The Second Battle of Newbury, 1644
After the surrender of the Earl of Essex's army at Lostwithiel in September 1644, the Committee for Both Kingdoms feared that the King would advance from the west towards London before Essex's forces could be re-organised. Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester, whose Eastern Association army had been inactive since the Parliamentarian victory at Marston Moor in July, was ordered south from Lincolnshire to guard the approaches to London while Sir William Waller was sent westwards to impede the expected Royalist advance. However, Manchester made only slow progress southwards. He had become reluctant to continue the war and there was open enmity between his senior officers Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell and Major-General Lawrence Crawford. By early October 1644, Manchester had occupied Reading, while Waller had reinforced the garrisons at Weymouth, Poole and Lyme and occupied Shaftesbury in Dorset. The survivors of the Earl of Essex's infantry mustered at Portsmouth.
Apparently unaware of the disordered state of the Parliamentarian armies, King Charles did not take the opportunity to advance swiftly towards London. From Lostwithiel, he marched to Plymouth which he summoned on 11 September. When the summons was refused, the King left Sir Richard Grenville with a small force to blockade Plymouth and went with the main Royalist army to Exeter. By the end of September, the King had advanced to Sherborne in Dorset where he was joined by Prince Rupert and learned for the first time the full extent of the disaster of Marston Moor. While Rupert returned to Bristol to organise reinforcements, the King marched eastwards. With the campaigning season drawing to a close, his objective was to relieve the besieged Royalist garrisons of Banbury, Donnington Castle and Basing House before retiring his army into winter quarters.
The first siege of Basing House had been abandoned by Sir William Waller in November 1643. There were no further attacks during the winter of 1643, but during the spring of 1644, the Marquis of Winchester's younger brother Lord Edward Paulet became involved in a plot to surrender Basing to the Parliamentarians. The plot was revealed by Sir Richard Grenville when he defected to the Royalists in March 1644. As punishment, Lord Paulet was made to act as hangman in the execution of his co-conspirators before being banished from Basing.
Early in June 1644, the Basing garrison was seriously weakened following the failure of a raid against a Parliamentarian outpost at Warnborough Mill near Odiham. A Royalist soldier betrayed the plan and the raiding party was ambushed and routed by Colonel Norton's cavalry, with nearly 100 men killed or captured. This left the Marquis of Winchester and Sir Marmaduke Rawdon with only 250 men to defend Basing. A force was quickly assembled from the Southern Association counties to take advantage of the weakened state of the garrison. Colonel Norton commanded the Hampshire contingent and was joined by Colonel Onslow with forces from Surrey, Colonel Morley from Sussex and Colonel Jones with garrison troops from Farnham Castle. The combined Parliamentarian force of around 3,000 men was systematically deployed to blockade Basing.
With Basing surrounded and cut off, the Parliamentarians began constructing siege works. When they were firmly entrenched, mortars and siege guns were sent down from London. The bombardment began on 29 June and continued at intervals throughout July and August. Colonel Norton was reluctant to risk a direct assault and hoped to starve out the Royalists but the Marquis of Winchester rejected all calls to surrender. He narrowly escaped death or serious injury himself when a cannon ball smashed into his bedchamber. Despite dwindling supplies and an outbreak of smallpox, Rawdon's garrison kept up a spirited resistance, mounting several raids against the besiegers and regular foraging expeditions.
By early September 1644, however, supplies in Basing were running dangerously low. Under the relentless bombardment and with Roundhead entrenchments drawing closer the walls, the Marquis appealed to Oxford for help. The King's army was campaigning in the west and few troops could be spared, but Colonel Henry Gage raised a force of 400 musketeers and 250 horse and set out for the relief of Basing on 9 September with supplies of ammunition and gunpowder. Colonel Norton became aware of Gage's approach after a skirmish with a Parliamentarian patrol at Aldermaston, but the Royalists succeeded in driving the besiegers back and forcing their way through to Basing House on 11 September. The following day, Gage's troops drove the Parliamentarians out of Basingstoke and commandeered livestock and supplies of wheat, malt and cheese. With Basing House fully reprovisioned, Gage's cavaliers slipped out under cover of darkness and fog. They succeeded in evading Parliamentarian patrols and got back to Oxford on 14 September. Gage was later knighted for his gallant exploit.
Colonel Norton resumed the siege of Basing for a further two months, but the fresh supplies boosted the morale and resolution of the defenders.
Donnington Castle near Newbury in Berkshire was of vital strategic importance because it commanded roads from London to the west and from Portsmouth to Oxford and the north. Shortly after the first battle of Newbury in September 1643, Donnington was garrisoned by Royalist troops under Colonel John Boys who strengthened its defences by building an extensive system of earthworks around the castle.
In late July 1644, a Parliamentarian force of around 3,500 horse and dragoons commanded by Lieutenant-General Middleton approached Donnington. Colonel Boys rejected Middleton's summons to surrender on 31 July. Lacking siege artillery, Middleton attempted to scale the castle walls but his troops were driven back with losses of 300 men. Shortly afterwards, Middleton was ordered to reinforce the Earl of Essex and so marched away to the west.
The siege of Donnington was resumed on 29 September 1644 by Colonel Jeremy Horton, governor of Abingdon, with a larger force and a battery of siege guns. Horton subjected the castle to a 12-day bombardment which shattered three towers and destroyed part of the walls, yet Boys refused to surrender even when the Earl of Manchester arrived in the region with the Eastern Association army in October 1644.
Around the middle of October 1644, the King's army marched from the West Country towards Oxford and the beleaguered garrisons Banbury, Basing House and Donnington. As the Royalists advanced, Sir William Waller abandoned Shaftesbury and withdrew to Andover in Hampshire. On 18 October, Lieutenant-General George Goring led the King's vanguard in a surprise attack that drove Waller's forces from Andover. Meanwhile, the Earl of Manchester with the Eastern Association army had advanced from Reading to occupy Basingstoke, where Waller arrived on 19 October. Elements of the Earl of Essex's infantry that had survived the march from Cornwall were re-armed at Portsmouth and joined Manchester and Waller at Basingstoke on 20 October. Essex's cavalry that had broken out of Lostwithiel also rendezvoused at Basingstoke, though Essex himself fell ill and retired to Reading, taking no part in the subsequent battle.
By 22 October, the King's army had advanced to Kingsclere, five miles south of Newbury. The Parliamentarians abandoned the siege of Donnington Castle but rather than march to the immediate relief of Basing House, the Royalists took up strong defensive positions north of Newbury. The Earl of Northampton was sent with three regiments of horse to relieve the siege of Banbury Castle, fifty miles to the north, leaving around 9,000 troops to hold the Newbury position. The King intended to entrench his forces until Northampton returned, then march to relieve Basing. Meanwhile, the Earl of Manchester, having gathered all available Parliamentarian forces, arrived at Thatcham, three miles east of Newbury on 26 October. The combined Parliamentarian army was almost 17,500 strong, significantly outnumbering the Royalists, but the Parliamentarian commanders were arguing with one another and the morale of the troops was low.
The Royalist army was deployed in a strong defensive position between Newbury and Donnington Castle. Most of the horse and artillery occupied an area of open fields known as Speenhamland between the rivers Lambourne and Kennet, with strong detachments of foot and dragoons guarding the position. The south flank was further protected by the Kennet and the town of Newbury, where a garrison was stationed; the north flank was protected by the River Lambourne and covered by the guns of Donnington Castle. On the open west side of the position, Prince Maurice's Cornish regiments and the Duke of York's regiment of foot occupied the village of Speen, where they began to build earthworks. To the east, Colonel Lisle's brigade was stationed at Shaw House, a fortified mansion surrounded on three sides by ancient earthwork embankments that were incorporated into the Royalist defence. With the bridges at Donnington and Shaw covered, the King's generals sent detachments to Bagnor and Boxford, the next crossing points over the Lambourne above Donnington.
The Royalists were unable to hold the high ground of Clay Hill which overlooked Shaw House from the east. An attempt by the Parliamentarian advance guard to seize the hill was driven off on 25 October but the Royalists abandoned it next day and a Parliamentarian gun battery was set up there.
Despite the capture of Clay Hill, the Parliamentarians were reluctant to mount a direct frontal assault on the strong Royalist position and decided to attempt a pincer movement, with simultaneous attacks from the east and west. To accomplish this, Sir William Waller led his troops in a 10-mile flanking march around the north of Donnington to approach the Royalist position from the west, leaving the Earl of Manchester to attack from the east. Waller marched on the night of 26 October. He took most of the Parliamentarian army: Essex's old horse and foot regiments, his own and Cromwell's cavalry and a brigade of London Trained Bands. The Earl of Manchester remained at Clay Hill with the Eastern Association infantry and a small body of horse, awaiting the signal-gun to be fired when Waller was in position.
At dawn on 27 October, while Waller was still on the march, the Earl of Manchester launched a feint attack on Shaw House to distract the Royalists from the flanking manoeuvre. Sir Bernard Astley led 400 Royalist musketeers in a swift counter-attack that threw back the Parliamentarians and pinned them down in a firefight, from which they withdrew with difficulty after several hours.
Waller made slow progress on his night march. His troops drove the Royalists out of Boxford and crossed the Lambourne, then swung south-eastwards, finally approaching Prince Maurice's entrenchments at Speen at around 2 o'clock in the afternoon of 27 October. The Parliamentarians deployed on rising ground to the west of Speen, with Major-General Philip Skippon's infantry in the centre, Sir William Balfour's cavalry on the right wing and Oliver Cromwell's cavalry on the left. Under heavy fire from the Royalist entrenchments and the guns of Donnington Castle, 800 musketeers drawn from Essex's regiment of foot stormed the outer fortifications and succeeded in overrunning them. Six of the nine guns defending the Royalist position had been seized at Lostwithiel and were jubilantly recaptured by the same troops who had lost them. The Royalists fell back to the village of Speen, which fell to the Parliamentarians after an hour's bitter fighting.
At this critical point, Waller sent his cavalry forward intending to overwhelm the Royalists. In the north, Cromwell's Ironsides advanced along the shallow valley between Speen and the River Lambourne. They were charged by Lieutenant-General Goring and thrown back in confusion. The Earl of Cleveland followed up with a second charge. Although Cleveland was taken prisoner, Cromwell was effectively knocked out of the battle. In the south, Sir William Balfour made better progress and initially drove back Sir Humphrey Bennet's cavalry. King Charles himself, at the head of the reserve, found himself in danger of being surrounded by Roundhead troopers until a gallant counter-attack by the King's lifeguard halted Balfour's advance. Bennet rallied his cavalry and rejoined the fight to drive Balfour back. The Royalist reserve succeeded in containing the Parliamentarian advance in the centre, and Waller's attack ground to a halt.
Although the Parliamentarians had planned that the Earl of Manchester should attack Shaw House simultaneously with Waller's attack at Speen, it was not until 4 o'clock that Manchester made his second attack of the day. Darkness was beginning to fall. The defenders of Shaw House were commanded by Colonel George Lisle, who is said to have thrown off his armour and buff coat so that the white glimmer of his shirt could be seen by his men in the gathering gloom. The Royalists defended Shaw House resolutely. Despite their superior numbers, the Parliamentarians were reluctant to press home their attack in darkness and the fighting subsided as night fell.
The battle had been fought to a draw but the Royalists were now confined between two Parliamentarian armies. The commanders regarded the position as untenable. During the night, King Charles slipped away with his lifeguard. Prince Maurice and Sir Jacob Astley successfully supervised the evacuation of the Royalist army first to Wallingford and then to Oxford, leaving the wounded, artillery and baggage in the stronghold of Donnington Castle. Waller and Cromwell made a half-hearted attempt at pursuit that was soon abandoned.
King Charles made his way to Bath, where Prince Rupert had gathered a force of 3,000 horse and foot. They returned to join forces with the Oxford army. After the return of the Earl of Northampton from Banbury and the arrival of contingents brought in by Sir Marmaduke Langdale from the north and Charles Gerard from Wales, the King mustered 15,000 troops at Oxford on 6 November. At the same time, Rupert was appointed Lieutenant-General of all the Royalist armies in place of the aged Earl of Brentford. On 9 November, the King's army returned to retrieve the artillery left in Donnington Castle. The Royalists drew up around Newbury offering battle. Waller, Cromwell and Heselrige were in favour of another battle but the Earl of Manchester and his supporters were reluctant to risk an outright defeat. The Royalists marched away with the guns, their drums beating and colours flying. The Parliamentarian army retired into winter quarters, abandoning the sieges of Donnington and Basing House.
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Basing House Project blog
Plan of Donnington Castle (1783)
Donnington Castle and John Boys www.earlrivers.org.uk
Basing House Siege Diary June-November 1644 www.marquisofwinchesters.co.uk