The fighting

"he English civil war, 1642-46

The armies

The infantry formed the core of the civil war army and was generally the largest of its three main elements. Foot soldiers were either musketeers or pikemen. Musketeers, who usually wore no body armour, had swords and could use their muskets as clubs in close-quarter combat or when they ran out of ammunition. Thus at Naseby, Fairfax's musketeers attacked an obstinate unit of royalist foot 'with Butt-end of Muskets and so broke them'. However, the musketeer's principal role was to fire 011 the enemy using his musket. This had a long barrel, probably around four feet or so at the start of the war (though rather shorter, lighter muskets were soon introduced) and fired a spherical lead bullet. In flintlock or 'firelock' muskets, the charge was ignited by a mechanism that brought a flint down against a piece of steel, producing a spark. In matchlock muskets, a slow-burning length of cord ignited the powder. There were obvious dangers in the musketeer carrying a burning match when he was also handling gunpowder, the match needed attention to ensure that it was burning evenly, it was hard to keep alight in rain and its glow might give away troop positions at night. However, matchlock muskets were cheaper to produce than flintlocks, their firing mechanism was simpler and they could often still be fired even if that mechanism broke. Accordingly, the matchlock was the standard-issue weapon through the English civil wars. Musketeers carried their ammunition on a bandolier, a leather belt worn across the shoulder, from which hung both a number

The mechanism of a flintlock or'firelock' musket of the civil wars, in which a flint was brought down against a steel arm when the trigger was pulled, producing sparks. This type of musket did not require a burning match, and so was often used by troops protecting supplies of gunpowder or by those undertaking surprise night-time raids. (Royal Armounes)

Musket CthMatchlock Musket

The mechanism of a matchlock musket of the civil wars. The smouldering match would be held in the rather ornate 'serpent' which, when the trigger was pulled, would lower the match into the priming pan. Just before firing the musketeer would swivel open the pan cover; thus exposing the charge of powder in the pan. (Royal Armouries)

The mechanism of a matchlock musket of the civil wars. The smouldering match would be held in the rather ornate 'serpent' which, when the trigger was pulled, would lower the match into the priming pan. Just before firing the musketeer would swivel open the pan cover; thus exposing the charge of powder in the pan. (Royal Armouries)

of powder containers holding the main charges and a separate hag of musket balls. I.ater in the war, some troops began using cartridges, rolls of paper each containing a measure of gunpowder and a ball, which could be rammed up the barrel in one go, instead of loading powder and ball separately. The musketeer also carried a priming flask containing gunpowder, a small amount of which was tipped into an externally-opening firing pan; when ignited, this served to light the main charge. Muskets were not particularly accurate - they had a theoretical range of up to 400 yards but an effective range well below that - and could only fire one shot at a time before needing to be reloaded. Accordingly musketeers worked together, firing roughly aimed volleys by rank into blocks of enemy troops. They often operated in revolving ranks, with the front rank firing their volley and then retiring to the rear to begin the process of reloading. By the time they had completed this the rank in front of them had reloaded, presented, fired and retired, and so on. The number of ranks employed varied, depending on the numbers of men available and the length of time they were taking to reload, but was generally between three and six, arranged so that between them they could maintain an almost constant hail of shot. An experienced musketeer could reload and fire in well under a minute.

The pikemen also fought together in distinct blocks. Although their use of body armour was declining, at the time of the English civil wars most pikemen probably wore armour to protect the torso and thighs, and a simple pot-style, rounded helmet. Some also had a gorget to protect the neck and back of the head. Many carried a sword slung from the waist, but their principal weapon was their pike, a long wooden stave about 16 feet in length and tipped with a steel point. Sometimes the fighting end had long, thin steel plates attached to it to give it extra strength. A block of pikemen, their pikes pointing outwards like a giant hedgehog, could advance at a steady pace and engage the enemy directly, hoping either to break them outright or to fight opposing pikemen at close quarters in a form of stabbing, prodding melee that was generally referred to as 'push of pike'. Their main role, however, was to resist and break up cavalry attacks and to protect their own musketeers from enemy horse. Thus in battle, in which the infantry as a whole normally occupied the centre of the deployed army, blocks of musketeers and pikemen would be interspersed, with units of pikemen flanking and protecting adjoining units of musketeers. During the opening phase of the war, many armies contained roughly equal numbers of musketeers and pikemen, but it was generally thought that the ideal arrangement was to have a preponderance of musketeers over pikemen, in a ratio of three to two or two to one. Later

Spanish Musketeer Buff Coat

The equipment of a mounted harquebusier including a leather buff coat, armour protecting the chest and the bridle arm. an open-fnonted helmet and, carried at his side and attached to belts across both shoulders, a broadsword and a carbine. (Royal Armouries)

A wheellock pistol of the civil wars.The spark was produced when a piece of pyrites was held against the revolving serrated wheel.The wheel was first wound back against a spring, using a spanner or key which fitted onto the nut in the centre of the wheel. (National Army Museum)

in the war musketeers did significantly outnumber pikemen in most of the principal field armies.

While infantry occupied a central position on the battlefield, cavalry took up position either side of it, holding the wings. Some cavalry wore full, three-quarter-length body armour, from an enclosed helmet down to just below the knees. A few units of this sort, known as cuirassiers, fought in the civil wars, notably a parliamentary unit under Sir Arthur Heselrige, famously described by Clarendon as 'so prodigiously armed that they were called by the other side the regiment of lobsters because of the bright iron shells with which they were covered'. This style of cavalry was rapidly going out of fashion, as the armour was expensive and heavy, making it very difficult for a cuirassier to manoeuvre or to remount in battle, and by the mid-17th century it was not entirely musket-proof.

A pair of flintlock pistols of the civil wars. These were the type of pistol used by most civil war cavalrymen, typically earned in holsters on either side of the horse, immediately in front of the saddle. (National Army Museum)

A wheellock pistol of the civil wars.The spark was produced when a piece of pyrites was held against the revolving serrated wheel.The wheel was first wound back against a spring, using a spanner or key which fitted onto the nut in the centre of the wheel. (National Army Museum)

Thus the great majority of civil war cavalry were the faster, lighter, more manoeuvrable harquebusiers, who wore far less body armour. This might comprise a three-quarter-length buff coat of thick leather, which offered some protection from sword blows, or metal back and breast plates to protect the upper torso, and perhaps a metal gauntlet protecting the bridle arm from elbow to knuckle. They generally wore an open-style metal helmet, with one or more bars protecting the face. It was impractical for cavalry to use full muskets on horseback, but they were sometimes armed with a shorter version called a carbine, which typically had a barrel between 2 and 2'h feet long and which hung by the cavalryman's side, attached by a clip to a bandolier passing over his shoulder. A carbine was fired either by a flintlock

A pair of flintlock pistols of the civil wars. These were the type of pistol used by most civil war cavalrymen, typically earned in holsters on either side of the horse, immediately in front of the saddle. (National Army Museum)

1630s Pistol

mechanism or by a wheellock, in which a serrated wheel was wound back against a spring using a spanner and, when released, revolved against a piece of pyrites fixed over the firing pan, producing a shower of sparks. The flintlock mechanism was generally cheaper and more reliable.

The cavalryman normally had a brace of pistols, carried in holsters on either side in front of the saddle, typically with a barrel length of 14-15 inches and again fired by either the flintlock or wheellock mechanism. In the heat of battle, a carbine or pistol might be fired just once, as there was limited opportunity to reload, and officers tried to ensure that their men were as close as possible to the enemy before firing. However, the principal cavalryman's weapon was his sword, with a steel blade and iron hilt, carried in a scabbard and worn from a belt which went either round the waist or across the shoulder. Various types of sword were used, including narrow, probing rapiers, but typically cavalry used a wide-bladed, slashing broadsword. Thus armed, cavalry served as the shock troops of a civil war army, able to move forward at speed in units often three ranks deep, sometimes slowing to fire as they approached the enemy, sometimes just charging on in the hope of smashing, breaking open or carrying away the enemy lines, reserving their fire until after the initial impact.

The third element of an army, the dragoons, were essentially foot soldiers, but they had horses, often poor-quality mounts, which enabled them to ride forward and take up advanced positions. Typically they would be employed to secure, occupy or clear particular strong points between the two main armies, such as hedges and ditches, walls, gates and bridges. They would then dismount and fight on foot from these forward positions, firing on and disrupting advancing enemy forces. They generally wore little body armour and were equipped with swords and either muskets or carbines with flintlock or wheellock mechanisms so that they did not have to use matches and would be able to fire from horseback if necessary.

A number of other symbolic or functional weapons saw very limited use in the armies of the English civil wars, including poleaxes, halberds, bills and blunderbusses. Standard muskets and carbines were not very accurate, but more expensive and accurate birding or fowling pieces were available and would be given to snipers to pick off specific targets, though this was more common in sieges than field engagements. Most of the bigger armies took with them a train of artillery, including very large, heavy and slow-moving cannon, though again these were more suited to sieges than battles. But other pieces were shorter, lighter and more mobile and these, typically firing iron balls weighing less than 10 pounds, might play a more substantial role in battle. Many of the major engagements opened with an artillery exchange, firing at a fairly sedate rate, as reloading was slow and complex. They made a great deal of noise and smoke and could inflict terrible injuries. There are plenty of gory contemporary accounts of the damage done to the human body, of 'legs and arms flying apace', of 'a whole file of men, six deep, with their heads struck off with one cannon shot', of 'guts lying on the ground'. On the other hand, many contemporaries also noted that the cannons generally 'caused more terror than execution', that 'their cannon did very small execution amongst us' and that 'great artillery seldom or never hurts'. Civil war battles were decided by the clash of horse and foot, not by an exchange of artillery.

Infantry and cavalry were organised into, and fought as, larger units of men. A foot soldier was a member of a company, generally commanded by a captain, which at this time should have numbered around or a little over 100-120 men. Infantry companies were gathered together into a regiment under the overall command of a colonel, who had his own regimental officers. Ideally an infantry regiment would be made up of 10 companies and so would number somewhere over 1,000 men. In practice, the strength of individual companies varied widely during the course of the war and often fell way short of 100. Similarly the number of companies that made up an infantry regiment also varied, from just a handful up to the mid or high teens.

A cavalryman was a member of a troop of horse. In the early phase of the war, a troop often numbered around 60 ordinary troopers and about 10 officers and staff, including the commanding officer, generally a captain. As the war progressed, troop size often increased, and troops of 80-90 or more became fairly common on parliament's side, less so on the king's, though again numbers could fluctuate wildly between good times and bad. Although the organisation was incomplete when the two armies met at Edgehill, both sides soon grouped their troops of horse into cavalry regiments, generally commanded by a colonel. The number of troops to a regiment was never completely standardised and although six or seven became something like the norm, there were exceptions. In 1643 Oliver Cromwell commanded a double horse regiment of 14 troops, and at one point Prince Rupert's regiment had 10 troops. Thus although a horse regiment of six or seven troops might number somewhere between 400 and 500 men, it could be very much larger or smaller.

Raw recruits needed basic training before they could safely join a field army and take part in battle. Drawing upon their own experience of fighting and a variety of military and drill manuals, the officers (often corporals) in charge of new recruits would train the men to respond individually and together to a range of standard commands. These would entail not only personal movements, such as marching, turning, wheeling and so forth, but also the handling of their weapons. If mishandled, the sharp and butt ends of a pike could do considerable damage to colleagues in their own company. The musket was potentially even more lethal, to its owner as much as to his colleagues around him, and the complex procedure for loading, firing and reloading, involving the handling of gunpowder and a burning match, as well as the cleaning of the weapons, called for careful training. If that training proved inadequate, the results could be devastating. In autumn

A bust of Charles I's nephew. Prince Rupert portraying him in the late 1670s, towards the end of his life. In 1642, Rupert, then a dashing 23-year-old, but already with military experience and a reputation for courage and boldness gained while serving on the Continent in the later 1630s. was appointed general of the horse in his uncle's army. (Topham Picturepoint)

A bust of Charles I's nephew. Prince Rupert portraying him in the late 1670s, towards the end of his life. In 1642, Rupert, then a dashing 23-year-old, but already with military experience and a reputation for courage and boldness gained while serving on the Continent in the later 1630s. was appointed general of the horse in his uncle's army. (Topham Picturepoint)

1642 at the battle of Edgehill 'a careless soldier in fetching powder where a magazine was, clapped his hand carelessly into a barrel of powder with his match between his fingers, whereby much powder was blown up and many killed'. In November 1643 a unit of parliamentary musketeers attacking Basing House were woefully inexperienced, and instead of firing by rank, they all fired together, so that some in the front were shot by their colleagues behind them.

Intense basic training for infantry recruits could be completed in a week. Once they were proficient in handling their weapons and had been taken through their 'postures' in companies, they would be brought together as a new regiment or join and reinforce an existing regiment, whereupon they would receive instruction from more senior officers in battlefield formations and tactics. The training of cavalry was broadly similar, entailing the handling of weapons, individual manoeuvres on horseback and then working together as a troop on its own and within a regiment, practising different movements. In addition, the horses needed their own training so that they became accustomed to the sight and sounds of gunfire and would not panic and run out of control on the battlefield. But however thorough the drill and training on the parade ground, most veterans felt that nothing could beat the experience of real action and that, until they had been blooded in their first battle, new recruits were always something of a liability.

The principal campaigns_

When the English civil wars began in August 1642 many people expected the conflict to be brief, with each side raising a single army which would then crash into each other with everything resolved in one dreadful but decisive battle. Looking back, Richard Baxter ruefully recalled 'that we commonly supposed that in a very few days or weeks one Battle would end the war'. It would all be over by Christmas. Indeed, events initially followed that course, for king and parliament did focus much of their efforts on raising two large field armies, which, after a period of manoeuvring in the West Midlands, crashed into each other in

The movements of the main royalist and parliamentary armies during the opening weeks of the war; culminating in the battle of Edgehill of 23 October 1642.

English Civil War 1642 Edge Hill

The road to Edgehill, autumn 1642

1. 13-20 September.The Royalists march from Nottingham to Shrewsbury. Prince Rupert garrisons Bridgnorth with Royalist Horse. ►

2. 19 September. Essex's army marcnes from Northampton towards Worcester

3. 23 September.Action at Powick Bridge near Worcester.

4. 24 September. Essex's arm/arrives in Worcester. '

5. 12 October.The Royalist Army leaves.ShreWsbury, , Prince Rupert's Royalist HOrse marqh from Bridgnorth to Wolverhampton via Shifnal to rejoin the main army. The Parliamentarian regiments garrisoning BewdleV and Kiddenntnstor hCjrriedl/ withdraw to Worcester, believing Prince Rupert and the main Royalisf' army argjadvancing to attack Essex.

6. 18 October. The King reviews his army on Merider\ Heath near Coventry.

T. t9 October. Belatedly realising that the King has eluded him, Essex's army leaves Worcester to retrace its steps to,Warwick.

8. 22 October.The Royalist army billets in villages to the east tof Edgehill.

9. 22 October. Essex's army WietslrrKineton and villages to tjie'west of Edgehill. i



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Warwickshire. During September the king moved from Nottingham to Shrewsbury, to rendezvous with recruits from Wales and parts of the Welsh Marches as well as those marching south from Lancashire. The Earl of Essex meanwhile led his growing army first to Northampton and then west to Worcester, to block Charles should he move down the Severn valley. There were skirmishes between detached units, the largest of which occurred on 23 September 1642 when parliamentary and royalist horse clashed around Powick Bridge, south of Worcester, ahead of the arrival of Essex's main army, with the king's men gaining a clear victory.

