The Battle of Marston Moor, 1644

When Prince Rupert arrived to raise the siege of York on 1 July, he intended to join forces with the infantry of the York garrison and to strike immediately at the Allied army. In response to the Marquis of Newcastle's elegant letter of welcome and congratulation, Rupert sent a curt military order directing Newcastle and the York garrison to be ready to march against the enemy early next morning. Newcastle took offence at Rupert's brusqueness of manner. His military adviser Lord Eythin already held a grudge against Rupert. This resulted in a lack of co-operation amongst the Royalist commanders which cost Rupert his best chances of defeating the Allies.

The Allied generals Leven, Manchester and Fairfax did not expect Rupert to fight immediately. They feared that he would march southwards through Lincolnshire to join forces with the King's army. In the early hours of 2 July, the Allies began to withdraw from Marston Moor towards Tadcaster in order to cut off the route south. The infantry had already gone when Allied rearguard cavalry patrols clashed with Rupert's advance guard as he began to deploy his forces. Realising that Rupert intended to fight, the Allied generals decided to make a stand on Marston Moor rather than risk pursuit and interception on the march. Urgent orders were sent to recall the infantry.

At 9 o'clock in the morning of 2 July, the Marquis of Newcastle with an entourage of Yorkshire gentlemen joined Rupert on Marston Moor. Newcastle was reluctant to give battle immediately, arguing that Royalist reinforcements were on their way to York and also that he had received intelligence suggesting that the Allies were likely to divide their forces. However, Rupert was convinced that the King's despatch of 14 June was a direct command to fight the enemy at once, which he was duty-bound to obey. To Rupert's annoyance, Lord Eythin was slow to bring up the infantry from York, which allowed the Allied armies time to regroup. By the time Eythin finally arrived with the York garrison at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the Allies were drawn up in battle order and singing psalms.


The Covenanters provided the largest contingent in the Allied army, so Lord Leven was given overall command. The Allies occupied cornfields on the low northern slopes of Marston Hill between the villages of Long Marston and Tockwith. An area of hedged enclosures and rabbit warrens around Tockwith hampered the deployment of cavalry on the Allied left flank, which was commanded by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell. The first two lines consisted of around 3,000 men of the Eastern Association horse, including Cromwell's regiment of Ironsides. They were supported by a third line of around 1,000 Scottish horse, commanded by Major-General David Leslie. The Swedish tactic of interspersing detachments of musketeers between divisions of horse to disrupt attacking cavalry was used by both sides in the battle. A force of 500 Scottish dragoons occupied the extreme left of the Allied position.

The Allied centre comprised around 11,000 foot in four lines supported by a few pieces of field artillery. In the first line, soldiers from the three Allied armies were interspersed, with Major-General Lawrence Crawford commanding the English and Major-General William Baillie commanding the Scots. Four Scottish brigades commanded by Major-General James Lumsden occupied the second line, while Lord Fairfax and the Earl of Manchester commanded their brigades in the third line. A reserve Scottish brigade occupied the fourth line.

The Allied right wing of around 5,000 cavalry and musketeers comprised mainly the horse of Lord Fairfax's Yorkshire army in two lines, the first commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax, the second by Colonel John Lambert. Three Scottish regiments under Lord Eglinton formed a third or reserve line.

A long drainage ditch sparsely fringed with hedges separated the two armies. Prince Rupert deployed an unknown number of musketeers as a "forlorn hope" to harass and disrupt the Allies as they tried to negotiate the ditch.

Battle of Marston Moor map

Facing Cromwell on the Royalist right wing were 2,500 horse interspersed with 500 musketeers under the command of Lord Byron. Heavily outnumbered by the opposing horse, the Royalists were deployed in two lines, with Byron leading the first line and Lord Molyneux leading the second. Sir Samuel Tuke's regiment was posted on the extreme right to guard the flank.

The bulk of the Royalist foot occupied the centre, probably around 10,000 in number. The first line of infantry were the troops that had marched to York with Prince Rupert, which had formed up early in the day under the command of Rupert's Sergeant-Major-General Henry Tillier. The second and third lines were composed of Newcastle's infantry that finally arrived on Marston Moor late in the afternoon.The Royalist centre was further bolstered by cavalry brigades led by Sir William Blakiston and Sir Edward Widdrington. Prince Rupert's Lifeguard of Horse was positioned in reserve to Widdrington's right.

The Royalist left wing of around 2,100 horse and 500 musketeers was under the overall command of Lieutenant-General George Goring. The front line was commanded by Sir Charles Lucas, with Sir Marmaduke Langdale commanding the second line. Colonel Francis Carnaby commanded a regiment on the extreme left to guard the flank.

The battle

The late arrival of Lord Eythin and the troops from York led to acrimonious scenes between the Royalist commanders. Rupert was angry that the delay had thrown away the opportunity to attack while the Allies were still in disarray; Lord Eythin was openly critical of Rupert's battle plan and the deployment of the Royalist army. Supported by Newcastle, Eythin protested that it was too late in the day when Rupert suggested that they should take the initiative and begin operations. Discouraged by the hostility of his colleagues, Rupert decided that there would be no battle until the following day. It is probable that he did not realise that the Allied army was fully formed up because, from his position on Marston Moor, he could only see the front two lines; the third line was hidden in an area of "dead ground" formed by a depression in the terrain at the foot of Marston Hill. As the Royalist troops prepared to settle down for the night, Lord Leven took the opportunity to launch a surprise attack. At about half past seven in the evening, as the sky darkened and a portentous thunderstorm broke over the Moor, the Allied line surged forward.

On the Allied left flank, Cromwell's Ironsides advanced towards the ditch that separated the two armies. Lord Byron is said to have received orders to stand his ground and to rely upon the ditch and the musketeers to disrupt any enemy attack, but he apparently disobeyed orders and mounted a counter-charge, with the result that his cavalry got in the line of fire of the Royalist musketeers and prevented them from disrupting Cromwell's attack. (This widely-accepted version of events has been questioned by Stuart Reid, who suggests that Cromwell had crossed the ditch before encountering Byron's men). Byron's first line collapsed under the impact of the Ironsides' attack, but the second line held firm and a sustained cavalry fight developed. Prince Rupert himself brought up reinforcements to strengthen the Royalist horse and to threaten the Allied flank. Cromwell was wounded and briefly left the field to have his wound dressed. Major-General Leslie brought up the Scottish reserve to support the Ironsides with a flank attack that tipped the balance in favour of the Allies and resulted in the routing of the Royalist cavalry on the right wing. Prince Rupert became separated from his lifeguard and was forced to hide in a beanfield to avoid capture.

On the opposite wing, however, the Royalists were triumphant. Sir Thomas Fairfax's cavalry came under heavy fire from Goring's musketeers as they struggled to cross the ditch, which was a more significant obstacle on the eastern side of the battlefield. When Goring's cavalry charged, Fairfax's front line was routed with heavy losses. Colonel Lambert's second line was apparently diverted to another part of the battlefield and was unable to support Fairfax. Although Lord Eglinton's Scottish reserve resisted for some time, the Allied right wing was finally routed under the impact of a charge from Sir Marmaduke Langdale and the Northern Horse. While some of the Royalist cavalry swept over Marston Hill to plunder the Allied baggage train, Sir Charles Lucas rallied others to wheel right and attack the flank of the Allied infantry. Sir Thomas Fairfax found himself surrounded by the enemy and tore off his field sign to avoid recognition before fighting his way across the battlefield with a few steadfast troopers to join Cromwell on the opposite flank.

The Allied infantry advanced rapidly in the centre to storm the Royalist musketeers lining the ditch, driving them back and capturing some abandoned field guns. As a fire-fight developed in the centre, Lord Eythin ordered the second line of Royalist infantry to advance through the gaps between the front line brigades in a furious counter-attack. The front line of Allied infantry was thrown into disarray by the force of the attack; Lord Fairfax's brigade of foot and several Scots regiments broke and fled. The panic spread to the Scottish brigades in the second line, who also began to break. With the Royalist infantry pressing forward and Goring's cavalry attacking the flank, the Allied centre seemed on the point of collapse. Even the Allied generals thought that the battle was lost. Lord Fairfax and Lord Leven both fled. The Earl of Manchester was also swept away in the rout, but succeeded in rallying about 500 infantry and returning to the field. It was the resolution of two Scottish regiments, the Earl of Lindsay's and Lord Maitland's, that prevented a complete rout in the Allied centre by holding firm against repeated cavalry charges. Meanwhile, Major-General Lumsden regrouped the second line troops that remained on the field. The return of the Earl of Manchester also helped to stabilise the position.

On the Allied left wing, Cromwell and the victorious Ironsides were unaware of the extent of the disaster on the opposite side of the field until they were joined by Sir Thomas Fairfax. With Leslie in support, Cromwell led his cavalry right across the battlefield for a second charge. Goring and Langdale hastily rallied enough troopers to form a battle-line to face him. The positions of the cavalry were now reversed: Cromwell attacked from the position that Goring had held at the start of the battle, while Goring was on the disadvantageous ground formerly occupied by Fairfax. Goring's troops, disorganised and outnumbered, were scattered by a single charge and driven from the field.

With the defeat of both wings of Royalist cavalry, Cromwell joined forces with the Earl of Manchester and the Eastern Association foot to begin systematically overruning the remaining Royalist infantry in the centre. As the battle-line collapsed, Newcastle's regiment of Whitecoats made an heroic stand in a ditched enclosure called White Syke Close. Refusing to surrender, they resisted repeated charges by the Ironsides until no more than 30 were left alive. The last stand of the Whitecoats is one of the most famous episodes of the civil war. It was probably a desperate rearguard action to cover the surviving Royalist infantry as they retreated towards York.

The battle of Marston Moor had lasted two hours. It is reputed to have been the biggest battle ever to be fought in Britain. No less than five armies were involved: Prince Rupert's army and the Marquis of Newcastle's northern army for the Royalists; Lord Leven's Army of the Covenant, the Earl of Manchester's Eastern Association and Lord Fairfax's Yorkshire army for the Parliamentarians. Over 4,000 Royalists were killed and around 1,500 taken prisoner. The Allies lost about 300 killed. All the Royalist ordnance, gunpowder and baggage were captured, along with 100 regimental colours. The city of York surrendered two weeks after the battle, ending Royalist power in the north of England. Prince Rupert rallied the survivors and retreated to Chester where he stoically set about building a new Royalist army. The Marquis of Newcastle, unwilling to "endure the laughter of the Court," abandoned the King's cause and fled to the Netherlands accompanied by Lord Eythin and other senior officers.


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Battle of Marston Moor : UK Battlefields Resource Centre