The First Battle
Wash Common 1643
The armed phase of the great rebellion that was the English Civil War was in its second year and neither party had achieved any great advantage. If the Royalists had thought to carry all before them in a summer campaign, they had found out their mistake; and it must have been equally evident to the Parliamentarians that they had embarked upon a struggle, the end of which might prove bloody and disastrous to their cause.
King Charles I resolved upon the capture of Gloucester. On 10th August 1643, he sounded trumpets before the gates and called upon the commandant to surrender. Colonel Massey, a soldier of fortune, was faithful to his trust and the Royal trumpeter returned to the King's camp accompanied by two deputies of "lean, pale, sharp and dismal visages." They were the bearers of a written declaration that, by God's help, Gloucester should be maintained, under the King's command, as signified by both Houses of Parliament. To this defiance was attached the signatures of Governor Massey, the Mayor, thirteen aldermen and many wealthy burghers. Enraged rather than discouraged, King Charles broke ground before the walls, amid the smoking suburbs, which had been fired by the stubborn Parliamentarians. Here the wives and daughters of the latter went forth to cut turfs for the renewal of the earthern ramparts, shot away by the fire of the besiegers. With attack and sally, and storm of cannon and musket bullets, the siege held for a time. Then it resolved into a blockade and Charles was on the eve of winning, by famine, where steel and lead had failed, when the Earl of Essex bestirred himself and came to the rescue with the trained bands of London and a body of horse. He arrived not a moment too soon, for the besieged were reduced to their last barrel of powder.
The arrival of Essex might well have stimulated the besiegers to give him battle before the walls of Gloucester. The Royalists, however, withdrew and he was permitted to enter unopposed. Essex thus secured the city by liberal supplies of provisions and ammunition, and by the reinforcement of the garrison. The object achieved, the return march was commenced, in the course of which Essex paid a surprise visit to Cirencester, cutting off two regiments of Royal horse and seizing a considerable quantity of provisions which had been collected during the Siege of Gloucester.
The opportunity of striking a very serious blow at the enemy now offered itself to the King and he resolved to act. Essex's forces consisted principally of the City trained bands, held in little repute by his army, and supported by a small body of cavalry, inferior to the bold riders of Prince Rupert, both in number and conduct. If Essex were cut off in the provinces and destroyed, Charles might strike at the capital and stifle the rebellion in the very nest that bred it.
So Rupert poured forth his gay cavaliers, with gleam of cuirass and rapier, to intercept Essex and hold him at bay until Charles came up to strike. For, as usual, the Royalists knew nothing of Essex's movement until twenty-four hours after he had left Gloucester. First blood was shed at Aldbourne in Wiltshire, when Prince Rupert, seconded by the Queen's lifeguards, struck Essex's rear and found tough resistance from Stapleton's Brigade. But with night closing in, rapier and broadsword were sheathed. Here, the Marquis de Vieuville, a gallant Frenchman, fell, mortally wounded, into the hands of the Parliamentarians.
The next day, the two armies converged upon Newbury, but the King's route via Faringdon and Wantage had enabled him to win the race by two hours. His forces drew up on Wash Common barring the Parliamentary retreat to London. Essex lay in the open fields on Crockham Heath in Enborne. His eight thousand men were tired and hungry, but still alert and anxious. If they were to break through the Royalist lines, a conflict on the morrow was inevitable. The Parliamentary right wing, under Stapleton, took up position in front of Biggs Hill and Enborne Heath; the main body and artillery on the plateau west of Cope Hall and the left wing, with a large reserve under Robartes and Skippon, around Enborne Village and Hamstead Park.
Assisted by General Lord Ruthven, Charles had already made his disposition for the coming battle. They chose carefully the defensive positions for their ten thousand strong army to hold Essex at bay. Their main body and artillery were drawn up on the Wash, with the right wing, the King's Lifeguards under Sir John Byron, resting upon the Kennet; Prince's Rupert's cavalry, on the left, lay towards the River Enborne. Thus the Parliamentarians were barred from the Reading and London Road by the cavaliers.
Although Charles had taken up a defensive position, sunrise of the following morning, 20th September 1643, set the skirmishers free and shots rang along the front from hedge and cover, as the soldiers felt their way towards the closer, sterner business of the day. Essex's first aim was to take up a position on the undefended Round Hill which commanded the lower slopes running down into Newbury.
While Essex's left wing attacked, the Earl himself led a large force against Round Hill and before the Royalists realised its importance, the position was taken. Sir Nicholas and Sir John Byron now moved in with several regiments of foot to try and redress the situation. His Lordship cast aside ruff and corset and fought in his white holland shirt. A notable swordsman, he found hard fighting with the cavaliers on Round Hill, as the young Earl of Carnarvon held him long in deadly play. The Royalsits charged straight through his rank and pushed the Roundheads back from the hill. Confused fighting continued amongst the narrow lanes of Skinner's Green before Essex was able to regroup and obstinately maintain the struggle. He quickly recaptured Round Hill and pushed on to gain a foothold on the Wash. Now the fiercest fighting of the battle commenced, as the King hurriedly moved his troops in to plug the gap.
