The Battle of Marston Moor (July 2nd 1644), along with the battles fought at Edgehill and Naseby, was one of the major battles of the English Civil War. As with the Battle of Naseby, the defeat inflicted on the Royalists at Marston Moor was a heavy blow and any power that they might have had in the north was ended.
On July 1st 1644, Prince Rupert had entered the city of York. This was a major success for the Royalists as the north of England had tended to side with Parliament and had been a major centre of opposition to the forced loans introduced by Charles I. York was the major religious centre in the north and was a prosperous city – so whoever controlled it had a major advantage over their enemies. While Rupert entered the city, the Parliamentarian force there withdrew and headed towards Tadcaster.
The senior commanders of the Royalist force decided to march after their opponents. On July 2nd, they caught part of the Parliamentarian force by the moor near Long Marston. In the ensuing initial fight, the Royalists came off worse mainly because Prince Rupert had to marshal his army on the moor itself while Parliament did not have to do this.
Rupert also faced another major problem. His men arrived bit by bit, as some were quick to march while other units were slower in their chase of Parliament’s army. When the first Royalist units came across the Parliamentarian force, it was Parliament that controlled the roads, which is why Rupert had to marshal his men on the moor itself. More able to control its men, Parliament was in a better military position when compared to Rupert’s predicament. Rupert had to marshal his men as and when they arrived on the battlefield.
The traditional method of fighting then was to have your horse regiments on the flank of your infantry. The horse regiments attacked before the infantry in an effort to dislocate any positions held by the enemy. At Marston Moor, Rupert had the major difficulty of fighting with less foot soldiers than he would have anticipated as Royalist foot regiments arrived at Marston Moor piecemeal. Not only was Rupert outnumbered by 28,000 to 18,000 men, but he was also unable to make any plans for the battle as not all of his men were there.
However, despite these very real problems, Rupert did have one advantage over Parliament. The geography of the moor gave his men a lot of protection. The moor that the Royalists had occupied was riddled with ditches and hedges and these made any attack – be it on foot or horse – potentially very dangerous. Rupert sent his musketeers to man the ditches. His left flank in particular was very well defended by these ditches.
The commander of the Royalist force on this left flank at Marston Moor was Lord John Byron. Rather than stay in his well-defended position, Byron ordered an attack on the Parliamentarians opposite commanded by Oliver Cromwell. It was a failure and allowed Cromwell to attack the Royalists left flank. Cromwell’s counter-attack only failed because Prince Rupert rushed his men over to this flank to force back Cromwell’s advance.
The Royalists were initially more successful on the right flank but their commander there, Lord George Goring, could not sustain his attack and he was eventually defeated by a force made up of men commanded by Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax.
With both flanks under attack, the foot soldiers in the centre of Rupert’s force were in disarray. Rupert was not helped by the late arrival of the Whitecoats of the Duke of Newcastle. By this time, the Royalist force was facing defeat and Newcastle’s men lasted for no more than one hour before they were also defeated.
The Battle of Marston Moor ended Royalist influence in much of the north. Some areas held out after the battle, such as Bolton and Scarborough, but for the main, Charles had lost the north of England.
Why did the Royalists lose when they were pursuing an army that had left York defeated and in disarray? In Rupert, the Royalists had a skilled commander. The same could not be said for the likes of Byron who for whatever reason left the security that the moor ditches gave his men and left the Royalist left flank very open to attack with the subsequent problems this would cause for the Royalist foot soldiers caught between both flanks. While few would dispute that Lord George Goring was a brave man, he was not as skilled as Thomas Fairfax. However, probably the biggest cause of the Royalist defeat was the simple fact that Rupert could not command all of his men at the same time as too many units arrived at the battlefield late as the pursuit of Parliament’s army had not been well organised.