At seven o’clock on the evening of 2 July 1644, Prince Rupert of the Rhine gazed out across the low-lying field of Marston Moor, just outside York. At his back were some 17,000 royalist troops, many exhausted after a long day’s march. In front of him, across the fields, were the lines of his combined Parliamentarian and Scottish adversaries, at least 20,000 strong, their armour still glinting in the summer twilight. Rain was in the air; a thunderstorm was brewing. The king’s nephew was anxious for battle, but perhaps it could wait until the morning. Hearing the Parliamentarian army singing psalms, he decided to call it a day and told his men to break for supper.
Only moments later, the allied army struck. As thunder rolled across the moor, the Scottish and Roundhead allies began to stream down the gentle slope, picking up speed, adrenaline coursing through their horses’ veins. After years of stalemate, the great battle for control of the north, the decisive battle of the Civil War, was under way.
At first it seemed that, as so many times before, Rupert’s forces would win the day. On the allied right, Sir Thomas Fairfax’s men struggled to get across the ditches between them and their royalist opponents, many falling under a hail of musket fire. Spotting the enemy musketeers, Fairfax wrote later, he decided “to charge them. We were a long time engaged with one another, but at last we routed that part of their Wing.” He turned to get back to his remaining men, “but that part of the Enemy which stood, perceiving the disorder they were in, had charged and routed them, before I could get to them.”
As darkness drew in and the allied right crumpled, the royalists began to make headway in the centre, too. More than half of the Scottish infantry and many of the Parliamentarian forces panicked and ran; for a moment, it looked as though the day was lost for the allied cause. But salvation came from the left, where Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell commanded 3,000 cavalry from the Eastern Association, including his renowned Ironsides. Sweeping over the ditch, Cromwell’s men routed the royalists opposite and then regrouped for a second charge – a testament to their commander’s iron discipline, and a stark contrast with Rupert’s infamous recklessness.
Scattering the royalist cavalry, Cromwell’s men then turned their attention to the infantry. And in the end, all that was left of Rupert’s army was a regiment of the Marquess of Newcastle’s men, the famous Whitecoats, who huddled in a small enclosure, holding off the Ironsides until their comrades could escape the field. Cromwell had turned a potential stalemate into victory. For the royalists, however, the day was lost. A few hours later, after darkness had fallen, their survivors straggled miserably into York.
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That evening in July was a crushing blow for the royalist cause. With the Marquess of Newcastle fleeing into exile, and Prince Rupert heading south to rejoin his uncle, royalist power in the north of England had been effectively broken. What’s more, while Cromwell’s star had never been higher, Rupert’s was entering a long decline.
In the Parliamentarian camp, all was jubilation. “Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given unto us, such as the like never was since this war began,” Cromwell wrote that evening to his brother-in-law, Colonel Valentine Walton. “The Left Wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince’s horse. God made them as stubble to our swords.”
For all his religious ecstasy, Cromwell had not lost sight of the dreadful cost of victory. His next lines had a very different tone. At least 4,000 men lay lifeless on the moor outside York, among them Walton’s son.
“Sir, God hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon-shot,” Cromwell wrote sadly. “It brake his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.” Yet he urged Walton to take comfort that his son was now with God. “There is your precious child full of glory, never to know sin or sorrow any more… He is a glorious Saint in Heaven; wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice.”
Dominic Sandbrook is the author of State of Emergency: The Way We Were: Britain, 1970–1974 (Allen Lane). He is a frequent guest on Radio 4’s Saturday Review.
This article was first published in the August 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine