Politics defined it while religion fuelled it.
The English Civil War, or rather wars, from 1642 – 1651, was nothing less than a battle over the political soul of the country.
To contemporary observer Bulstrode Whitelock, it seemed to come out of nowhere:
“It is strange to note how insensibly we have slipped into this beginning of a civil war by one unexpected accident after another, as waves of the sea which have brought us this far and which we scarce know how. What the issue shall be, no man alive can tell. Probably few of us here may live to see the end of it.”
On one side was King Charles I and his supporters, the Cavaliers or Royalists. He, and they, demanded nothing less than a continuation of the ‘divine right of kings’ from his subjects and their representatives in Parliament - he was one of God’s earthly representatives and it was both sacrilegious and treasonous to challenge him.
Ironically, the king would eventually be replaced by another kind of dictator, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, although that was never the intention. Instead, the MP for Cambridge was firmly embedded on the other side, serving as a cavalry troop leader with the Parliamentarians – the Roundheads – who fought instead for constitutional monarchy.
This vision of government kept Charles in power, but elevated Parliament to more than merely coughing up the money whenever the king needed to wage a war, and quietly disbanding after he’d tired of them. (He would dissolve the body three times during his reign).
Political technicalities aside, the argument was also being supercharged by religion.
Ever since Henry VIII’s schism with the Pope and the Catholic Church over the issue of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, Protestant and Catholic had slaughtered each other up and down the land while the monarchy had swung back and forth between both.
Anglicanism was intended as the compromise, and indeed, it could have been one. Charles was Anglican and married to a Catholic, which rankled many in the predominantly Protestant Parliament, and especially the highly vocal minority Puritans. Yet this might not, in and of itself, have led to war.
The problem was the authoritarian manner in which Charles implemented his version of Anglicanism. As Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ explains:
“It was one of Charles’ most costly errors to let so many in the Protestant middle of the country come to regard him as a greater threat to their church than the Puritan militants.”
Charles’ ‘error’ was the appointment of the violently dogmatic William Laud as Archbishop of Canterbury:
“It was the Puritans, with their obsession with reading and preaching, their gloomy fatalism, their endless battle cries who deprived the ordinary people of what they needed from the Church: Colour, spectacle, the sight of the saviour in the form of his cross upon the alter; the comforts of ritual, sacrament and ceremony, a fence to keep dogs off the communion tray and, most of all, the consoling possibility that sinful souls might at the end be received into Christ. What was so very wrong with that?”
What indeed? So ‘reasonable’ was this vision of Anglican Christianity that anyone who opposed it must be a monster, and therefore clearly deserving of the punishment Laud would mete out: Slicing their ears off.
And this wasn’t just something reserved for the ‘peasants’ either - three of his victims would be the gentlemanly types William Prynne, Henry Burton and John Bastwick. If men of their station weren’t safe, no one in Parliament was either.
Conflict was now largely inevitable.
When he predicted that few would survive the coming war, Bulstrode Whitelock wasn’t far off. Given that casualties on both sides would be British, it would do far more damage than most wars: 190,000 English dead, 60,000 Scottish and 616,000 Irish; 4, 6 and an astounding 41 percent of the population bases in those countries at the time.
Edgehill, Naseby, Marston Moor and others would be the key engagements to find their way into the pages of the history books.
There are, though, lesser-known battles that, once investigated, can turn out to be just as significant as more famous affairs.
One such event took place just over the Anglo-Welsh border on September 28, 1644 (or September 18 in the old-style Julian calendar).
This is what historian Dr Jonathan Worton delves into in his book ‘The Battle of Montgomery, 1644: The English Civil War in the Welsh Borderlands’, opening up a previously obscure corner of the conflict.
Montgomery, a small town in Powys, has a castle above the hill it is nestled around. It was pull of this naturally defensible and fortified garrison, right by the Midlands, an epicentre for the war at that point, that made it a likely spot for a fight. As Worton explains:
“It was sited overlooking Montgomery on a defensible narrow rocky ridge, running north to south and precipitous at its northern end, that outcropped from the hill country rising immediately east of the town. At the time of the Civil Wars late medieval castles could still make effective bases, and many were garrisoned throughout England and Wales. Even castles that had become disused and fallen into disrepair were often made into habitable and defensible strongholds.”
