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It was the end of the world as we knew it

In his second piece about Northamptonshire during the English Civil War, Mike Ingram takes us back to June 1645, when the future of the nation was decided at the Battle of Naseby…

For three weeks in 1645, Northamptonshire was devastated by war. The county was stripped of its livestock, many skirmishes took place and few villages escaped the plundering. Those who refused to pay their ‘tax’ or to give up their possessions had their houses burned or worse. It culminated in the Battle of Naseby, the most important battle in British history after Hastings.

Read Mike’s account of Northamptonshire during the civil war here

The First English Civil War had been raging since August 1642. At the end of 1644 the ‘Self-denying ordnance’ was proposed by Zouch Tate of Delapré Abbey. Parliament decided to create a new type of army called the ‘New Model’. For the first time it was intended to be an army liable for service anywhere in the country, rather than being theoretically tied to a single area or garrison. Its soldiers would become Britain’s full-time professionals, rather than part-time militia, so in effect the beginnings of Britain’s army today.  To establish a professional officer corps, the army’s leaders were prohibited from having seats in either the House of Lords or House of Commons. Also, instead of wearing coats in the colours of their Colonel, the whole army was to be clothed in red, not as the Victorians suggested to hide any blood, but because it was the cheapest. It would be a tradition that continued through to the Napoleonic Wars and the ‘thin red line’. However, many on both sides thought it would not work and derided it as the ‘New Noddle.’


At the end of April, Sir Thomas Fairfax led the New Model Army from its headquarters at Windsor to Reading, intending to raise the siege of Taunton. By 7 May, Fairfax and the New Model Army had reached Blandford in Dorset when they received instructions to abandon their march and to besiege Oxford instead.

On the same day, King Charles I, his Lifeguard, the Oxford infantry, and his train of artillery, marched out from Oxford towards Woodstock. Their likely destination at this time, Chester. As the King marched north, he met up with his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of his army and of the horse, and Sir Jacob Astley, commander of his foot, gathering more men as they advanced.  On 22 May, the New Model began the siege of Oxford. Then, on 29 May, the King held a Council of War at Burton on Trent where it was decided to lay siege to Leicester so as to draw the New Model Army away from Oxford.


On 30 May, the Royalist army began their siege of Leicester. The battle was brief and bloody. A report sent to London claimed that “the King’s Forces killed divers who prayed for Quarter: and put divers women to the Sword, and other women and children they turned naked into the streets, and many they ravish.” An eye witness later claimed that on the day of the storming, the King had ridden through the town in his bright armour and said of the atrocities: “I do not care if they cut them three times more, for they are mine enemies.” Once in Royalist hands, Leicester was plundered for several days and 140 cartloads of booty were sent north to Newark and more to Belvoir. Over 300 parliamentarians were taken prisoner including the garrison commander Lord Gray. News of the cruelties and the ferocity of the taking of Leicester reverberated around the East Midlands. Who was next?

Although substantially better defended, many feared it would be Northampton and a number of the towns people fled. Samuel Luke, the commander of Newport Pagnell wrote that the fall of Leicester had “struck such a terror into Northampton people that our inns and houses are full with them and I believe that if this success should alter his Majesty’s resolution from going northward and come and ask Northampton, he may have it on easier terms than he had in Leicester.”


Another expected target for the Royalists was Rockingham.  The castle’s commander was the baronet of Brampton, Sir John Norwich. Throughout the war, he had been a Colonel in the Parliamentarian horse under Edward Montagu, 2nd Earl of Manchester, before coming to Rockingham as governor in April 1645. Norwich reported that the Royalists “straggle up and down the country, plundering imprisoning and laying great impositions on the country.”

Many of those who escaped the carnage at Leicester fell back to Rockingham castle swelling its garrison to over 500 horse, including his own dragoons. Norwich demolished Rockingham church along with half the village to provide clear fields of fire from the castle. Then, leaving a considerable number of foot to defend castle itself, the cavalry began to shadow the Royalist army, harassing them at every opportunity. An army correspondent from Northampton wrote at the time that Norwich “hath sent out his troope daily, who have taken many prisoners.”


