The New Model Army in the West, 1645
Following the disastrous Royalist defeat at the battle of Naseby in June 1645, King Charles and Prince Rupert rallied fugitives from the battle at Leicester and withdrew to the Welsh border. The only Royalist force still capable of challenging the New Model Army was the Western army under Lord Goring, who had ignored orders to rejoin the King before Naseby. Goring's forces were active around Taunton; he remained reluctant to co-operate with Prince Rupert.
Rather than march in pursuit of the King after Naseby, Sir Thomas Fairfax blockaded Leicester, which surrendered on 18 June. There was popular clamour in London for the relief of Taunton, resolutely defended by Colonel Blake, so after the surrender of Leicester, Fairfax marched swiftly into the south-west, taking a southerly route to avoid Royalist garrisons at Bristol, Bath, Devizes and Bridgwater. Fairfax was reinforced en route by General Massie with elements of Parliament's Western Association army. Early in July 1645, Fairfax arrived at Blandford in Dorset. Advancing rapidly to Beaminster on 4 July, he received the unexpected news that Goring had abandoned the siege of Taunton and was marching towards Yeovil.
To avoid becoming cut off from the Royalist strongholds of Bristol and Bridgwater, Lord Goring marched his forces across the front of the advancing New Model Army and deployed them to occupy the line of the River Yeo along a 12-mile front from Yeovil to Langport. On 5 July 1645, General Fairfax concentrated his infantry at Crewkerne and rode forward with his cavalry to reconnoitre the Royalist position. After resting to observe the Sabbath, Fairfax ordered an advance on Yeovil on 7 July. The Royalist detachment guarding the town withdrew without a shot being fired, possibly because Goring had already decided to concentrate his forces at Langport in preparation for a withdrawal to Bridgwater.
As a diversionary move, Goring sent Lieutenant-General George Porter towards Taunton with three cavalry brigades. Fairfax drew off 4,000 troops, including General Massie's cavalry, to cover the Royalists and defend Taunton from possible attack. Fairfax's force was weakened as Goring intended, but the plan miscarried because Porter failed to post sentries; on 8 July, General Massie took the Royalist detachment by surprise while they were relaxing on Isle Moor a few miles west of Langport. The Royalists were quickly routed and 500 taken prisoner.
By 10 July, Goring had taken up a strong position with his main force north-east of Langport to cover the withdrawal of his artillery and baggage to Bridgwater. The Royalists occupied the steep western bank overlooking a ford across Wagg Rhyne, a stream running south through its own valley into the Yeo. Fairfax approached from the east and drew up on the opposite bank of the Wagg. A hedge-lined lane ran down from Goring's position to the ford and back up again to Fairfax's position. Goring stationed his cavalry and placed his two remaining cannon at the top of the lane. With musketeers lining the hedges Goring thought his position was unassailable — but the New Model Army was inspired with crusading zeal and resolution. Realising that an attempt to outflank Goring would give the Royalists time to escape to Bridgwater, Fairfax decided on a direct frontal assault.
Parliamentarian artillery was deployed to launch an overwhelming bombardment that quickly silenced the Royalist guns covering the ford. Picked bands of musketeers led by Colonel Rainsborough fought their way along the hedges to dislodge the Royalists. Major Bethel led a valiant charge across the ford and up the opposite slope to strike deep into the heart of the Royalist position, resisting a countercharge by Goring's cavaliers. Major Disbrowe supported Bethel with the cavalry reserve and the New Model infantry came up to join them. Major Harrison broke into a rapturous psalm of praise as the Royalist position collapsed. In a last desperate attempt to stem Fairfax's advance, Goring set fire to Langport. Cromwell led his Ironsides though the blazing village to ride down the fleeing Royalists. Lord Goring, his army shattered, fled westwards into Devon. Many fugitives from the battle were hunted down and killed by Somerset Clubmen in revenge for the depredations inflicted during the Royalist occupation.