What’s interesting is that much of what Worton explains about the battle around the castle is based upon relatively scant direct evidence. He pieces his account together from this, and through inference, by comparing Montgomery with other battles.
The first clash happened 10 days before, when Parliamentarians swept up to the battlements and one man forced the surrender of the garrison commander by sneaking through the outer walls and threatening to blow open the gate with a bomb.
Determined to take the castle back, the Royalists soon mustered a force in nearby Shropshire and sent them over the Welsh border to besiege the now Roundhead-held castle.
Archaeological investigations have indicated that the Royalists soon got to work constructing mounds from behind which they could attack the castle.
Worton draws this conclusion because of “plough-flattened remains of the ditch and bank of a rectangular enclosure on low ground a couple of hundred yards due north of the castle (that) may be the remains of a small Royalist fortlet or redoubt”.
This direction would make sense. The rise on which the castle sits is not the only one in the area – an adjacent hill to the north west was the site of an iron-age fort, a logical area from which to attack those in the castle.
Musket balls around the area also attest to ten days of siege activity before the Parliamentarians moved in to reinforce their comrades.
As with much of this battle, records aren’t specific about the exact size of the forces involved, but Worton estimates that 3,400 Parliamentarians came to the aid of the 500-strong garrison and that, now sandwiched between the two of them, were 4,400 Royalists.
Both groups were combinations of cavalry and infantry, with a few dragoons (mounted infantry that rode to battle before dismounting and fighting on foot) and, in the case of the Parliamentarians, a few small artillery pieces.
As the Parliamentarians drew nearer, the scene was set:
“Sunrise on Wednesday 18 September 1644 found both armies positioned near Montgomery, the Royalists encamped on the hillsides around Fridd Faldwyn (the iron-age fort) and among the siege lines facing the castle, and the Parliamentarians probably holding a ridgeline to the north-east of the town.”
The battle started when an unnamed Dutch colonel on the Royalist side led some dragoons and possibly a few musketeers towards the Parliamentarian lines. The idea may have been to delay the enemy or to draw them into a fight. Either way, the anonymous colonel was killed, presumably by musket fire that he’d misjudged the distance of.
At that point, the Royalist main body rushed forward.
Sir John Meldrum, commanding the Parliamentarians, depicted the scene in his writings afterwards:
“Their horse (cavalry) and foot (infantry) came on with great courage, resolving to break through our forces.”
Unusually for English Civil War battles, the cavalry clashed only on one side of the battlefield, rather that encountering each other where they were normally positioned, namely on both flanks of the infantry, which would form the central block of any army.
There really wasn’t much to a Civil War cavalry encounter. Worton says cavalry charges are often thought of, erroneously, as both sides simply crashing into each other, sabres drawn and pistols blasting at point-blank range.
What’s more likely, he says, is that as they drew closer to one another, they slowed down, drew their swords, or pistols, and then saddled up alongside one another to have a more gentlemanly fight. (Horses, after all, would have been rather averse to charging into one another, just as they could not be forced to charge into a body of tightly packed infantry bristling with spears).
Worton’s description is of two lines of horsemen jostling against one another, much like a rugby scrum on mounts, with both sides trying to find weak spots in the enemy’s line. Breeching this would then allow them to push through and massacre infantry, or surround and dispatch their counterparts in the enemy cavalry.
At first, it appears to have been the Royalists who got the upper hand:
“(Colonel Sir William Fairfax, commander of Parliamentary cavalry) was first wounded, then captured, then rescued by his men, and then, having regrouped them, was more seriously wounded in leading the Yorkshire horse to the attack once more… in the ebb and flow of this sort of close fighting between horsemen well-protected by helmet, and buff coat or back and breast plate, there were probably many more wounds inflicted than actual fatalities; Fairfax’s death later in the day was the result of the sum of the several wounds he had received.”
Horsemen at this time were usually medium cavalry, termed as ‘harquebusiers’. In terms of armaments, these men fell somewhere between heavily-armoured ‘cuirassiers’ on the largest horses, other horsemen who carried light lances into battle (heavy lances were too cumbersome by this point, and the bearers vulnerable to musket fire), and dragoons, which were just mobile infantry.
