Turnham Green is a public park, around seven miles from the centre of London. With its George Gilbert Scott-designed church, war memorial, and old Town Hall, it’s typical of the capital’s civic green spaces.
But 375 years ago today, it played host to a stand-off that helped change the course of British history.
After the indecisive battle of Edgehill, King Charles found he had an open road to London after a strategic mistake by the Earl of Essex, leader of the Parliamentarian army. Prince Rupert advised Charles to authorise an immediate cavalry strike against London before Essex’s army could return.
However, the King – hoping for Parliament to negotiate and offer terms – decided to make a more cautious advance with his whole army, which allowed Essex time to march back to London unopposed – he was greeted with a morale-boosting hero’s welcome for Essex upon his arrival on 7 November.
During Essex’s absence, Parliament had commissioned the Earl of Warwick to raise a further seven regiments for the city’s defence and the 6,000 men of the London Trained Bands were mobilised. Sir James Ramsay was sent with 3,000 troops from Essex’s main army to defend Kingston, the first crossing of the River Thames above London Bridge, and detachments were posted at Acton and Brentford to guard the western approaches to the City.
The King advanced on the capital via Banbury, Oxford, Reading and Windsor – not only had Parliament rejected Charles’ suggestion that the castle at Windsor be turned over to him as a venue for peace talks, but Rupert had then failed to take it.
On 12 November, the 13,000-strong Royalist army mustered on Hounslow Heath, 12 miles from London. Although he had agreed to meet a delegation of Parliamentarian commissioners at Colnbrook in Buckinghamshire, the King wanted to strengthen his position by intimidating his opponents and approved Prince Rupert’s proposal to attack an Parliamentarian outpost. Three Royalist regiments were resupplied with ball, powder and match and ordered to attack Brentford. Two regiments of foote under Denzil Holles and Lord Brooke held fortified positions in the town, which was a strategic river crossing. Rupert’s cavalry and dragoons advanced to the outskirts of the village under a thick early morning mist. His initial attack was repulsed by Parliamentarians around the house of Sir Richard Wynne, but Rupert ordered in a regiment of Welshmen to press the attack. They successfully captured the outpost and carried their attack into Brentford, driving Holles’ troops over a bridge into the defences manned by men commanded by Lord Brooke. These in turn were driven out of the town into open fields. The fighting continued into late afternoon until the survivors were able to disengage under the protection of John Hampden’s infantry, which arrived from Uxbridge to cover the withdrawal. Nevertheless, a large number of Holles’s men drowned while trying to escape by swimming across the Thames.
Having captured 15 guns, 11 colours and about 300 prisoners, the victorious Royalists looted Brentford. One of the prisoners was a Captain John Lilburne, the future Leveller leader. He had tried to escape by jumping in the Thames but was taken as a prisoner to Oxford (as the first prominent Roundhead captured in the war, the Royalists wanted to try Lilburne for high treason. But when Parliament threatened to execute Royalist prisoners in reprisal, Lilburne was exchanged for a Royalist officer. He later joined the Eastern Association under the Earl of Manchester)
Parliamentary propaganda played up the ferocity of Rupert’s attack and stressed the King’s duplicity in sanctioning the raid while peace negotiations were in progress. With enthusiastic support from the citizenry, the Earl of Essex brought together all available Parliamentarian forces to block any further Royalist advance. With his army reinforced by the Trained Bands and freshly recruited regiments under the Earl of Warwick, Essex fielded a force of more than 24,000 men to face the King.
The two armies drew up on 13 November to face one another in an open area formed by Turnham Green, Acton Green and Chiswick Common on the western outskirts of London.
Essex sent six regiments under the command of John Hampden to outflank the Royalists by occupying high ground to the north of the Royalist position, but then recalled them. He also withdrew the 3,000 men under Sir James Ramsay at Kingston and sent them to a new position on the Surrey side of London Bridge. While the reasoning behind Essex’s manoeuvres is obscure, the Royalists were in no position to exploit them, being too heavily outnumbered to risk a general assault.
The two armies faced one another all day with a few casualties resulting from exchanges of artillery fire and some skirmishing. As darkness began to fall, Lord Forth withdrew the Royalist army through Brentford to Hounslow Heath, covered by a rearguard commanded by Prince Rupert and Sir Jacob Astley.
Having prevented the Royalists from advancing on London, Essex made no move to pursue them as they withdrew westwards to Reading and then to Oxford, which became the King’s headquarters and Royalist capital for the duration of the war.
Both sides sent their main armies into winter quarters but London would never again be so closely threatened by the King’s forces. While Parliament never let up its nervous defence of the capitol, the stand-off at Turnham Green marks a turning point in the first English Civil War. Had Charles gotten to London first or persisted in his attack, the war could have been over in 1642. His reluctance to attack helped ensure there would be no swift end to the war.