Friday, 3 August 2012

The English Civil War: Battle of Edgehill

In 1642, at the start of the English Civil War, two English armies headed into battle to solve a constitutional dispute between King and Parliament.

On Sunday 23 October 1642, the first major battle of the English Civil War was fought at Edgehill in Warwickshire. On one side stood the army loyal to King Charles I, who was marching on London; on the other were the forces sent out by the English Parliament to prevent him reaching the capital.

Military Preparations Prior to the Battle of Edgehill

After falling out with Parliament, King Charles departed from London on 10 January 1642 and with his retinue travelled around England, testing the level of support among the people in his cause against Parliament. Having failed to gain possession of an important military arsenal in the walled port of Hull, the King left Yorkshire and headed south to the Midlands, with a military force numbering 2,000 men on horse and as many infantry.

Charles reached Nottingham, where he raised his standard on 22 August, declaring his intention to march on London and confront Parliament with force of arms. The King's cavalry was under the command of his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the twenty-three year-old son of the Elector Palatine. Having seen combat in the Netherlands and in Germany's Thirty Years War, Rupert was considered the most experienced cavalry commander in the King's service.

As Summer drew into Autumn, thousands of volunteers assembled at the Royalist encampment, and the army's numbers swelled to over ten thousand, many equipped with standard fighting weapons, others with implements such as pitchforks and cudgels. During this time, aristocratic families all over England were sending donations of money and silver to the King's headquarters, thus enabling the commanding officers to provide for their men and purchase fodder for the horses.

Meanwhile, London's local militia, known as the London Trained Bands, had been mobilised by Parliament. Numbering around 7,000 men at arms, the capital's Trained Bands rapidly developed into a standing army, with thousands more men arriving in London to increase the numbers.

From the outset of the military preparations, the English Parliament lacked sufficient funds to finance a large and improvised military force, and having gained the loyalty of the English Navy in a preemptive move before it could pass over to King Charles's cause, the treasury was obliged to meet the combined costs of both the fleet and the army.

Command over the parliamentary army had been assigned to the Earl of Essex, a veteran who, like Rupert, had seen action in the Netherlands and in Germany. At the outbreak of the war, Essex's forces numbered 21,000 infantrymen and 4,200 cavalry, and with 46 pieces of field artillery and numerous horse-drawn supply wagons, his army was effectively a fully fledged fighting force.

Military training among the soldiers, however, was far from complete, and there were as yet no reconnaissance units that could give the commanders vital information on the movements and numbers of the Royalist forces. When on the march, Parliament's army used forced requisition of food as a means to supply the troops.

Heading Towards English Civil War

In the month of September 1642, the two opposing English armies began to march out of their bases, located respectively at Nottingham and London, to fight what they believed would be a single battle to solve the constitutional dispute. Neither side knew that the first battle would give way to a prolonged civil war.

The Royalists crossed through the Midlands, reaching Stafford and then Shrewsbury, continually increasing in numbers as more men joined King Charles's regiments. As was the case with Essex's army, the Royalist forces were not fully trained and were equally without any form of intelligence network.

The Earl of Essex assembled his troops at Northampton, and on 14 September headed towards Coventry. He then turned west towards Worcester in order to block the road to London, this being his first and foremost objective in order to prevent Charles from reaching England's capital, London.

On 23 September, advancing cavalry units of the opposing armies engaged in combat near the Worcestershire village of Powick. In this first skirmish of the English Civil War, Prince Rupert was able to demonstrate his commanding abilities, routing a large column of parliamentary cavalry while leading a surprise attack.

The Royalist army continued to slowly advance on London, and by 22 October Charles approached Banbury, commanding an army of 15,000 men, including over 3,500 cavalry, and an artillery train of 20 cannon of various calibres. On their arrival, no-one in the Royalist army was aware that the Earl of Essex, after marching out of Worcester, had assembled the larger part of his army – around 12,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry – outside the nearby village of Kineton.

About one third of the parliamentary army was still heading towards Kineton when news reached Essex's headquarters that the King's army was encamped only four miles away upon a ridge, holding a strong defensive position overlooking the road to London. The parliamentarian soldiers abruptly realised that the King had overtaken them along the route to England's capital.

Edgehill, the Opening Battle in the English Civil War

The following day, 23 October 1642, the Earl of Essex paraded his infantry on the plain below the ridge known as Edgehill, hence the name of the battle that was about to take place there. Twelve parliamentary regiments were deployed in three brigades, flanked on each side by the bulk of the cavalry; two more regiments of horse remained in reserve, spread out among the infantry.

Rather than conducting an uphill attack on the strongly defended positions held by the Royalists, Essex gave orders to hold firm on the plain, as the rest of the infantry and artillery would arrive within a day. He knew that the King's forces entrenched on the heights would be obliged to come down in order to have access to food from the surrounding villages, and, more importantly, to avoid being surrounded from two sides after the arrival of the parliamentary reinforcements.

It was around 2 in the afternoon when King Charles's regiments marched down in full force, advancing within half a mile of the opposing army. Three brigades held the front line, with two behind flanked by Rupert's cavalry. Several regiments of horse were kept in reserve, with orders given them by Rupert to actively support the infantry as soon as they engaged in battle.

The footsoldiers on both sides included units of musketeers and pikemen, the 16-foot long pikes being an effective defence against a cavalry onslaught. With both armies remaining immobile, the only contact came about through exchanges of artillery fire. At 3 o'clock the first hand to hand fighting took place as Rupert, moving from the right with a great number of the King's cavalry, took on Essex's left flank, careering head-on towards the parliamentary cavalry gathered on that part of the field.

Then the left flank of the Royalist horse charged down, sweeping upon Essex's right flank and taking on all his cavalry positioned there. Within minutes, the parliamentary riders on both flanks turned and fled, heading back in the direction of Kineton towards their base, some three miles away. Rupert's mounted men pursued them, riding far from the battlefield and eventually coming upon their opponents' supply wagons in Kineton.

Unknown to Rupert was the spontaneous decision of all the mounted Royalist reserve units to join in the pursuit. In so doing they disobeyed his orders, for King Charles's infantry had meanwhile moved forward engaging the opposing foot regiments, but found themselves exposed to Essex's two reserve regiments of horse, which, being positioned among the infantry, had avoided the Royalist cavalry onslaught.

The tables were turned, and now it was Essex's remaining cavalry charging upon the king's infantry and artillery, unopposed by Rupert and his cavalrymen who had effectively abandoned the field. The Royalist riders returned shortly before nightfall, exhausted, to find the two contending armies in a position of stalemate, with neither side having obtained a military advantage.

The battle rapidly concluded as the parliamentary army withdrew from the field under cover of darkness, heading back to Kineton. King Charles's army withdrew to the heights, and one thousand five hundred men lay dead and dying below Edgehill.

Written by D. Alexander

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