They usually had steel breast and back plates over a thick ‘buff coat’ (leather jacket) with an open-faced steel helmet, as well as a sword, two pistols and possibly a flintlock carbine. (Flintlocks were faster firing than matchlocks, while carbines were cut down muskets – easier to carry on a horse, but shorter ranged).
Cavalry usually went into battle on the wings of the infantry clumped into squadrons of two or three troops each, and these had between 30 and 100 men and horses.
As mentioned though, although isolated skirmishing may have occurred between foraging and scouting horsemen as far east as Lymore Farm (see picture below) the main battle was confined to the north of Montgomery Castle, and main cavalry action on only one side of the infantry.
Although the Royalist outnumbered the Parliamentarian cavalry that day, the latter did not retreat, but continued the close-order fighting, either at a standstill or back and forth at a walking pace. Worton gives other accounts of such cavalry battles from not-long-prior battles, one in which Oliver Cromwell reported that:
“We disputed it with our swords and pistols a pretty time, all keeping close order, so that we could not break the other; at last they a little shrinking our men perceiving it, pressed in upon then and immediately routed the whole body.”
Lord John Byron, who, unlike Cromwell, was present at Montgomery, described another similar experience not long before, this time from the point of view of Royalist cavalry, in which they charged the enemy, taking fire before then unleashing they’re own weapons at close range:
“So that first they gave us a volley of their carbines, then of their pistols, and then we fell in with them and gave them ours in the teeth, yet they would not quit their ground, but stood pushing it for a pretty space.”
Meanwhile, the Royalist infantry were also gaining the upper hand. This seems to have been because their counterparts opposite had drawn up and fired a volley three ranks deep, an ordinarily devastating manoeuvre, except that this time, they appear to have done so too soon. At a range of 200 yards or more, where it dropped shot.
This allowed the Royalists to close in while their enemies reloaded, and to then fire their own volley.
Infantry regiments at this time were set, on paper, to contain 1,200 men in 12 100-man companies, though in practice, regiments might number more like 500, with their companies usually proportionally smaller as well.
They were armed with muskets and pikes (which helped to keep cavalry at bay whilst musketeers reloaded), theoretically in a ratio of 1:1, but in reality more like 2:1 musket to pike men, and sometimes more.
Despite the reduction, pikes were still an essential and effective weapon. At 16 feet in length, they continued to be effective against cavalry not only because they were longer than lances, but also because of the pitifully bad range and the inaccuracy of the early pistols that horsemen carried.
Muskets, meanwhile, were actually accurate up to about 100 yards. The problem was that, despite the apparent availability of flintlock carbines, muskets were stuck with rudimentary matchlock technology. This consisted of a burning cord clamped near the breach that was snapped onto it when the trigger was pulled, igniting the gunpowder and firing the weapon (assuming it didn’t fail, which the mechanism frequently did).
This led to regiments deployed in vast bodies of troops multiple ranks deep in the name of continuous fire being kept up. Men would pull the trigger before turning and running to the rear of their column where they would begin the painfully-slow process of reloading.
As the war went on though, Worton informs us that volleys made up of three lines of men all firing simultaneously was found to be far more devastating. The downside was, of course, that every man in that body would then have to reload at the same time, leaving them open to attack.
A volley formation of matchlock musketeers, used to maximise firepower (image from ‘Matchlock Musketeer 1588-1699’ by Keith Roberts © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)
As for how all this played out, again, Worton takes testimony from similar engagements, this time the second battle of Newbury six weeks later and Naseby the following year, to fill in the gaps.
Observation was possibly poor because of smoke on the battlefield, so that “the foot (soldiers) on either side hardly saw each other until they were within carbine shot (range), and so only made one volley”.
It was also the norm for both sides, one they’d ripped each other’s lines to shreds with volleys, to “(fall) in with the sword and butt end of the musket”, the latter, being decidedly heavy during this period, making the muskets not just firearms but horribly effective clubs.
“In places along the infantry battle front further exchanges of musketry fire may have continued at a distance, but elsewhere the lines closed and came to ‘push of pike,’ (spearmen, essentially) while the musketeers engaged with their swords and reversed muskets.”
