Sir Jacob, Lord Astley, 1579-1652

Veteran Royalist soldier who commanded the King's infantry throughout the English Civil War

Portrait of Sir Jacob AstleyJacob Astley was the eighth child and second surviving son of Isaac Astley of Melton Constable in Norfolk and his wife Mary, daughter of Edward Waldegrave of Lawford in Essex.

Astley began his career as a professional soldier at the age of eighteen, under the second Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh on the Azores expedition of 1597. He served in the Anglo-Dutch brigade under Prince Maurice of Nassau and gained a commission after fighting against the Spanish at the battle of Nieuport in 1600.

Around 1619, Astley married Agnes Impel, a Dutch heiress, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. In 1621, Astley joined the household of the exiled Elector Palatine and his queen Elizabeth of Bohemia and is said to have given military instruction to their son Prince Rupert. Astley was knighted by King James I in 1624. He gained further military experience in Flanders and Germany during the Thirty Years War fighting in the Dutch service, under Christian IV of Denmark (1626-7) and under Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (1629-32).

On the outbreak of the Bishops' Wars in 1639, King Charles I invited Astley to return to England and appointed him Sergeant-Major-General of the army sent to fight the Scots. Astley despaired at the condition of the English army. He commanded the infantry at the battle of Newburn but escaped all blame for the English defeat and for the subsequent capture of Newcastle by the Scots.

In August 1642, Astley joined King Charles at Nottingham. He was dramatically appointed commander of the Royalist infantry when the Earl of Lindsey stepped down on the morning of the battle of Edgehill. Astley continued as commander of the Royalist foot throughout the First Civil War, participating in all the major battles fought by the King's Oxford army. He was one of the most disciplined and stalwart of the Royalist generals, but he was not a strong presence on the King's Council of War and took no part in court politics. In recognition of his services, he was created Baron Astley of Reading in November 1644. At the fateful battle of Naseby in June 1645, Astley's infantry came close to breaking Skippon's Parliamentarians in the centre, but were themselves routed after a decisive flank attack by Cromwell's Ironsides.

Oh Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day.
If I forget thee, do not thou forget me.
March on boys! Sir Jacob Astley's prayer before the battle of Edgehill

After the defeat of Naseby, the King removed the unpopular Charles Gerard from command of Royalist forces in Wales and appointed Astley in his place. Astley organised the chaotic administration of Royalist garrisons in the region and raised a force of 3,000 horse and foot in Worcestershire. This represented the last Royalist field army of the First Civil War. In March 1646, Astley set out from Worcester intending to march his troops to the King's headquarters at Oxford but he was intercepted and defeated at Stow-on-the-Wold by a superior Parliamentarian force and obliged to surrender. Astley was imprisoned in Warwick Castle until the surrender of Oxford in June 1646.

Aged 69 in 1648, Astley played no part in the Second Civil War. He lived quietly in retirement at Maidstone in Kent, but was arrested and briefly imprisoned when Charles II and the Scots invaded England in 1651. He died at Maidstone on 27 February 1652 and was buried in All Saints Church, where an elaborate memorial to his memory was erected.

Astley's two sons Isaac and Bernard also fought for the King during the civil war. Bernard was mortally wounded at the siege of Bristol in 1645.


John Barratt, Cavaliers, the Royalist Army at War 1642-46 (Stroud 2000)

Ian Roy, Jacob, first Baron Astley of Reading, Oxford DNB, 2004