The Nantwich Campaign, 1643-4
In December 1643, on the recommendation of Prince Rupert, Lord Byron was commissioned field-marshal of Royalist forces in Cheshire, Lancashire and north Wales. Lord Capel, the King's ineffectual lieutenant-general in the region, was recalled to Oxford. Although the Marquis of Ormond was appointed lieutenant-general in Capel's place, Ormond was instructed to remain in Ireland and to delegate military command in north Wales and the Marches to Byron, who arrived at Chester on 6 December 1643 with reinforcements of 1,000 horse and 300 foot drawn from the Oxford army. Byron joined forces with Sir Michael Erneley's regiments that had already arrived from Ireland. Byron marched from Chester against the Cheshire Parliamentarians on 12 December with an army of 5,000 men, most of whom were hardened veterans of the Irish service. He planned to isolate Nantwich, the headquarters of the Cheshire Parliamentarians, before advancing to capture it.
For several weeks, Byron conducted a ruthless campaign against the Cheshire Parliamentarians. On 13 December, Captain Thomas Sandford led a daring raid on Beeston Castle, situated on a rocky hilltop and commanding the crossing through the Peckforton hills. Beeston was considered to be an impregnable stronghold but in a commando-style operation, Sandford and a small company of Firelocks scaled the rock face then climbed the castle wall. When Sandford's men appeared inside the castle, the garrison believed they had been outwitted by a larger force and promptly surrendered. The Parliamentarian commander Captain Steele was subsequently executed at Nantwich for cowardice.
The fall of Beeston Castle opened up southern Cheshire to Byron's forces, and outlying Parliamentarian garrisons were quickly overrun. On Christmas Eve, when a group of Royalists commanded by Major Connought plundered the village of Barthomley, twenty villagers took refuge in the tower of St Bertoline's Church. The Royalists made a fire at the base of the tower to smoke them out, which forced them to surrender. Connought's men then stripped and killed twelve of the villagers in cold blood and wounded most of the others. Lord Byron boasted of the massacre in a report to the Marquis of Newcastle, earning himself the nickname of the "Bloody Braggadoccio" when the letter was intercepted.
Sir William Brereton, the Parliamentarian commander in Cheshire, mustered a force of Parliamentarians from Lancashire and Cheshire at Middlewich. Before he could move against the Royalists, however, Byron launched a surprise attack around 27 December. The Parliamentarians were routed with 500 men killed or captured. With his forces in disarray, Brereton retreated to Manchester and sent an urgent message to Parliament requesting help before the whole of Cheshire was lost. In response, Parliament's Committee of Safety ordered Sir Thomas Fairfax to march to Brereton's assistance. Since September 1643, Fairfax had been attached to the Eastern Association army in Lincolnshire. Early in January 1644, he marched with 1,800 men across the Pennines in harsh winter weather to join forces with the Cheshire and Lancashire Parliamentarians at Manchester.
Having cleared most of Cheshire of the King's enemies, Lord Byron advanced towards Nantwich, the last Roundhead stronghold in the county. Nantwich had been a Parliamentarian garrison since January 1643. The River Weaver formed a natural defence at the western approach; the town was further fortified with a circuit of earthworks, ditches and barricades. The garrison of nearly 2,000 men was well-supplied. Its commanders Sir George Booth and Colonel Croxton had made preparations for a possible siege while Byron was campaigning in Cheshire.
Byron set up his headquarters at the nearby village of Acton and summoned Nantwich to surrender on 10 January 1644. The following day, after the summons was rejected, Royalist artillery opened fire on the town. The bombardment continued for several days with frequent skirmishing between the besiegers and troops from the garrison. On 18 January, after Byron's second summons had been refused, the Royalists attempted to take the town by storm. The defences were attacked at five points simultaneously but the assault was fiercely resisted and the Royalists were driven back with heavy losses of around 500 killed and wounded. Among the dead was Captain Sandford, who had captured Beeston Castle. Byron's army was declining in strength. Of the 5,000 that had marched from Chester, less than 3,500 were left after the fighting in Cheshire and at Nantwich itself. Sickness, desertion and the bitter weather had also taken their toll.
On 21 January, Sir Thomas Fairfax, having crossed the Pennines to reinforce Sir William Brereton, marched from Manchester with a combined force of around 3,000 foot and 1,800 horse from Lancashire, Cheshire and Yorkshire. On 24 January, Fairfax swept aside a force of 200 Royalists attempting to block his advance as he passed through the forest of Delamere. Fairfax's intention was to reinforce the garrison at Nantwich rather than engage Byron's army in battle. He thought that the Royalist force was larger than it actually was, and that the veterans of the Irish service were likely to be better soldiers than his local levies.
As the Parliamentarians approached Nantwich, there was a change in the weather as a thaw set in and heavy rain began to fall. On the morning of 25 January, the River Weaver became so swollen that Lord Byron transferred his artillery and most of his infantry to the western bank where the ground was slightly higher. While Byron and most of his cavalry were still on the eastern side, the flood swept away Beam Bridge to the north of Nantwich and split the Royalist army in two. Byron was forced to march to the next bridge over the Weaver at Minshull to try to reunite his forces. In Byron's absence, the Royalist troops on the western side of the river were commanded by Colonel Gibson who drew up his forces around Acton church, deploying four regiments to block the road from the north along which Fairfax was marching, and another to cover the approach into Nantwich itself.
The Parliamentarians approached Gibson's position at around 2 o'clock in the afternoon. At the same time, news reached Fairfax that Byron's cavalry was approaching the rear of the Parliamentarian column, having worked its way round from Minshull. Fairfax calmly detailed two regiments to hold the Royalist cavalry at bay and continued his advance towards Acton, turning his troops from the line of march so that the rearguard and vanguard became the wings of his battle formation. Fairfax planned to defeat the Royalist infantry at Acton before the cavalry arrived to reinforce them. Unable to operate effectively among the small fields, hedgerows and lanes that made up the local terrain, Byron's cavalry were held back while Fairfax attacked the infantry. Despite the lack of cavalry support, the regiments on the Royalist wings held firm against the Parliamentarian attack, inflicting heavy casualties. In the centre, however, the Royalists gave ground. Colonel Monck succeeded in rallying them but the centre began to give way again when the Parliamentarians charged a second time. At this critical point, a force of musketeers from the Nantwich garrison marched out and swept aside the Royalist reserve regiment guarding the road into the town. With the added pressure of reinforcements from the garrison threatening the rear, the Royalist centre collapsed completely. Fairfax's Parliamentarians swept through the gap in the centre of the Royalist line and quickly overwhelmed the stalwart regiments holding out on the flanks.
The Royalists fell back to Acton church where Colonel Gibson surrendered to Fairfax under terms. The artillery and baggage train were captured and about 1,500 officers and men taken prisoner, many of whom changed sides. Lord Byron retreated to Chester with his cavalry and surviving infantry. Although he had enough forces for the defence of the city, and had established a Royalist garrison at Beeston Castle, there was no question of another Royalist offensive in the region for some time. Sir Thomas Fairfax's victory at Nantwich had effectively neutralised the first wave of Royalist reinforcements from Ireland.
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