King Charles and successive parliaments hotly debated the prerogatives and limits of royal authority through the 1630s. In 1642 the King botched the arrest of his leading opponents, left London and declared war against the ‘rebels’. In the years that followed, armies raised by and loyal to the King and to Parliament fought in pitched battles and sieges for control of key cities and strongholds all over Britain.
By 1645 King Charles’s headquarters were at Oxford. The support he commanded was based largely in the West Midlands, Wales and the South-West. Parliament retained control of London, the South-East and the North. Neither side had very clearly defined military objectives. Parliament needed to defeat the King, but wanted time to recruit and develop its New Model Army. The King and his Council were undecided whether to try to regain the northern counties, or to consolidate strength in the South-West.
For several months there was little activity, but on 7 May King Charles left Oxford. Part of his force headed for the South-West; the King himself moved north. But when Parliament’s troops converged on Oxford, the King’s army slowly turned and marched south to relieve the city. The New Model Army moved to cut it off.
The Royalist army, led by King Charles (1600-49), was recruited and commanded along what, at the time, were conventional lines. Royalist commanders were chosen and promoted for their aristocratic pedigree rather than their experience or their ability. Royalist troops were paid, equipped, trained and deployed in much the same way as their Parliamentarian counterparts; but Parliament’s control of the main Channel ports and major armouries like the Tower of London meant the Royalists operated under greater logistical constraint.
The Royalist army at Naseby consisted of around 10,000 men. The foot soldiers were armed with muskets or pikes. Charles’s 4,000 cavalry were led by his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-82). Rupert’s drive, determination and experience of European military techniques had brought him several victories prior to Naseby, but his advice against accepting battle there was ignored by his uncle.
Parliament’s New Model Army broke precedent. Its commanders were excluded from political authority and promoted on the basis of ability, not blood. As Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who commanded the New Model Army’s cavalry at the battle, observed, ‘I had rather have a plain, russet-coated Captain, that knows what he fights for, and loves what he knows, than that which you call a Gentle-man and is nothing else’. General Sir Thomas Fairfax, in overall command at Naseby, led about 12,000 men, of whom 6,000 were mounted.
While both armies were apparently sizeable, they were surprisingly difficult for their enemies to locate. In the week before the battle, though no more than 30 miles (48km) apart, neither the King nor Fairfax could be sure exactly where the other was, or where he was heading. Both forces covered a lot of ground as they marched back and forth. The two armies finally met on 14 June just north of Naseby in Northamptonshire.
The armies drew up on opposite sides of a shallow valley, at the base of which ran a stream bordered by marshy ground. Both Royalist and Parliamentarian lines arranged their foot regiments in the centre, and cavalry on the wings. The battlefield, about a mile (1.6km) across, was bordered and confined on either side by thick hedgerows marking parish boundaries.
Cromwell ordered dragoons (mounted troops with muskets) to harass the right wing of the Royalist cavalry, commanded by the King’s nephew Prince Rupert, from the cover of the hedgerow on that side. Unwilling to take fire and eager to open the battle, Prince Rupert led his cavalry forward, eventually charging through the New Model Army’s left wing and on to the artillery and baggage trains in the rear.
Meanwhile, Royalist and New Model Army foot regiments closed and struggled in the centre. Initially, the Royalists appeared to be getting the upper hand. Cromwell, on Parliament’s right wing, sent the first line of his cavalry to rout the Royalist left wing, and the second line to attack the Royalist foot regiments in the centre of the battlefield in flank. Out-manoeuvred, the Royalists began a fighting, but precipitate, retreat north.
In the battle and subsequent retreat about 1,000 Royalists were killed and as many as 5,000 taken prisoner, along with ‘the whole Booty of the field’. This included the Royalist ‘Train of Artillery… all their Ordnance… eight thousand Arms and more, forty Barrels of powder, two hundred horse… the Kings Cabinet… many Coaches’.
Although King Charles and many of his commanders, including Prince Rupert, escaped, the Royalists were unable to replace the men and resources lost at Naseby. The war continued, but there was little hope. Within a year the King was effectively on the run, and gave himself up. Oxford surrendered.
Politically, too, the loss of ‘the Kings Cabinet’ into enemy hands caused irretrievable damage. The King’s Cabinet was effectively his office and contained all his correspondence. Letters from his Queen demonstrated that she, on his behalf but with his connivance, had been trying to enlist support from Catholic powers in Europe. If any of the King’s Protestant subjects had previously been unsure of the King’s attitude to England’s religion and independence, the evidence now seemed clear.
The King in captivity managed to strike a deal with the Scots, which prompted a second civil war, but Parliament and the New Model Army were again victorious. The King himself, in one of the most dramatic and unprecedented events of British history, was tried by Parliament for treason. Found guilty, he was executed in 1649.
Naseby was a victory secured by Parliament’s radically different New Model Army, a national fighting force not tied to a region or locality, and the immediate predecessor of the British Army of today. Until 1660, the New Model Army was the most important force in the country, and it dominated English politics, upholding the constitutional experiments of the 1650s.
Naseby won the First English Civil War (1642-46) for Parliament and ensured that, whatever happened subsequently, the monarch would never again be supreme in British politics. Although the monarchy would be restored in 1660, the later Stuart and Hanoverian kings would have a very different, conditional relationship with their parliaments than some of their continental cousins. The possibility of absolute monarchy died with Charles I. Arguably that conditional relationship has ensured the long-term survival of the monarchy in Britain today.
The battle has featured in several novels, including Rosemary Sutcliff’s ‘Simon’ (1953) and Ann Turnbull’s ‘Alice in Love and War’ (2009). The most famous film depiction of the battle is Ken Hughes’s ‘Cromwell’ (1970), which featured Richard Harris in the title role, Alec Guinness as King Charles, Douglas Wilmer as Fairfax and Timothy Dalton as Prince Rupert.
The battlefield of Naseby is fairly well preserved and two monuments (raised in 1823 and 1936) and several information plaques mark the site. However, in recent years, organisations like the Battlefields Trust, Battle of Naseby 1645 Project, the Sealed Knot and Royal Armouries have been working together to improve access and develop visitor facilities. These will include walks and displays about the battle so that people can learn more about an event that shaped our history.