An Important Battle
Today, a stone monument overlooks rolling green hills and farm pastures outside the tiny village of Naseby in Northhamptonshire. Why would anyone erect a memorial in this peaceful rural location?
The monument reminds visitors a fierce battle occurred at this site hundreds of years ago. Many people died. On June 14, 1645, two opposing armies fought with one another. They battled for control of the English government.
The Two Armies
King Charles I of England, and his military commander, Prince Rupert, led one army. The King believed he deserved absolute power to control the English government and govern the nation as he deemed appropriate.
The English Parliament, (today an elected legislature), claimed the English King could not make new laws without its consent. Parliament had recently established its own army called “The New Model Army”. A man named Oliver Cromwell helped command this force. At Naseby, the two sides confronted one another, preparing to engage in battle.
A Brief Background
How did these two armies wind up near Naseby? A bitter civil war had arisen in England between the supporters of the King (sometimes called “Cavaliers”) and supporters of Parliament (sometimes called “Roundheads” because of their distinctive short haircuts).
The warfare divided many families. Men sometimes discovered themselves fighting friends or relatives. By the time the Battle of Naseby occurred, this English Civil War had dragged on for over two years. Probably most people hoped the conflict would end soon.
Big Guns And Small Guns
Armies during the 1600s sometimes towed along cannons, large iron guns pulled by horses or mules which fired cannon balls made of metal. Rifles had not been invented yet. Instead, soldiers fought using long, heavy wooden guns called “muskets”.
Muskets required a long time to load with gunpowder. They sometimes exploded, injuring the user and anyone in the vicinity. During pitched battles, soldiers usually used the heavy barrels of their muskets as clubs.(1)
Foot Soldiers And Cavalry
The soldiers at the Battle of Naseby fought either on foot (as members of the “infantry”) or while riding horses (as either “cavalry” or “dragoons”). Foot soldiers carried very long pikes which resembled modern vaulting poles. They used these weapons to protect themselves from horseback riders.
Soldiers who fought while on horseback belonged to the cavalry. They usually fought with swords and pistols. Someone who traveled on a horse but fought on foot belonged to the dragoons. These individuals often carried muskets.
About Supply Trains
Armies during this period could not travel all alone. They required some type of “supply train“, a group of followers who carted along provisions such as tents, food and other supplies in wagons. These camp followers also cared for horses and livestock.
Supply trains sometimes included valuable items collected by the soldiers. During this period, soldiers frequently seized gold, silver and weapons from their enemies as plunder.
The Battle of Naseby Unfolds
Both King Charles I and Oliver Cromwell wanted to obtain a decisive victory in order to end the English Civil War. When the Battle of Naseby began, it appears both of these opposing commanders believed their own army would prevail.
The King positioned his forces in a line on the slope of a hill. He placed his foot soldiers in the center, with cavalry on both the right and the left sides. Parliament’s New Model Army faced them across the valley, using a similar formation.(1) Everyone probably appreciated the battle might determine the outcome of the English Civil War.
A Surprising Beginning
A row of hedges bordered one edge of the battlefield. The fighting began when the New Model Army sent a tiny force of dragoons to hide in the hedgerow near the King’s cavalry. They fired muskets at the Cavaliers.(1)
Their shots startled the horses. Suddenly King Charles’ cavalry began advancing. The riders from the New Model Army rode towards them, but they could not withstand the surging attack. Many Roundhead cavalry soldiers fled from the battlefield. Soon King Charles ordered his infantry to advance in the center, too. These experienced troops engaged in a fierce battle with the New Model Army. It appears numerous foot soldiers turned and ran away during this attack.(1)
An Important Diversion
King Charles I came close to obtaining the decisive victory he had desired. However, he suffered two significant setbacks. First, many members of the royal cavalry who had fought during the first part of the battle failed to pursue and destroy their opponents. Instead, they stopped fighting and began looting the New Model Army’s supply train instead.
Second, Oliver Cromwell led a force of cavalry which had not fled from the battle at the earliest stage. His force succeeded in overpowering the royal cavalry opposing them. When a section of the King’ cavalry broke ranks and fled, instead of pursuing them, Oliver Cromwell directed his riders to attack the royal infantry. The Roundhead cavalry swerved onto the center of the battlefield, terrifying the King’s foot soldiers. Their advance caused members of the New Model Army’s infantry to rally and return to the battle. They began attacking the royal forces with gusto from the ground.
The Battle Turns
Instead of sending his reserve forces into action to support his beleaguered troops, King Charles I hesitated. The rallying New Model Army eventually prevailed. Large numbers of Cavaliers perished, fled or became prisoners.
When the battle appeared lost, the King reportedly did try to lead his reserves onto the field. A close advisor persuaded him to abandon this risky plan at the last moment.(1)
The Battle of Naseby marked a turning point in the conflict. It led to the eventual downfall of King Charles I. Although other battles occurred afterwards, never again would the Cavaliers enjoy such a good chance of prevailing.
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Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "The Historic Battle of Naseby" https://englishhistory.net/stuarts/civil-war/historic-battle-naseby/, February 11, 2017