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Naseby Field


HIS important battle, fought upon the rich plains of Northampton. shire, was destined to decide the fate of the monarchy of England for a period of some years, and may be said, in fact, to have virtually ended the civil strife of the period.

Charles I. had recently taken the town of Leicester by assault, and the prestige of the royal army had been greatly increased by the valour it had displayed on the occasion. Had the unhappy king possessed any judicious adviser capable of influencing him, he would have remained in the captured town till the arrival of Colonel Gerrard, who was upon his march from Wales to join his sovereign, bringing with him a body of three thousand horse and foot; and of Lord Goring, who had been recalled from the service on which the king had sent him, and was daily expected.

But the evil destiny of Charles decreed otherwise. He had heard that Fairfax, the general of the Parliament, was besieging Oxford; and tidings had reached the Royalists that the loyal city was in distress It contained his young son, the Duke of York, the royal council, the magazines, and (the fact weighed most strongly with the warm-hearted king) many noble ladies and faithful nobles devoted to his cause. He resolved, in spite of prudence, to march to its relief, and five days after the taking of Leicester he ordered the marshalling and assembling of his troops to be commenced. Then it became apparent how much the recent victory had cost him; two hundred soldiers and many gallant officers had perished in the assault on Leicester, numbers of men were wounded and incapable of marching, a good many had run away to secrete their plunder (who would, nevertheless, have returned in a few days), and it was also necessary to leave a sufficient garrison in the town; the king's forces remaining, after these deductions, amounted only to 3,500 men. The cavalry, who had been recruited from the north, and had received a promise that they should march northwards, were so enraged at their disappointment, that they were with great difficulty restrained from laying down their arms and disbanding, and were therefore certain to fight with only half a heart whenever they should meet the foe.

The march southwards, nevertheless, began. On reaching Harborough the next day, the Royalists heard that Fairfax had never approached Oxford near enough to fire a cannon upon it; that he had been beaten off from Borstall House with the loss of officers as well as soldiers, and that he had marched with his whole army to Buckingham. This news, instead of causing the king prudently to fall back again on Leicester for a time, tempted him the rather to march onwards; his rash advisers persuading him that the discouraged and recently defeated Roundheads would be easily beaten by his own victorious troops. "All men," says Clarendon, "concluded that to be true which their own wishes suggested to them," and, elate with hopes of conquest, the Cavaliers pressed on to Daventry, in Northamptonshire. Here, not knowing the whereabouts of the enemy, the king remained for a few days, amusing himself with field sports, while his troopers, in spite of royal orders and royal displeasure, ravaged and plundered the surrounding district.

But on the 11th of the month (June) brave old Sir Marmaduke Langdale arrived, and brought tidings of the unexpected approach of Fairfax. The Royalist outposts were instantly strengthened, but the next morning Fairfax attacked them at Borough Hill, and the alarm spread up to the royal quarters. The attack was nut, however, followed up, for Fairfax was very weak in cavalry, and did not think fit to venture further; indeed, the general of the Parliament was so apprehensive that Rupert and his Cavaliers might pay his own quarters a visit, that he rode about his camp in some anxiety from midnight till sunrise. The king, warned by this skirmish, and informed of the far superior numbers of the Roundheads, at once marched back towards Harborough, and took up his own quarters at the old Hall at Lubenham.

Meantime the general of the Parliament had called a council of war, and was with some anxiety debating on the best course to be pursued, when sounds of solemn applause and grave cheers of satisfaction and joy broke in on their deliberations. The next moment ail rose with surprise and joy, as a Puritan officer unceremoniously entered the room, and Fairfax was seen heartily greeting the already distinguished general, Oliver Cromwell.

Hesitation vanished at once in his presence. He brought to the commander-in-chief his own cool resolution and warlike genius, and six hundred formidable and well-trained horsemen - his "Ironsides," the best cavalry in Europe. He at once advised the council to follow and attack the king, and, inspired by the infection of his confidence, and with faith in his genius, Fairfax gave orders to marshall the host.

