The Worcester Campaign, 1651

While Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth army in Scotland advanced on Perth, Charles II asserted his authority as commander-in-chief of the Scots-Royalist army and ordered an advance into England. Against the advice of David Leslie, the 14,000-strong Scottish army crossed the border into England on 5 August 1651.

Charles' intention was to march through the traditionally Royalist regions of Lancashire and the Welsh border, raising troops on the way, before striking towards London. However, his confident belief that English Royalists and Presbyterians would rise up to support him was misplaced. Memories of the violent plundering that had accompanied the Engager invasion of 1648 were still fresh in peoples' minds and Parliament mounted an effective propaganda campaign to further stimulate anti-Scottish feeling amongst the English. As the advance into England continued, David Leslie became increasingly morose and pessimistic. By the time Charles occupied the loyal city of Worcester on 22 August, the total strength of his army was less than 16,000 troops. A force of Lancashire Royalists raised by the Earl of Derby and Sir Thomas Tyldesley was defeated by Colonel Robert Lilburne at Wigan on 25 August. Tyldesley was killed in the action and the last English Royalist army was routed.

The Worcester Campaign 1651
The Worcester Campaign 1651

Meanwhile, Cromwell set off in pursuit, taking an easterly route back through England in order to block any attempt by the Royalists to advance on London. Major-General Lambert was sent ahead with the cavalry to harass the Royalist rearguard. Cromwell's intention was to gather a massive force to inflict a crushing defeat on the Scots and Royalists. Major-General Harrison, who had been left in overall command of forces in England during the invasion of Scotland, marched from Newcastle to join forces with Lambert near Preston. Major-General Fleetwood mobilised Parliamentarian forces and militia around London then marched to join Cromwell, Lambert and Harrison at Warwick; Major-General Disbrowe brought up a contingent from the south-west. The Parliamentarian army that finally converged on Charles' position at Worcester contained around 28,000 regular troops with an additional 3,000 militiamen who were also mobilised against the Scots. All of Charles' potential routes to London were cut off and Colonel Lilburne's forces blockaded the road back to Scotland.

Hoping to draw in reinforcements from Wales and the south-west, Charles attempted to fortify his position at Worcester. Repairs were made to the existing fortifications, in particular the earthwork known as Fort Royal which stood just outside the city wall to the south-east. Key bridges across the River Severn and its tributary the Teme were partially destroyed to hamper Parliamentarian operations. Charles issued a proclamation summoning all loyal subjects to rally to his standard at Worcester and an attempt was made to mobilise the posse comitatus, requiring all men aged between 16 and 60 to muster on Pitchcroft Green to the north of Worcester on 26 August. However, very few Englishmen or Welshmen responded to Charles' proclamations and the Royalist army remained almost entirely Scottish.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651

With the eastern side of the city heavily defended, Cromwell decided to attack from both sides of the River Severn. On 28 August, Lambert led a party of horse and dragoons to recapture Upton Bridge, ten miles south of Worcester, in a daring attack during which the Royalist General Massie was badly wounded. The following day the bridge was repaired.

Major-General Fleetwood crossed to the west bank of the Severn with 11,000 troops, intending to march to attack Worcester from the south. Cromwell deployed his artillery and the rest of the army on the heights of Red Hill and Perry Wood to the east of Worcester. Contact between the two wings of the Parliamentarian army was to be maintained by two bridges of boats which were to be hauled up from Upton, one across the Teme and the other just above it across the Severn. When Parliamentarian artillery began bombarding Worcester from Perry Wood on 29 August, Lieutenant-General Middleton and Colonel Keith led 1,500 troops in an attack on the battery, but the plan was betrayed and the attack failed.

At dawn on 3 September, Fleetwood began to advance up the west bank of the Severn. Progress was slow because the troops hauled twenty "great boats" for eight miles against the current to make the pontoon bridges. They reached the south bank of the River Teme at its confluence with the Severn in the early afternoon. Fleetwood's force advanced in two columns. Major-General Deane led an attack on Powick Bridge to the west in order to divert attention away from the second column, which was responsible for securing the bridges of boats across the Severn and Teme.

