10 key battles of the Civil War

For the best part of a decade in the 1640s, Crown and Parliament waged war against each other in bloody battles that saw a shocking proportion of the population die. Emma Slattery Williams explores the most significant engagements of the Civil War, from early royalist wins to decisive victories for the parliamentarians...

In a 19th-century painting by Charles Landseer, Oliver Cromwell reads Charles I’s explosive correspondence captured at Naseby. It revealed the king was conspiring to gain Catholic support for his cause (Photo by ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

Newburn Ford, 28 August 1640

Between 1637 and 1640, King Charles I had tried to enforce Anglican religious observances on the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, including a new prayer book. National Scottish resistance and defiance of the king’s orders resulted in the so-called Bishops’ Wars of 1639- 40 – a precursor to the Civil War. Parliament refused to support the king, financially or militarily, in his war with Scotland, so Charles was forced to send commander Edward Conway, 2nd Viscount Conway, to the Scottish border with only the relatively small English force he had managed to gather.

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On 28 August 1640, just outside Newcastle at Newburn Ford, the king’s troops faced a 20,000-strong Scottish covenanter army – Scottish Presbyterians who, in 1638, had signed a covenant opposing attempts to impose English liturgical practice and church governance on Scotland. Charles’s English forces were unprepared, outnumbered, and easily defeated.

The Scots cross the Tyne during the battle of Newburn Ford, 28 August 1640. Charles I’s small army faced a 20,000-strong Scottish force (Photo by Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
The Scots cross the Tyne during the battle of Newburn Ford, 28 August 1640. Charles I’s small army faced a 20,000-strong Scottish force (Photo by Timewatch Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

A few days after the battle, the Scottish occupied Newcastle; Charles was forced to call a parliament – eventually to become known as the Long Parliament – in order to raise money to pay his own army and to buy off the Scots. The Scots finally marched out of Newcastle in August 1641.

 

Powick Bridge, 23 September 1642

The first military action between Crown and Parliament took place in Worcestershire, following Charles I’s official declaration of war the previous month. Royalist Sir John Byron, who was escorting a convoy of valuables between Oxford and Shrewsbury, sought refuge in Worcester to avoid the parliamentarian advance guard that had been dispatched to seize the wealth.

The site of the 1642 battle of Powick Bridge, where the first clash between royalist and parliamentarian forces of the Civil Wars took place (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The site of the 1642 battle of Powick Bridge, where the first clash between royalist and parliamentarian forces of the Civil War took place (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Alerted to the danger, Prince Rupert, the king’s nephew, was sent with a force of around 1,000 cavalry to support Byron, as parliamentarian forces sought to block Byron’s route out of the city. The resulting skirmish took place on and around Powick Bridge, about two miles outside Worcester. Prince Rupert’s experienced troops routed the parliamentarian forces, and Powick became a major propaganda victory for the royalist cause.

 

Edgehill, 23 October 1642

The first major pitched battle of the Civil War took place four weeks after Powick Bridge, when parliamentarian Captain-General, Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, seized an opportunity to halt the king’s forces as they marched to London from Shrewsbury, in October 1642.

Both armies had around 15,000 men, but the parliamentarian cavalry was no match for the royalist horsemen, commanded by Prince Rupert. A royalist win seemed inevitable. Believing victory was close at hand, Rupert led a cavalry charge on the parliamentarian baggage train, leaving the royalist troops vulnerable; what was left of the parliamentarian cavalry made light work of the royal infantry.

The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, painting by Charles Landseer, 1845. Presaging his ultimate defeat, Charles is depicted gazing at the maid serving bacon rather than the map (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, painting by Charles Landseer, 1845. Presaging his ultimate defeat, Charles is depicted gazing at the maid serving bacon rather than the map (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

By the next day, neither side seemed keen to continue the fighting, so the battle ended in an indecisive draw. The road was now clear for the king to head to the capital, but he decided to take Banbury on his way, allowing Essex to reach London first. Charles settled in Oxford, which would become his base. Some historians suggest that if Rupert had remained on the battlefield and aided the infantry, a royalist victory at Edgehill could have ended the war.

 

Adwalton Moor, 30 June 1643

In late June 1643, parliamentarian commander Ferdinando, 2nd Baron Fairfax, and 3,500 men battled 10,000 royalist troops under the Earl of Newcastle. After Newcastle advanced on the parliamentarian stronghold of Bradford, Fairfax marched out in its defence and the two armies met on Adwalton Moor in Yorkshire.

