on 30 June the Parliamentarian army left Bradford. Both armies were now marching along the same road towards each other. A clash was inevitable.

The old road between Bradford and Wakefield ran along a narrow ridgeline, running from north-west (Bradford) to south-east (Wakefield). As Lord Fairfax’s army marched towards Wakefield, the road began to rise up the north-west side of a hill, known locally as Whiskett, or Westgate Hill, whose crest stood at about 700 feet. About three-quarters of a mile south-east of the main crest of Whiskett Hill was a second crest, slightly lower at 650 feet, which formed the military crest of the hill for an army marching from Bradford. It was not until the top of this hill was reached that Adwalton Moor could be seen, as the ground gently drops into a shallow bowl between the two crests. About half a mile further on is the edge of Adwalton Moor. The north-west edge of the moor had a series of hedged enclosures, and a substantial ditch along it, and further enclosures encroached onto the southwest corner of the moor. A couple of hundred yards from the edge of the moor the land begins to rise again and climbs to 650 feet at the top of Hungar Hill, which formed the south-east edge of the battlefield. On either side of the ridge the ground falls away quite steeply.

As Lord Fairfax’s army left Bradford it was divided into a number of bodies. First came the Forlorn Hope, or advance guard, which was a combined arms force of six companies/troops of horse, foot and dragoons, although it is not certain what proportion each type provided, but it would have had a total of 300–350 men. It was commanded by Captain Mildmay, who seems to have been a trusted officer, more than capable of operating independently, as had been shown at Leeds when he was detached with a substantial force to attack the town from the south side of the River Aire.

The vanguard was commanded by Sergeant-Major-General Gifford and comprised 1,200 men from the Leeds garrison. Lord Fairfax himself commanded the main battle, which was made up of 500 men from the garrisons of Halifax, and its surrounding towns, and 700 Lancashire foot, divided into twelve companies. Sir Thomas Fairfax had command of the horse, which was formed from thirteen troops, for a strength of about 650–700 men. The horse was divided into two wings of five troops each, which points to the remaining three troops being part of the Forlorn Hope. Thomas Stockdale, a close associate of Lord Fairfax, stated that the Parliamentarian army was ‘not full 4,000 men horse and foot armed’. Taking into account the troops already listed this gives a total of about 500–600 men for the Bradford garrison, divided into seven companies, which formed the rearguard, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Forbes. Thomas Stockdale also mentions a substantial number of clubmen being present, although he does not give an exact number.

The strength of the Royalist army is much more problematic and little detail is given in any of the contemporary accounts of the battle. Thomas Stockdale stated that the Royalist had 15,000 foot and 4,000 horse, almost certainly a highly inflated figure, although his total for the horse may be close. Sir Thomas Fairfax puts the Royalist strength at between 10,000 and 12,000 men, and this is probably very close to the truth. The two Royalist accounts that give any clue to their strength are the Duchess of Newcastle, who writes that ‘My Lord’s forces, which then contained not above half so many musketeers as the enemy had; their chiefest strength consisting in horse’, and the Earl of Newcastle himself who reports the enemy having ‘a greater number of foot than we’. It is probable that the Royalist army was close to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s lower total of 10,000 men, with an almost equal split of horse and foot at about 5,000 men each. Newcastle also had a substantial artillery train, as his objective was to lay siege to Bradford.

The first shots of the battle were fired on the north-west slopes of Whiskett Hill, when the two Forlorn Hopes clashed with each other. No contemporary account gives a time for this first clash, but Sir Thomas Fairfax provides a clue:

My father appointed 4 o’clock the next morning, to begin to march; but Major-General Gifford, who had the ordering of the business, so delayed the execution of it, that it was 7 or 8 before we began to move; and not without much suspicion of treachery in it.

If Sir Thomas is correct and the Parliamentarian army had covered four miles, then the first clash must have been between nine and ten o’clock on the morning of 30 June 1643.

Three accounts give details of the initial clash between the Forlorn Hopes. Sir Henry Slingsby writes:

The fortune [forlorn] hope of his excellency’s army met unexpectedly with the van of the enemy. They skirmish and are put to retreat. He encouraged his men and put the enemy to a stand. They come on fiercer, and beat the enemy from one hedge, from one house to another; at last they are driven to retreat and we recover the moor.

Thomas Stockdale reported:

Upon Atherton Moor they planted ordnance, and ordered their battalia, but they manned diverse houses standing in the enclosed grounds between Bradford and Atherton Moor with musketeers, and sent out great parties of horse and foot by the lanes and enclosed ground to give us fight. Our forlorn hope beat back the enemy’s out of the lanes and enclosed ground, killing many and taking some prisoners.

Finally, Sir Thomas Fairfax writes:

For when we were near the place we intended, the whole enemy army was drawn up in battalia. We were to go up a hill to them, which our forlorn hope gained by beating theirs into their main body, which was drawn up half a mile further, upon a place called Adderton Moor [locals still sometimes refer to Adwalton as Adderton]. We being all up the hill drew into battalia also.

There seems to be some discrepancy between these accounts as to the state of the Royalist army at the start of the action. Enough information is given to work out the course of events.

Captain Mildmay led his forlorn hope up the northwest side of Whiskett Hill, where they clashed unexpectedly with the Royalist vanguard. The Royalists were driven back from Whiskett Hill to the second, lower ridge, where they were rallied by the Earl of Newcastle and the Parliamentarian forlorn hope was brought to a stand. Reinforced, the Parliamentarians renewed their attack, driving the Royalists back into the enclosures at the foot of the hill and here, once again, the Royalists made a stand.

By this time the Royalist army had begun to deploy onto the moor, and a large number of musketeers, supported by horse, had been sent into the enclosures to reinforce their retreating forlorn hope. The main Parliamentarian army had reached the top of the lower crest, overlooking the moor, and began to form into line of battle. There would have been a pause while both armies continued to deploy.

The Parliamentarian army split into two wings and a reserve. Major-General Gifford commanded the left wing, with his five troops of horse deployed close to the Bradford-Wakefield road, and to their right 1,200 foot, mostly musketeers. Continuing the line was a similar sized body of foot and then another five troops of horse completed the Parliamentarian line. The right half of the Parliamentarian front line was commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Somewhere within this line were deployed three light cannon, the only guns Lord Fairfax had with him. The remainder of Lord Fairfax’s troops formed a reserve, and this comprised about 600 regular foot, possibly the men from the Bradford garrison, and the clubmen, and, as they are not taken into account elsewhere Captain Mildmay’s weary forlorn hope.

On the moor the Royalists were in the process of deploying into a similar formation, with horse on the flanks and foot in the centre. As most of Newcastle’s musketeers had been deployed into the enclosures on the edge of the moor, the foot in the centre would have comprised, in the main, blocks of pikemen and these would have been interspersed with cannon, most of which were still in the act of deploying onto the moor. The troops of horse on the Royalist left flank had problems deploying due to a number of coal pits dotted around the southern half of the moor, the remains of which can still be detected today. The Royalist right flank may well have extended beyond the Bradford-Wakefield road, which was open ground at the time of the battle, but any advance they made would be affected by a continuation of the enclosures bordering the moor. It is difficult to ascertain how far forward on the moor the Royalists had deployed but, as several accounts write of the Royalists coming down towards the Parliamentarian troops and Parliamentarian troops going up towards the Royalists, it is a fair assumption that the main Royalist line was deployed part way up the northwest slope of Hungar Hill.

Once their deployment was complete the Parliamentarian army began to roll forward towards the enclosure at the bottom of the hill. After a sharp fight the Royalist musketeers were driven from the enclosures, withdrawing towards their main body, and the Parliamentarian troops closed up to the edge of the moor. Sir Thomas Fairfax’s five troops of horse had occupied an enclosure running along the south-west edge of the moor and some of his musketeers were deployed in another enclosure at right angles to the first. The only entrance to the field in which Sir Thomas’s horse was deployed was through a narrow opening, or gateway, which was flanked by his musketeers, the whole forming a very useful defensive position. Sir Thomas needed this as the enemy horse opposing him vastly outnumbered his five troops. It was not long before a body of Royalist horse began to move forward to attack him, sweeping around the end of the enclosure to force an entry through the gateway. Sir Thomas reports the results of this attack:

Ten or 12 troops of horse charged us in the right wing. We kept the enclosure, placing our musketeers in the hedges in the moor, which was a good advantage to us who had so few horse. There was a gate, or open place to the moor, where 5 or 6 might enter abreast. Here they strove to enter, and we to defend; but after some dispute, those that entered the pass found sharp entertainment; and those that had not yet entered, a hot welcome from the musketeers that flanked them in the hedges. All, in the end, were forced to retreat, with the loss of one Colonel Howard, who commanded them.

The Duchess of Newcastle gives similar details to Sir Thomas but states that the gateway would only allow access to two men at a time. Outnumbered two to one, the importance of Sir Thomas’s position was proven and his men not only held their ground but drove off the enemy.

Shortly after the repulse of the first cavalry attack, another large body of Royalist horse descended the hill and almost succeeded in breaking into the enclosure, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reports:

The horse came down again and charged us, being about 13 or 14 troops. We defended ourselves as before, but with much more difficulty, many having gotten in among us; but were beaten off again, with loss; and Colonel Heme who commanded that party was slain. We pursued them to their cannon.

Sir Thomas goes on to describe an act of divine retribution which took place just after this attack:

And here, I cannot omit a remarkable passage of divine justice. While we were engaged in the fight with the horse that entered the gate, 4 soldiers had stripped Colonel Heme naked, as he laid dead on the ground (men still fighting around about him), and so dextrous were these villains, that they had done it, and mounted themselves again before we had beat them off. But after we had beaten them to their ordnance (as I said) and now returning to our ground again, the enemy discharged a piece of cannon in our rear; the bullet fell into Captain Copley’s troop, in which these 4 men were; two of them were killed and some hurt, or mark remained on the rest, though dispersed into several ranks of the troop which was the more remarkable, we had not martial law among us, which gave me a good occasion to reprove it, by showing the soldiers the sinfulness of the act, and how God would punish when man wanted power to do it.

It is quite a surprise that after ten months at war the Parliamentarian army in Yorkshire does not seem to have had any articles of war.

The Parliamentarians were exerting pressure right along the line and began to advance onto the moor itself, driving the Royalist musketeers before them. Joseph Lister, an inhabitant of Bradford, writes that the Parliamentarian foot:

Charged them so warmly, that they beat them off their great guns, and turned them against the enemy and they began to run.

There is no evidence to support Lister’s mention of the Royalist guns being captured and turned on their original owners, but several other accounts talk of Lord Fairfax’s foot almost reaching the Royalist guns. Sir Henry Slingsby wrote:

There the enemy had like to have gained our cannon; but was manfully defended by a stand of pikes.

While the Duchess of Newcastle said that:

In the meanwhile the foot of both sides on the right and left wings encountered each other, who fought from hedge to hedge and for a long time together overpowered and got ground of my Lord’s foot, almost to the environing of his cannon.

By this time the action had been going on for two hours and it must have been around noon. The Royalist musketeers had been driven back to their gun line, the horse of their left wing had been driven back twice by Sir Thomas Fairfax’s men – the Royalist right wing does not seem to have taken a great part in the action – and their guns were in danger of capture. Sir Philip Warwick sums up the Royalist situation:

When the day seemed lost on his side [Newcastle’s], and many of his horse and foot standing doubtful and wavering; a stand or body of pikes, which being not useful, where the two armies were strongest engaged, came up to the defence of their foot, and charged by Fairfax’s horse, repelling them, gave leisure to rally horse and foot.

Sir Thomas Fairfax takes this a little further:

This charge and the resolution that our soldiers showed in the left wing, made the enemy think of retreating. Orders were given for it, and some marched off the field.

Outnumbered by almost three to one, the Parliamentarian army was on the verge of winning a stunning victory. Although the intervention of some of the Royalist pikes had halted the enemy’s advance temporarily, the Royalist army was in some disarray and Newcastle issued orders to withdraw. Battles can sometimes swing on the actions of one man and Adwalton Moor was a prime example of this, when a Royalist colonel changed the whole course of the action, as Sir Thomas Fairfax reports:

While they were in this wavering condition, one Colonel Skirton, a wild and desperate man, desired his General [Newcastle] to let him charge once more, with a stand of pikes, with which he broke in upon our men, and not relieved by our reserves, commanded by some ill affected officers, and chiefly, Major-General Gifford (who did not his part as he ought to have done) our men lost ground; which the enemy seeing, pursued their advantage by bringing on fresh troops. Ours being herewith discouraged, began to flee, and so were soon routed.

This turn of events is also mentioned by the Duchess of Newcastle:

At last the pikes of my Lord’s army having had no employment all the day, were drawn against the enemy’s left wing, and particularly those of my Lord’s own regiment, which were all stout and valiant men, who fell so furiously upon the enemy, that they forsook their hedges, and fell to their heels.

Colonel Skirton, who was probably Colonel Posthumous Kirton, requested Newcastle’s permission to carry out one last attack against the enemy and this turned the course of the battle. Closing rapidly with the enemy musketeers, Kirton’s pikemen broke in among them and drove them back into the enclosures. Other bodies of foot joined in this attack and the situation of Lord Fairfax’s left wing deteriorated rapidly. Sir Thomas Fairfax states that Gifford was responsible for the defeat, as he did not deploy the reserve promptly. This hardly seems justified. It was no more Gifford’s responsibility to deploy the reserve than it was Sir Thomas’s and his statement seems to be trying to find a scapegoat for the officer whose responsibility it was – his father Lord Ferdinando Fairfax.

With the enemy being forced back into the enclosures, General King, Newcastle’s Lieutenant-General, led forward the horse of the Royalist right wing. This was the last straw for Fairfax’s left wing and in short order they were streaming back towards Bradford with the Royalist horse in full pursuit. Due to the lie of the land and the mass of powder smoke blowing across the battlefield, Sir Thomas Fairfax was unaware of the disaster on the left flank. Newcastle now turned his attention to Sir Thomas’s men, the only surviving formed bodies of Parliamentarian troops on the battlefield. The Duchess of Newcastle writes:

At which very instant my Lord caused a shot or two to be made by his cannon against the body of the enemy’s horse, drawn up within cannon shot, which took so good effect, that it disordered the enemy’s troops. Hereupon my Lord’s horse got over the hedge, not in a body (for that they could not), but dispersedly two on a breast; and as soon as some considerable number was gotten over, and drawn up, they charged the enemy, and routed them. So that in an instant there was a strange change of fortune, and the field totally won by my Lord.

Sir Thomas mentions the enemy guns opening fire on his men as they withdrew to the enclosure they had so stoutly defended and this continued once they had arrived there. The reason for Sir Thomas’s withdrawal was almost certainly the repulse of Gifford’s men by Kirton’s attack and, finding his men facing the whole Royalist left wing, he had no option but to pull back. Sir Thomas goes on to describe the closing moments of the battle:

The horse also charged us again. We not knowing what was done in the left wing, our men maintained their ground, until a command came for us to retreat having scarce any way now to do it; the enemy being almost round about us, and our way to Bradford cut off; but there was a lane in the field we were in which led to Halifax, which, as a happy providence, brought us off without any great loss, saving one Captain Talbot and 12 more which were slain in this last encounter.

So there is a discrepancy between the Duchess’s account and that of Sir Thomas. The Duchess asserts that Fairfax was driven from the field, while Sir Thomas states that he withdrew from the field after receiving an order, probably from his father. Sir Thomas’s story has the ring of truth about it, as he brought virtually all of his men off the field in good order, something he certainly would not have been able to do had he been driven from the field. Local tradition has it that the lane along which Sir Thomas withdrew was Warren Lane, which still exists today, although it follows a slightly different course, passing through the grounds of Oakwell Hall, just to the south of the battlefield.

By early afternoon the Fairfaxes were in full retreat, Sir Thomas to Halifax and the remainder of the army towards Bradford. Accounts of both sides’ losses in the battle are sparse and contradictory. For example Sir Thomas Fairfax puts the Parliamentarian losses at ‘about 60 killed, and 300 taken prisoners’, while the Duchess of Newcastle writes:

In this victory the enemy lost most of their foot, about 3,000 were taken prisoner, and 700 horse and foot slain, and those that escaped fled into their garrison at Bradford, amongst whom was also their General of Horse [Sir Thomas Fairfax].

Both of these accounts were written a long time after the battle and give vastly different figures, one too low and one too high. A third account giving more realistic figures is attributed to the Earl of Newcastle and was written soon after the battle:

So we pursued them, killing and taking them to Bradford town end, which was more than two mile [old English miles, nearer four modern miles], in which chase was slain (as is supposed) about 500 of the enemy’s, and about 1400 taken prisoners, amongst which many officers, together with three field pieces, and all their ammunition there, which was not much. We had many soldiers hurt, two colonels of horse slain, Heron and Howard, and some officers hurt, as Colonel Throckmorton, Colonel Carnaby, and Captain Maison, all recoverable, and not above twenty common soldiers slain.

This account gives more reasonable figures for the Parliamentarian losses, although the figure for the Royalist dead seems a little low. That said, most of the Parliamentarian dead would have been killed during the pursuit after the battle. With the enemy in rout Newcastle was able to continue his march to his original objective – Bradford.

During the night Sir Thomas Fairfax was able to march from Halifax to Bradford where he joined the remnants of his father’s army. Sir Thomas sums up their situation:

I found my Father much troubled, having neither a place of strength to defend ourselves in; nor a garrison in Yorkshire to retreat to. (For the Governor of Hull [Sir John Hotham] had declared himself, that if we were forced to retreat thither, he would shut the gates against us.) But while he was musing on these sad thoughts, a messenger was sent from Hull to let him know that the townsmen had secured the Governor, and if he had any occasion to make use of that place (for they were sensible of the danger he was in) he should be readily and gladly received. Which news was joyfully received, and acknowledged as a great mercy of God to us.

The Hothams had continued their correspondence with Newcastle and were on the verge of changing sides. Fortunately for Parliament, the citizens of Hull took matters into their own hands and arrested Sir John on 29 June. He managed to escape but was pursued and recaptured at Beverley. His son had also been arrested and the two were transported to the Tower of London on the ship Hercules. The pair were tried, convicted and executed on Tower Hill: Captain John on 1 January 1644 and his father on the following day. With the arrival of the news from Hull, Lord Fairfax decided to withdraw what he could of his army to Leeds and then on to Hull.

Leaving his son to defend Bradford with 800 foot and sixty horse, Fairfax safely reached Leeds early on 1 July. During the previous evening the Royalists had moved their artillery into position to bombard Bradford. This bombardment commenced on the morning of the 1st. Having given the defenders a taste of what was to come, Newcastle called for a parley. If Parliamentarian accounts are to be believed, Newcastle did not intend to come to an agreement with the defenders but used the time to surround the town. A decision to break out was taken by the Parliamentarian officers and they attempted to carry this out during the night of the 1st/2nd. While many of the horse were able to break out most of the foot were driven back into the town. Sir Thomas Fairfax clashed with a force of enemy horse and during the exchange his wife was captured. The Earl of Newcastle showed that he was a real gentleman by returning Sir Thomas’s wife in his own coach. Sir Thomas reached Leeds safely.

Newcastle had ordered his men to storm Bradford on the morning of the 2nd and they were to show no quarter. Local tradition has it that Newcastle, who was spending the night at Boiling Hall, was awoken by a spirit imploring him to ‘Pity poor Bradford’ several times during the night. Whether or not there is any truth in this tradition, by the morning of the 2nd Newcastle called off the assault and occupied the town peacefully.

Within two hours of his arrival at Leeds, Sir Thomas Fairfax was on the road again, this time marching for Hull and safety. The Parliamentarians’ first objective was to cross the Ouse at Selby and several bodies of Royalist horse had been sent to intercept them. While his father and the bulk of his surviving troops crossed the Ouse, Sir Thomas turned on one of the Royalist forces, attacking it in the streets of Selby. During the fight Sir Thomas was wounded in the wrist but his men sent the Royalist troopers on their way back to Cawood Castle. Unfortunately, Fairfax and his men were unable to cross the Ouse and follow his father. Crossing the Trent they rode along the south bank of the Humber, pursued by the Royalists, until they came to Barton-on-Humber where they were picked up by a ship and taken to Hull. During the pursuit Fairfax had to leave his young daughter, who was ill, behind. His relief must have been great when she was subsequently brought safely to Hull.

The immediate aftermath of the Battle of Adwalton Moor was that, with the exception of Hull, the Royalists had control of the whole of Yorkshire. This meant that Newcastle was now able to move his army to the south and reinforce the King. Not for the first time, the Yorkshire gentry bridled against leaving the county while an enemy force existed. On 2 September the Royalists once again laid siege to Hull. Lord Fairfax’s horse were of no use during a siege, so they were ferried across the Humber. This force, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, joined with the cavalry of the Eastern Association commanded by Oliver Cromwell.

The siege of Hull progressed slowly. Lord Fairfax opened the floodgates along the River Hull and inundated the land around the town, seriously inhibiting the Royalist attempts to commence a bombardment. On 11 October Newcastle received two pieces of bad news. At Hull a major sortie by the garrison had driven his men back and on the 12th the siege was raised. In Lincolnshire a large body of his horse had been defeated by Fairfax and Cromwell at the Battle of Winceby. These two events, both taking place on the 11th, seem to have brought Newcastle to a decision to go into winter quarters at Welbeck and the fighting in Yorkshire came to a close for 1643.

Although Adwalton Moor had given control of Yorkshire to the Royalists it had a much more profound effect on the course of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the battle Thomas Stockdale, a close associate of Lord Fairfax, had written from Halifax to the Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall, summing up the day’s events and the magnitude of Fairfax’s defeat. This letter was read to the House on 5 July and galvanised Parliament to follow a course it had been considering for some time – an alliance with the Scots. On 25 September Parliament ratified an agreement with the Scots, known as the Solemn League and Covenant. Although this agreement contained political and religious clauses, it was its military implications that would have the greatest effect on the Civil War in Yorkshire and, indeed, the rest of the country. The Scots would invade northern England with an army of 20,000 men in support of Parliament. Due to some minor disagreements this part of the treaty was not completed until November 1643. The Scots began to gather their forces and would be ready to invade the North in January 1644.

A Modern Cromwell

Sir Gerald Templer and his assistant, Major Lord Wynford inspecting the members of Kinta Valley Home Guard (KVHG) in Perak, c. 1952.

A Plan and a Man

By October 1951, the Malayan Communist Party Central Executive Committee met to review the war to date. Over the past year guerrillas had staged some 6,100 incidents while inflicting the highest record of losses on civilians and security forces. The Central Executive Committee did not have precise figures. What they did know was that they had massed their fighters to the greatest possible extent in an effort to obtain important results. Company-sized units of 100 to 300 men had attacked remote police stations, European business offices, and mining installations. The goal was to overpower the regular and irregular police guards, capture weapons and ammunition, and demoralize the native constabulary. These assaults had been costly and seldom succeeded. The Central Executive Committee did not realize that its fighters had become demoralized, with many shying away from contact with the British.

The second major Communist objective was the New Villages. Communist agents had infiltrated squatter communities to persuade the people to resist relocation. Guerrillas ambushed truck convoys conveying the squatters to the New Villages. They fired into newly settled villages in hopes of stampeding the inhabitants. In spite of making the strongest possible effort, the Communists had failed to prevent the expansion of the New Villages.

During its October 1951 review, the leadership concluded that while it could foment terror, depredations against the people—slashing rubber trees, burning workers’ huts, sabotaging public utilities, ambushing Red Cross convoys, derailing trains, shooting up New Villages, killing for identity cards—merely increased the general population’s misery. The committee decided that these tactics had been a mistake since they alienated the very people they most needed to support the insurgency. The MCP leadership decreed that henceforth the masses were to be courted. The sole legitimate targets for terrorist operations were the British and their “running dogs.”

The Executive Committee resolved that in order to wage a protracted struggle, the formed guerrilla units had to break contact with the security forces and withdraw deeper into the jungle to rest and refit. Couriers set out on foot to disseminate this decision to all guerrilla units. The jungle was no longer a completely safe haven. Fear of ambush and the need to dodge British patrols caused the couriers to move cautiously from one jungle post office to the next. Consequently, months passed before many guerrilla leaders received the new orders.

At the time no one realized the enormous significance of the committee’s decision. The British had no knowledge of this strategic shift for almost a year. Only then were intelligence officers able to link prisoner interrogations with captured documents to discover that there had been a fundamental shift and that the insurgents had lost their revolutionary momentum. The shift most dramatically changed the status of the village police posts. For the previous three and a half years, policemen had confronted a mortal threat of massed attack by overwhelming numbers. Henceforth, attacks came from small bands of twenty to thirty and were typically only nuisance raids. Relieved of their fear of annihilation, the village police could focus on providing security and restoring law and order.

Yet it was the inherent nature of a counterinsurgency that the British were unable to assess accurately its progress until after the fact. The British did not perceive that the tide was turning. They did not know Communist strength had declined to perhaps 500 hard-core guerrillas supported by another 4,000 fighters of indifferent morale. They did not know that the year 1951 would prove the high-water mark of the insurgency.

The Return of Winston Churchill

Great Britain’s October election of 1951 brought a new Conservative government led by a revived Winston Churchill. Churchill returned to office to find his country still struggling from its exertions during World War II. Food stocks were as depleted as they had been at the height of the U-boat menace in 1941. Strict food rationing remained in place. Prosperity seemed a distant mirage. The Malayan Emergency was costing the nation’s pinched economy half a million dollars per day. In Asia, some 800,000 United Nations soldiers including a Commonwealth Division were challenging Communism in Korea. More than 100,000 French troops were fighting the Viet Minh in Indochina. Although Churchill supported both fights, he believed that the fate of the entire Far East truly depended on Malaya. The prime minister requested a complete report on Malaya, and its contents depressed him. Committees charged with winning the war were spending most of their time bickering. The police force was riven with factions. Worst of all, in Churchill’s view, no one seemed to sense the urgency of the problem. He issued orders to Secretary of State Oliver Lyttelton—“The rot has got to be stopped”—and sent him to Singapore.

Lyttelton arrived in Malaya before Christmas 1951. His initial survey convinced him that the British were on the verge of losing Malaya. On his last night at King’s House he found the regular staff absent, replaced by police officers. They sheepishly reported that the Chinese butler who heretofore had served the secretary his after-dinner coffee had been removed from his position because he was a Communist agent.

Lyttelton described the essential conundrum facing a counterinsurgency: “You cannot win the war without the help of the population, and you cannot get the support of the population without at least beginning to win the war.” The antagonism between the Malay majority and the Chinese minority seemed overwhelming. A Malay political delegation met with Lyttelton to propose a compromise solution: accept the existing situation and let Malaya be granted in dependence forthwith under British administration.

This proposal was immensely attractive. It addressed the prime Malay concern about power sharing with the Malayan Chinese by acknowledging that the Malays would remain politically dominant. If the British accepted it would motivate Malays to put forth far more effort in the war. It meant the war would come to an end soon and Commonwealth troops could escape what appeared to be a jungle quagmire. But in the minds of Lyttelton and Churchill the proposal violated basic British values, not the least of which was the preservation of a disintegrating empire, and smacked of declaring victory and going home. Consequently they rejected it.

Instead Lyttelton recommended a colossal Organizational change: the installation of a supreme warlord in charge of both military and civil affairs. As Lyttelton pondered candidates he briefly considered Britain’s most famous warrior, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. He correctly suspected that the immensely proud Montgomery would not want to risk his reputation in Malaya’s jungles. However, Montgomery did send a Lyttelton a brief note of advice: “Dear Lyttelton, Malaya. We must have a plan. Secondly, we must have a man. When we have a plan and a man, we shall succeed; not otherwise.” If the field marshal’s advice was rather obvious—Lyttelton later wrote with British understatement that “this had occurred to me”—it still made the solid point that heretofore British efforts had yet to marry leadership and strategic execution.3 That was about to change.

The Rise of Sir Gerald Templer

Lyttelton’s choice for warlord was General Sir Gerald Templer. Templer arrived in Malaya in February 1952 to assume an exceptional posting as both the high commissioner and operational commander of the military. Not since Oliver Cromwell had Britain invested a soldier with this combination of military and political power. But Templer was an exceptional man. He had served in the trenches of France during World War I, competed on the 1924 British Olympic hurdles team, won the army’s bayonet fighting championship, earned the prestigious Distinguished Service Order in Palestine, and risen to corps command during World War II’s Anzio campaign. During the Allied occupation of Germany he was director of military government and later became the director of intelligence at the War Office. His combination of combat and civil leadership coupled with an intelligence background well prepared Templer to meet a novel challenge.

Templer coined the phrase “winning hearts and minds” to describe the foundation of a counterinsurgency strategy.4 He tackled the difficult problem of constructing a political system that would unite Malaya’s many ethnic groups into a stable structure. He was very much a man of action, disdaining all theoretical constructs. He saw that the existing bureaucracy, with its numerous committees and duplication of authority on the state and district levels, was failing because the civilians, policemen, and soldiers could not agree. He told one such committee, “My advice is for you to thrash out your problems over a bottle of whiskey in the evenings. If you can’t agree I don’t want to know why. I’ll sack the lot of you and bring in three new chaps.”

Templer’s political goal was a united nation of Malaya with “a common form of citizenship for all who regard the Federation or any part of it as their real home and the object of their loyalty.” With Templer’s encouragement, in January 1952 the United Malay National Organization and the Malayan Chinese Association cooperated to form the Alliance Party. The Alliance Party contested the capital’s municipal elections and won nine of eleven seats, thereby vaulting itself into national prominence. Templer pledged that legislative elections would be the first step toward independence.

The issue of what would happen after in dependence haunted some Europeans and many Malayans. One experienced reporter warned, “Unless a united Malayan nation is achieved before the British government hands self-government to the country a much more terrible Emergency of racial strife may break out.” Templer addressed this problem head-on. In September 1952 all aliens born in Malaya, including most notably 1.2 million Chinese, received full citizenship. Later Templer signed a decree requiring every New Village to have a school where the language of instruction was Malayan. Newly constructed primary schools in other towns and villages had the same requirement. The ability to speak Malayan was intended to cement future generations to a united Malaya while reassuring the current majority Malay population. Templer also explicitly addressed the question of land tenure when he said that the inhabitants of the New Villages needed to own the land where they lived. By deft political manipulation, Templer cleverly changed the calculus of battle. By hitching the forces of nationalism to an emerging democratic Malay state, the British undercut an insurgency against colonial oppressors and replaced it with a competition for the future of an in dependent nation.

Encased in this velvet glove was an iron hand. Ten days after describing his vision for a united Malaya, a particularly bloody guerrilla ambush brought Templer to the town of Tanjong Malim, fifty-five miles north of Kuala Lumpur. The town had a bad reputation for violence, with almost forty incidents in the past three months. Recently seven Gordon Highlanders had died in an ambush and fifteen civilians and policemen had been murdered. Now for the sixth time guerrillas had cut a water pipeline outside of town. This time they remained on the scene to lure the repair crew and its police escort into a carefully prepared killing zone. Among the killed were a highly respected district administrator—the celebrated Michael Codner, who had earned a Military Cross for his role in the famous “Wooden Horse” escape from a German prison camp during World War II—the area executive engineer of public works, and seven policemen. Once again no townsperson admitted hearing, seeing, or knowing anything about the ambush.

Templer ordered community leaders to assemble and then during an hour-long rant charged them with “cowardly silence.” He said that he would install a new town administration backed with more troops. When some nearby listeners nodded approval, Templer lashed out: “Don’t nod your heads, I haven’t started yet.” He proceeded to impose a twenty-two-hour-a-day curfew, during which time no one was to leave their homes. No one was to leave town at any time. Templer closed the schools and bus service and reduced the rice ration by 40 percent.

How long these measures remained in place would depend upon the townspeople. Ten days later each household received a confidential questionnaire in which they were supposed to denounce any known Communists. With a fine sense of the theatrical, Templer had the completed questionnaires deposited in a sealed box, brought to the capital by selected community leaders, and then opened the letters himself. He read them, made notes, and then destroyed the originals to preserve confidentiality. He sent the village notables home with instructions to tell the people how the letters had been handled. After processing the questionnaires, authorities made some minor arrests and Templer gradually lifted the restrictions. From a tactical standpoint, Templer’s angry retaliation failed; the people arrested were Communist supporters or sympathizers, not members of the guerrilla band who actually had ambushed the repair crew. Moreover, given the limited extent of literacy in the town, the use of written questionnaires was not the best way to obtain responses. But strategically Templer had made his point: a new authority was on the scene and was prepared for stern action when called for.

Because of Codner’s hero status, the incident received widespread publicity. Templer’s notion of collective punishment produced a storm of protest from British and international media. Among many, the Manchester Guardian labeled his behavior “odious.” Templer cared not. His first months in Malaya had an electric political and morale-boosting impact: “he was not only there, but was most certainly seen to be there.”

A Winning Strategy

By British standards, Templer commanded a sizable force including half of the line regiments in the entire British army, all its Gurkha battalions, and a variety of regiments from the remnants of the far-flung empire, including the King’s African Rifles and the Fijian Regiment. He intended to wield them differently, moving away from large sweeps and instead concentrating on keeping units in one area long enough so they could learn the local terrain. Templer also thought that various British units had acquired valuable experience in jungle fighting and that this knowledge needed to be collected and disseminated in a systematic way. The result was a booklet entitled “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya.” Based on the syllabus of the Jungle Warfare Training Centre, it was written in just two weeks. It was a practical how-to compendium describing techniques for patrolling, conducting searches, setting ambushes, and acquiring intelligence. Printed in a size that fit into a jungle uniform pocket, “The Conduct of Anti-Terrorist Operations in Malaya,” inevitably given the acronym ATOM, served as a soldier’s bible. Templer inscribed his own copy with this notation: “It is largely as a result of the publication of this handbook . . . that we got militant communism in Malaya by the throat.”

The improvement in jungle tactics coincided with the insight that the vast, apparently impenetrable jungle actually held a limited network of trails and that the enemy had no choice but to use them. Communist couriers, food requisition parties, and organized units carrying out operations had to traverse these trails some time or another. Rather than noisily bashing about the jungle on useless large-scale sweeps, the British tactic of choice became the setting of an ambush overlooking a trail, followed by a patient waiting period. Platoons operated along the jungle edge for ten to twenty days at a time. They spent most of their time watching and listening.

For a superior officer, the notion of passively waiting for the enemy to appear flew in the face of conventional training. For the soldiers waiting silently hour after hour trying to ignore the leeches, mosquitoes, sleep-inducing heat and humidity, and fatigue, it was not pleasant. A British officer wrote, “I had grown used to the jungle during the war in Burma, but there we were always in large parties and in touch either by sound or wireless with the units to our left and right. Also we always had some idea of where the enemy was. Here we were just a little party of ten men, completely isolated, and the enemy was God knows where. He might be behind the next bush, or the one beyond that, or he might be a hundred miles away. We never knew.”

Most of the time no one passed the ambush site. Yet statistics revealed that on average a soldier on patrol encountered an insurgent once every 1,000 hours. The same soldier waiting patiently in ambush saw an insurgent once every 300 hours. Typically, a contact did not occur until after the ambushers had been in position for more than twenty-four hours. An officer tabulated his accomplishments at the end of his tour. He had spent 115 days in the jungle: “I was with my company when we shot and killed a terrorist. I set an ambush with a section of my platoon which shot and killed a terrorist. My platoon shot and killed a terrorist in an ambush while I was on leave. A company operation in which I took part resulted in four terrorists surrendering. I fired at, but missed, a terrorist who was running away from a camp which we were attacking.” Based on conversations with fellow officers, he concluded that he had experienced a fairly active tour of duty.

Jungle ambush was not comfortable, it was not glorious, but in this war it was the most effective purely military tactic.

Food Denial

The Malayan jungle did not produce enough food to sustain the guerrillas. They needed to obtain sustenance from sympathizers living outside the jungle to survive. The British knew this and conceived a strict food denial program (what became known as Operation Starvation) to starve the guerrillas. Weakened by hunger, they would become vulnerable to military operations or surrender. The food denial strategy proved a devastating measure that eventually defeated the insurgents.

The British carefully followed a three-phase approach to implement the food denial strategy. A months-long intelligence-gathering operation inaugurated the program. Special Branch officers infiltrated the Min Yuen support organization inside a designated village. During this time, military patrols deliberately avoided this village. Instead, they operated in adjacent areas in the hope that their presence would push the terrorists toward the apparent sanctuary of the designated village.

The second phase began the day the strict food rationing began and lasted three to five months. It included house-to-house searches to seize food stores and the arrest of known Communist agents who had been identified by the Special Branch undercover agents. Thereafter, security forces tightly guarded the supply convoys that delivered rice to the village. The rice was cooked centrally by government cooks while armed guards looked on. Within the village, authorities controlled the sale and distribution of all other food. Meanwhile, the military patrolled the nearby jungle to provide security against insurgent attacks.

The people were told that the restrictions would end as soon as the terrorists had been killed or captured. If all proceeded as planned, the villagers would tire of this intrusive disruption and denounce the Communist infrastructure. Then, in the final phase, Communist turncoats would lead Special Branch operational teams, masquerading as Communist terrorists, against higher-level formations.

The food denial effort was not airtight. At first many of the village perimeters lacked illumination, making it easy for Communist sympathizers to throw food and medicine to the waiting guerrillas outside the wire. As perimeter security improved, the sympathizers turned to other tactics. Villagers smuggled rice by hiding it inside bicycle frames, cigarette tins, or false-bottomed buckets of pig swill on the supposition that a Malay policeman, because of his Muslim religion, would be unwilling to touch anything to do with swine. When security forces detected these dodges, the insurgents increasingly turned to using children to smuggle food.

The soldiers and the police usually harnessed their efforts in tandem. An infantry officer wrote, “The police could not take on the fighting against the bandits in the jungle, whereas we could not undertake the normal process of maintaining law and order in the villages and towns and protected areas.” Another infantry officer inspected his men while they were on gate duty at a New Village. Long lines of pedestrians, cyclists, and vehicles impatiently waited to leave the village while hour after hour the men of the South Wales Borderers performed meticulous vehicle and body searches. He wrote, “It is not easy to turn one’s battalion into a cross between a body of high-class customs officials and police detectives, but what I saw that morning confirmed everything that has been said about the adaptability of the British soldiers.”

As the security forces became ever more serious about enforcing food regulations, which meant time-consuming personal body searches each morning, villagers became understandably more angry about the long lines as they went outside the wire to work in the fields and jungle. Communist propagandists tried to magnify village grievances, claiming security forces were taking indecent advantage of females during searches. Although the international press published some of this propaganda, it failed to deter the British from intensifying their food denial efforts.

The mere possession of food outside the wire risked a penalty of up to five years in prison. The government reduced the number of stores authorized to sell food, banned tinned Quaker Oats because it was an insurgent emergency ration, restricted the sale of high-energy foods and medicines, and ordered shop keepers to puncture tins of food in the presence of the buyer so tropical heat could begin its spoiling process and prevent the food from being stockpiled for the insurgents. Other draconian measures severely restricted the quantities of tinned meat, fish, and cooking oil permitted in individual households.

While the New Villages were subjected to the methodical imposition of food denial measures, military search-and-destroy operations in adjacent areas proceeded. Often during these operations the security forces imposed a severe rice ration on the local inhabitants. Government spokesmen claimed that this ration was “just enough to keep a person in good health.” According to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce this was not true. The rice ration created “fifty thousand half-starved people, many of whom were too ill or to weak to work.”

Templer and his subordinates were not blind to the human suffering caused by the food denial program. They also considered other adverse consequences such as the real risk of spawning a repressive governmental bureaucracy and the impact of international opprobrium. They weighed the operational effect of the food denial policies versus the impact on civilian morale and pressed ahead. At the same time, the British offered the people an enormous incentive to cooperate. The British called this inducement the “White Area,” a symbolic cleansing of the red taint of Communism.

White Areas were almost literally the carrot to the stick of Emergency regulations. When a region demonstrated loyalty to the government and a corresponding dramatic reduction in Communist activity, authorities suspended Emergency regulations including most especially food restrictions, curfews, limited business hours, and controls over the movement of people and goods. The inhabitants of the New Villages still had to live within their assigned villages and maintain their defenses. But compared to their onerous life under Emergency regulations, this was freedom. The government declared the first White Area in September 1953 and during the next two and a half years extended this designation to include almost half the country’s population.

As time passed, the operational effects of the food denial program were dramatic. The guerrillas literally began to starve. They could hardly lean on sympathizers to provide for them since those sympathizers could honestly say that strict rationing, central cooking, thorough gate searches, and swarming security patrols prevented them from smuggling food to the guerrillas.

When British intelligence pinpointed a guerrilla band on the verge of starvation, security forces flooded the area and food denial operations intensified. At such times civil life came to a standstill as the security forces imposed curfews of up to thirty-six hours along with very strict rice rationing. Knowing that the guerrillas would have to move or die, military forces flooded the area to set ambushes along every possible trail. One such operation in Johore featured three infantry battalions, five Area Security Units, two Police Special service Groups, and a “volunteer” force of ex-guerrillas. For five weeks these forces operated in conjunction with strict local food denial and pervasive psychological warfare efforts. They never killed a single guerrilla, yet their presence led to the collapse of guerrilla morale. Hobbled by hunger, compelled to keep on the move while dodging patrols and ambushes, the guerrillas initially survived only by operating in ever-smaller groups. This dispersal led to the breakdown of command authority. In the absence of officers, individuals found it easier to surrender. As unit disintegration continued, the leaders concluded that further resistance was futile and they too surrendered.

This type of operation could only work in compact, carefully targeted areas where the security forces could completely dominate the terrain. The Johore operation required an enormous expenditure of effort to capture one guerrilla and receive the surrender of eleven more. However, it was an operational approach to which the guerrillas had no answer.


The duty of my station when in engagements was to fill up the intervals occasioned by killed and wounded, and to receive and issue orders, etc. The duty of firing is left to the private men. The business of an officer is to see that they do their duty properly, level and fire well; and, if necessary, assist them with his exhortations to inspire them with courage, and keep them from breaking and confusion.

James Green, “Account of Green’s Services”


In eighteenth-century conventional linear warfare, the regimental infantry officer took part in four main activities: he motivated his men, directed them, kept them in good order, and engaged in personal combat. At least on European battlefields, perhaps the first of these four activities was the most important. Historians commonly assert that eighteenth-century common soldiers braved enemy fire partly because they were more afraid of their officers than of the enemy. There is some truth in this. As Wolfe put it in his tactical instructions to the 20th Regiment in 1755, in action the cordon of supernumerary subalterns and sergeants in the battalion’s rear were required “to keep the men in their duty.” This meant they used compulsion — even lethal force — to prevent the men from taking off: “A soldier that quits his rank, or offers to fly, is to be instantly put to death by the officer who commands that platoon, or by the officer or sergeant in the rear of that platoon; a soldier does not deserve to live who won’t fight for his king and country.” Roger Lamb, a veteran of the American War, later opined that this threat was effective: “A coward taught to believe that, if he breaks his rank and abandons his colors, he will be punished with death by his own party, will take his chance against the enemy.” British officers in America did occasionally resort to such threats in action, even if they do not appear to have carried them out. For example, Ensign John De Berniere wrote of the retreat from Concord that, as the militia’s fire began to take its toll, “we began to run rather than retreat in order. The whole behaved with amazing bravery but little order. We attempted to stop the men and form them two deep, but to no purpose: the confusion increased rather than lessened. At last . . .  the officers got to the front and presented their bayonets, and told the men if they advanced they should die. Upon this they began to form under a very heavy fire.” Less happily, Tarleton recalled that “neither promises nor threats” availed the frantic efforts to recover the troops from their panic after the collapse of his line at Cowpens.

Although the threat of summary retribution must (if only subconsciously) have reinforced common soldiers’ readiness to brave enemy fire, eighteenth-century officers principally led rather than drove their men into combat. As previously discussed, this sometimes took the form of stirring exhortations that appealed to national or regimental identity. Similarly, the officers probably orchestrated the loud cheering in which the redcoats commonly indulged during combat. But the main way that the officer motivated his men was by maintaining a resolute, steady demeanor, particularly before and during the advance. As Bland pointed out in 1727, “the private soldiers . . .  form their notions of the danger from the outward appearance of their officers, and according to their looks apprehend the undertaking to be more or less difficult.” For this the officer needed presence of mind and, above all, physical courage — the essence of the eighteenth-century cult of honor and sine qua non of the gentleman-officer. The need for these qualities intensified once the battalion engaged in close combat because the advanced position of the regimental officers who conducted the firings made them highly vulnerable not only to the enemy’s fire but also to that of their own men (whether accidental or otherwise). The officer’s prominent position also ensured that any momentary lapse in resolution would have been highly conspicuous. Any who failed in this respect almost certainly would have been pressured into quitting the corps, as happened to two unfortunate officers of the Queen’s Rangers after the battle of Brandywine.

Like courage, stoicism was a key element of the officer’s ability to lead by example. This manifested itself most often in reluctance on the part of injured officers to leave the battalion for medical treatment. A particularly impressive instance occurred at the battle of Freeman’s Farm, as later related by Thomas Anburey:

In the course of the last action, Lieutenant [Stephen] Harvey, of the 62nd, a youth of sixteen, and nephew to the Adjutant General of the same name, received several wounds, and was repeatedly ordered off the field by [Lieutenant] Colonel [John] Anstruther; but his heroic ardor would not allow him to quit the battle, while he could stand and see his brave lads fighting beside him. A ball striking one of his legs, his removal became absolutely necessary; and while they were conveying him away, another wounded him mortally. In this situation the surgeon recommended him to take a powerful dose of opium, to avoid a seven or eight hours’ life of most exquisite torture. This he immediately consented to, and when the Colonel entered the tent with Major [Henry] Harnage, who were both wounded, they asked whether he had any affairs they could settle for him. His reply was, that being a minor, everything was already adjusted; but he had one request, which he had just life enough to utter: “Tell my uncle I died like a soldier!”

Similarly at Bunker Hill (according to Captain the Honorable Charles Stuart), “not one officer who served in the light infantry or grenadiers escaped unhurt, and few had less than three or four wounds.”

In America courage was an even more essential commodity for British officers because the hazards run in action there were seemingly higher than in conventional linear warfare. European officers generally considered it taboo to target individuals of consequence. At Brandywine, for instance, Major Patrick Ferguson countermanded his order for three of his British riflemen to shoot down an unsuspecting mounted rebel officer and his aide de camp because “the idea disgusted me . . . ; it was not pleasant to fire at the back of an unoffending individual, who was acquitting himself very coolly of his duty.” By contrast, rebel troops appear to have been positively encouraged to kill British officers. Indeed, at a dinner after the fall of Yorktown, captive Captain Lieutenant Samuel Graham noted that the unpolished Daniel Morgan “spoke with more volubility, perhaps, than good taste” on his riflemen’s role in Burgoyne’s downfall — and particularly of his having expressly ordered the shooting of Brigadier General Fraser during the battle of Bemis Heights.

To combat the rebel tactic of picking them off in action, British officers commonly toned down their appearance. In the case of the Guards, this process started even before the troops departed for service. Hence one English journalist noted how “[t]he [Guards] officers who are ordered for America are to wear the same uniform as the common soldiers, and their hair to be dressed in the like manner, so that they may not be distinguished from them by the riflemen, who aim particularly at the officers.” In America Howe issued a similar instruction to the British and Hessian officers in his army days before he opened the New York campaign. Although British regimental officers would have retained their scarlet (rather than brick-red) coats and their epaulettes and swords, they appear to have stripped the metallic lace from their button holes and hats, laid aside gorgets (and possibly also their crimson sashes), and (like the sergeants) taken up fusils. These sensible measures probably enjoyed some success. After the battle of Long Island, Captain William Dansey reported with relief that the threat the rebel sharpshooters posed was “not so dreadful as I expected,” though (as he added later) “such a bugbear were they at first [that] our good friends thought we were all to be killed with rifles.” Interestingly, when Simcoe was wounded and captured in October 1779 during the Queen’s Rangers’ raid into New Jersey, he heard one rebel regret that he had not shot him through the head, “which he would have done had he known him to be a colonel, but he thought ‘all colonels wore lace.’”

Nevertheless, whatever their appearance, British officers would have marked themselves out in action by issuing commands to and encouraging their men. Such was the case with the aforementioned mounted officer with the grenadiers at the battle of Monmouth, one rebel officer having recorded: “I ordered my men to level at him and the cluster of men near him. . . . He dropped [and] his men slackened their pace.” An even more striking instance occurred during the storming of Chatterton’s Hill, as related by Corporal Thomas Sullivan of the 49th Regiment:

Captain [Lieutenant William] Gore, who commanded the right wing of our battalion, seeing the rebels which we engaged on the right wing were dressed in blue, took them to be Colonel Rall’s brigade of Hessians, and immediately ordered us to cease firing; for, says he, “you are firing at your own men.” We ceased for about two minutes. The rebels, hearing him, made answer that they were no Hessians, and that we should soon know the difference. . . . The aforesaid captain was killed upon the spot: the enemy in his front took as good aim as possible at him, and directed the most of their fire towards the place [where] he stood, for they took him for the officer that commanded the regiment.

Clearly the rebels singled out and peppered the unfortunate Gore precisely because he drew attention to himself in such spectacular fashion.

Officer casualties were probably disproportionately heavy in those engagements in America where British bayonet attacks failed to dislodge the enemy quickly because sustained fighting gave the rebels more opportunity to single out officers and shoot them down. Burgoyne later claimed that this had unfortunately very much been the case during the seesaw struggle in the center at the battle of Freeman’s Farm: “The enemy had with their army great numbers of marksmen, armed with rifle-barrel pieces. These, during an engagement, hovered upon the flanks in small detachments, and were very expert in securing themselves, and in shifting their ground. In this action, many placed themselves in high trees in the rear of their own line, and there was seldom a minute’s interval of smoke in any part of our line without officers being taken off by [a] single shot.” In a similar fashion, at Cowpens over two-thirds of Tarleton’s infantry officers went down in the fighting that preceded the final, catastrophic British charge, according to Roderick Mackenzie, who was himself wounded. Although officer casualties do not appear to have been grossly disproportionate in relation to those of the enlisted men, during the course of the war, some regiments and companies were clearly more unlucky than others. After the 52nd Regiment lost its fourth grenadier captain in three years at the battle of Monmouth, one of the corps’ drummers observed with black humor, “Well, I wonder who they will get to accept of our grenadiers now. I’ll be damned if I would take them!”