With a now much stronger army, the king left Shrewsbury on 12 October, but he swung south-east, as if to take a Midlands route towards London. Somewhat tardily, Essex realised what was afoot and moved his army east out of Worcester on 19 October to intercept the king. By the evening of the 22nd they were on Charles' heels on the Warwickshire plain and the king decided to turn and give battle. During Sunday 23 October the two armies drew up opposite each other, with infantry in the centre, horse on both wings, and dragoons on the two flanks. The king's army initially gathered on top of Edgehill, but when it became clear that Essex would not attack uphill, he brought his army down to deploy along the base of the hill, while Essex deployed on a slight ridge in the plain below. Like many major civil war engagements, battle took place by mutual consent.

The two armies, around 13-14,000 men apiece, faced each other in matching, parallel lines, under a mile apart. Battle began in the afternoon with an inconclusive artillery exchange and skirmishes between dragoons. Then the royalist cavalry on both wings charged forward and engaged the parliamentary horse, who, receiving them stationary and firing a not very effective volley, quickly buckled, broke, fell back and turned away in full flight. But instead of halting, rallying and turning to attack the parliamentary infantry, most of the victorious royalist horse - both the main line and a second line intended as the reserve -swept on in pursuit of the fleeing parliamentary cavalry and Essex's baggage train. The royalist infantry was thus left with little cavalry support as it moved forward to engage the parliamentary foot, which was bolstered by a couple of cavalry units that had been kept in reserve and had not been swept away. The parliamentary horse overran and put out of action much of the royalist artillery. Aided by cavalry support and probably with superior firepower, the parliamentary infantry had the better of a dour, often close-quarter fight with the royalist foot, pushing the king's men back and for a time capturing the royal standard, though it was later recovered. A mixture of exhaustion, dwindling powder supplies and nightfall brought proceedings to an inconclusive close, with neither side securing a clear victory. I lad Rupert and the victorious front line of royalist horse not careered off the battlefield, and had the second line not joined them but remained on the battlefield as a reserve, the outcome might ha%-e been very different.

There followed an unseasonably cold night, which may have saved some of the wounded by helping to stem their loss of blood, but probably finished others off through exposure. Denzil Holies recalled that 'We almost starved with cold that bitter night', while Edmund Ludlow wrote that, having found some bread, 'I could scarce eat it, my jaws for want of use having almost lost their natural faculty', a symptom which one historian has ascribed to the intense clenching of teeth of post-combat trauma. The two sides eyed each other suspiciously on the following day, but were too drained to resume battle and eventually both pulled back. Essex went northwards to Warwick, Charles south-eastwards, resuming his march towards Banbury and in the general direction of London. They left a total of over 1,000 dead on and around the battlefield, some quickly buried in situ by their colleagues, others buried there or in nearby churchyards by the local population.

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A contemporary image of fighting at Edgehill, showing artillery fire, blocks of pikemen and cavalry in action. The inscription reveals the parliamentary origins and bias of the engraving, stressing the ineffectiveness of the royalist attack and the deaths of two prominent royalist officers. (Public domain)

A contemporary image of fighting at Edgehill, showing artillery fire, blocks of pikemen and cavalry in action. The inscription reveals the parliamentary origins and bias of the engraving, stressing the ineffectiveness of the royalist attack and the deaths of two prominent royalist officers. (Public domain)

Over the following fortnight the king moved slowly, capturing Banbury, spending a pleasant time in Oxford and marching via Reading before finally approaching London from the west around 9 November. By then, Essex had brought his army back to London, where it was bolstered by the London trained bands, rapidly growing as Londoners flocked to defend the capital, and by up to seven newly raised regiments. On 12 November the royalists launched a fierce attack on Brentford, smashing two parliamentary infantry regiments and causing much death and destruction. This brutality strengthened the resolve of the parliamentary soldiers and civilians to defend the capital, and it may also have left Charles uneasy and disinclined to unleash further bloodshed. On the following day, 13 November, he found his route to London blocked at Turnham Green by a huge force of over 24,000 parliamentarians and, having glared at his enemies all day, he decided not to give battle but pull away under cover of darkness. Even though he significantly outnumbered the royalists, Essex chose not to pursue the king or try to force battle. Many historians suggest that had the king quickly marched on London after Edgehill and attacked it before the main parliamentary army had returned there, Charles might have captured the capital and perhaps thereby won the war in autumn 1642.

Thus the civil war did not end quickly for the campaign of autumn 1642 had proved indecisive, and it became clear that war would stretch into and through 1643 and perhaps beyond. During the depth of winter 1642-43, as during most winters of the war, military action dwindled but did not entirely cease. But because of the weather and the state of the roads, it was generally impossible to mount major campaigns, fighting slackened off and the main armies went into winter quarters. In December 1642 the king fell back to Oxford, which became his headquarters for the remainder of the war, and his army quartered in and around the town, protected by a circuit of outlying bases. Essex quartered his army in an arc west of London. Winter was the season of preparation for the looming campaign, for building up resources, and often for abortive peace talks, such as the rather desultory ones between king and parliament in Oxford early in 1643 focused upon a set of terms called the Oxford Propositions.

The winter of 1642-43 also saw a change in the nature of the war, from building up and resourcing two principal field armies to securing the towns and countryside of England and Wales, gaining territory and the demographic, financial and material resources that could be taken from it. On both sides, determined military leaders backed by troops and civilian commissioners moved to quell or cut through the uncertainty and apathy of the opening months of the war, to override the various neutrality pacts that had been concluded between parliamentary and royalist activists in many areas and to force the whole country to swing behind king or parliament and begin supplying the manpower for a potentially lengthy civil war. Territory was tied down and its resources secured by establishing garrisons - bodies of troops stationed to control an area. By spring 1643 it was possible to draw a map of England and Wales showing how the two sides had secured and carved up territory in this way. Although the allegiance of some areas was unclear and disputed, the overall pattern was apparent by May 1643. In terms of area, the two sides held roughly equal territories at this stage, but parliament held the richer and more populous parts of the country, most of the major ports (Plymouth, Exeter, Bristol, Portsmouth, London, Boston, Hull and Milford Haven, though not Newcastle) and all three of the biggest pre-war arsenals (Portsmouth, London and Hull).

During 1643 the war became a far more intense and inevitably long-drawn-out territorial conflict, fought by a diversity of principal, provincial and local armies and by large numbers of soldiers in hundreds of garrisons. Both sides intensified their war efforts, raising large numbers of voluntary or conscripted recruits, probably a total of something approaching 150,000 men at the height of the 1643 campaigning season. In many ways 1643 was also the most complex year of the war, with fighting in many parts of England and Wales. However, an overall pattern slowly emerged. 1643 was a year of repeated royalist successes and substantial territorial gains, which pushed the parliamentarians back to their heartlands in the south-eastern quarter of England. It is not clear whether Charles had consciously conceived a plan at the beginning of 1643 for a three-pronged attack on London. Nevertheless, the royalists undoubtedly expanded and advanced in the south, the north and the Midlands during the year, and London became far more vulnerable.

The most dramatic royalist progress was made in the south and south-west, though from a slow and frustrating start. At the beginning of 1643 the king alone held Cornwall and the royalists found it hard to break out. On 19 January parliamentary forces were badly mauled on Boconnoc or Braddock Down, but a royalist attempt to push into Devon fizzled out. Again in late April, after repulsing a parliamentary attack on Launceston, the Cornish royalists tried but failed to push east and were thrown back to Sourton Down on the night of 25-26 April. But on 16 May Sir Ralph Hopton crushed parliament's south-western army in battle outside Stratton, scoring a decisive victory against the Earl of Stamford's parliamentarians who were both numerically stronger and held a hill-top position. The king began pouring reinforcements into the area and gained significant territory. Advancing eastwards, the royalists encountered parliament's main southern army under Sir William Waller in early July. Although the first clash, on Lansdown Hill outside Bath on 5 July, was indecisive, at Roundway Down on 13 July a reinforced royalist army destroyed Waller's army and the region opened up for the king. During the summer, royalists secured a huge swathe of territory across the west country and southern England, including Devon, Dorset, Somerset, most of Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and the western half of Hampshire, capturing the great town and port of

Spring 1643

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  • Angela
    Where did the battle of Edgehill happen?
    8 years ago

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