Richard Cust reassesses the thinking behind the biggest military blunder of the English Civil War, Charles I’s decision to fight the New Model Army at Naseby in June 1645.
Why did Charles I decide to fight the New Model Army at the Battle of Naseby on June 14th, 1645? It was arguably the single biggest military blunder of the English Civil War. His army of between 9,000 and 10,000 men was heavily outnumbered by Fairfax’s force of around 15,000 and went down to a disastrous defeat. It shattered the main field army that he had painstakingly assembled for the 1645 campaigning season; condemned him to spend the rest of the summer being chased around the Midlands and the West Country; and gave the New Model Army, which had been formed as recently as February 1645, the impetus and confidence to go on winning victories for the remainder of the civil war. Although the King himself believed he could still win the war after Naseby, with hindsight it can be seen as the turning point in his military fortunes.
Charles had high hopes coming into the campaigning season of 1645. His commander in Scotland, the Earl of Montrose, had recently won a string of victories over Covenanter opponents, forcing the Scottish army which was fighting on the Parliamentarians’ side in England to start looking back over its shoulder and preparing for a retreat back to its homeland. This had done much to counteract the damage done to the king’s war effort in the north by the defeat at Marston Moor in July 1644. Charles’s local commanders had also begun to tap the resources of money and manpower in the southwestern and Welsh borderland counties under his control much more effectively and this provided him with strengthened garrisons and a large field army. As long as he was able to defend his headquarters at Oxford against attack by Sir Thomas Fairfax (1612-71) and the New Model Army then he held much of the strategic initiative and could strike at weak points in the parliamentarian defences.
Prior to Naseby, his campaign developed promisingly. He left Oxford with his main army on May 7th and, after dividing his forces at Stow on the Wold, he and his formidable Captain General, Prince Rupert (1619-82), marched into the north Midlands. On May 30th they attacked the Parliamentarian strong-hold at Leicester. After a short siege, it surrendered. In the meantime Fairfax had begun a siege of Oxford. But the town held out and he was forced to abandon it on June 5th. Charles now had the upper hand and could either strike against the unprotected Parliamentarian heartland of the eastern counties, or head north and confront the vulnerable Scots. He did not need to fight at Naseby.
In early modern warfare, battle was eminently avoidable. Sir Edward Walker (1612-77), secretary to Charles’s Council of War, observed, how hard it was to bring an opponent to battle unless he wanted to fight. Charles’s plan of action as the New Model Army approached his quarters near Market Harborough on the evening of June 13th was to withdraw northwards to Newark where he could join up with reinforcements from local garrisons and face Fairfax from a position of strength. His army had accomplished such manoeuvres in the past and they could do so again. However, this common-sense strategy was overturned at 2am on the night of the 13th-14th when Charles received the news that one of his patrols near Naseby had made contact with the enemy. What happened next is unclear.
The standard account has it that a Council of War was held at which Rupert’s cautious advice to continue the withdrawal was opposed by the King’s chief civilian advisers. Lord Digby(1612-77) and Jack Ashburnham(1603-71), the army’s treasurer and paymaster, urged that to retreat now in the face of the enemy would be both demoralizing and dishonourable. Charles sided with the civilians and overruled his Captain General. This account has been widely accepted; however the evidence to support it is extremely flimsy. The source most often cited is Clarendon’s History of the Great Rebellion. But Clarendon was writing in 1671, at some distance from the event, and was drawing on Walker’s Brief memorials of the unfortunate success of his Majesty’s army and affairs in the year 1645. Walker himself, although secretary to the Council of War, does not record attending any meeting on the night of the 13th-14th and appears to have based his account on a story doing the rounds in the days after the battle. Neither this story, nor another (contradictory) one to the effect that Rupert insisted on giving battle against the advice of some of the ‘old commanders’, such as Lord Astley (1579-1652), seem to have had much basis in fact. Walker and Clarendon picked up on the first version of events because it suited their purposes to portray the King’s defeat as a consequence of factional squabbling within the royalist high command. The strongest evidence comes from Lord Digby who flatly denied that the Council of War meeting ever took place. He told Colonel William Legge – who was well placed to check his facts – that ‘I am confident no man was asked upon the occasion – I am sure no council was called.’
If the story of the Council of War meeting was a fiction, what really did happen on the night of the June 13th-14th? We will probably never know for certain. But it appears likely that the decision to give battle was agreed on by Charles and Rupert. The assumption made in a number of accounts is that Charles was too weak and ineffectual a commander- in-chief to assert himself; however, this is not borne out by an examination of his wartime record.The King was no Henry V or Gustavus Adolphus, but he was a brave soldier, with a reasonable grasp of tactics and the capacity to make sensible decisions. During the early phases of the war he was handicapped by his lack of self confidence in military matters. He tended to consult the Council of War at every turn which made his decision making slow and inflexible; or else he was too much in awe of his commanders, particularly his charismatic young nephew Rupert, which meant that he was unable to impose a firm sense of direction. The Cavaliers' military successes of 1643 happened largely in spite of his contribution. During the summer of 1644, however, he found his feet and his performance improved markedly. He built on his victory over Sir William Waller at Cropredy Bridge in June to pursue, and eventually force the surrender of, the Earl of Essex's army at Lostwithiel at the end of August. In the autumn campaign, culminating in the relief of three important royalist garrisons at Banbury, Basing and Donnington, he built an effective partnership with Rupert and showed that he had the confidence to take the fight to the enemy. This remained the case in 1645.
