This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Charles I and the Royalist cause were fatally wounded at Marston Moor

Posted in Famous battles, Historical articles, History, Royalty, War on Monday, 30 July 2012

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about the Battle of Marston Moor originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 756 published on 10th July 1976.

Prince Rupert, picture, image, illustration

Prince Rupert at Marston Moor

The battle of Marston Moor was the most important of all the battles of the English Civil War. The battle of Naseby which followed sealed the fate of King Charles I, but the victory of the Parliamentary army at Marston Moor was the turning point. From then onwards, the king’s cause rapidly declined, and although the struggle continued for another four years, its ultimate failure was never in doubt.

Yet at the beginning of the year of 1644, the outlook for the Parliamentary party had been a gloomy one. Except for the Eastern counties, where they held undisputed sway, and in the Midlands, where the two parties were evenly divided, the Royalist power was everywhere predominant. Charles I was, in fact, master of two-thirds of the country.

If Charles, who was holding Oxford in the latter part of 1643, had advanced on London then, he might have ended the war with a single blow. Partly because of his own hesitation and partly because the Royalists in the west and north were too involved in their own military operations to help, the opportunity was lost. In the meantime, in London and in Essex, recruits to the Parliamentary Army were pouring in. By the January of the following year, the king’s position was further weakened when Parliament persuaded the Scottish Presbyterians to join their cause, an event which was marked by the crossing of the Tweed by 21,000 Scotsmen, fortified for the coming battles with the firm conviction that they were embarking on the Lord’s work.

It was perhaps one of the most humourless armies ever to go on the march. Each regiment had its own minister, and besides morning and evening prayers, long sermons were delivered twice daily every Sunday. Plundering, and drunkenness while on guard duty, were punishable by death, and soldiers who swore on the Sabbath were forced to make their repentance in front of the whole army.

Their leader was the Earl of Leven, a capable, but semi-illiterate man, whose sixty years lay heavy enough on him to give him little stomach for the enterprise on which he was now embarked. Heavy snows and floods slowed the Scots’ advance, but by the February they were making an assault on Newcastle. Repulsed, Leven pushed on across the Tyne.

In the spring York had been besieged. Realising that the loss of York would ruin his cause, Charles had sent his nephew, the dashing young Prince Rupert, with a strong cavalry force to relieve it. Fighting his way into Lancashire, Rupert had lived up to his already legendary reputation by plundering Stockport, storming Bolton and taking Liverpool, before going on to save York, which by then was at its last gasp. The Scots and the Parliamentary army under the leadership of Oliver Cromwell joined forces and took up position upon Marston Moor, several miles from York. Together with the Marquis of Newcastle, who had held York, Rupert went to do battle with them.

The battle did not begin until two in the afternoon, when both sides opened fire with their cannon. After firing four shots, the Parliamentarians desisted and began to sing psalms. At the same time, Prince Rupert ordered prayers to be read to each regiment in his line of battle. A strange touch to the proceedings was added by the considerable number of spectators who had arrived on the scene and had taken up positions on the top of Marston Hill in order to have a grandstand view of the battle.

The firing was continued in a haphazard fashion until late in the afternoon when the royal army fell out. Prince Rupert retired to have an early supper, and the Marquis of Newcastle went off to smoke his pipe.

As the day waned without either side attacking, a terrible storm swept across the open moor, heralded by several claps of thunder which were followed by hail and rain. Just as the storm broke, the whole allied line under Cromwell surged towards the Royalist lines. In Rupert’s absence, the surprised Royalist Horse could find no defence against Cromwell’s charge, and it was not until Prince Rupert galloped up in person with some fresh squadrons that some order was brought to their ranks. “Do you run?” he shouted angrily, seeing some of them already in retreat. “Follow me.” Rallying his forces he counter-charged and the Cromwellian troops began to fall back.

Unlike their leader, Lord Leven, who had fled from the battleground and had been captured, the Scots, who formed the right of the Parliamentary force, held firm against the series of attacks the Royalists continued to make upon them. Their steadiness saved the day, and enabled Cromwell literally to pluck victory from the Royalists’ hands. In the fighting a bullet from an unknown quarter, possibly fired by one of his own men, grazed Cromwell’s neck. “A miss is as good as a mile,” Cromwell cried out blithely to those nearest him, before galloping off again into the fray. Soon afterwards the Royalists found themselves surrounded and at the mercy of Cromwell’s cavalry. One regiment only stood firm, the Marquis of Newcastle’s gallant brigade of his own tenantry known as the ‘Whitecoats.’ Retreating into an enclosure they fiercely rejected quarter, and fought shoulder to shoulder until they had died to a man.

The remainder of the troops were either cut down or scattered in pursuit, so that by nightfall the whole Royalist army had been swept from the field.

Prince Rupert showed his usual remarkable capacity for survival by rallying some 6,000 men and escaping over the hills into Lancashire. But the northern army had ceased to exist. Marston Moor lost Charles the North, and his cause never really recovered. After Marston Moor all that lay ahead of him was a series of major defeats and a shameful death by the headsman’s axe on a bleak January day in 1649.

The tragedy of King Charles I was that he was not so much a bad king as a misguided one, who was the victim to some degree of bad parental upbringing. His father, James I had been a despotic monarch who had been completely unable to move with the times. England had accepted the concept of the divine right of the absolute rule under the Tudors. But the Tudors had recognised that to survive they had to rely on the respect and good will of the people. Even the autocratic Elizabeth I, a woman who liked having her own way in everything, had known that there were times when it was advisable to yield and let the people have their way. James had been incapable of yielding over anything.

In this, Charles had proved himself a true son, moulded in his father’s image. The difference was that James had died in his bed, whereas by quarrelling constantly with his Parliament, and by insisting that no one could be above him but God, Charles had brought his country to Civil War, and had lost his head as a result of his arrogant folly.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.