Major-General Montgomery commanded the Scots stationed in the Powick meadows on the north bank of the Teme. He ordered Colonel Keith to hold Powick Bridge against Deane's attempt to force a crossing while Colonel Pitscottie's Highlanders opposed Fleetwood's force. Major-General Dalzeil's brigade was held in reserve on the high ground between Powick and Worcester.

A "forlorn hope" of Parliamentarian musketeers crossed the Teme in boats to cover the construction of the floating bridges. The fighting along the Teme was bitter. Deane could make no headway across Powick Bridge and when Fleetwood's advance guard succeeded in crossing the pontoon over the Teme they were at first driven back by Pitscottie's Highlanders. Observing the difficulties on his left wing, Cromwell personally led three brigades across the pontoon over the Severn to attack Pitscottie's flank. Attacked from the front by Fleetwood and the flank by Cromwell, the Highlanders gave ground. As they fell back, Colonel Keith's troops defending Powick Bridge lost heart and broke. Keith himself was captured as Deane finally crossed the bridge. The Scottish position collapsed as the Parliamentarians gained control of the north bank of the Teme. Major-General Montgomery was badly wounded and Dalziel's reserve fled back towards Worcester pursued by the Parliamentarians.

Battle of Worcester 1651

Cromwell's manoeuvre in crossing the River Severn had weakened the Parliamentarian position on Red Hill and Perry Wood. Charles II, watching the battle from the tower of Worcester Cathedral, rushed down and personally rallied his troops for an attack on the Parliamentarians east of the river. The Royalist attack was two-pronged: Charles himself commanded the thrust against Red Hill while the Duke of Hamilton attacked Perry Wood. The Duke of Buckingham and Lord Grandison supported with cavalry. Leaving Worcester by the Sidbury Gate and St Martin's Gate and covered by the guns of Fort Royal, the attack was initially successful. The Parliamentarian foot gave way all along the line and the entire wing seemed in danger of collapsing. However, the Royalist attack was stemmed when Cromwell came back across the Severn to bolster his wavering troops. The return of Cromwell's brigades turned the tide of the battle and the Royalists were thrown back into Worcester. The Duke of Hamilton was mortally wounded. David Leslie with his cavalry in reserve to the north of the city made no attempt to intervene.

The Essex militia stormed and captured Fort Royal, then turned the Royalist guns to fire on Worcester. The final stage of the battle was a confused running fight through the streets as the Parliamentarians pursued the Scots and Royalists into the city. Despite the gallant attempts of Charles and some of his senior commanders to rally the troops, panic had set in. With all hope of victory gone, the King was finally persuaded to escape. Most of the Scottish and Royalist leaders were killed during the battle or captured soon after. Only the Duke of Buckingham, Lord Wilmot and Charles himself succeeded in escaping to the Continent. Up to 3,000 Scots were killed during the battle and around 10,000 taken prisoner, many of whom were transported as forced labourers to New England or Barbados. The Parliamentarian army is said to have lost only 200 men.

The battle of Worcester was the final crushing defeat of the Royalist cause. The English Civil War ended at the place where it had started nine years previously with Prince Rupert's dashing victory at Powick Bridge in 1642. Charles II escaped from the battlefield and eluded capture for forty-five days until he was able to slip away to France. Oliver Cromwell described Worcester as a "crowning mercy". It was his final battle as an active commander.


Sources:

Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. ii (London 1903)

Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)

Trevor Royle, Civil War: Wars of the Three Kingdoms 1638-60 (London 2004)

William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746 (Ware 1997)

Links:

Battle of Worcester: UK Battlefields Resource Centre

The Battle of Worcester Society

Charles II's escape after Worcester, interactive map: Struan Bates, Google Maps