The Battle of Naseby was probably the pivotal moment during the English Civil War. The Battle of Naseby was fought on June 14th 1645 and prior to the battle there was no obvious indication that either Parliament, with Oliver Cromwell highly influential, nor the Royalists had any obvious military advantage over the other. However, the overwhelming defeat of the Royalists at the Battle of Naseby ended this and almost certainly doomed Charles I to defeat.
After the Second Battle at Newbury, Parliament became convinced about the usefulness of a national army bound by loyalty not to a regional commander but to a national one. This was a major break with the accepted norm of the time whereby a person’s loyalty to the region where he lived was accepted as sufficient for that person to want to fight to protect it from an invading force. Parliament decided that a more modern approach was needed and that a new model of an army had to be created. This was to lead to the New Model Army, which Martyn Bennett refers to as “the beginning of the modern professional British Army” in ‘Battlefields of the English Civil War’.
On paper, this new model consisted of 12,000 men on foot and 6,000 men on horse both divided into twelve regiments. While the number of cavalrymen was achieved with a degree of ease, this was not so for the infantry. Desertion was an issue and when the New Model Army first took to the battlefield, a large number of its infantrymen – about 5,000 – were conscripts. The New Model Army’s first commander was Sir Thomas Fairfax – not Oliver Cromwell as the Self-Denying Ordnance debarred him from military service. However, a ‘special temporary commission’ did allow Cromwell to be Lieutenant-General of Horse.
In May 1645, Charles had marched a large Royalist force north to attack a Parliamentarian force that was besieging Chester. News of the Royalists march north, led to a retreat by the Parliamentarian force commanded by Sir William Brereton. This took away from Charles an opportunity to demonstrate to Parliament the military superiority of the Royalist army. However, Charles was very keen to do this and he therefore decided to turn south and besiege the Parliamentarian town of Leicester. An attack on Leicester was, in fact, easy from the Royalist’s point of view. While it may have sent out a supposedly clear message to Fairfax, based in Oxford, about the strength and professionalism of the Royalists, it was a message that was clouded. The Royalists attacked Leicester with 12,000 men while there were only 2,000 defenders. The town’s defences lasted just three hours when the attack came on May 30th 1645.
Boosted by this victory, Charles now targeted Oxford – his old capital now being besieged by Fairfax. Given the choice of continuing to besiege Oxford or taking on the advancing Royalists, Fairfax chose the latter. On June 3rd, Fairfax moved his men away from Oxford to confront the king.
Charles had faced dissent among the senior commanders in the Royalist force – including the capable Prince Rupert. Many Royalists felt that their cause would be better served if they moved north, defeated the Scots and then moved back south to tackle Fairfax. However, to Charles Oxford had a certain symbolism and he overruled any dissention. It is highly likely that he had got an exaggerated view of his army’s strength after the ease of his victory at Leicester. As he marched from Leicester he halted in Daventry.
Fairfax was an astute military man and he knew that the New Model Army was not yet as effective as he wanted it to be. On June 8th he arrived at Newport Pagnell acutely aware that he needed support to enhance the strength of the men he commanded. Cromwell for example, was still in East Anglia. He – along with Charles – waited for support to arrive. However, Fairfax’s support was nearer and Cromwell and his men joined him on June 13th whereas the Royalist support had to come from Wales and Somerset. Neither arrived by the time Naseby was fought; in fact, the support from Taunton, Somerset, never arrived.
Realising the weakness of their position, Charles decided to move north of Daventry. However, horse-mounted Parliamentary scouts tracked their every move. On the night of June 13th, Charles decided that any continuing move north would play into the hands of Parliament who could pick-off his rear markers with ease. Prince Rupert had no desire to attack the New Model Army but a Royal Council of War overruled him. With an inflated opinion as to the military prowess of the Royalist Army, Charles decided that an attack was his best move. The battle was fought on June 14th.
Before the battle started, the New Model Army set itself up on a ridge overlooking Naseby. However, Cromwell ordered the army off of this ridge as he decided that it was too good a position and not even an incompetent military commander like Charles would attack such a position. He moved the army back to Naseby village – some 1.5 miles away.
Charles had a force of between 8,000 and 9,000 men. Fairfax commanded 13,000 men. The two armies faced one another barely ½ a mile apart. Cromwell’s horsemen were on the fight flank of Parliament’s force and he could call on 3,500 men. Opposing him were the 2,000 horsemen of Marmaduke Langdale. On the left flank for Parliament were the horsemen of Henry Ireton and opposing him were the horse of Princes Rupert and Maurice. Between both sets of horsemen on both sides were the infantry.
The battle started at 10.00 when Rupert attacked the force of Henry Ireton. His men crashed through Ireton’s force with some ease but rather than attack Parliament’s infantry formations that were easily open to a cavalry flank attack, Rupert decided to move on to Naseby and attack a baggage wagon there. While this mistake would not have led to any difference in the final outcome, it could have made the battle a lot more difficult for Fairfax.
On the right flank, Langdale attacked Cromwell at the same time as Rupert attacked Ireton. However, in this case, Cromwell easily defeated Langdale’s men thus exposing the King’s infantry to attack. Cromwell duly attacked but kept men in reserve as an insurance. It was this attack on the right flank of the Royalists infantry that doomed Charles to defeat. Without any form of firm leadership, the Royalist infantry, commanded by Lord Astley, broke up. It did succeed in pushing back Parliament’s first line of infantry led by Sir Philip Skippton, but whether this was a pre-planned move by Skippton to further suck Royalist infantry into a Parliamentarian pincer movement is open to discussion. Whether it was or was not, the Royalist force was open to cavalry attack on both flanks while having to fight Parliament’s infantry force in front of it. Surrender was the only real option.
Historians see the overwhelming success of the New Model Army at Naseby as the time when Charles lost the English Civil War. It was a defeat that he never recovered from. Ironically the battle started with the success of Prince Rupert but this could not be followed up. Rupert had perfected the tactic of a very speedy cavalry attack and even at Naseby this worked. If Langdale had been equally successful on the other flank the battle could have turned in favour of the Royalists. However, it was not to be. The Royalist force lost over 1,000 men while the New Model Army lost about 200.