Friday, 27 October 2017

Edgehill: the first great battle of the English Civil War

Monday marked the 375th anniversary of the battle we now call the Battle of Edgehill, but what was known all those centuries ago as the Battle of Kineton. It was the first great battle of the English Civil War, an inconclusive affair which, nonetheless, left thousands dead and wounded. Estimates of the number killed vary wildly, but a casualty figure of 2,500 casualties (dead, wounded or captured) is often quoted.

There is still a small village at Kineton, but where much of the fighting took place is now Ministry of Defence land and closed to the public. Once a year the Kineton Officers' Mess hosts a dinner in commemoration of the battle and invites representatives of the sealed Knot, a Civil War re-enactment organisation. There is a talk by somebody who knows about the battle (this year it was Mr F Baldwin) and a small display of Civil War drill. I was lucky enough to be a guest this year, and, besides enjoying an extremely good meal, I now know much more about the battle than I did a fortnight ago.

Edgehill was a battle fought by accident. The Royalist army, led by Charles I came across scouts from the Parliamentarians, under the Earl of Essex, quite unexpectedly on a Sunday morning when the Parliamentarian forces were planning to observe the Sabbath. Essex himself was at church at Kineton.

Charles probably drew up his plans for the battle on the hill, more or less where you can see what looks like a castle tower in the photo below. It's actually a pub called the Castle, which wasn't there at the time.

Although a modern commander would enjoy the advantages of such high ground, 17th-century warfare was different. There were definite advantages to being at the top of a slight slope, but battles had to be fought on more or less flat land. Pikemen were key to battlefield strategy. An indication of the length of the pikes is given in the picture below and you can imagine the difficulty of manoeuvring over rough country, even without a hill. In order for pikes be used effectively, the infantry had to move as a solid block – an isolated pikeman would be a dead pikeman. Battles were therefore fought on ground that was more or less flat, preferably without too many fields and hedges to get in the way.

Both Charles and Essex wanted a battle that day. Although they had not been planning to meet, both saw the opportunity to deal a resounding blow against the enemy and stop the Civil War almost before it had started. It's likely that many of the troops believed that the whole thing was going to be over in a matter of months and they, too, wanted the chance to resolve the issue quickly.

Fortunately for the commanders, the land between Kineton and Radway was flat and relatively open, with streams and hedges marking off the sides of the field which made it harder for the forces to be flanked. The picture below shows what Charles I would see below him nowadays, although things have changed a lot with the area now being heavily cultivated and broken up into fields.

Charles' view was probably less misty. In 1642 the day was cold with light rain, but visibility was good, as opposed to the warm overcast weather in 2017.

Both armies drew up with cavalry on their flanks. The white farmhouse in the centre of the picture below marks the left of the Royalist line.

The right flank probably extended to beyond the brown field in the centre of this photograph.

This gives some idea of the size of the battlefield. The two armies totalled almost 30,000 men, although many of the Parliamentarians did not actually reach the field in time to fight – including, notably, one Oliver Cromwell.

The Royalists achieved early victories with successful cavalry charges on both wings, but as is often the case with cavalry, horses and riders became overexcited and galloped all the way to Kineton – lost in the mists in the photographs. Some of the Parliamentary horse rallied and returned to the field where they were able to give crucial support to the infantry while the Royalist infantry remained without cavalry support.

The result can be seen as a draw. The cavalry battle was won by the Royalists but the Parliamentarians probably got the better of the infantry fighting. However, the level of carnage left both sides withdrawing to lick their wounds and the next day the armies faced each other but neither moved forward to fight. After that the Parliamentarians yielded the field, making it technically a Royalist victory. Charles, however, failed to take advantage of his temporary control of the roads to London and remained in the area – seizing Banbury, of all places. (It's hardly a major strategic town – barely more than a village really.) The failure of the Royalists to take the opportunity to march directly on London may have undermined their chances of winning the war. By the time Charles did turn his attention to London, Parliament was ready for him and his inability to take the capital, with its arms manufacturers and its significant financial resources, crippled the rest of his campaign.

The English Civil War was horrendous. Four per cent of the entire population of England died during the war – probably nearer to 10% of the young men essential to an economy that was still largely agricultural. The casualty rate in Ireland was substantially higher: the exact level is still the subject of controversy. Yet nowadays, the English tend to romanticise it and the dinner night did provide a wonderful spectacle of men in very impressive uniforms. (There were women, too, but we’ll pretend they were all men for the purposes of historical accuracy.)

Are these Cavaliers or Roundheads? I've really no idea, as each regiment was uniformed differently (if the soldiers had uniforms at all) and they could tell which side they were on only by the sashes they tied round themselves ahead of the fight and most of this lot aren't wearing any sashes. The Royalists wore read and the Parliamentarians orange, which on a rainy day with dye technology fairly primitive meant that the differences weren't as clear as one might hope. The situation was further confused at Edgehill when some Parliamentarian cavalry defected en masse to the Royalists in mid battle, but forgot to change their sashes. Many of them were killed by their new allies.

Civil wars are always messy. The English Civil War was very messy indeed.

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