It was yet early morning on June 13th when, in obedience to orders, the drums beat, the trumpets sounded to horse, and the whole army of the Parliament was drawn up under arms. Their favourite leader pointed the way they were to march - it was in pursuit of the retreating king Major Harrison, whose name is so well known to all readers of "Woodstock," was sent forward to reconnoitre, while Colonel Ireton turned from the main road in order to get, if possible, on the flank of the Royalists. Fairfax and Cromwell, with the main body, kept on the high road to Harborough.

That evening the outposts of the king's forces were fallen on by Ireton's troopers; a gallant young officer was slain, with several soldiers, and at eleven at night the king, who retired early, was roused from his slumbers to hear tidings of the proximity of the foe. Charles rose immediately, dressed himself, and then, accompanied by two or three gentlemen of his household, galloped to Harborough, and proceeded at once to his nephew Prince Rupert's quarters, where he instantly summoned a council of war.

It met, and was composed of Rupert, Digby, Ashburnham, Sir Marmaduke Langdale, and all the other leaders. Their opinions were divided. Rupert, contrary to his wont, counselled retreat: the army was not strong enough, he said, to risk a battle for the Crown, and the northern men were dissatisfied and not inclined to fight. Digby and Ashburnham, however, opposed him strongly, and spoke of assured victory; while Charles, impressed by his own recent success at Leicester, and by the news of the great Montrose's victory a month previously at Auldearne, inclined to their counsel, and finally rejected that of his nephew. The die was cast.

The royal trumpets sounded to boot and saddle, and the king's army began its march in the bright June morning for Naseby Field.

At three o'clock a.m. of the same day Fairfax commenced his march also, and at five o'clock halted before a fertile plain, green with the tender verdure of summer, stretching in front of Naseby village. Here he halted for a brief interval.

By-and-by columns of the royal horse appeared, crowning the top of an opposite hill; they were followed by masses of infantry, which marched into position; and Fairfax, convinced now that the king would abide the issue of a battle, drew up at once and faced them, "on the brow of a gentle hill," placing, at the distance of a pistol-shot below, a forlorn hope of 300 musketeers.

Cromwell commanded the right wing of the Parliamentarians; it was composed chiefly or his own invincible Ironsides, supported (as was the practice of the period) by a stout tertia (battalion) or two of foot. His extreme right rested on an abrupt declivity, beyond which lay a space of broken ground that would effectually prevent the possibility of his flank being turned. Before him lay the open plain, well suited for the manoeuvres of cavalry. The left wing, composed of five regiments of horse, a division of two hundred horse of the Association, and a party of dragoons, was, at Cromwell's request, placed under the command of Ireton; Fairfax and Skippon took charge of the main body. The reserves were headed by Colonels Rains. borough, Hammond and Pride.

Obelisk on Naseby Field

We must now go back a few hours to trace the movements of the royal army before Fairfax beheld it crowning the heights of Naseby.

It was drawn up very early upon a rising ground in a strong military position, about a mile south of Harborough - which lay behind it - and was there marshalled in order to receive or give a charge, as might be deemed expedient. The main body of the foot was led by Lord Astley, and consisted of 2,500 men; the right wing of horse was led by Prince Rupert; the left wing of horse, which consisted of the dissatisfied northern men and those from Newark, and did not amount to above 1600 men, was commanded by Sir Marmaduke Langdale. In the reserve were the king's life-guards, led by the Earl of Lindsey, and Prince Rupert's regiment of foot (both of which made a little above eight hundred men), with the royal horseguards, which were commanded by the Earl of Lichfield, and amounted to about five hundred horse.

Thus placed, the Royalists awaited the enemy. But when eight o'clock came, and there was still no appearance of Fairfax and his forces, the Cavaliers began to doubt whether the tidings of the proximity of the Parliamentarian army were true. I' he scout-master was in consequence sent out to reconnoitre, and after a time returned, saying "that he had been three or four miles forward, and could neither discover nor hear anything of the enemy." This assertion, which proved to be partly untrue, at once caused a rumour to spread through the army "that the rebels had retired."

