The Battle

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The Campaign and Background – The Causes of the English Civil War

Power, religion, and the rule of law. The English Civil Wars were primarily about establishing who governed the country, the Crown or Parliament. However, the conflict revealed a fractured country divided on religious and social terms. Here we look at how the conflict started and developed in the lead up to the Battle of Naseby.

During the 1620s there were frequent clashes between James I (reigned 1603-25) and his son Charles I (1625-49), and Parliament.  For 11 years Charles I, ruled without Parliament, passing laws and taxes without seeking approval. The Divine Right of Kings asserted that the King was given his authority by God and therefore could not be held accountable to any other authority such as Parliament. However, a powerful precedent had been set in earlier centuries of Parliament acting as a counter balance to the Crown. Charles’ actions angered many in the House of Commons and his critics there grew.

During this time, William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, attempted to impose High Church Anglicanism despite the protests of the Puritans who felt it was too close to Catholicism Charles I was married to a catholic arousing suspicion that he may be sympathetic to the doctrine  In Scotland, similar protests by the Presbyterians provoked open rebellion and the king was defeated by the Scots in Two Bishops’ Wars in 1639-40.

In 1640 the King recalled Thomas Wentworth Earl of Strafford, from Ireland and summoned Parliament. Under the leadership of John Pym, the Parliamentarians immediately attack Strafford, who is impeached for plotting to bring an Irish army over to England. He was tried, found guilty and executed in May 1641. In January 1642, after failing to arrest his five leading opponents in Parliament, the King left London (he would only return for his trial in the winter of 1648). He established his headquarters at Oxford, while the Parliamentarians remained in control of London.

The first major engagement of the Civil War took place at Edgehill in October 1642. The battle ended in a draw.  The Royalists advanced on London but failed to capture it.  Then in 1643 the Royalists attempted a three-pronged advance on London from the north, from Wales and the south-west. Despite winning several battles and capturing Bristol they failed to make a decisive breakthrough. Following secret negotiations between Parliament and the Scots, a Scottish army invades Northern England in January 1644.

On 2 July, at Battle of Marston Moor outside York, Prince Rupert, is defeated by combined Anglo-Scottish army – Oliver Cromwell, plays a vital role in winning the battle – Royalists lose control of the North of England. During the winter Parliament creates the New Model Army, a body of full-time professional soldiers led by professional officers (MPs and peers were forbidden to serve) with Sir Thomas Fairfax as commander-in-chief.

Political Context

In 1644, the Parliamentary army suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Royalists at Lostwithiel in Cornwall. This led to increasing dissatisfaction among the “win the war” radicals in Parliament with the aristocratic leadership of the army, led by Essex and Manchester.

In the autumn of 1644, the radicals passed the Self-Denying Ordinance, which prohibited members of Parliament from holding military office. This put a question mark over the future of Oliver Cromwell, one of the leading radicals.

The Lords resisted the purge, as they saw it as an attack on their traditional role as protectors of the country. However, the Commons were able to outmanoeuvre them by cutting off funding for the existing army and creating a new force, the New Model Army, which was recruited from the existing army.

The New Model Army Ordinance and the Self-Denying Ordinance were eventually passed by the Lords after six months of negotiations. The New Model Army was placed under the command of Thomas Fairfax.

The New Model Army proved to be a decisive force in the English Civil War.  It defeated the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, which set in train a series of events and victories that ended the war. The New Model Army also played a key role in the establishment of the Commonwealth of England in 1649.

The Leaders and their Armies

The Royalist Army

King Charles I

Right Wing:
Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice – 1,700 horse and 200 musketeers

Sir Jacob Astley – 3,500 foot and 800 horse

Left Wing:
Sir Marmaduke Langdale – 1,700 horse and 200 musketeers

King Charles I – 1,300 horse and 800 foot

The Royal army was drawn up in three lines with musketeers interspersed with the horse on each of the wings.

Total strength:
10,200 men

The New Model Army (Parliament)

Sir Thomas Fairfax

Right Wing:
Lt. General Oliver Cromwell – 3,900 horse

Sergeant Major General Philip Skippon – 6,400 foot and 11 cannons

Left Wing:
Commissary-General Henry Ireton – 3,300 horse

Colonel John Okey – 1000 men

The New Model Army was drawn up in two lines with a forlorn hope of 300 musketeers in front and to the lefthand side of the infantry. 

Total strength:
14,600 men

Military Activity

In the spring of 1645 Parliament ordered Sir Thomas Fairfax and his New Model Army, to march from Windsor Castle to relieve the siege at Taunton.

After a rendezvous with Lt Gen Cromwell at Newbury Fairfax advanced to Blandford, leaving Cromwell around Oxford where he had been active in raiding Royalist garrisons and rounding up as many draught animals as he could find, to immobilise the King’s artillery train.

On 7th May, Fairfax was in Blandford, and the king’s army had marched from Oxford to rendezvous with Prince Rupert and Lord Goring in Stow on the Wold.

The Royalist High Command was divided over strategy. The effect of these disagreements resulted in the King’s compromise that effectively split the King’s forces. Goring was to take the West with his three thousand cavalry while the King and Prince Rupert march North with the main body of the Royalist army.

Royalists had captured Taunton and the addition of Goring’s cavalry had made little or no difference.

Parliament ordered Fairfax to abort his march to Taunton, and attack the Royalist capital at Oxford.

Fairfax sent four regiments of foot and one horse on to Taunton before turning his main body back towards Oxford. A clever feint to get the Royalists thinking that the whole New Model Army was still on its way to Taunton.

The King’s army marched north, shadowed by Cromwell’s cavalry and some infantry. On 20 May the Royalist army turned towards Newark; a move that was interpreted by Parliament in London as an advance onto the Eastern Association counties and Cromwell was ordered to organise defences for East Anglia.


Fairfax and the main body of the New Model Army arrived at Oxford on the 22nd May. The King’s capital is now under siege.

The Royalist march to the north was abandoned, and Goring was ordered to bring reinforcements to the main Royalist army.

The King and Prince Rupert decided to storm the Parliamentarian stronghold of Leicester to entice Fairfax away from Oxford.

After the capture of Leicester on 31st May by Prince Rupert Parliament did order General Fairfax to abandon the siege of Oxford to engage and destroy the King’s army.

Fairfax was given the authority to act on his own imitative by Parliament. His request to appoint Cromwell officially as Lt Gen of Horse, in spite it being in contravention of the Self-Denying ordnance was also approved. The New Model Army advanced to Kislingbury.

The King’s army were five miles away at Borough Hill near Daventry. They had decided to keep moving North towards Newark and withdrew from Daventry to Market Harborough.

During the evening of the 13th June Colonel Ireton ambushed the King’s Lifeguard in Naseby village.

On receiving the news of the ambush, the King’s Council of War met and decided to turn and fight the New Model Army.