First Battle of Newbury - Conflict & Date:
The First Battle of Newbury was fought September 20, 1643, during the English Civil War (1642-1651).
Armies & Commanders
First Battle of Newbury - Background:
In the wake of the 1642 Battle of Edgehill, Royalist forces under King Charles I advanced towards London. En route, they captured Banbury, Oxford, and Reading before being halted by the Earl of Essex at the Battle of Turnham Green. In April 1643, Parliamentarian forces re-captured Reading while Charles' army was in winter quarters at Oxford. Despite this success, Essex's army suffered from widespread disease and proved unable to attack Charles directly. With the situation stalemated near London, Royalist forces in the west won a string of victories during the summer which culminated with Prince Rupert of the Rhine storming Bristol in late July. Having united his western and Oxford armies for the operations against Bristol, Charles met with his commanders to decide their next move. After extensive discussions, he determined to allow the Western Army to operate independently against remaining Parliamentarian outposts in Dorset and Cornwall while the Oxford Army advanced on Gloucester.
First Battle of Newbury - Siege of Gloucester:
Moving against Gloucester, the Royalists believed that the city could be taken without a fight. This was due to intelligence that suggested its commander, Sir Edward Massie, might be willing to change allegiances. In early August, Charles' army reached Gloucester and promptly had its demands for surrender rebuffed by Massie. As a result, the Royalists were forced to begin siege operations. Despite active raiding by the city's garrison, the Royalists completed their siege lines and began bombarding Gloucester's defenses on August 12. With Charles working to reduce Gloucester's defenses, Essex, now leading the only Parliamentarian army in the field, frantically worked to bolster his numbers so that he could move to the city's aid. Reinforced by the London Trained Bands, he began moving west in late August. Battling heavy rains, the Parliamentarian army reached Gloucester on September 5 and encamped at Prestbury Hill.
First Battle of Newbury - Essex Retreats:
Alerted to Essex's arrival, Charles raised the siege and withdrew to the south. Though he relieved Gloucester's garrison, Essex's situation was precarious as he was unable to maintain his supply lines east. As a result, he began making preparations to retreat back towards London. Aware of Essex's predicament, Charles sought to block the Parliamentarian's route to the capital and inflict a decisive defeat. On September 10, Essex crossed the River Severn with the goal of convincing the Royalists that he was making for Worcester. The ruse worked as Charles moved his army north to Evesham. Four nights later, Essex conducted a forced march south from Tewkesbury with the intention of reaching London via Swindon, Newbury, and Reading. Passing through Cirencester the next day, the Parliamentarians surprised two Royalist cavalry regiments and captured supplies intended for Charles' army.
Learning of Essex's change of course, Charles raced south. Advancing with Rupert's cavalry in the lead, the Royalists closed the distance quickly as Essex's men battled poor weather and muddy roads. Reaching Aldbourne Chase on September 18, Rupert engaged the Parliamentarian rear guard. The battle led to Essex crossing to the southern bank of the River Kennet which caused further delays. As a result, Charles was able to reach Newbury ahead of the Parliamentarians and establish a blocking position across the route to London. Arriving at Enborne, two miles west of Newbury, on September 19, Essex paused to rest and assess the situation. Bounded by the Rivers Kennet and Enborne, the terrain between the armies consisted of hedged and enclosed fields in the north, Round Hill in the center, and the open ground of Wash Common in the south.
First Battle of Newbury - The Armies Deploy:
Forming for battle early on September 20, Essex placed his infantry in the center with Colonel John Middleton's cavalry on the left and Sir Philip Stapleton's cavalry on the right. The London Trained Bands were held behind the center as a reserve. Advancing early in the day, Essex quickly occupied Round Hill which Charles' men had failed to secure the previous day. Somewhat taken by surprise at the speed of the Parliamentarian advance, the Royalists quickly formed for battle. While Prince Rupert deployed on Wash Common with four of the army's five cavalry brigades, the Royalist infantry extended the line north. Having lost the key terrain feature of the battlefield, Royalist troops began operations to re-capture it.
First Battle of Newbury - The Royalists Attack:
In the north, Sir William Vavasour's Welsh Brigade pushed across the area's enclosed fields and soon put musketeers attached to Middleton's cavalry under heavy pressure. Due to the broken nature of the ground, the Parliamentarian horse could not operate effectively. To stabilize the situation, Essex's second-in-command, Major General Philip Skippon, dispatched reinforcements to Middleton. Bolstering the Parliamentarian line, these men contained the Royalist advance and fighting devolved into a stalemate for the rest of the day. In the center, Lord Wentworth and Colonel George Lisle attempted to dislodge the Parliamentarians from Round Hill. Pushing forward, they were unable to breakthrough and Sir Nicholas Byron's infantry brigade came up in support.
This combined force mounted a determined attack against the Parliamentarian line but were ultimately forced back. Requesting aid, Byron received two cavalry regiments led by his nephew, Sir John Byron. While their first charge was defeated by Parliamentarian fire, the second forced the enemy to fall back. Realizing that possession of the hill was in the balance, Skippon ordered elements of the London Trained Bands forward to seal the breach. Reaching the hill, they succeeded in turning back Byron's third charge. Counter-attacking, Essex's men drove the Royalists back down the hill. On Wash Common, Stapleton was just beginning to deploy when Rupert's cavalry attacked.
Maintaining their position, the Parliamentarians held their fire until the Royalists were nearly upon them. Firing, they blunted the Royalist assault and threw it back. A second charge by Rupert's men was also defeated with the aid of arriving infantry. Not to be deterred, Rupert surged forward a third time and succeeded in driving Stapleton's men back to the Bigg's Hill Lane. Despite the success, the Royalist advance remained blocked by Parliamentarian infantry. Recognizing the threat, Skippon directed the bulk of the London Trained Bands to move south and reinforce Stapleton. Forming, they succeeded in holding the line for the remainder of the day despite being pounded by Royalist artillery. Fighting ended that evening with both sides exhausted and the tactical situation in a stalemate.
First Battle of Newbury - Aftermath:
Meeting that night, Prince Rupert and Sir John Byron lobbied Charles in favor of renewing the battle in the morning. The king overruled them as the army's gunpowder supply was nearly exhausted and morale was low due to the heavy losses sustained in the day's fighting. As a result, he ordered a withdrawal from the field. As the sun rose, Essex expected the fighting to continue and was surprised to find that the Royalists had departed. Resuming his march on September 21, Essex and his army reached Reading the next day. Pushing on, the army arrived at a jubilant London on September 28. In the fighting at the First Battle of Newbury, the Royalists sustained around 1,300 casualties while Parliamentarian losses numbered approximately 1,200.
The First Battle of Newbury served as a high water mark for the Royalists in the conflict. Prior to the battle, Charles' power was in the ascent following the successes of the summer. Unable to destroy Essex, his cause began to fail as Royalist forces sustained devastating defeats at Marston Moor (1644), Naseby (1645), and Langport (1645). Captured in 1646, Charles was later executed by Parliament in 1649. With his death, the Royalist cause became embodied in his son, Charles II. Despite young king's efforts he was defeated at Worcester in 1651 and driven into exile.