Prince Rupert instantly called out a party of horse and musketeers to go in search of them, and, if possible, engage them; but the army remained in the same place and posture.

Rupert had not marched above a mile when he received certain intelligence that the enemy was close at hand, and shortly afterwards he distinguished the van of their army, but so indistinctly that he still believed they were about to retreat. The impetuous Prince instantly pushed forward, sending back a young trooper with an entreaty " that the king's army should march up to him with all speed."

Alas! the brave Rupert's want of prudence was destined to destroy the last chance for the Crown. In compliance with this rash message, "the vantage ground," says Clarendon, "was quitted, and the excellent order they (the troops? were in, and an advance made towards the enemy as well as might be."

At the end of a mile and half's march, the cavalry of the Parliament was discerned "on a high ground above Naseby, whence seeing the manner of the king's march, in a full campaign, they had leisure and opportunity to place themselves, with all the advantages they could desire. The Prince's natural heat and impatience could never endure an enemy long in his view, nor believe that they had the courage to endure his charge. And so the army was engaged before the cannon was turned, or the ground made choice of upon which they were to fight; so that courage was only to be relied upon, when all conduct failed so much." 1

The armies were nearly equal as to numbers, the Royalists being only five hundred men less than the Parliamentarians. The field-word of the king's forces was "God and Queen Mary;" 2 that of the Parliament, "God our Strength."

And now on the rich and verdant plain of Naseby - a fallow field a mile broad - the battle began.

At ten o'clock Prince Rupert dashed forward with his usual gallantry, his short red cloak and long plume floating on the breeze, waving his sword above his head, and shouting in a voice like a clarion call, "God and Queen Mary!" Near him rode his brother Maurice, as brave, but calmer, sterner, and cooler; while fast behind pressed on the gallant chivalry that were the glory of England's loyalty. They attacked the left wing of the rebels, where Ireton formed line like lightning, and advanced to meet them, but Rupert's charge was irresistable; and although the ride was uphill, the gallant horses never flinched nor lessened their pace, but were carried through the Roundheads with the impetus of their charge. Ireton was wounded - a pistol-shot disabled his bridle arm, a sabre cut slashed his face, his horse was killed under him, and he was made prisoner, remaining so during the greater part of the battle.

After Ireton had ceased leading them, his men fell into confusion, and were driven back on the train of artillery, which was in danger of being taken, the foot and firelock men placed to guard the cannon giving way also; but Rupert passed it with his usual rashness, and spurred on too far. The scattered Roundhead foot rallied in his rear, and Ireton's broken horse formed, closed, and rode up to support their centre and the right wing.

The Prince, without drawing bridle, had meantime reached the baggage of the Roundhead army, on the skirts of Naseby village. But he found himself accompanied by only half his force; numbers of horses had tired and fallen back; the impulse was gone; the charge had done its work half a mile back, and its efficiency was over. The baggage-guard met the Royalists with a dropping fire, and presented a resolute front; their defences and position rendered them a formidable enemy for the exhausted cavalry: still Rupert summoned them to surrender. He was answered by their war cry, "God our Strength!" and a volley which emptied some of his saddles. He perceived that an attack on it would be fruitless, and, rallying his men, rode back to the artillery train, which he summoned (too late) to surrender. His offer of quarter if they would yield was sternly rejected, for now the firelock men were again at their posts, and a rear-guard supported them. Rupert perceived that here the opportunity had gone by, and that nothing remained for him but to join the royal forces again.

From the eminence on which he had halted he could see the field, and his quick eye at once discerned that the day was lost. Still something might he done to cover the retreat of the king, and Rupert, with a sad heart, led his diminished division rapidly back to the centre (where Charles commanded in person), ready to die loyally he. side the chief of his house. He did not err in his judgment as to the aspect of the battle.

