The First Battle of Newbury, 1643
After the success of his relief march to Gloucester, the Earl of Essex was faced with the task of bringing his army home to London. The Royalist high command realised that if Essex's army could be defeated as decisively as Waller's had been at Roundway Down, London would be left defenceless.
Aldbourne Chase, Berkshire, 18 September 1643
On 10 September, Essex marched north from Gloucester along the Severn Valley to Tewkesbury. He ordered the construction of a pontoon bridge over the River Severn in an attempt to convince the Royalists that he intended to march on Worcester. The King's army advanced to Evesham, from where it had a clear march to Worcester and also blocked the northern route back to London through Warwick. On the night of 14 September, however, Essex slipped out of Tewkesbury and made a forced march south, intending to make a dash for London by the southern route through Swindon, Newbury and Reading. When the Parliamentarians arrived in Cirencester during the early hours of 15 September, they took by surprise two Royalist cavalry regiments quartered in the town, and captured forty wagon-loads of provisions and ammunition intended for the King's army.
It was several hours before the King's army was alerted. The Royalists immediately set off in pursuit of Essex, marching on a roughly parallel route and aiming to cut off his retreat at Newbury. Essex's army marched doggedly eastwards through wet and muddy conditions. Although they had a head start on the Royalists, the Parliamentarians' progress was slowed by their heavy artillery train and by the inexperience of the London regiments, who were not used to campaigning. Prince Rupert's cavalry rode ahead of the King's army, cutting down stragglers and intercepting the Parliamentarian rearguard at Aldbourne Chase on the Berkshire Downs on 18 September. The Royalist attack forced Essex to cross to the south side of the River Kennet in order to put the river between the Parliamentarian army and Rupert's cavalry. This manoeuvre slowed the march further and gave the main Royalist army time to occupy Newbury ahead of the Parliamentarians, blocking the London road and forcing a battle that the Earl of Essex had hoped to avoid.
First Battle of Newbury, Berkshire, 20 September 1643
The Royalist army was commanded by King Charles in person, advised by his Lord-General the Earl of Forth, General of Horse Prince Rupert and Sergeant-Major-General of Foot Sir Jacob Astley. The Earl of Essex commanded the Parliamentarians, with Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon as his second-in-command. The two divisions of Parliamentarian horse were commanded by Sir Philip Stapleton and Colonel John Middleton. The exact sizes of the armies are not known for certain; they are thought to have been around 14,000 men each. Both armies had around twenty artillery pieces, including several heavy guns.
The Royalists arrived at Newbury ahead of the Parliamentarians and set up their main camp to the south of the town. Essex advanced as far as Enborne, about two miles west of Newbury. The battlefield was bounded to the north by the River Kennet and to the south by the Enborne brook. The northern and central sectors of the battlefield were intersected by narrow lanes, enclosures and hedgerows, which made deployment difficult and was unsuitable terrain for cavalry. The central sector was dominated by rising ground with the spur of Round Hill as its highest point. To the south, the ground continued to rise towards the broad, open plateau of Wash Common, the only part of the battlefield suitable for conventional cavalry manoeuvres.
The fifteen regular Parliamentarian infantry regiments were deployed in four brigades, commanded from left to right by Lord Robartes, Sergeant-Major-General Philip Skippon, Colonel Harry Barclay and Colonel James Holborne. The five Trained Band regiments of the City Brigade under Sergeant-Major-General Randall Mainwaring formed a reserve behind the centre. The left wing of horse was commanded by Colonel John Middleton, the right wing by Sir Philip Stapleton. As Middleton's division occupied the enclosed ground to the north, he was reinforced with a strong body of musketeers commanded by Major Richard Fortescue of Bulstrode's regiment.
Essex advanced early in the morning of 20 September. The Parliamentarian foot gained an immediate tactical advantage by occupying Round Hill, which the Royalists had failed to secure. Skippon deployed two infantry brigades and two independent infantry regiments then brought up most of the Parliamentarian field artillery to hold this vital ground. Middleton's horse and commanded musketeers went to secure the Parliamentarian northern flank as far as the River Kennet, while Stapleton's division advanced to hold the open ground on Wash Common to the south.
The Royalist army was deployed in five cavalry brigades, commanded by Prince Rupert, Lord Wilmot, Lord Carnarvon, Charles Gerard and Sir John Byron, and four infantry brigades, under John Belasyse, Sir Gilbert Gerard, Sir Nicholas Byron and Sir William Vavasour. Most of the Royalist horse went to Wash Common on the southern flank; Sir John Byron was posted with two of his regiments in the centre. Sir William Vavasour's brigade of foot was deployed to hold the enclosed ground to the north. The Parliamentarians had gained the advantage of the ground; the battle of Newbury revolved around the Royalists' attempts to dislodge them.