At this point, the more numerous Royalists, with a higher ratio of pike men, were gaining the upper hand, killing (in a few instances) and wounding the enemy as well as pushing them back.
Again, he says, this aspect of the battle, and English Civil War battles in general, probably bore little resemblance to modern-day re-enactments, which often have opposing phalanxes butting up against each other, pikes crossing above and shoulders shoved into shoulders, again, in a kind of rugby scrum.
Instead, the likelihood is that intermittent thrusting and stabbing from a longer distance that inflicted wounds in the opposing phalanx was more common. This would have continued until the pike block on one side or the other essentially imploded, as described by a Swedish army officer during the Battle of Breitenfield in 1631:
“When we might perceive their pikes and colours [i.e. the regimental company flags, kept among or alongside the pike blocks] to topple down, to tumble and fall cross one another: whereupon all his men beginning to flee, we had the pursuit of them.”
What began to turn the battle in the Parliamentarians favour was a combination of two things: Firstly, the Parliamentarian infantry appear to have reformed in very good order after their retreat. They fell back to a battalia behind them, then stood firm, their NCOs providing excellent leadership, acting as oil in a well-ordered machine.
Battalions, or ‘Battalia’ as they were called at the time, were like subunits of regiments. Whereas today battalions number about 650 men, at the time they would have consisted of 250-300 men arrayed in a central block of pike carriers with ‘sleeves’, or flanks, of musketeers.
The idea was for there to be several of these subunits, and it was at least one such unit that the faltering Parliamentarian frontline rallied around.
The second thing that worked in favour of the retreating Parliamentarians was that the Royalists, by contrast, weren’t disciplined or practiced in the art of pursuit. They soon lost formation, and ended up in disorder, making them vulnerable to counter attack.
Simultaneously, the Parliamentarian cavalry appear to have gained the upper hand over their opposite numbers, and the resultant retreat meant that the Royalist infantry were now being outflanked.
Just like that, this “precipitated the general collapse of the Royalist foot in the face of a sweeping counter-attack by the steadier Parliamentarians” as both the Parliamentarian infantry and cavalry closed in on them. What may have also helped is that the Parliamentarian artillery could have just arrived on the battlefield and was now also pouring fire into the ranks of enemy infantry.
If this is true, they would have used the lightest and most portable guns, falconets, which fired 2 lbs balls about 7cm in diameter.
The Royalist ranks, still recovering from the battle of Marston Moor the prior month, were composed of many new (read: inexperienced) soldiers, and they soon broke and ran in the face of such punishing fire.
Witnessing this from behind in the castle, the Parliamentarian garrison burst out of cover and stormed those isolated Royalist units still hiding in entrenchments from whence they’d been preparing their own attack on the castle.
It was now, as many fled, that most of the Royalists who died that day were killed, cut down by the pursing Parliamentarian cavalry.
More, between 1,200 and 1,500, surrendered, including both cavalry and infantry major-generals, Colonel Robert Broughton and Sir Thomas Tyldesley, and over 170 other commissioned and non-commissioned officers.
Worton concluded that victory was brought by the good discipline and preparedness of the Parliamentarian infantry and their leaders (though surely the luck of their cavalry winning out also played a role).
The huge number of infantry captured numbered almost as many as the Parliamentarian foot that were left, which presented the problem of how to manage and feed them. Many were given the chance to change sides, and may have been shipped off to fight for the Parliamentarian cause in Ireland. In the process, three prior deserters from the Parliamentarian side were found amongst their ranks, and subsequently executed.
1,500 – 2,000 weapons, baggage supplies and 20 barrels of gunpowder were also captured. This loss in material and men would impact the outcome of battles the following year, such as Naseby, which would prove to be a huge Parliamentarian victory.
What is also proves is the importance of looking in depth at lesser-known campaigns such as Montgomery. Deepening our understanding of the gaps between more well-researched and documented battles can only improve our understanding of both.
For more, read ‘The Battle of Montgomery, 1644: The English Civil War in the Welsh Borderlands’ by Jonathan Worton (use the code ‘Montogomery17’ to get a 20 percent discount on Jonathan Worton’s book until October 16) and visit Helion & Company’s website for more military-themed books.