Newcastle’s pikemen and cavalry carried the day for the royalists, even after it seemed the parliamentarians had gained the upper hand. It was a decisive encounter, granting Charles I control of northern England, which the royalists held for the remainder of the year.

As the parliamentarians suffered ever more defeats, they looked north for aid and made a deal with the Scottish covenanters – the covenanters would provide military aid in exchange for the adoption of a Presbyterian form of worship in England, as was in Scotland. The tide of war was turning.

 

Newbury, 20 September 1643

After successfully lifting a royalist siege on Gloucester, (which had lasted from 10 August to 5 September) parliamentarian commander Robert Devereux attempted a retreat to London, hotly pursued by royalist forces. The Earl Essex’s troops were some of the only parliamentarian forces in the field at the time and they desperately needed supplies. But the royalists had blocked the road to London, and so the two armies, each around 15,000 strong, clashed at Newbury.

After a day of heavy fighting – one the royalists had spent on the back foot, following a surprise dawn assault by the parliamentarians – there was no clear victor and more than 1,000 dead on each side. That night, keenly aware that they were running low on gunpowder, the royalists decided to allow Essex his path east.

A re-enactment of the 1643 battle of Newbury, on the 375th anniversary in 2018. It was the high point of the Earl of Essex's command, before being eclipsed by Oliver Cromwell (Photo by Haydn Wheeler/Alamy Stock Photo)
A re-enactment of the 1643 battle of Newbury, on the 375th anniversary in 2018. It was the high point of the Earl of Essex’s command, before being eclipsed by Oliver Cromwell (Photo by Haydn Wheeler/Alamy Stock Photo)

He continued his march to London, unmolested, and entered the capital to cheering crowds, while the royalists were left to tend to their wounds with a crushing sense of what could have been. Many historians see this battle as a missed opportunity for Charles to have finished the parliamentarians for good. Another battle was fought near here in October 1644 – though that encounter gave neither side a decisive advantage.

 

Marston Moor, 2 July 1644

Marston Moor ranked among the largest battles of the Civil War. Prince Rupert’s advance had caused the parliamentary army to break its siege of York and head out to meet the advancing royalist army. The royalists had approximately 17,000 men, while the army made up of parliamentarians and Scottish covenanters was much larger – the combined number on both sides is believed to have been around 46,000.

A surprise parliamentarian attack during a thunderstorm destroyed the royal infantry, with fighting lasting just two hours. The commander of the parliamentarian cavalry, which rivalled the royalists, was an up-and-coming military commander who was to make his name on this battlefield: Oliver Cromwell.

A 19th-century illustration of the battle of Marston Moor, 2 July 1644, where parliamentarians fought side by side with Scottish covenanters (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)
A 19th-century illustration of the battle of Marston Moor, 2 July 1644, where parliamentarians fought side by side with Scottish covenanters (Photo by The Print Collector via Getty Images)

Initially, the royalists seemed to have the upper hand, with their cavalry inflicting heavy damage, but as they were vastly outnumbered they were soon overrun. While the parliamentarians reported around 300 casualties, royalist losses were closer to 4,000, with many men taken prisoner.

This defeat not only put an end to royal control of the north – it left the invincible reputation of Prince Rupert and the royalist cavalry in tatters. Cromwell had proven himself an effective military leader and would soon be promoted to second-in-command. After the battle, Rupert gave Cromwell the nickname ‘Ironside’ – a name later bestowed on Cromwell’s cavalry troopers.

 

Lostwithiel, August and September 1644

When the Earl of Essex ventured into Cornwall, hoping to gain support for the parliamentarian cause, things didn’t go entirely to plan. In August 1644, he was surrounded in Lostwithiel when Charles I joined forces with his nephew, Prince Maurice. There were two stages to the ensuing battle, with the first action taking place on enclosed hills and heath land around Lostwithiel on 21 August 1644, followed by many days of exchanging fire.

A sign at the Iron Age fort of Castle Dore commemorates the battle of Lostwithiel, fought in August and September 1644 (Photo by SJ Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
A sign at the Iron Age fort of Castle Dore commemorates the battle of Lostwithiel, fought in August and September 1644 (Photo by SJ Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

On 31 August, the parliamentarians ransacked the town and began to retreat. Essex eventually escaped by sea to Plymouth, and his abandoned subordinates decided the best course of action was to agree terms with the king. With thousands of parliamentarians taken prisoner or dying on the march to Southampton, this was their worst defeat and saw the royalists maintain their hold over the south west for the rest of the war.

