This is the second in the series of In This Hex articles. I still hope to create a podcast around this topic, but hope to bring you a monthly feature article. The series focuses on interesting events that took place on the maps where we slide cardboard. A small way to link the present to the past in a (hopefully) interesting way. Today, we’re looking at hex (roughly) 1516 from This Accursed Civil War and the battle of Naseby.
Naseby is notable because the battle was the last time a legitimate Royalist army would take the field under King Charles I in the English Civil War. The entire English Civil War is a melodramatic and emotional affair complete with colorful personalities and astounding anecdotes. If you want to get more information, I HIGHLY recommend the Revolutions podcast that spent some time with the English Civil War. Let’s dive in…
It was mid-June. Summer by all accounts. English summers are only theoretically warm and dry. The reality can be quite different with periods of surprising heat and the lingering English rains falling more than anyone might hope. That was the case on the 11th of June 1645 as the Parliamentary New Model Army lifted its siege of Oxford to move north.
The Royalist army had taken Leicester and though the Parliamentarians were sieging the Royalist seat of Oxford, the opportunity to engage lured them away.
The roads were a muddy mess. Full of ruts, puddles, and made the journey to a small town about 20 miles south of Leicester that much worse. In many ways the town of Naseby seems almost pre-destined to be the site of a decisive battle in the English Civil War.
After all, it was first mentioned in 1086 as a part of the Domesday book. This ambitious cataloging of Saxon holdings recorded the ancient nature of the city. Later in the 14th Century, the Black Death would take its grim toll in Naseby causing parts of the city to be abandoned. Naseby’s ancient tradition and brutal history were about to come to a head on the 14th of June.
The New Model Army that marched forth from Oxford was only established in February of 1645 under the command of Sir Robert Fairfax. The first task was to lay siege to Oxford in order to take advantage of absent Royalist armies. As a result, the Royalists sacked Leicester which accomplished their goal of baiting the Roundheads into the Midlands for a battle.
Cavalry has served as the eyes and ears of armed forces for centuries and the 17th was no different. Lord Goring seemingly abandoned them following the sack of Leicester. This left the Royalists all but blinded in the lead to the battle. As a result, Royalist pickets were surprised on the 13th of June while enjoying themselves outside an Inn by Roundhead scouts.
Unwilling to retreat, the Royalists lead by Prince Rupert, decided to engage. Though King Charles I was present, it would be Rupert who would lead just as Fairfax led while Cromwell acted as deputy commander.
The bright spot, of course, was the fact that the rain had stopped and neither army quite knew where the body of the other stood that evening.
In the dark early hours of the 14th, both armies moved into their respective positions. The Royalists taking up positions on a ridge that would be known “Rupert’s Viewpoint” to historians. The Roundheads reaching the battlefield near Naseby by 5am.
The Parliamentary army drew up across the Broad Moor. Owing to the speed with which they moved did not feature significant artillery. The cannons did not, in fact, play a major role in the battle though the Royalists did lose many to capture following the battle.
Instead, the cavalry differences were noted and expecting a push on the western line along the Sulby Hedges road the Royalists placed Col. Okey’s Dragoons to shoot and receive the inevitable push. It was a glorious sight that morning as Royalist and Roundhead moved and counter-moved to arrive that this moment. The lines, nearly a mile long by account, stood across from each other and the cavalry difference was immediately apparent. As Lee at Gettysburg would later re-learn, sometimes Cavalry can make a world of difference…
Prince Rupert, commanding the Royalist armies struck out first with his horse cavalry and promptly routed the Parliamentary forces. Tactics demanded they receive the advance with pistol, which did little to prevent the cavalry from overwhelming them. As a result, Rupert’s horse units pushed all the way back to the Parliamentary camp and were out of the battle until such a time that they could be rallied and brought back from the looting.
This was a constant issue with the cavalry of the day. It seems the measured Napoleonic use of cavalry we are most familiar with was nowhere in sight. It was often the feature of horse attack to simply continue to drive the receiving unit as far away from the field of battle as possible. This was on the right wing…
On the left wing…Oliver Cromwell decisively struck. As Royalist cavalry led by Sir Marmaduke Langdale pushed up the hill to Parliamentary positions, Cromwell counter-charged down the hill. The result swept back the threat from Langdale’s men. Cromwell’s unit, the famous Ironsides, were rigorously trained and ready for this moment.
Instead of mindlessly ploughing forward to continue to sweep Langdale’s horse from the field, they halted and wheeled back to the center. Rupert’s men were into the second line of Fairfax’s Royalist infantry by this point. The left and right wings were secured by traded routing units. Cromwell’s men were able to outflank Astley’s Royalist foot.
Here’s where the day gets even more interesting. By all accounts battlefields are confusing, loud, and fast-moving. Often, the difference between success and failure is moments. Seeing and securing the advantage is based on split-second decision making from professionals.
King Charles still sat above the battle from his vista on Rupert’s Viewpoint. Seeing the initial success of his forces, he must have been envisioning a victory despite the odds here. Surely, he remained hopeful that Lord Goring would appear given the size of the battle at any moment to provide the necessary cavalry support his forces clearly needed.
Instead, he saw the Ironsides draw up short and wheel. It was decision time. It was now or never. With foresight, he could see that it was time to intervene while he still had a chance with his horse unit. As he set forth with his Life Guard, the Earl of Carnwarth grabbed his horse by the bridle and exclaimed, “Will you go to your death in an instant?”
Rupert was nowhere in sight. His remaining cavalry were routing from Cromwell’s counter-maneuver. His center lay exposed. The Royalist cavalry body was severely outnumbered. Fairfax still had reserves to throw into the battle. To an outsider, and likely to those on the field, the King’s charge WAS a suicidal mission.
Yet, there was a glimmer of hope. MAYBE intervening to halt Cromwell’s Ironsides WOULD be the decisive action that saved the day. So, Unhappy King Charles had to make a choice…do I stay or do I go?
Like The Clash the King, in that moment, decided that if he stayed there would be trouble, but if he went it would be double. Subsequently, Carnwarth lead the King to the rear. While it temporarily saved his life. It sealed the fate of the battle and the decisive rout of Royalist forces.
The Royalists would never again field as formidable an army. Cromwell’s forces were able to consolidate their gains through capture of officers and equipment. King Charles I was effectively out of the fight despite the fact that Naseby was 6 years before the end of the English Civil War. Even the eventual 16,000 strong Royalist army that would face off against the New Model Army in September 1651 would be far less battle ready than the force brought to Naseby.
While we can never know the exact hex of Earl of Carnwarth’s plea, we can speculate about whether or not Astley’s men might have been saved. Could the King’s Life Guard have intervened and rallied Langdale’s cavalry and rejoined the fight?
History is made up of so many moments. They are often moments of decision that flash by so quickly that the gravity of the decision is never immediately felt. It’s for the subsequent generations to consider. All we know is that the Royalists would never regain their standing following that June afternoon in 1645.