The first battle of Newbury took place September 20th 1643. The battle was a direct result of the siege of Gloucester by Charles I. Though many miles apart, it was the march by the Earl of Essex to Gloucester and his subsequent return to London that brought him into conflict with Royalist forces at Newbury.
The city of Gloucester had put up a spirited defence against the siege started by Charles. Parliament, in London, felt obligated to help the citizens in Gloucester and ordered the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, to march on Gloucester with a relief column – the so-called Trained Bands of London – five foot regiments and one of horse. In total Essex could count on 15,000 men. With a force this size, the Royalists launched only minor raids against it led by Prince Rupert. Essex and his men reached the outskirts of Gloucester with due speed. Charles realised that his opponents were a formidable force and he withdrew his troops from the vicinity. After replenishing Gloucester with supplies, especially ammunition, Essex made his way back to London.
Charles had assumed that Essex would return to London the way he had arrived – using a route to the north of Oxford. In fact, Essex had assumed that Charles would think this and he used a route that took him via Swindon and south of Oxford. When Charles realised his mistake, he ordered his army to march at speed to catch up with Essex. On September 18th, Prince Rupert and an advance guard of Royalists came across Parliamentarian scouts at Newbury and in a skirmish forced them back to Hungerford. Two days later, the Royalist army was spread across Newbury barring any Parliamentary return to London.
The two opposing sides had different strengths. Charles had more cavalry at his disposal while Essex had more infantry. But Essex was short of food and supplies and needed to get to London. Therefore, the onus was on him to force the issue.
However, the battle started badly for Charles. For reasons that are not known, the Royalists failed to take the only high point on the battlefield – known as Round Hill. They could have done this before the battle started but did not. Essex quickly took the hill. The Royalists took the hill after heavy fighting that cost them many cavalrymen. However, the Parliamentarian force that had held the hill also took high casualties.
Prince Rupert – celebrated as one of the most skilled of Royalist commanders – also had his failings. His major one was impetuosity. All the Royalists had to do was to let Essex and his men come to them and then engage them in combat once they had broken cover. However, this was not good enough for Rupert who ordered a cavalry charge at Parliamentary troops opposite him at Wash Common. He and his men were pushed back twice and suffered according but eventually sheer weight of numbers forced back the Parliamentarian force.
Fighting went on possibly until 22.00, which was highly unusual then as few armies fought in the dark. Daytime fighting could be confusing enough as neither side had any obvious uniform; therefore night fighting was fraught with danger.
On September 21st, Essex found that the king had withdrawn his force to Oxford. While Essex had made no advance on London, it had been the Royalists who had suffered the worst casualties. Moreover, Charles was also very short of ammunition. Therefore, Parliament heralded the Battle of Newbury as a victory. On September 28th, Essex and his men entered London.
Could Charles have won at Newbury? He held more advantages than Essex so a victory was a real possibility. His defeat was a major psychological boost for Parliament.
However, as was true with too many royal campaigns, there was a clear lack of firm leadership from the top. All too often the Royalists were hindered by dissent among its leaders with one trying to advance his cause over another. This lack of command unity was a major weakness for the Royalists – possibly the major weakness. Another was the failure of Rupert to make rational decisions. His belief in daring leadership did not include allowing an enemy to break its cover and come to you. Rupert seemed at times to believe that a rampaging cavalry attack was the only tactic open to him in battle.