On 4 June, after a number of feints towards the north, King Charles and the whole Royalist Army gathered at Newton Harcourt and marched towards the Royalist town of Market Harborough. On the same day, Thomas Fairfax was given orders to abandon the siege of Oxford and march north to join Oliver Cromwell, who was in the Peterborough/Huntingdon area and to “attend the King’s motions in such a way as, being at the place, you may judge to be best“.

The following day, the King’s army gathered at Market Harborough whilst the King stayed at the Old Hall in Lubenham with a Mr. Collins.  Although the Hall is still there today, it is much reduced in size and Charles I’s chair, said to come from the hall is in the nearby church. For the next two days over 5,000 Royalist horse looted and taxed the surrounding countryside. Any Cattle, sheep or horses they came across were led away.  If anyone refused to pay up, their houses would be burned.


Villages would frequently be visited by different groups of Royalist horse and would be forced to pay several times. Villages as far away as Weekley, Thrapston, Desborough, Rushton and Burton Latimer, as well as those closer to Market Harborough, such as Sibertoft, Naseby, East Farndon and Great Oxendon were all plundered. Parliamentarian reports recount how they “Made an utter desolation in most of the towns between Deintry [Daventry] and Leicester driving away not only thousands of sheep and other cattle, but even the Countrymen themselves.” Two hundred Royalist horse appeared outside the walls of Northampton itself, adding to the fear that they were next, but were driven off with a Captain and most of his troop taken prisoner.

On 6 June, a large body of Royalist horse advanced through Maidwell and Brixworth and a large skirmish took place at Boughton Green. This time the defenders come off worse and only managed to withdraw to Northampton with great difficulty after two were killed. The Royalists then appeared outside the walls of Northampton. The following day, the Royalist horse appeared outside Northampton again. Meanwhile the whole Royalist army marched from Market Harborough through Kelmarsh, to rendezvous at Cold Ashby before marching on to Daventry which they reached in the evening. There were reports that the King was seen at Holdenby House (and again on 10 June). The horse were dispersed around nearby villages such as Staverton whilst the foot camped on top of the massive iron-age hillfort at Borough Hill, where they made makeshift huts for themselves and improved the defences.


The King himself stayed at the Wheatsheaf Inn (now a nursing home). According to legend, that evening a commotion was heard coming from the King’s chamber. When his servants rushed in to see what had caused it, they found Charles sitting up in bed looking very agitated. Charles, his voice shaking, said he had seen an apparition of Lord Strafford, whom he had executed four years earlier. After reproaching the king for his cruelty, Strafford had told him he had come to return good for evil, saying in no uncertain terms that Charles must not fight the New Model, because he would never be able to conquer it by arms.

The legend continues that the following day, Charles announced that he had changed his mind and would not go to battle after all but instead would march northwards. He knew the parliamentary forces were sparser in the north and, with the help of the discontented Scots, he might fare better. However, Prince Rupert, berated Charles so that he resolved to go ahead with the battle notwithstanding the ghostly warning. The next night, Charles’s sleep was disturbed again by the ghost of Lord Strafford. This time, the spirit was angry that Charles appeared to have ignored his counsel. The ghost assured the king that this was the last time he would be permitted to offer advice and that if Charles “continued in his resolve to fight, he would be undone.” However, in another version it was claimed that the second visitation came was whilst the King was at Lubenham the night before the battle.


In the meantime, the New Model Army was still marching north. By 7 June, they had reached Newport Pagnell where they received a hostile reception, as they were seen by the Presbyterians there as an army of Independents whom they despised as much as the Royalists. The same day, Fairfax’s officers signed a letter requesting that despite the ‘Self-Denying Ordnance,’ Parliament should appoint Cromwell Lieutenant-General of the Horse. It was despatched to London immediately.

The next day, the Royalist horse assembled at Whilton and a convoy of supplies comprising of much of the livestock they had taken from the county left for Oxford, guarded by five men from each troop of horse. Parliament claimed they took over 30,000 sheep and 8,000 cattle. The rest of the army waited at Daventry for their return. In the meantime, “marauding Teames” continued to raid as far afield as Brackley and Upper Shuckburgh.  The following day, the Royalists continued to plunder, one party advancing as far as Harlestone Heath and driving off a herd of beasts.  