In the northern sector, Sir William Vavasour's Welsh Brigade clashed with the Parliamentarian infantry of Lord Robartes' Brigade and Major Fortescue's musketeers attached to Colonel Middleton's cavalry. The Royalist advance threatened to overwhelm the Parliamentarians until Sergeant-Major-General Skippon deployed the Blue Auxiliaries from the reserve to bolster Robartes' position. The fighting in the northern sector became bogged down in a static firefight among the hedges and enclosures with little scope for Middleton's cavalry to operate effectively.
In the centre, the Royalist vanguard comprised two detachments of commanded musketeers led by Lord Wentworth and Colonel George Lisle. Wentworth and Lisle were unable to establish a foothold on Round Hill before Sir Nicholas Byron's infantry brigade came up to reinforce them. Byron's men became engaged in a furious struggle with the central Parliamentarian units of Skippon's brigade. The Royalists were driven back, suffering heavy casualties. When Sir Nicholas called for cavalry support, his nephew Sir John Byron brought up his own and Sir Thomas Aston's regiments of horse. The Royalist troopers had to cut a gap in one of the hedgerows before they could attack the Parliamentarian infantry. Byron's first charge was beaten off, but a second charge by Sir Thomas Aston forced the Parliamentarians to fall back. Byron charged again but withdrew when Skippon brought up the Red and Blue regiments of the London Trained Bands and the Red Auxiliaries from his reserve to stabilise the centre.
Although the intervention of Byron's cavalry allowed the Royalist infantry to gain a foothold on the eastern side of Round Hill, this was not supported by other units and a counter-attack by the Earl of Essex's regiment of foot pushed the Royalists back from the ground they had won.
To the south of Round Hill, Sir Philip Stapleton's cavalry advanced along Bigg's Hill Lane and began to deploy on the open ground of Wash Common. Only one Parliamentarian brigade had time to deploy before Prince Rupert's cavalry attacked. The Parliamentarians stood their ground and waited to receive the charge before firing into the Royalists. The attack was thrown back and Stapleton pursued the Royalists back to their starting point. This gave the other Parliamentarian cavalry brigades time to advance onto the common. Parliamentarian infantry marched up to support the cavalry. A second Royalist attack was beaten back, but then Rupert advanced with at least three brigades and the Parliamentarian horse were driven from Wash Common and back into Bigg's Hill Lane. However, the Royalist cavalry were unable to break the supporting Parliamentarian infantry.
The London Trained Band regiments were redeployed to strengthen the Parliamentarian south flank, where they came under heavy attack. A Royalist battery was formed on Wash Common while Skippon brought up his heavy guns to engage the Royalists in an intense artillery duel, said to have been the fiercest and most sustained of the whole war. The day was saved for the Parliamentarians by the resolution of the Trained Band regiments, who held the southern flank, standing firm against pounding by Royalist artillery and furious cavalry and infantry attacks. The stand by the Trained Bands at Newbury is remarkable because they were militia regiments who had not fought in a full-scale battle before.
By nightfall, both armies were exhausted and neither had gained a clear advantage. The Parliamentarians had held their ground, yet the Royalists still blocked the road to London. Prince Rupert and Sir John Byron were in favour of continuing the battle the next day, but the Royalist army had used up almost its entire supply of gunpowder. King Charles ordered a withdrawal. This came as a surprise to the Parliamentarians, who had also expected the battle to continue. The King was appalled at the carnage: around 3,500 men were killed at Newbury including the senior Royalists, Lord Carnarvon and Lord Sunderland. Most painful of all to the King was the death of Viscount Falkland, his secretary of state, who is said to have ridden deliberately to his death on Round Hill, in despair at the horror of civil war.
Around midday on 21 September, Essex resumed his march to London. Prince Rupert disrupted Essex's withdrawal with an attack on his rearguard at Aldermarston, during which Sir Philip Stapleton is reported to have ridden up to Rupert and fired point-blank in his face. Fortunately for Rupert, the pistol failed to go off. Although Colonel Middleton's rearguard was routed, the stalwart musketeers of the Trained Bands fended off Rupert's attack and Essex's army continued its march to Reading, where it arrived on 22 September. Deciding that the town could not be held, Essex evacuated the garrison on 25 September. The Earl of Essex returned to London ahead of his main army, which arrived home to a jubilant welcome on 28 September 1643.
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S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)
P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)
Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst (1998)
Keith Roberts, First Newbury 1643: the turning point (Osprey 2003)
William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746 (Ware 1997)
First battle of Newbury UK Battlefields Resource Centre
The Falkland Memorial photographs on Geograph site