 

Naseby, 14 June 1645

In retaliation for the royalist sacking of Leicester on 31 May 1645, parliamentarian commander Sir Thomas Fairfax was ordered to lift his own siege of royalist Oxford and ride out to meet the king. The armies fought on 14 June, near the Northamptonshire village of Naseby.

When the armies could eventually find each other through the fog, the battle quickly descended into fierce hand-to-hand combat. Prince Rupert and his horsemen chased away part of the parliamentarian cavalry; on the other side of the battlefield Cromwell defeated the royalist cavalry, and then attacked the flank of the royalist infantry, which had been defeating its parliamentary counterparts.

The nascent New Model Army had shown off its discipline to great effect. The royalists’ chances of winning the battle were few: with most of their best officers killed, they never managed to form an army of such comparable quality again. The royalists suffered nearly 1,000 losses, while the parliamentarians claimed just around 150.

In a 19th-century painting by Charles Landseer, Oliver Cromwell reads Charles I’s explosive correspondence captured at Naseby. It revealed the king was conspiring to gain Catholic support for his cause (Photo by ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)
In a 19th-century painting by Charles Landseer, Oliver Cromwell reads Charles I’s explosive correspondence captured at Naseby. It revealed the king was conspiring to gain Catholic support for his cause (Photo by ART Collection/Alamy Stock Photo)

Most concerning for Charles I was the capture of evidence that proved he was attempting to get help from Catholics in Ireland and across Europe, fuelling anger among England’s Protestants and seeming to justify the morality of the war. Within a few months, royalist resistance across England had been defeated. The king would eventually flee his Oxford base, disguised as a servant, after it was besieged and ultimately surrender to the Scots at Newark, in 1646.

 

Kilsyth, 15 August 1645

Kilsyth, in North Lanarkshire, would play host to the largest battle in Scotland during the Civil War. An alliance of parliamentarians and Scottish covenanters faced royalist Scottish troops commanded by the Marquis of Montrose. Before either commander had given an order, fighting broke out and more and more soldiers joined in.

As demonstrated at this re-enactment of Naseby, fought on 14 June 1645, the battles of the Civil Wars could become brutal, close-quarters slogs (Photo by Dawson Images/Alamy Stock Photo)
As demonstrated at this re-enactment of Naseby, fought on 14 June 1645, the battles of the Civil War could become brutal, close-quarters slogs (Photo by Dawson Images/Alamy Stock Photo)

The parliamentary and covenanter army made a run for it when it was clear they could not win, and almost two-thirds of their men were killed. Montrose celebrated his victory, but quickly realised it had all been in vain after hearing of the royalist defeat at Naseby. He attempted to call a parliament in Glasgow in the name of the king but failed. This was to be Montrose’s last great battle: he was hanged in 1650 by the Scottish parliament as a traitor after fighting on the side of Charles II.

 

Preston, 17-19 August 1648

In 1647, some of the Scottish nobility had agreed to fight for Charles I in what was known as the Engagement. In exchange, they demanded that Presbyterianism be introduced in England – Charles agreed to a trial period of three years.

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Fatality statistics

About 3.6 per cent of England’s population died in the Civil War, as a result of fighting, disease and accidents. This is a higher percentage than in the First World War, which saw 2.6 per cent of the population perish.

A second civil war had been ignited. In what is considered to be one of its bloodiest battles, the parliamentarians took on their former allies between 17-19 August 1648. Although greater in number, the Scots were poorly equipped and fled the boggy battlefield, surrendering to Cromwell at Warrington on 19 August.

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The New Model Army had won another decisive victory, a resounding final blow for the royalist cause that put an end to the second civil war. In the aftermath, thousands of royalist prisoners were sent for servile labour in the New World.

Illustration of Scots being pursued after the battle at Preston, 17-19 August 1648, which would see the second stage of the Civil Wars draw to a close (Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)
Illustration of Scots being pursued after the battle at Preston, 17-19 August 1648, which would see the second stage of the Civil Wars draw to a close (Photo by Chronicle/Alamy Stock Photo)

This article was first published in the January 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed