The First English Civil War lasted from 1642 to 1646 and was the first of a trio of conflicts that lasted until 1651. It pitted the Royalist army of King Charles I against the Parliamentarian army led by Oliver Cromwell. They fought for three years, but neither side had gained a significant advantage. The first major battle, at Edgehill in October 1642, was a tactical stalemate. Although Charles marched on London after the battle, his forces were not strong enough to take the city.
The tide began to turn against the Royalists in 1643, and they suffered a significant loss at the First Battle of Newbury in September. Newbury was crucial as it marked the high point of the Royalist advance and led to the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant which added the strength of the Scottish Covenanters to the Parliamentary forces.
The Battle of Marston Moor, in June 1644, was another decisive Parliamentary victory. It caused the Royalists to effectively abandon the North of England, but the war was far from over. The Parliamentary army tried to end the war at the Second Battle of Newbury in October, but the Royalists fought them to a stalemate. It was clear that the Royalists were not going down without one almighty fight.
Closing in on Victory
Cromwell was unhappy at the army’s poor performance at Newbury, and Parliament reformed its forces into the New Model Army. Unlike other armies in the Civil War, which were tied to one area or garrison, the New Model Army was designed to operate anywhere in the United Kingdom. The soldiers became full-time professionals who gave the army a distinct advantage over other forces at the time which were mainly comprised of part-time militia.
At the start of 1645, the majority of Charles’ advisors were begging him to attack the New Model Army while it was still in its infancy. Instead, the king allowed Prince Rupert of the Rhine to focus on recapturing the North of England to rejoin with the Marquis of Montrose in Scotland. It forced Charles to weaken his army by leaving a 3,000 man group behind to continue the Siege of Taunton.
Meanwhile, Parliament told its commander, Sir Thomas Fairfax, to lay siege to Oxford, Charles’ wartime HQ. While Charles was initially pleased with this development because it wouldn’t hinder the march north, he changed his tune when told that Oxford was running low on supplies. He ordered an attack on Leicester, and when the Royalists stormed the city on May 31, Fairfax was told to abandon his siege and return to Leicester. Meanwhile, Rupert abandoned the march north and went south to relieve Oxford.
Fairfax fought Royalists near Daventry on June 12 and was eager to fight the main Royalist army which arrived at Market Harborough in Leicestershire on June 13. Fairfax held a council of war while Cromwell arrived on the scene with cavalry. The New Model Army began to pursue the Royalists and Commissary-General Henry Ireton, second in command of the cavalry, attacked a Royalist post at Naseby. Charles’ main army was just six miles away, and the king had two choices: Face Fairfax in an open battle or retreat. His decision arguably changed the course of British history.