On 14th June 1645, the fields between the Northamptonshire villages of Naseby and Sibbertoft saw one of the most significant battles in British history.
Royalist troops loyal to King Charles I and the Parliamentarian ‘New Model Army’ led by Sir Thomas Fairfax met in the culmination of a three-year bloody civil war that had pitted families and friends against each other and the fates of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland rested in the balance.
But did King Charles lose at Naseby because he was in dire need of a horse or two…?
There are many reasons why King Charles’ forces lost the Battle of Naseby on 14 June 1645: he was outnumbered, many of his infantry were untested in battle, his commanders were fractious and divided…
But one major issue was that he was missing some of his very best cavalry.
Cavalry were the shock troops of their age and nine times out of time were the decisive troops on an English Civil War battlefield. Riding huge horses, dressed in thick leather jackets called buffcoats and armed with swords and carbines – a type of musket a bit like a sawn-off shotgun – great flanking wings of cavalry would charge at each other and try to drive their opponents off. They could also ride into the infantry, slashing at them or even just trampling them down. Without cavalry, a 17th Century army was incredibly vulnerable and all but useless.
At a council of war in Stow-on-the-Wold on May 8th 1645, the Royalist commanders had been utterly divided over what their strategy should be. The war hung in the balance – they knew Parliament was preparing its much larger New Model Army, England’s first professional army, and time was running out.
There were almost too many options: Charles wanted to march into Scotland to join forces with the Marquis of Montrose, who was then scoring major victories against Parliament’s Scottish allies; Prince Rupert and Sir Marmaduke Langdale wanted to also head north but relieve the siege of Chester and then strike at Scottish forces in Yorkshire; but Lord Goring and Lord Digby wanted to concentrate Royalist forces and destroy the New Model Army before it had time to establish itself.
As usual, Charles plumped for a compromise that suited no-one and left his forces divided – Lord Goring (pictured right) left with 3,000 cavalry for the West Country, while the King and Prince Rupert marched north with the main Royalist army.
Goring was the King’s lieutenant-general of the south-eastern counties and had been successfully driving back the advance of the famous Parliamentarian commander Sir William Waller into the West Country. However, the King had granted his son Charles, Prince of Wales, a court in the region and made him captain-general of the west, and Goring clashed with the young Prince’s civilian advisers and entered into a series of petty and counter-productive spats that only undermined both his authority and the King’s cause.
As confrontation with the New Model Army grew ever more likely, it was at this point that Charles’ decision to let Goring ride off with 3,000 of his best cavalry came back to haunt him.
An increasingly notorious drunk, Goring ignored a direct command to cease marching west, turn around, and bolster the King’s army at Market Harborough. He then compounded this by refusing further orders on May 26th to march to Newbury in order to figure out the strength of the New Model, which by then was besieging Oxford. Instead, Goring marched off to relieve the siege of Taunton – a move that may have lined his pockets but left his cavalry out of the King’s reach.
Thanks to Goring’s insubordination, Fairfax was later free to abandon the pointless siege at Oxford, wheel around, and march off in pursuit of the King – unimpeded and unharrassed.
Worse was to come. After the storming, capture, and pillaging of Leicester on June 1st, the Royalist army began to march south to relieve the siege of Oxford. However this upset the men of the Northern Horse, who were under the command of Sir Marmaduke Langdale (pictured left).
The Northern Horse was an elite force formed from the veteran horse units of the Earl of Newcastle’s army, which had very nearly turned the tide at Marston Moor in 1644. However, they were notoriously difficult to control and the trail of pillage and rape they left behind them during a raid into Yorkshire to relieve the siege of Pontefract Castle in February 1645 had severely damaged the King’s cause.
With Scottish forces still stationed in Yorkshire and Humberside, when the order to march south came on June 4th it caused the Northern Horse regiments to threaten to mutiny – they wanted to head north and deal with the Scots, who were not only roaming freely in their home counties but at that moment seemed weak and under pressure from both the north and the south. Against the orders of their commanders, a number of them rode off to Newark in Nottinghamshire.
The majority were persuaded to stay with the main army but when they lined up on the Royalist left flank at Naseby they found themselves facing Cromwell’s well-trained and highly disciplined Ironsides. Charging at each their enemy, the outnumbered Northerners were steadily driven back, outflanked, and then routed, leaving the Royalist infantry in the centre exposed – Cromwell’s men then reorganised and plunged into the fray. For King Charles, the battle was lost and the decisive victory that Parliament had hoped for since the Battle of Edgehill in 1642 had arrived.
It is debatable whether Langdale’s hot-headed Northern Horse could ever have prevailed against the Ironsides, but another 3,000 veteran cavalry from Goring could at least have evened the odds in the King’s favour.
If Goring and the mutinous northern regiments had stuck by their King, could the outcome of the Battle at Naseby have been different?