The battle of Edgehill: 26 October 1642
In early October 1642, the King's army was mustering at Shrewsbury on the Welsh border while the Earl of Essex and the Parliamentarian army were forty miles away at Worcester. Essex expected the King to advance down the Severn valley to give battle so he established advance positions around Bewdley to give warning of any movement from the Royalists. The Royalists knew that a battle was inevitable but preferred that it should take place in open country rather than amongst the fields and enclosures of the Severn valley, which could hamper the deployment of the superior Royalist cavalry. Consequently, the King's council of war advised a direct thrust towards London.
On 10 October, Prince Rupert led a detachment from Shrewsbury towards Stourbridge to give the impression that the Royalists were preparing to advance on Worcester. The Parliamentarian forward troops withdrew before Rupert's advance, convincing Essex that the Royalists were about to move down the valley. Meanwhile, the King marched south-eastwards towards London with the main Royalist army. He had reached Kenilworth in Warwickshire by the time Essex realised his intention and marched from Worcester in pursuit on 19 October.
Neither army had information on the location of the other until rival parties of quartermasters looking for billets encountered one another at Wormleighton in Warwickshire on 22 October. It transpired that the King's army at Edgecote near Banbury was only seven miles from Essex's army at the small market town of Kineton. The Royalist army had interposed itself between the Parliamentarians and London but there was no question of continuing the march with the enemy so close in the rear. Early in the morning of 23 October 1642, the Royalists began to draw up on the high ridge of Edgehill south-east of Kineton to await Essex's approach. Numerically, the two armies were evenly matched with around 14,000 men each, but the Royalists were stronger in cavalry. Essex's army had become strung-out on the march from Worcester. Two regiments under the command of John Hampden, along with most of the Parliamentarian artillery, were still a day's march behind the main force.
The Royalists were confident of an easy victory. Immediately before the battle, however, the Earl of Lindsey resigned as Lieutenant-General following a furious disagreement over the deployment of troops. Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth, was appointed to take his place. Lindsey fought at the head of his own regiment of foot and was mortally wounded during the battle. Initially the Royalists deployed in an unassailable position on the brow of Edgehill, but Essex made no attempt to attack up the steep slopes. Early in the afternoon of 23 October, the Royalists came down from the crest and drew up on the plain known as Red Horse Field below.
The Royalist foot, under the overall direction of Sergeant-Major-General Sir Jacob Astley, was deployed in five brigades in a "chequer" formation, with three brigades in the front line and two in the second to cover the gaps. The front line brigades were commanded by Colonel Charles Gerard, Colonel Richard Fielding and Colonel Henry Wentworth, with Sir John Belasyse and Sir Nicholas Byron in the second line. The argument that prompted the resignation of the Earl of Lindsey was over the formation of the brigades. Lindsey had intended to array them in the conventional Dutch formation while Prince Rupert, seconded by Lord Forth, insisted upon using the more complex Swedish formation in which each brigade was divided into four battalions in a diamond pattern to maximise their effectiveness in attack.
On the Royalist right flank, Prince Rupert led three regiments of horse and was joined by a squadron of the King's lifeguard, who insisted upon joining the attack. Sir John Byron commanded the second line. On the left flank, the front line horse were led by Commissary-General Henry Wilmot, supported by Sir Thomas Aston and Lord Digby in the second line. Sir Arthur Aston's dragoons covered the hedges and bushes on the extreme flanks.
The twelve regiments of Parliamentarian foot drew up in three brigades in the centre. The brigade on the right was commanded by Sir John Meldrum, with Colonel Charles Essex's brigade on the left. The third or reserve brigade formed the second line and was commanded by Sir Thomas Ballard. The Parliamentarian horse was nominally under the command of William Russell, Earl of Bedford but as Bedford had little military experience, the Scottish professionals Sir William Balfour and Sir James Ramsey effectively commanded the cavalry.
On the Parliamentarian left wing, Sir James Ramsay commanded two loosely-organised lines of horse supported by a body of three hundred commanded musketeers and field guns, with dragoons covering the flank. The arrangement of cavalry on the Parliamentarian right flank is not known for certain. As the Parliamentarians were lacking in cavalry, the Earl of Bedford, with three regiments of horse, was probably drawn up level with the second line of infantry rather than the first. Two heavily-armoured cuirassier regiments under Sir William Balfour and Sir Philip Stapleton were also positioned on the right flank as a reserve, possibly behind Meldrum's infantry.
