Civil War in Lincolnshire, 1643
During the first months of the English Civil War, Parliamentarians of the counties of Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire banded together to form the Eastern Association, which was ratified by a parliamentary ordinance on 20 December 1642. The region was predominantly Parliamentarian in sympathy but came under threat when a detachment from the Earl of Newcastle's army in Yorkshire occupied Newark in Nottinghamshire on 18 December. Newark was of major strategic importance for maintaining communications between the Royalist capital of Oxford and Lord Newcastle's forces in the north, and quickly became a centre of operations against Parliamentarians in the Midlands and Lincolnshire. In February 1643, Major-General Thomas Ballard led 6,000 Parliamentarians from the Midlands in an assault on Newark. After driving the defenders from outlying garrisons, Ballard's attack faltered and was decisively repulsed when Sir John Henderson led a sortie from the town, leading to suspicions that Ballard had colluded with the Royalists. Thereafter, Newark was extensively fortified and remained a major Royalist stronghold throughout the First Civil War.
In March 1643, a large force of Royalists from Newark commanded by Sir Charles Cavendish and Sir John Henderson marched into Lincolnshire and captured the town of Grantham in a surprise attack. The Royalists did not garrison Grantham but marched on towards Boston. Parliament's commander in Lincolnshire, Lord Willoughby of Parham, attempted to block the Royalist advance with a force of 1,500 troops, but in a brief engagement at Ancaster Heath on 11 April, the Parliamentarians were easily routed by the larger Royalist force.
Alarmed that Cavendish's manoeuvres might herald a march south by the Earl of Newcastle's northern army, Parliament ordered Lord Willoughby to make another attack on Newark. Willoughby joined forces with Colonel Cromwell of the Eastern Association and Captain Hotham with a contingent from Nottingham at Sleaford on 9 May. They advanced to Grantham on 11 May but remained there for a further two days, which gave Cavendish and Henderson time to prepare a counterstrike. In the early hours of 13 May, Cavendish made a surprise attack on Lord Willoughby's troops quartered at the village of Belton, killing 70 and taking 40 prisoners. Later in the day, the Royalists made a second advance. After an exchange of musket fire, Cromwell, in his first independent action as a cavalry commander, led a charge that drove the Royalists from the field. Despite the Parliamentarian victory, however, the march on Newark was abandoned.
On 20 July 1643, Lord Willoughby captured Gainsborough in Lincolnshire for Parliament, thus disrupting the Earl of Newcastle's communications with Newark and blocking the Royalist advance from Yorkshire that was expected after Newcastle's victory at Adwalton Moor. Parliament's Committee of Safety ordered Sir John Meldrum and Colonel Oliver Cromwell to reinforce Lord Willoughby, whose position at Gainsborough was threatened by a detachment of Royalist cavalry commanded by Sir Charles Cavendish. Meldrum and Cromwell joined forces with a body of local troops from Lincolnshire at North Scarle on 27 July then hurried on to Gainsborough. The combined Parliamentarian force comprised 20 troops of horse and four companies of dragoons.
The Parliamentarians encountered Cavendish's advance guard of dragoons on the morning of 28 July a few miles to the south of Gainsborough. The main body of Royalists was positioned at the top of a steep hill with three regiments of horse in front and Cavendish's regiment in reserve at the rear. A Parliamentarian advance drove back the Royalist dragoons. The Parliamentarians pushed on and succeeded in gaining the high ground, routing the main body of the Royalists in a furious cavalry charge. While most of the Parliamentarians chased the fleeing Royalists, Colonel Cromwell realised that Cavendish had kept his own regiment in reserve and was preparing to counterattack the undefended Parliamentarian rear. Rallying his troopers, Cromwell allowed Cavendish's force to ride past, then turned the tables by leading a charge against the Royalist rear. The Royalists were driven down the hill and routed. Cavendish himself was killed in the mêlée.
Later that day, as Meldrum and Cromwell supervised the reprovisioning of Gainsborough, news came of another Royalist force approaching from the north. The Parliamentarian commanders sallied out with their cavalry and 400 of Willoughby's infantry. Two troops of Royalists were easily driven off, but on reaching the top of a nearby hill, the Parliamentarians were astonished to find themselves facing Newcastle's main northern army, advancing to besiege Gainsborough. Cromwell's troopers fought a disciplined rearguard action to cover the withdrawal of the Parliamentarian infantry. Detachments commanded by Captain Ayscough and Major Whalley were ordered to retire alternately and succeeded in holding Newcastle's whole army at bay as the main Parliamentarian force withdrew to Gainsborough for the loss of only two men.