Had Charles's force maintained a purely defensive position as they had been ordered to do, Essex would have been compelled to force the fighting. His inferiority in cavalry would have told heavily against him and his infantry would probably have failed to force a passage through the Royal army. The ardour of the skirmishers in the first hours of the day probably drew him into the battle, which soon became general.
The London trained bands, under Skippon, received their baptism of blood in Newbury marsh and meadows where they were drawn up, with the cavalry on the flanks. Rupert was seconded that day by some of the boldest and fiercest cavalrymen in the Royal armies; and he poured them again and again, a raging flood of foaming horse and men, upon the Parliamentarians. Pressing up to the very edge of flashing pike-points, with desperate stroke and thrust and discharge of pistols, the gallant cavaliers strove to reach the sturdy Londoners. Only to fall back from the fierce pike-thrust, while the snorting war-chargers reared and swerved from the iron front, and the grim musketeers poured in their heavy fire from the rear, emptying many a saddle and sorely thinning the ranks of the King's bold riders.
Fighting under the King's eye, the cavaliers did all that could be expected from the most devoted loyalty; but Skippon's pikemen were beating back the repeated surges for their very life's sake, for the honour and safety of London and for Essex's preservation. Let once that tide break in and Rupert's revenge would be terrible. Three times, in quick succession, the London Blues were charged by two regiments of Royal horse, bent at all hazards to break in. But the musketeers plied their shot so thick and fast, and made such great havoc in the charging ranks, that the cavaliers drew off after their third charge and made no further attempt. The attack had proved fatal to the gallant Earl of Carnarvon who was, apparently, run through the body by a passing trooper, though other accounts state that he was laid low by a shot, which struck him in the head.
Triumphant as the Parliamentarians were in beating back the spirited charges of Rupert's gallant cavalry, the toil and strain of battle fell heavily upon them. Rupert saw the movement and was quick to seize the only opportunity of victory that presented itself. In an instant, he was upon them with "Byron's Blacks" and Colepepper's Brigade. But as quickly the pikes were brought to bear, the musketeers poured in their shot and the first charge was beaten back. Before it could be renewed, Skippon had got the brave fellows ready, the front ranks kneeling, and a forest of loner pikes presented to the plunging chargers. The utmost valour of the cavaliers could achieve nothing against this iron formation, while the regular and destructive fire of the musketeers swept the front and strewed the field with dead and wounded men and horses.
Essex had had another tough encounter with a chosen band of Royalists who, making a lone detour and, adopting the broom and furze twigs which Essex's men wore to distinguish them from the King's men, fell furiously upon his ranks. The conflict that followed was to the death. For if the Royalists were incensed by the stubborn resistance that they met, and by their heavy losses, the Parliamentarians were not the less fiercely revengeful when, after the long strain of that terrible day, they rallied all their energies to beat back the deceitful attack of the Royalists. The desperate melee terminated in favour of Essex's troops who beat off and chased the Royalists back.
The last scenes of the battle had taken place under the gathering glooms of the September night with Skippon having succeeded in joining Essex's cavalry. Nothing more could be effected until the morrow. The exhausted armies reluctantly parted and silence settled over the field that had, during the long day, re-echoed the furious and dreadful sounds of war. Under the peaceful heavens lay 6,000 dead and wounded men to be carted into the town by the humane burghers. When there was a great outcry for surgeons, always, alas, far too few in number were available to meet the requirements of war.
Both armies rested on the field and stood to arms, ready to renew the battle, when the day broke again upon Newbury. Essex had secured his retreat and could expect to achieve no more. Rupert could force the fighting with no greater skill and daring than he had already exercised and with no greater prospect of penetrating the ranks of Skippon's pikemen. During the battle, Essex lost a trained band colonel and a few officers; but Charles lost many gallant and distinguished gentlemen, chief of whom were the Earls of Sunderland and Carnarvon, and the virtuous and talented Lord Falkland. The wounded included some of the first cavalry officers in the Royal army. Discretion, therefore, being the better part of valour, the Royalists withdrew during the night and, next morning, as Essex prepared to fight again, he found his way through to London clear. His march upon London was uninterrupted, apart from a brief skirmish when Prince Rupert fell upon his rear, near Aldermaston, and inflicted some loss upon his troops. He entered the city in triumph, having fought a battle that was in all ways honourable to his army, whether nominally a victory or defeat. If the King claimed the honour of the field, it was indeed a barren honour. At every point, he had been repulsed, although his cavalry had sacrificed itself with unmeasured devotion. He had not kept Essex out of Gloucester and he had not cut off his retreat upon London.
In the pages of Clarendon's writings will be found an elaborate account of the virtuous and unfortunate Falkland, who had a strong presentiment that he would perish in the conflict and he, accordingly, put on clean linen and arrayed himself in his richest apparel.
Essex, before marching off, issued orders for the burial "of the dead bodies lying in and about Enborne and Newbury Wash." Charles imposed similar duties upon the Mayor of Newbury, expressly intimating that the wounded Parliamentarians were to receive every attention, and, on their recovery, be sent on to Oxford.
Essex carried with him, into rejoicing London, "many colours of the King's cornets"; and was, there, publicly thanked for what his party were disposed to regard as a victory over the King and his gallant cavaliers.
Heavily Edited from the confused version given in PH Ditchfield's "Bygone Berkshire" (1896)
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