June 14, 1645 - The Battle of Naseby
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 14, 1645. It is a foggy morning as two English armies prepare for battle near the town of Naseby. King Charles I is here to fight for the divine right of kings and royal authority. Sir Thomas Fairfax and his stern cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, are here to fight for the supremacy of Parliament and the “rights of Englishmen.” They’re all wearing really big hats. It’s the English Civil War!
Ever since the Wars of the Roses at the end of the medieval period, the government of England had remained remarkably stable even as the rest of Europe went through a cascade of upheavals. The Kings and Queens of England were not absolute, but they had few restrictions. The main problem, though, was always money. The English crown had a substantial income from its own estates as well as crown tariffs, and this was usually more than enough to bear the cost of England’s foreign wars and ventures. This was the English “Golden Age,” of the Tudors, the English Reformation, and Elizabeth I.
The 1600s were a different story. Elizabeth I died without an heir, bringing the Stuart Dynasty of Scotland to the English throne, uniting the two kingdoms for the first time. The Stuart Kings James I and his son Charles I had greater ambitions for England, which emptied their pockets much more quickly. All of Europe experienced significant economic decline in this period, and as Charles I’s expenditures rose his bank account dropped. Soon he had to go elsewhere for money – and that meant Parliament.
The structure of England’s government assigned no official role to the collection of England’s powerful men known as Parliament. With no explicit power, though, Parliament slowly gained enormous soft power for one major reason: they had to approve any new taxes the King needed. Parliament’s House of Lords made up most of the Kingdom’s nobility, and the House of Commons was composed of the gentry – the non-noble upper class, prominent merchants, landowners and gentlemen. These men effectively controlled England’s tax revenues, and the King could get no extra money without their consent.
King Charles I spent the 1620s and 1630s getting into pickle after pickle. He sponsored several failed invasions of France, and got into a quarrel with Scotland when he tried to impose the Church of England on the devoutly Calvinist residents of his northern kingdom. All these failed adventures cost enormous amounts of money, but Charles had managed to piss off Parliament with his high-handed conduct and desire to return England to absolute rule. From 1625 onward, Charles and Parliament were always butting heads. Every time Charles called a Parliament to get money, Parliament would demand “Oh sure, money, if you also pass this, and this, and this,” this being laws that expanded Parliament’s power.
By 1641, Parliament finally had the King over a barrel and they knew it. The conflict, of course, wasn’t just political. It was religious: the King had made moves that smelled suspiciously like he wanted to reintroduce Catholicism, which was a no-sell to the Puritan members of Parliament like Oliver Cromwell. It was social: this was the first time the “gentry” were playing an active political role in England, and they wanted to keep doing it. It was economic: the rich port cities and emerging urban centers of England were tired of being dominated by poofy lords in their estates. All this boiled down to a broad, emerging conflict that only needed a spark.
Needless to say, I’m glossing over like 20 years of buildup, but believe me by skipping it I’m being easy on all of us.
In 1642, Charles’ attempt to arrest five members of Parliament for “treason” sparked a near-open revolt. Charles fled London to set up a substitute capital in Oxford, and began gathering an army. Parliament, too, began raising their own army. England *had* no standing army at this time; it still basically functioned on feudal rules, where the lords and grandees just put together an army whenever they needed one. By summer of 1642, the Royalists and the Parliamentarians were about to go to war.
Despite England having no standing army, it wasn’t completely amateur hour. For the last couple of decades, English and Scottish mercenaries had been fighting for European countries on the continent, including many Scots who fought for Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War. Many of these men came back to England to fight in the English Civil War, bringing their knowledge and expertise with them. Crucially, a large number of them aligned with Parliament, though enough went to the Royalists to keep it from being totally uneven. When the Scots joined Parliament, though, their experienced generals and officers made a major difference.
The fighting in the English Civil War was surprisingly *polite*, compared to the hellish carnival of murder that was the Thirty Years’ War in Germany. Atrocities were relatively rare, prisoners were treated well, and there was a vague air of puffery about the whole thing. But this was still a war, you know, and people still got their heads shot off by cannonballs or got stabbed by a sword.
The main fighting forces of both sides were the infantry – armed with a mixture of pikes and muskets, the bayonet had not been invented yet – and the cavalry, decently armored and charging with swords and pistols to press home the attack. If they weren’t wearing helmets, they were wearing *REALLY* big hats. I mean, wide-brimmed, bunch of feathers, pimp hats. Cannon played a role in this war, too, but almost every battle was decided by the cavalry charge.
This was a problem for Parliament at first, because the Royalists definitely had the best cavalry. Prince Rupert, Charles I’s nephew, was the Royalist cavalry general, and a veteran of several European wars. His cavalry was made up of the cream of England’s nobility, and aggressive nobles plowing down impudent commoners had been noble tradition since the Middle Ages. In almost every battle from 1642 to 1645, the Royalist cavalry dominated the field. This was especially painful at Second Newbury in 1644, when Rupert’s charge sent Parliament’s infantry into a panic. The poor foot soldiers ran for their lives as the Royalist horse hacked them down. Rupert’s problem, though, was his lack of discipline. He constantly lost control of battles due to his hot-headed nature, getting caught up in the moment leading the cavalry charge.
Despite battlefield victories, Parliament was winning the war. They started the conflict controlling eastern and southern England – the developed and urbanized regions where most of the gentry and workers lived – while the Royalists controlled the mostly rural west. This gave Parliament greater access to money and manpower, and in 1644 they allied with the Presbyterian Scots to win a victory over Rupert at Marston Moor. Despite their progress, though, the Parliamentarian armies had low discipline and poor fighting ability. Something needed to be done.