Whilst he had been charging and defeating the left wing of the Roundheads, Cromwell had attacked the Royalists' left, advancing his cavalry by alternate brigades, and retaining a strong reserve in case of adverse fortune. He had taken every advantage, also, afforded by the ground. Carey's musketeers supported the enemy's horse, but their withering fire from the side could not check the charge of the Ironsides, who bore down like a torrent on brave Sir Marmaduke Langdale's division. Gallantly the old cavalier stood the shock; nevertheless, it was so tremendous that, after "firing at close charge, and standing to it at the sword's point," the left wing of the Royalists was broken, and driven back into a treacherous "rabbit-warren" and a young plantation, where their movements were broken and impeded by the ground. They fell back beyond all the king's foot, "nearly a quarter of a mile behind the plain," carrying with them to the rear their supports, the two regiments of north-country horse In vain Sir Marmaduke and the Yorkshire Cavalier officers strove to stem the current, and rally their flying troops - efforts and entreaties were alike vain, the rout was complete.

And now Cromwell shoved in what military qualities he surpassed the "first cavalry officer" of his day. He was not tempted to pursue the enemy madly, as Rupert had done; he sent another brigade in pursuit, and turned his own victorious Ironsides on the flank of the Royalist centre.

In that centre a very fierce and doubtful conflict had meantime been raging. At first, victory appeared to favour the Royalists. All Fairfax's front division gave way, and fell back in disorder, but the officers rallied them and brought them on again to the attack, with the reserves. In this conflict Skippon was dangerously wounded by a shot in the side; Fairfax wished him to quit the field, but the old Roundhead sternly declared that he would never leave the battle so long as a man could stand in it. Fairfax, leading up the masses of his infantry, now pressed the whole of Charles's main body, while Cromwell kept the King's horse in check, and prevented them from coming to the rescue of their foot, which became disordered - save one gallant tertia or battalion, which "stood like a rock," and though twice desperately charged was still unshaken.

A third charge, however, conducted from several points at once, was more successful. The battalion was broken and thrown into confusion.

Charles, perceiving that the day was nearly lost, drew his sword, and placing himself at the head of his guards, who formed the reserve of horse, shouted, "One charge more, and we recover the day!" but scarcely had he uttered the words when the Earl of Carnwarth, who rode next him, suddenly seized the bridle of his horse, and "swearing two or three full-mouthed Scottish oaths," says Clarendon (for of that nation he was), said, "Will you go upon your death in an instant?" and before his Majesty understood what he would have, turned his horse round; upon which a word ran through the troops, "that they should march to the right hand," which was both from charging the enemy, or assisting their own men. And upon this they all turned their horses, and rode upon the spur, as if they were every man to shift for himself. They never drew bridle for a quarter of a mile. "It is very true," continues the historian, "that upon the more soldierly word 'Stand,' which was sent to run after them, many of them returned to the King, though the former unlucky word carried more from him."

By this time Prince Rupert had returned, but his troopers having, as they considered, done their part in the battle, could not be rallied or brought again to the charge.

"And that difference," says the candid historian Clarendon, "was observed shortly from the beginning of the war, in the discipline of the King's troops, and of those which marched under the command of Cromwell (for it was only nuder him, and had never been notorious under Essex or Waller), that though the King's troops prevailed in the charge, and routed those they charged, they never rallied themselves in order, nor could be brought to make a second charge, again the same day, which was the reason that they had not an entire victory at Edgehill; whereas Cromwell's troops if they prevailed, or though they were beaten and routed, presently rallied again, and stood in good order, till they received new orders."

This want of discipline told fatally against the Royalist leaders that day. The efforts of the King and his gallant nephew, and of Sir Marmaduke Langdale, to stay the flight were vain. The cavalry fled on all sides; the mass of the infantry threw down their arms and cried for quarter.