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The New Model was marching from Sherrington to Stony Stratford. Fairfax received news from London that for the first time, he had been given a free hand to find and engage the King’s army. He was also empowered to create Oliver Cromwell Lieutenant-General of the Horse. Fairfax then wrote to Parliament that he was about to advance towards the enemy. Fairfax was taking his well-equipped yet inexperienced officers and men into battle with the tough, battle-hardened army of the king. Although Fairfax had more foot, at that point in time, the Royalists were considerably superior in cavalry. No wonder Rushworth wrote “I hope the Lord will be with this poor condemned army.”

On 10 June, there were 700 Royalist Horse and Foot at Towcester and cruelties were reported at Greens Norton. To guard the road from Daventry to Northampton, 300 Royalist horse were sent to Whilton Bridge.


At 4:00am on 11 June, the New Model began to arrive in Northampton.  One commentator with the New Model wrote that there “was in the Countrey much rejoicing at our coming, having been miserably plundered by the Enemy.” The first to arrive were 800 cavalry under Col Whalley and they established their headquarters at Wootton. During the day, more and more troops began to arrive in the town. Men were quartered at Collingtree and Hardingstone (where ten dozen loaves and 40lbs of cheese were delivered from Cogenhoe). It had been raining continually. Fairfax wrote “The ill weather hath been some disadvantage to us, but I hope a fair day may recover what a foul day loses.” That evening, because there was so little accommodation in Wootton, senior officers were entertained by the mayor in the town.

The next day, the New Model headquarters was moved to Kislingbury. The Horse was quartered in Rothersthorpe and Harpole, with their 2,000 horses in the meadows. The 3,000 foot camped at Collingtree and Hackleton. However, the Royalists were not the only ones to plunder and although the majority of provisions were paid for, it was recorded that unnamed Parliamentarians took fifty sheep and twenty-six lambs from Ravensthorpe and Teeton.  After inspecting all his forces, when Fairfax returned to Kislingbury around 4:00am he had forgotten the password, so a guard made him stand outside in the rain until he could prove his identity. The guard was rewarded for his diligence.


In the meantime, the King was having a day off and had gone hunting in the Deer Park at Fawsley Hall. During the day, the royalist horse had returned from Oxford. They had no idea that the New Model was so close and believed that they were marching east. However, when a detachment of Parliamentarian horse took Royalists at Heyford and Flore totally by surprise, it threw them into confusion. Charles told his men that it was just a raid from Northampton, but around midnight, fearful of an attack, Rupert gathered his whole army on Borough Hill. Before 5:00am on the morning of 13 June, the Royalists started to leave Daventry intending to head north again. It would take until around 9am for them to leave completely. In an effort to disguise their movements, they may have taken several roads, probably marching north to the River Avon before turning east along the Welland valley back to Market Harborough. It is likely that Charles stopped and took his midday meal in the hall next to the church at Stanford upon Avon with Sir Thomas Cave.

Having received news that the Royalists were on the move, at 6:00am Fairfax held a Council of War at Kislingbury. It had not long started when a great cheer was heard. Cromwell had arrived. He had been at Bedford collecting his forces when he received orders to join Fairfax and probably came to Northampton through Olney. It is possible that he had arrived the night before and a local tradition suggests he stayed at Hazelrigg House. Another tradition suggests that he stayed at the Hind Hotel in Wellingborough before the battle, despite it being “in building,” (in other words under construction) at the time.  Cromwell’s cavalry nicknamed the ‘Ironsides,’ which was considered the best in England, arrived later in the day.


The New Model marched out of Kislingbury, over the bridge that still stands there today, to muster in Harpole fields. The army then marched north with Cromwell and his horse at the head. They probably passed through the Bringtons’, East Haddon, Ravensthorpe and Cotton before stopping at Guilsborough. Another of those local traditions says that Cromwell stayed at Thornby Grange, a few miles to the south that night. In Guilsborough itself, up to fifty soldiers were billeted on each household in the village.

