The Siege of Reading & Chalgrove Field, 1643
After the Edgehill campaign and the stand-off at Turnham Green, Parliament's commander-in-chief the Earl of Essex remained inactive in London for several months while peace negotiations with the King proceeded. As hopes of a treaty faded, the Committee of Safety planned an attack on the Royalist capital Oxford. In April 1643, Essex finally took the field with the main Parliamentarian army. Marching from Windsor on 13 April, he advanced towards the Royalist stronghold of Reading which commanded the passage of the River Thames halfway between London and Oxford.
The Siege of Reading, Berkshire, 14-27 April 1643
Reading had been occupied by the Royalists the previous winter as the King's army withdrew from London towards Oxford. The garrison of 2,000 soldiers was commanded by Sir Arthur Aston. The town walls were strengthened during the winter with stone obtained from Reading Abbey and the town's defences were further reinforced by a system of ditches, earthworks and forts.
On 14 April, Essex appeared before Reading at the head of an army of 16,000 foot, 3,000 horse and train of artillery. When he demanded Reading's surrender, Aston defiantly declared that he would die or starve rather than lay down his arms. Parliamentarian troops swept around the southern outskirts of the town and seized Caversham Bridge to guard against the possibility of reinforcements arriving from Oxford. Gun batteries were set up and Essex established his headquarters at the old moated manor house of Sir John Blagrave at Southcote. On the morning of Sunday 16 April, the Parliamentarian guns opened fire on the town.
The defenders were reinforced by 600 musketeers and a supply of ammunition which arrived by boat from Sonning. King Charles sent urgent orders recalling Prince Rupert from the siege of Lichfield in the Midlands to ride to the relief of Reading. On 19 April, Sir Arthur Aston was struck on the head by a falling brick. The wound apparently rendered him unable to speak, so his deputy, Colonel Richard Fielding, took command.
On 25 April, Fielding called a truce and began negotiations for surrender. That same day, a Royalist relief force led by the King and Prince Rupert arrived from Oxford and attacked Caversham Bridge. Fielding refused to break the truce by sending out troops from the town to help, and the relief force was driven back. Terms for surrender were agreed on 26 April. The following day, the Royalist garrison marched away to Oxford and Essex's soldiers occupied Reading, which they plundered for two days before order was restored. Upon his arrival at Oxford, Colonel Fielding was court-martialled for surrendering the town and sentenced to death, but he was reprieved at the last minute by the intercession of the Prince of Wales at the prompting of Prince Rupert.
The fall of Reading was a serious reverse for the Royalist cause. Oxford came under threat from the Earl of Essex, who was approaching from the east, and Sir William Waller's army which was active in the west around Gloucester. Fortunately for the King, however, Essex and Waller did not take the opportunity to make a co-ordinated attack on Oxford. After Sir Ralph Hopton's victory at Stratton in Cornwall, Waller was preoccupied with keeping Hopton from advancing further east, while Essex made only slow progress towards Oxford. By mid-June 1643, Essex was bogged down at Thame with sickness rife in his army and no money to pay his discontented troops.
Acting on information received from the Scottish mercenary Colonel Hurry who defected from Essex's army to join the Royalists, Prince Rupert rode with 1,800 picked men on a raid to harass Essex's garrisons and disrupt his attempts to blockade Oxford. Hurry also reported the approach of a convoy from London carrying £21,000 to pay Essex's troops, which Rupert hoped to capture. Rupert's force left Oxford on the afternoon of 17 June. Early next morning, the Royalists stormed Roundhead garrisons at Postcombe and Chinnor, killing about 50 men and leaving both villages in flames. Rupert hurried on hoping to surprise the convoy, but its escort was warned of his approach and the wagons were hidden in woodland. Unable to find his quarry, Rupert withdrew in good order towards Oxford. He was pursued by troops led by Sir Philip Stapleton and John Hampden.
Rupert halted at Chalgrove, ten miles south-east of Oxford. Sending Colonel Lunsford ahead to secure Chislehampton Bridge, Rupert set an ambush for his pursuers. Leading a characteristically daring charge by leaping his horse over a hedge to get at the enemy, Rupert quickly routed the Parliamentarians. During the short, fierce skirmish, John Hampden was mortally wounded. He died at Thame six days later. Although Chalgrove was a relatively insignificant skirmish, Hampden's death was a major setback to the Parliamentarian cause.
A week after the Chalgrove raid, Colonel Hurry led another raiding party out of Oxford which swept around the rear of Essex's army and plundered Wycombe. This raid caused alarm in London and led to sharp criticism of the Earl of Essex in Parliament. Essex offered his resignation, but Parliament refused to accept it.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London1958)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)
P. Young and W. Emberton, Sieges of the Great Civil War (London 1978)
Chalgrove UK Battlefields Resource Centre