The Parliamentarians were unable to hold out against Newcastle's army. Lord Willoughby abandoned both Gainsborough and Lincoln and retreated to Boston, but the skirmishing around Gainsborough is an indication of the increasing sophistication of Parliamentarian cavalry tactics, and of the leadership skills of Oliver Cromwell in particular.
The Earl of Newcastle captured Gainsborough and Lincoln in July and August 1643; he then abruptly halted his advance south and marched back into Yorkshire to attack Hull where the Fairfaxes were gaining strength. Around the time that Newcastle departed from Lincolnshire, Parliament appointed the Earl of Manchester commander of the Eastern Association, with orders to prevent any further Royalist advances towards London. Manchester first secured East Anglia by besieging Lynn in Norfolk, where Sir Hamon Lestrange had declared for the King after refusing to pay Parliament's tax assessment. The siege continued until Lestrange surrendered in mid-September. Manchester then marched to Boston where he mustered his forces in preparation for an invasion of Lincolnshire.
The Earl of Newcastle's failure to secure the Lincolnshire side of the Humber estuary allowed Eastern Association officers to cross over to Hull to confer with the Fairfaxes during September 1643. After the capture of Lynn, Sir John Meldrum went with 500 infantrymen from Manchester's army to reinforce the Hull garrison, while Sir Thomas Fairfax crossed into Lincolnshire with 21 troops of horse, that could serve no useful purpose in the besieged town, to join forces with Manchester.
On 9 October, the Eastern Association army and Fairfax's cavalry marched from Boston to besiege Bolingbroke Castle, one of the garrisons left by Lord Newcastle. Sporadic fighting broke out at Bolingbroke on 10 October but before the siege was properly under way, a cavalry skirmish at a Parliamentarian outpost near Horncastle gave warning of the approach of a Royalist relief column. The Royalist force, gathered from garrisons at Newark, Lincoln and Gainsborough, comprised about eighty troops of horse and dragoons under the command of Sir William Widdrington and Sir John Henderson. The Earl of Manchester ordered an advance to meet the enemy, leaving a small detachment to maintain the blockade of Bolingbroke. The Parliamentarian cavalry, under the command of Colonel Cromwell, rode ahead of the infantry and met with the Royalists at the village of Winceby, about three miles west of Bolingbroke. Cromwell's force consisted of around sixty troops of horse and dragoons; this appears smaller than the Royalists, but the Parliamentarian companies were fully manned, so the two forces were probably about equal in numbers.
The Royalists and Parliamentarians drew up on ridges facing one another across a small plain. The Parliamentarian horse were in three divisions commanded by Cromwell with Fairfax's cavalry in reserve in the rear and Colonel Vermuyden's dragoons as a forlorn hope in front. The Royalists drew up in a similar formation — a forlorn hope of dragoons in front, three cavalry divisions commanded by Sir John Henderson and Sir William Savile in the van, and further divisions in reserve. The Parliamentarian infantry were still marching up from Bolingbroke. It seems likely that the Royalists decided to mount an attack before they could be deployed.
The dragoons on both sides advanced, dismounted and opened an exchange of musket fire. Cromwell led his divisions at a trot down onto the plain. As they advanced towards the enemy lines, the Royalist dragoons fired two volleys, the second at point-blank range. A shot from this volley killed Cromwell's horse. Cromwell managed to rise to his feet, only to be knocked down again by Sir Ingram Hopton as the Royalist cavalry joined the mêleé. Hopton may have intended to take Cromwell prisoner, but was himself struck down and killed. Cromwell mounted another horse brought up by a trooper and rejoined the action. The charge by Cromwell's disciplined Ironsides drove back the Royalist horse, causing confusion and disorder as they collided with the reserves. As the Royalists began to break, Sir Thomas Fairfax led the Parliamentarian second line in a devastating flank attack which completed the rout. Pursued relentlessly by the Parliamentarians, almost the entire Royalist force was killed or captured; the survivors were hopelessly scattered. As the battle was ending, the rumble of distant heavy gunfire could be heard, indicating the sortie that drove away the besieging cavaliers at Hull.
The battle of WInceby had lasted no more than half an hour. It was significant as the first military collaboration between Cromwell and Fairfax. Strategically, it led to the collapse of Royalist control of Lincolnshire and ended the threat of a southward march by the Earl of Newcastle's northern army.
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)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
C.V. Wedgwood, The King's War (London 1958)
Battle of Winceby : UK Battlefields Trust