Considering how (as we have seen) eighteenth-century officers often carried spontoons (or, less commonly in Europe, firelocks) in addition to their swords, one might have expected that they would have fought alongside their men in action. As Mark Odintz has convincingly demonstrated, however, in America this does not appear often to have been the case. For example, when Brigadier General Alexander Leslie wrote to his brother about the death of Captain the Honorable William Leslie at Princeton, he reassured the earl, “I don’t find he was too rash, as you seem to fear, or that he was out of the ranks.” More explicitly, after the battle of Monmouth, Lieutenant Hale regretted the fact that he and three brother-officers of the 2nd Battalion of Grenadiers had recklessly outpaced their companies during the initial breakneck British advance. Hale shamefacedly added, “I am told the general [i.e., Clinton] has expressed his approbation of the ridiculous behavior of the four subaltern officers . . .  who had got foremost.”

That Hale took especial notice of the fact that one of his brother officers had dispatched a rebel with his sword during the pursuit (“as we all might have done”) demonstrates that engaging in personal combat was an unusual exploit for an officer. Similarly, contrary to the recommendation of one officer and military writer who served in Britain, firelock-armed officers and sergeants in America were not encouraged to augment the battalion’s fire in action. At the opening of the Albany expedition, Burgoyne reminded his army that “[t]he attention of every officer in action is to be employed in his men; to make use of a fusil except in very extraordinary occasions of immediate personal defense, would betray an ignorance of his importance, and of his duty.” Likewise, in a memorandum composed around May 1776 at Cape Fear, Clinton complained that an officer could not properly command his men “while he is firing, loading, and playing bo peep behind trees.” According to the general, when this happened the soldier, “when things become desperate talks of every man for himself and sauve qui peut.” Months later, an incident at the storming of Chatterton’s Hill appeared to vindicate Clinton’s disapproval. He later described what happened when, having forded the Bronx River, two British battalions suddenly found themselves exposed to very heavy fire from the rebels atop the hill: “The officer who led them immediately formed in column for attack and advanced; the instant I saw the move I declared it decisive. But when the officer had marched forward about twenty paces he halted, fired his fusil, and began to reload (his column remaining during the time under the enemy’s fire); upon which I pronounced it a coup manqué, foretelling at the same time that they would break. It happened as I said, and I could not help remarking to Sir William Howe that, if the battle should be lost, that officer was the occasion of it. I had scarcely done speaking when Lord Cornwallis came up with the same observation.” Clinton’s judgment on the affair was unequivocal: “General Burgoyne and I have often represented the absurdity of officers being armed with fusils, and the still greater impropriety . . .  by which they neglected the opportunity of employing their divisions to advantage. These had no confidence in them, and they became in fact as the worst soldiers in their divisions.” In short, the officer could not properly carry out his duty to orchestrate violence and simultaneously be a direct agent of it.

The third activity that officers were expected to perform in action was to keep the men under order. This responsibility included supporting the sergeants in their main duties of filling vacancies and dressing the ranks and files — an important job when the men’s natural instinct was to “bunch” under fire. To facilitate this task, in conventional linear warfare officers and sergeants customarily carried spontoons and halberds; which were less useful as weapons than as tools with which to manhandle misaligned men into position. As mentioned earlier, the formation of two ranks at open file intervals customarily employed by the redcoats in America from 1776 precluded them from maintaining perfect dressings in combat. Despite this, however, the officers and sergeants needed to preserve a certain level of order, without which their control over the men would have broken down. This was especially critical when the battalion came under fire, met unexpectedly aggressive resistance, or routed one enemy force only to encounter a fresh one in its path. Any of these scenarios was likely, at best, to have dampened the men’s ardor and to have temporarily diverted their attention from their officers. At worst, the battalion might have fallen into disarray, in which case it could neither have continued its advance, prevailed in the firefight, nor withstood a resolute enemy attack. Whatever the degree of confusion, it was the officers’ immediate and overwhelming priority to restore full control over the bewildered or excitable soldiery.

As one instance of this, during the final assault at Bunker Hill, the adjutant of the 1st Battalion of Marines, Lieutenant John Waller, had to exert himself to restore order to the corps before it could resume its advance and storm the rebel position. Waller’s account is so vivid that it deserves to be quoted at some length:

when we came immediately under the work, we were checked by the severe fire of the enemy, but did not retreat an inch. We were now in confusion, after being broke several times in getting over the rails, etc. I did all I could to form the two companies on our right, which at last I effected, losing many of them. While it was performing, Major [John] Pitcairn was killed close by me, with a captain and a subaltern, also a sergeant, and many of the privates; and had we stopped there much longer, the enemy would have picked us all off. I saw this, and begged [Lieutenant] Colonel [William] Nesbitt, of the 47th [Regiment], to form on our left, in order that we might advance with our bayonets to the parapet. I ran from right to left, and stopped our men from firing while this was doing; and when we had got in tolerable order, we rushed on, leaped the ditch, and climbed the parapet, under a most sore and heavy fire.

Similarly, during Lieutenant Colonel Charles Mawhood’s first attack at Princeton, a “very heavy discharge” at forty yards brought down seven of the men in Lieutenant Hale’s ad hoc grenadier platoon and forced the others to recoil some distance, where Hale “rallied them with some difficulty, and brought them on with [charged] bayonets.”

As Hale’s experience indicates, sometimes the officers and sergeants could not restore their men’s order while the enemy continued to present an immediate threat, in which case the whole had to retire some distance first. Thus at Concord, when the rebel militia’s fire forced Captain Walter Laurie’s three light companies at the North Bridge (in the words of one of the officers) “to give way, then run with the greatest precipitance,” the four remaining officers did not succeed in halting the men until they reached the cover of the grenadier companies marching to reinforce them. A similar phenomenon occurred at the battle of Eutaw Springs. There, when Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Stewart’s line collapsed, it was necessary for the King’s troops “to retire a little distance to an open field in order to form” under the cover of the fire from a detachment of the New York Volunteers, who posted themselves in an adjacent brick house.

The last of the regimental officers’ four main activities was to oversee the various maneuvers and firings of their troops. In theory, because the battalion was under the overall control of the field officers, this task did not demand a vast effort from the captains and subalterns. For example, if the commanding officer ordered the battalion to open fire at the halt by subdivisions, the eight officers in question simply had to step forward and give the signal in the predetermined sequence for their fire divisions to “make ready,” “present,” and “fire” (and then to “load”). Hypothetically, maneuvering the battalion generally demanded even less of the captains and subalterns, for most of the evolutions required no further verbal instructions than the initial command bellowed by one of the field officers. All the captains and subalterns had to do was to oversee their maneuver divisions as they executed the evolution — doubtless the sergeants would have shoved wayward men into place. In short, in conventional linear warfare the directorial role of the captains and subalterns did not require them to display a great deal of tactical initiative. But as will become clear later in this chapter, it was a very different matter in America. There the British considerably loosened the ties that ordinarily bound the maneuver and fire divisions of the battalion so rigidly into a single tactical entity.