After Goring's defeat at Langport, the next major objective for the New Model Army was to recapture the port of Bristol, held by the Royalists since July 1643. Before advancing on Bristol, however, General Fairfax set about reducing Royalist strongholds in Somerset and Dorset. He was also obliged to deal with local Clubmen, who were growing increasingly militant in their protests against the war. At a meeting with leaders of the Somerset Clubmen at Middlezoy on 11 July 1645, Fairfax gave an undertaking that the New Model Army would pay for all supplies and would not harass the local population, on condition that they did not assist the Royalists.
On 13 July 1645, the New Model Army besieged Bridgwater which was defended by Sir Hugh Wyndham. The eastern part of the town was stormed on 20 July; Wyndham retreated across the River Parrett and held out for another three days on the western side, finally surrendering on 23 July after enduring a heavy bombardment. The capture of Bridgwater effectively cut off communication between Bristol and the western Royalists. A detachment led by Colonel Okey captured Bath in a surprise dawn attack on 31 July.
Fairfax consolidated his control of the region by next marching on Sherborne Castle, where a large Royalist garrison was commanded by Sir Lewis Dyve. The siege of Sherborne began early in August 1645. Dyve surrendered on 17 August after the castle walls were shattered by heavy bombardment and mining.
The Clubmen of Dorset proved less conciliatory than their counterparts in Somerset. During the siege of Sherborne, Fairfax ordered the arrest of Clubman leaders meeting at Shaftesbury. On 4 August, Cromwell led a cavalry detachment to Hambledon Hill where several thousand Clubmen had gathered. The soldiers killed a few and scattered the rest; 500 were rounded up and held overnight in a local church before being lectured by Cromwell then sent back to their farms and villages.
On 18 August 1645, the day after the surrender of Sherborne Castle, Sir Thomas Fairfax marched for Bristol, arriving before the city three days later. Prince Rupert, who had conducted the first siege and captured the city in July 1643, now returned to defend it. Rupert faced similar difficulties to those encountered by Colonel Fiennes in 1643, having insufficient troops to defend Bristol's five miles of walls and fortifications. The Royalist garrison was strong in cavalry and artillery but the infantrymen were mostly raw Welsh recruits. Plague had broken out in the city and most of the leading citizens had fled. There was little enthusiasm for a siege amongst the civilians who remained; a plot to surrender the city by treachery was discovered. Nevertheless, Rupert believed that he had enough stores, guns and ammunition to withstand a long siege and wrote to the King assuring him that he could hold Bristol for several months.
With artillery carefully placed to defend the walls, Rupert's cavalry raided and harassed the Parliamentarians as they set up the siege. Colonel Okey was taken prisoner during one raid; Sir Richard Crane, the veteran commander of Rupert's Lifeguard, was killed during another. The Parliamentarians proceeded to encircle the city while a naval squadron in the Bristol Channel blockaded the Royalists by sea. However, Fairfax was not confident that his army was strong enough to conduct a full siege of a major fortress; he was also concerned that Lord Goring or the King might send a relief force.
On 4 September, Fairfax called upon Prince Rupert to surrender the city for the good of the whole kingdom. Rupert entered into protracted negotiations, playing for time and hoping to hear from the King. On 9 September, Fairfax broke off negotiations and prepared a general assault. In the early hours of 10 September, Parliamentarian siege guns opened fire on the defences at five different points, while infantry prepared to storm the breaches. The well-placed Royalist guns made the assault dangerous and bloody, but the New Model Army was inspired with the same zeal and resolution that had carried the day at Langport. Within an hour, the outer walls were breached and the infantry attacked, breaking through the defences at several points. After a further two hours ferocious fighting, Prior's Hill Fort was taken by Colonel Rainsborough and its defenders massacred. Rupert abandoned the outer walls and fell back towards the strongpoint of Bristol Castle, but as the Royalists withdrew, Cromwell's cavalry charged in. Rupert realised that his position was hopeless. His forces were divided, with some of his best troops isolated at various points along the walls. The well in the castle had been damaged so he had no water supply. Hoping to save at least a part of his army, Rupert called for a treaty.
Fairfax granted honourable terms. All the Royalist troops were allowed to march out of Bristol with colours flying. Their artillery, stores and ammunition were left behind. The surrender of Bristol enraged King Charles. Encouraged by Lord Digby into believing that Rupert had betrayed him, Charles abruptly dismissed Rupert and his officers from his service.
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