The battle began at about three o'clock in the afternoon with a short and ineffective exchange of artillery fire. Royalist dragoons advanced to clear the hedges and drive back the Parliamentarian musketeers, thus disrupting Sir James Ramsay's carefully planned defensive position on the Parliamentarian left wing. Prince Rupert gave the order for his cavalry to attack. Fire from the Parliamentarian field guns proved ineffective as the Royalist cavalry advanced resolutely towards Ramsay's position. The Parliamentarians were further demoralised by the last-minute defection of Sir Faithfull Fortescue's troop of horse to the Royalists. Ramsay's troopers fired a single volley as Rupert's cavaliers approached, then turned and fled. Ramsay himself is said to have galloped back to London, spreading word of a catastrophic defeat. Colonel Essex's infantry brigade on the left of the front line also fled in the face of the Royalist onslaught, colliding with some of the second line infantry regiments as they did so.
On the other side of the field, Wilmot's cavalry advanced to shatter Parliament's right wing of horse and some of the neighbouring foot. On both wings, the triumphant Royalist cavalry rode off in an uncontrolled pursuit of the fleeing Parliamentarians and were joined against orders by the reserves: Sir John Byron on the right flank, Aston and DIgby on the left. This left the Royalists with no cavalry in the field, while the Parliamentarian reserve cavalry regiments of Balfour and Stapleton remained unscathed.
Meanwhile, the five brigades of Royalist foot under the overall command of Sir Jacob Astley advanced in the centre. Sir Thomas Ballard brought up what was left of the Parliamentarian reserve to close the line and meet the attack, replacing Colonel Essex's routed brigade to stand with Sir John Meldrum. During the ensuing hand-to-hand struggle, the Earl of Essex fought alongside his men with a pike in his hands. The Parliamentarians stood their ground and succeeded in forcing back the Royalists, who withdrew to their original position as a firefight developed in the centre of the battlefield.
With most of the cavalry off the field, Sir William Balfour advanced with one of the reserve Parliamentarian cuirassier regiments against Colonel Richard Fielding's infantry brigade in the centre, exploiting a tactical error that left a flank exposed. Balfour broke through the Royalist line, routed the brigade and captured Fielding along with two of his regimental colonels, Lunsford and Stradling. Although they were not aware of it, a party of Balfour's men came close to capturing the royal princes Charles and James, who were watching the battle from behind the lines. The cuirassiers pursued the fleeing Royalists back to their artillery positions several hundred yards in the rear on the slopes of Edgehill. After slaughtering the gunners and cutting the trace ropes so that the guns could not be hauled away, Balfour withdrew towards the Parliamentarian lines, only to come under fire from his own side, who mistook the returning cavalry for Royalists.
Simultaneously with Balfour's attack, Sir Philip Stapleton led another regiment of cuirassiers against the Royalists in the centre, but with less success. However, as Stapleton's men fell back, Balfour returned to join forces for a second attack. While the Earl of Essex sent infantry units on the Parliamentarian right wing forward for a frontal attack on Sir Nicholas Byron's brigade, Balfour and Stapleton swept around to attack the flank. The Royalist infantry recoiled and wheeled around under the force of the combined onslaught, exposing the King's lifeguard of foot. The royal standard-bearer Sir Edmund Verney was killed and the Banner Royal itself was captured by the Parliamentarians. The Earl of Lindsey was mortally wounded and captured while fighting at the head of his regiment; his son Lord Willoughby d'Eresby killed two Roundhead officers in an attempt to rescue his father but was himself taken prisoner.
At this critical point in the battle, the Royalist horse began to return to the field. Sir Charles Lucas, lieutenant-colonel of Lord Grandison's regiment, succeeded in rallying about 200 of the cavalry that had charged with Wilmot. One of his captains, John Smith, gallantly attacked the party that was making off with the Banner Royal and recaptured it, for which he was knighted. However, by the time Prince Rupert and Wilmot returned to the battlefield to stabilise the Royalist position, their troopers were too tired to engage the enemy. With the light beginning to fade, the exhausted armies drew apart and the battle died away in a half-hearted firefight.
Both armies remained on the battlefield during the night and for most of the following day. Although Parliamentarian infantry reinforcements and a few stray troops of horse arrived at Kineton, the bulk of Essex's cavalry was widely scattered so that an assault on the Royalists was not feasible. There was little enthusiasm to resume the battle in the King's army. The Royalist infantry had been badly battered and the cavalry was in disarray. During the evening of 24 October, the Royalists withdrew to Edgecote. With the King's army still commanding the road to London, the Earl of Essex fell back to Warwick. While neither side had gained a clear victory, Essex's withdrawal allowed the Royalists to continue their advance on the capital.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1958)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
C. Jorgensen, M. Pavkovic, R. Rice, F. Schneid, C. Scott, Fighting Techniques of the Early Modern World 1500-1763 (Staplehurst 2005)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
K. Roberts & J. Tincey, Edgehill 1642 (Osprey 2001)
William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746, (Ware 1997)
Austin Woolrych, Battles of the English Civil War (London 1961)
The Battle of Edgehill website an interactive exploration of the battlefield
Edgehill: UK Battlefields Resource Centre
Edgehill ghost armies an account of the legend on the BBC website