Accounts of the campaign prior to Naseby often emphasize the damaging effects of quarrels between Rupert and the King’s chief civilian advisers, Digby and Ashburnham. These quarrels were certainly very divisive. But it is not clear that they necessarily had a damaging impact on the Royalist war effort because, for the most part, the King supported his Captain General. This was the case at the critical Council of War meeting at Stow on May 8th when he decided to divide his main force, leading the bulk of it northwards, while dispatching Lord Goring (1608-57) and 3,000 cavalry into the west country. The decision is often seen as a colossal blunder on Charles’s part. He was splitting his army in the face of the enemy and allowing his strategy to be dictated by Rupert’s desire physically to separate his main opponents on the Council of War, Digby and Goring. However, it is possible to read the outcome of this meeting in a much more positive way. In supporting the northward march Charles was remaining consistent to a plan that he and Rupert had been discussing since March. As he explained to the Queen, it gave him several promising options. He would be able to relieve Chester (under siege since the new year) and keep open the gateway for Irish reinforcements, then choose either to continue northwards to deal with the Scots army, or head south to meet Fairfax, or even break into the Parliamentarian heartland of the Eastern Association. Based on the information he had at the time, the Scots appeared to be the main danger, but, with Montrose’s royalist army in Scotland carrying all before it, he now had the opportunity to defeat them decisively. Fairfax’s New Model seemed to offer the lesser threat, and by reinforcing the Prince of Wales’s force in the west country with Goring’s cavalry he was confident of containing it until he was able to march his main army southwards. As so often in the summer of 1645, Charles was acting on faulty intelligence. But, given the information at his disposal, the decision taken at Stow did make military sense.
During the weeks leading up to Naseby, Charles continued, for the most part, to back the judgement of his Captain General. On Rupert’s advice, he resisted the temptation to rush to the relief of Oxford when Fairfax besieged it in late May. He recognised that if the garrison could hold out they would pin down the New Model Army and allow him to run free in the Midlands and the north. His whole approach to the campaign makes it extremely unlikely that he would have taken the decision to give battle without securing Rupert’s agreement. But if this was the case why did they decide to fight?One factor which cannot be discounted is a certain amount of panic and confusion. According to the Iter Carolinum which was drawn up by one of Charles's attendants, the King was roused from his bed at 2am with the news that Fairfax's army was close at hand. He then had to travel two miles from Lubbenham to Market Harborough to meet with Rupert. These were not the ideal circumstances in which to make a reasoned decision. He could not know how close Fairfax's army actually was and whether it was still possible to make the orderly withdrawal contemplated the previous evening. Turning and fighting, rather than trying to retreat with the enemy on top of him, may well have appeared the safer option. However, two further considerations probably helped to persuade Charles and Rupert that this was the correct decision.
The first was ignorance of the strength of the New Model Army. Poor intelligence was one of the hazards of early modern warfare. But even by the standards of the day Charles was particularly badly informed on the Naseby campaign. Whereas Fairfax’s scouts provided him with continuous reports of the movements of the royal army as the New Model Army advanced northwards via Northampton, the King was constantly being surprised. He was out hunting in Fawsley park on the evening of June 12th when he suddenly got word that the vanguard of Fairfax’s force was nearby and had to improvise a hasty withdrawal. And it was Rupert’s failure to organise adequate patrols which led to the shock news on the night of the 13th-14th. The Royalists were also very much in the dark about the strength and preparedness of the New Model Army. They seem to have had no information which was even remotely accurate about its fighting strength – in contrast to the careful estimates on their army prepared by Fairfax’s scoutmasters. There was also a general assumption that the New Model Army’s abandonment of the siege of Oxford on June 5th was a sign of its disarray and lack of spirit. It was on the strength of this that Charles wrote to the Queen on June 8th ‘that (since this rebellion) my affairs were never in so hopeful a way.’
Charles’s confidence also had another source: his profound belief in providence. Faith in the guiding dictates of God’s providence has usually been regarded as a characteristic of puritan thinking. But it was by no means confined to the godly. To a greater or lesser extent it was part of the mental furniture of most English men and women in the seventeenth century. Some, like Oliver Cromwell proclaimed its importance loud and long. Others, like Charles, were more reticent, but still remained convinced that their every action was being judged and appraised by the Almighty and there was no escaping the consequences of his decrees. In the early stages of the civil war he had been certain that his misfortunes were a punishment for his weakness in signing Strafford’s death warrant in 1641. However, in January 1645 he was persuaded by Lord Digby that all this had changed with parliament’s execution of Archbishop Laud. ‘This last crying blood being totally theirs’, he informed the queen, ‘I believe it is no presumption hereafter to hope that his hand of justice must be heavier upon them and lighter on us.’ From this point onwards, his confidence in divine deliverance soared. He knew that the royalist cause was bound to triumph in the end. As he explained to Rupert, ‘God will not suffer rebels to prosper, or this cause to be overthrown.’ It was simply a matter of when and how. In late May and early June, with the continuing good news from Montrose in Scotland and Rupert’s dramatic capture of Leicester, the time seemed imminent. The ‘battle of all for all’ which members of his entourage like Digby had been anticipating, seemed about to happen. This must have played a significant role in Charles’s thinking as he and Rupert made their fateful decision in the small hours of Saturday the 14th.We cannot know with any certainty why Charles chose to fight at Naseby. As with so many of the key decisions in history, a reconstruction of his motives and thinking must be based to a considerable extent on informed hypothesis. What does seem clear, if Digby is to be believed, is that this was not a decision taken at a Council of War. It appears to have been arrived at - as one would expect - through the commander-in-chief consulting with his senior general. On the key question of why Charles and Rupert abandoned their intent of the previous evening to make an orderly withdrawal northwards the sources are unclear. The best guide we have to Charles's thinking at this time is his letters to the Queen. These suggest that it was a decision grounded in a mixture of confusion, wishful thinking and a personal reading of divine providence. If this was indeed the case then it would have been entirely in keeping with much of the decision making of the civil war period.