The King was at last compelled to fly, hotly pursued by Cromwell's horse; but he reached Leicester in safety. Judging it, however, not safe to remain there, he rode the same evening to Ashby-de-la-Zouch, where he rested and refreshed himself for some hours. From thence he proceeded to Lichfield. The Parliamentarians took 5000 prisoners left on the field, of whom an immense number were officers, and some few members of the King's household; twelve brass pieces of ordnance, two mortar pieces, 8000 stand of arms, 40 barrels of powder, the rich pillage brought from Leicester by the soldiers, the King's baggage and coaches; and - most fatal loss of all to Charles - his private cabinet of papers and letters also fell to the victors in that day's fight.

The carnage was not great compared to that recorded in the dreadful wars of the Roses: not more than six hundred soldiers and about twenty officers sealed their loyalty with their blood. The Parliamentarians are said to have lost only a hundred men.

Thus closed the battle, and with the red sun which went down on Naseby Field set the last gleam of hope for King Charles's cause. Disaster after disaster followed it. Bridgewater surrendered to Fairfax without a blow. Rupert counselled peace and lost Bristol. At Rowton Heath the King narrowly escaped with his life. Monmouth and Hereford, Wales and the North country, were lost. Defeat followed defeat, till the King was sold by his own people the Scots, and his degradation and captivity ended on the scaffold - a fate which he might perchance have escaped had not his secret papers been captured on Naseby Field.

A very singular dream is recorded of Charles I.'s, preceding the battle of Naseby.

The king ordered his small army of 2,000 horse, and about the same number of infantry, to Daintree, fully intending to give the Roundheads battle. He followed them himself immediately.

But that night, about two hours after his Majesty had retired to rest, some of his attendants heard a singular noise in his chamber, and went at once to see what had caused it. They found the king sitting up in bed, and much agitated, but there was nothing to account for the noise. He asked them why they came, and then told them that he had been disturbed by a dream. He thought he saw an apparition of Lord Stratford standing at the side of his bed. He, Stratford, had reproached Charles for having abandoned him to his enemies, but told him that he was come to return good for evil. "Do not," he had said, "fight the army of the Parliament, quartered at Northampton, for you can never conquer it by arms."

The dream made a great impression on Charles, and he resolved to march to the north, as had been at first thought wisest. But Prince Rupert, though averse to the immediate battle, ridiculed the dream, and talked the king out of his apprehensions. A resolution was again taken to give battle near Northampton. The next night the apparition of the slain earl again stood beside his unhappy sleeping master's bed, but now with a frowning brow. It was the last time, he said, that he would advise the king, but if he fought near Northampton he would be undone.

The advice of the apparition was wise, and had Charles followed it his fate might have been different.

In the north the Parliament had few forces, and the Scots were growing discontented; or had the king marched westward he would have been joined by the gallant gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall.

But he wavered, as was his wont, and remained a day at Daintree, uncertain what to decide. At last Rupert's influence prevailed, and he marched to Naseby, where he was, as we have seen, entirely defeated. He could never collect an army again large enough to face his enemies. Naseby was fatal to the Crown, and we are told that he often said afterwards that he wished he had followed the counsel of his faithful, though betrayed, servant, and not fought on Naseby Field. His attendants were charged to keep the dream secret, and long did so, but after the king's death it was told.

It can of course be easily accounted for by the state of mind of the sleeper, who no doubt must often have thought remorsefully of his slain minister, and probably had wished to march northwards.

It is singular that a dream of Cromwell's has also been recorded.

He was a boy - a child - when sleeping at Hinchinbrook House. One night he dreamed that a gigantic grey misty figure stood at the foot of his bed and told him that he should rule all England, but never wear a crown.

"The ambition of the future man,
Had whispered to the child."

If he told his dream to his uncle, he was probably reproved so severely that it may have imprinted the vision on his memory indelibly. Sulby Hedges, from which Okey's dragoons watched Rupert's mad charge, are still to be traced, but there are few local relics of the battle.

Sulby Hedges
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Picturesque England - Matthew Spong 2004