The Battle of Nantwich was fought in January 1644. Nantwich had long been a Parliamentarian stronghold near to the Royalist centre of Wales.
To all intents Wales was a Royalist enclave. The only area that could specifically be described as Parliamentarian was the southwest and centred on Pembroke and Tenby. Parliamentarian forces had tried to make an inroad into Wales with successful attacks on Monmouth and Chepstow. Parliament had also tried to make advances in North Wales but their commander there, Major General Thomas Middleton, was cautious in his approach and preferred to secure Parliament’s strength on the Welsh/English border before making any advance into North Wales itself. To break this Parliamentarian strength in the border regions, which threatened any communication between the Welsh Royalists and Charles, Lord Capel, Royalist commander in the region, attacked Nantwich in October 1643. It was a failure and allowed Middleton to advance into North Wales. However, this advance was only temporary as they were driven out of the Principality when 1,500 English troops based in Ireland landed in Flintshire.
Capel’s failure resulted in his dismissal and he was replaced by Sir John Byron. Byron launched a successful attack on a Parliamentarian force based at Middlewich. Those who survived fled to either Manchester or took refuge in Nantwich, ten miles to the south of Middlewich. Byron was rewarded for this success by being promoted to Field Marshal of Wales and the Marches. Byron determined to capture Nantwich.
Nantwich was important to Parliament’s cause. There were numerous English soldiers based in Ireland who were loyal to Charles. If they were going to be landed anywhere to support the Royalists in the north, it would be at Chester. By maintaining its control of Nantwich, Parliament could threaten and interrupt the movement of Royalist supporters inland. To ensure a suitable reaction from Parliamentarian troops based in Nantwich, the English soldiers based in Ireland were labelled Irish regardless of their true nationality and senior Parliamentarian leaders referred to them as “vipers” who were coming to England to “eat out the bowels of their own mother”.
Parliament’s primary target in the northwest was Chester. However, they were not in a strong position to fulfil this target. Parliamentarian commanders in the area had no reserves to fall back on and faced a Royalist army that totalled 4,000 horse and 1,000 infantry. The nearest support to Parliament’s forces was in Lincolnshire. In December 1643 this force, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax, was ordered to cross the country and assist the Parliamentarian force at Nantwich. His force consisted of 500 dragoons and 1,800 horse. Fairfax collected men on the way so that by the time he reached Manchester, he could count on an added 3,000 foot soldiers. From Manchester Fairfax marched on Nantwich.
It was rare for an army to march or fight in the winter months. Poor conditions invariably led to desertion and the winter of 1643/44 was no exception. Fairfax ordered his men to march in deep snow – an exertion that was bound to be debilitating. Fairfax had provided many of his men with a new uniform and paid for these out of his own money. However, his men had not received their full pay for some time and it is a sign of their respect for his leadership that they continued to follow his command.
By the time Fairfax got to Nantwich, he found that Byron’s force had been markedly reduced by the poor weather. Fairfax probably faced no more than 2,400 foot and less than 1,000 horse. After a Council of War, Fairfax decided to fight just outside of Nantwich where his horse would be more effective. He gathered his men just outside of Nantwich at Welsh Row.
The battle took place on January 25th 1644. It was a messy battle even by the standards of the time. Byron’s force got split between the River Weaver with foot and horse of varying strengths either side of it. Fairfax was in a better strategic position but the ground was very boggy and not conducive to standard cavalry tactics. Also the two armies were in enclosed fields bordered by hedges and this meant that the battle was effectively fought in three different parts and communication between all three sections was difficult in the extreme.
However, the one advantage Fairfax had was that he could call out reserves from Nantwich itself. This he did when one of the Royalists ‘Irish’ regiments looked as if they were not going to withdraw from their position. 800 musketeers were called out and their fire succeeded in forcing the ‘Irish’ back.
This seems to have demoralised the Royalists and many pulled back to Acton Church that was near to the battlefield. Here they surrendered. With his force in chaos, Byron rallied who he could and moved to Chester.
The Battle of Nantwich was a major blow to Charles. While the number of deaths was few, over 1,500 men had been captured by Fairfax including many senior Royalist officers. The Royalists also lost their opportunity to establish themselves in Lancashire and the victory gave Parliament more time to develop its strategy for taking the vital port of Chester.