Meanwhile, Prince Rupert had set up his headquarters at Market Harborough in what is now the King’s Head but at the time a manor house, and King Charles stayed at Lubenham Old Hall once again. However, they were on the back foot and on the defensive, and what was worse, did not know where the New Model was or when they were going to strike.


That evening a party of the King’s Lifeguard were surprised in Naseby village. One news sheet claimed that were caught playing quoits. Another local source claims they were dining in Shuckburgh House. In either version, the supposed table they were sat around survives today in Naseby church. Although many were captured, some managed to escape and raise the alarm. Depending on the source, the news reached Harborough at either 11:00pm or midnight, and around 2:00am the King held a council of war which decided to turn and fight. The strengths of the armies are not known for certain and estimates for the Royalist army vary from 7,500 to 10,000 men, but it was clearly outnumbered by the New Model, which fielded up to 13,500 troops.

The Royalist army initially formed up in a strong position on a ridge between the villages of Little Oxendon and East Farndon about 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Market Harborough. The Parliamentarian army assembled on the northern slopes of Naseby ridge, near where the obelisk now stands. Cromwell believed that this position was too strong, and that the Royalists would refuse battle rather than attack it, and said to Fairfax, “I beseech you, withdraw to yonder hill, which may provoke the enemy to charge us“.

Fairfax agreed, and moved his army across to the ridge behind the modern Cromwell monument on the Naseby to Sibbertoft Road. The Royalists’ thinking that the New Model was retreating, followed and formed up on the opposite ridge. Over 20,000 men were facing each other across Broadmoor, and it was here that the outcome of the Civil War would be decided.


The battle began at about 10:00am when around 1,000 of Cromwell’s dragoons began pouring fire into the Royalist flank from Sulby Hedge, the whole Royalist army began their advance across the valley towards their enemy. The two sides met on the top of the ridge, and to start with the Royalists had the upper hand. Prince Rupert’s cavalry chased a number of Parliamentarian cavalry off the field, some running all the way back to Northampton. Soon the Parliamentarian advantage in numbers began to tell and the Royalists were pushed back. Cromwell’s cavalry swept into the Royalist flank. Their line collapsed and were soon in full flight. Over a thousand Royalists were killed and 5,000 taken prisoner.  Never again would the Royalists’ be able to put a full army in the field.

Many prisoners were taken back to Northampton, and some were held in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton. Legend has it that paddock next to the World’s End Pub at Ecton was used to hold prisoners, a number of which died from their wounds. Hence the name!

Naseby Battlefield Trail May 2014
Naseby Battlefield Trail May 2014

Naseby was the most important battle in British history after Hastings. Not only did it decide the war, but it also established Parliament’s right to a permanent role in the government of the kingdom. It brought Cromwell to prominence in politics and was really the birthplace of the modern British Army. Papers found after the battle showed that King Charles was in communication with Catholics in Ireland and Europe and it was these that were used against him in his trial which led to his execution and the end of the divine right of Kings. It was the end of a process that began 400 years and one day earlier, when the King John sealed the Magna Carta at Runnymede. And, that started in Northamptonshire too when the Barons’ renounced the fealty to King John at Brackley. So Northamptonshire can justifiably call itself “the home of democracy”.

Despite its importance, there is no visitor centre and little to commemorate the battle. Earl Spencer described it as a “national disgrace”.  Just think how the Americans remember the battles of their civil war! In 2001, the Naseby Battlefield Project (www.Naseby.com) was set up to do just that! So far they have refurbished the existing sites such as the Cromwell Monument added further viewpoints, interpretation panels, walks and parking facilities.  The late Mike Westaway and Peter Burton metal detected the whole of the area and plotted the course of the battle from finds of musket balls, thereby allowing far greater understanding of events that day. The NBP are now trying to raise funds to create a fitting memorial and visitor centre in Naseby Church, but there is still a long way to go.

Read Mike’s passionate call for Northampton to live up to its history here



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