In late 1644, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, two of the war’s successful generals, pushed a bill through Parliament known as the “Self-Denying Ordinance.” It mandated that any member of Parliament had to resign before taking up active command of an army. This meant that most of the House of Lords – the nobles who had dominated army command but proven incompetent – would be unable to resign, but members of the House of Commons could resign their seats at will. Cromwell immediately did so, and was appointed second-in-command of a new force: the New Model Army.
The New Model Army would be England’s first standing army: a force of professionals, rather than the militia that had fought all of England’s wars up to that point. The nobles of the House of Lords had recruited peasants from their own districts to fight in their own units, but the New Model Army was raised by Parliament itself to be a disciplined fighting force. It was made of veterans, many of whom had strict Puritan religious beliefs, making it a force devoted to a common set of ideals and a cause. Though Fairfax was the Army’s commander, its spiritual and later military leader was Oliver Cromwell.
The New Model Army marched out in 1645 to confront Charles I’s army and take his capital of Oxford. Charles had marched north to try and recover York, leaving a force of cavalry in the south. Dividing his army, already smaller than that of Fairfax, was a mistake. As soon as Charles heard about the siege of Oxford, though, he turned south – over Rupert’s objections. Rupert wanted to keep going north to rebuild their strength and meet up with other Royalist armies, but Charles was worried for his capital. Fairfax marched away from Oxford to meet Charles, and the two armies stumbled across one another at the town of Naseby.
The morning of June 14, 1645 was grey and foggy. Rupert led his cavalry out to try and find the Parliamentarian force, only to see them pulling back over the crest of a hill. Rupert believed they were retreating, and called the whole army out to pursue. In reality, the “Roundheads”, as the Parliamentarians were called, were not retreating, but forming up on the reverse side of the hill.
Throughout the morning, the armies positioned themselves to face each other. The Parliamentarians had almost 13,000 men to the Royalist 7,000, but Rupert had beaten enemy armies at those odds before. Rupert, however, had gotten in an argument with the king’s ministers and resigned the post of commander that morning, placing himself at the head of his cavalry – leaving the army without a strong commander. (Whatever else he was, Charles I was NOT that.)
Both sides put their infantry in the center and their cavalry on the flanks, but Fairfax ensured that his least experienced infantry were in the front line – ensuring that the veterans could stiffen them and prevent them from retreating. Oliver Cromwell’s legendary Ironsides cavalry were on the right, and Henry Ireton’s cavalry was on the left. Fairfax also concealed a regiment of cavalry behind a long, dense hedgerow on the western edge of the battlefield.
The battle opened at about 10am, with the Royalist cannon barking out a bombardment and their infantry advancing through the tall grass against the Roundheads. As the infantry closed with each other, each side fired only one volley and then lunged forward with swords and pikes, some soldiers using their muskets as clubs.
On the west side of the battlefield, Prince Rupert launched another of his “yeehaw” charges, scattering most of Ireton’s cavalry. The Parliamentarian left flank fled from the battlefield. Rupert, at this point, should have turned left and charged the exposed flank of the enemy infantry, but instead led his cavalry on a ragtag pursuit of his opponents, taking them off the field – and out of the battle. The Royalist cavalry honed in on the Parliamentarian baggage camp, where they hoped to gain loot, but the few soldiers in the camp kept the horsemen at bay while the battle was decided behind them.
Fairfax’s infantry tactics paid off, as his first line of infantry retreated but his hard core of veterans blunted the Royalist infantry attack. Cromwell took this moment to order half of his cavalry to charge and break through the Royalist cavalry on the east side of the battlefield. His second line, in contrast to Rupert’s wild pursuit, thundered in at an angle and tore into the flank of the Royalist infantry. Here, finally, the discipline and cohesion of the New Model Army made itself felt. Rather than each part of the army fighting its own battle like the Royalists, the Parliamentarian army fought as a unit.
Cromwell’s charge was the hammer that caught the Royalist infantry against Fairfax’s anvil. As his infantry was surrounded, Charles I tried to lead his last reserve into the action, but a subordinate grabbed his reins and asked him, “Will you go upon your death?” With Charles’ hesitation, the last chance to win the battle was lost. Even the return of Rupert’s cavalry could not save the day, and both he and his royal uncle fled the field.
The Royalist army was shattered at the Battle of Naseby, and almost eliminated as a fighting force. Cromwell’s Ironside cavalry chased the Royalists for 14 miles, bringing the final total of Charles’s losses to 7,000 – virtually the whole army – for a loss of 1,000 Roundheads. Charles tried to raise a new force, but all his veterans and commanders had been killed or captured at Naseby, and the New Model Army overran Royalist strongholds one after another. In January 1647, they captured Charles himself.
Parliament had never wanted to get rid of Charles, just to change the power dynamics in their relationship. For the next two years, they tried to make him a puppet leader – England needed a King, after all. Only when Charles refused to cooperate and continued to plot against them, Parliament finally had enough and executed him in January 1649. This did not end the English Civil Wars – Parliament would face its own struggles in Scotland and Ireland for the next several years. Parliament’s inability to rule without an executive leader, however, caused a new power base to form.
By 1653, Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army were the real power in the land, and he used the army to disband Parliament that year and rule as a dictator until his death in 1658. After a brief power struggle following Cromwell’s death, Parliament invited Charles’ son, Charles II, to come back and take his throne. So what did we all learn?
Even if the king was back, he could never rule absolutely again. The English Civil War saw a permanent shift in the power relationship between King and Parliament. Even if the country still needed a strong executive at its head – Cromwell had to fill that role when there was no King to do so – it also needed a body responsive to the needs of the population.
Naseby was the decisive battle in ensuring that England, unlike almost every other European nation, would go down the road to Constitutional Monarchy rather than Absolute Monarchy. It was this development, more than anything else, that propelled them into the modern age.