The turning point for the English Civil War happened on this date on Broad Moor, Naseby. Up until then, the Parliamentarians were struggling against the King’s forces, and the Royalists fully expected that victory was imminent. They were probably planning on returning home to their families in time for the fall harvest. And then Naseby happened.
The days leading up to the battle were filled with constant rain which lifted late the previous night or early morning, leaving a thick fog to cloak the steady march of both armies. The Parliamentarians, led by General Thomas Fairfax and his Lieutenant General, Oliver Cromwell, abandoned the stronger ground in favour of provoking the King’s forces to attack.
The battle started off in the King’s favour. Prince Rupert’s cavalry smashed through the Parliamentarians and sent them into a rout. Instead of keeping to the field, Rupert’s cavalry proceeded to try to capture the Parliamentarian baggage wagons, no doubt expecting their Foot to mop up behind them. For this, Rupert has been roundly criticized and has been blamed for losing the war. While I agree that it was not the soundest of strategies (it falls under the “don’t underestimate your enemy” category) — ok, it was a huge blunder– but credit for winning the battle really must be handed to Oliver Cromwell. He very brilliantly held back a reserve cavalry which he used to good measure when Rupert’s horse were occupied elsewhere.
The battle turned into a rout with the King’s forces beating back a retreat while the Parliamentarians cut them down along the Leicester road. During the retreat, they seized the King’s baggage train and not only seized precious ammunition, they also found the King’s personal effects, including sensitive papers. There was correspondence containing plans for an invading Irish army to the King’s support which turned many against the King. But during the attack of the baggage train, spurred by blood lust, the Parliamentarians also brutally attacked the King’s camp followers.
The King never recovered from this battle, and it was really the beginning of the end for the Royalists.
If you’re interested in learning more about the battle, check out the Naseby Campaign, 1645, by British Civil Wars Project.
The Battle of Naseby features in the opening to my debut novel, Traitor’s Knot. Here’s the opening from Chapter One:
Naseby, 14 June 1645
The Roundheads were closing in.
Cut off from his men, Captain James Hart galloped along Broad Moor, dodging dragoon fire and enemy cavalry. From the hedgerows, musket shot screeched past his head, and he flattened against the neck of his bay mare. Fog obscured the moor as acrid smoke choked his throat and sweat stung his eyes. His lathered horse nearly stumbled on the muddy turf.
James pulled hard to the left to avoid a company of pikemen. The field grew hazier; he advanced another hundred yards before he realised that a fallen soldier blocked his path.
Digging his heels into his horse’s flanks, he leant forward to take the jump. The bay arched in the air, and before they could clear the body, a volley of wild musket fire hit the horse. The mare screamed and lurched sideways. James kicked his feet from the stirrups and launched himself off. He slammed against the ground and rolled several teeth-shattering feet.
Spots fired across his eyes. James pushed himself upright, past the barrier of screaming muscles and ringing ears. The ground rumbled from the pounding of a thousand horses. His own wounded beast thrashed in the mud.
James staggered towards his horse. Her liquid brown eye rolled, and white foam trickled from her mouth. Her screams cut through him.
“Christ’s teeth.” He swallowed the lump in his throat and crouched beside her. “Damn.”
James drew his carbine, took a steadying breath and aimed at the horse’s forehead. In the last second before firing, he turned his head. The shot resounded in his ears—her pain was silenced.
He had to get out of here. By now, the rebels were swarming the field, closing the net on the king’s infantry. On the northern ridge, King Charles’s colours snapped in retreat. Odds were against an unhorsed Royalist.
James searched for an escape, and his attention lit on a Roundhead dragoon lying dead several feet away. He scrambled through the mud to reach the fallen rebel. When an enemy trooper drew closer, James flattened to the ground, face down. Willing himself to lie still, James’s heart hammered in his throat. The muscles between his shoulder blades twitched as he anticipated a shot in the back.
The trooper passed without slowing. James lifted his head and crawled the last foot to reach the dead man. He pulled off his own montero hat and exchanged it for the dragoon’s distinctive pot helmet.
“I scorn to take quarter,” James muttered under his breath as he worked to cut away the dead man’s cartridge bag, “from base rogues and rebels.” Next he pried the musket from the man’s claw grip.
James grimaced when he realised that he still wore his regiment’s blue ribbon tied around his sleeve. He ripped it off and prayed his ploy would work. If he could blend in with the bloody rebels long enough to skirt past their lines, he might rejoin his commander, the Earl of Northampton, and what was left of their regiment.
But first he needed to get past those hedgerows.
As he ran across the moor, James slammed into a maelstrom, dodging past an enemy determined to kill as many Royalists as they could. In pockets, the fighting continued—men fought with bloodied swords or swung the butt-end of their muskets as clubs.
Hundreds of soldiers littered the moor, a carpet of buff, blue and red coats. James tried to focus on getting off the field until a familiar blue ribbon stopped him.
Face up, the man looked as though he slept until James neared and saw that half his face had been torn away by shot. A corner of their troop flag peeked from under his body. Even in death, the cornet had protected their colours.
James stuffed the flag inside his coat.
Another troop of enemy cavalry headed towards him. This was useless. He’d never make it off this godforsaken field. There had to be another way.
A trio of riderless horses balked several yards away. Two trotted off, leaving the last one, a black, penned by the currents of cavalry crisscrossing the field. A young, disorientated animal—James only had a moment before it bolted. The black saw him coming and reared, forelegs testing the wind. James approached him warily, murmuring in a soothing tone until he managed to get close enough to seize the bridle.
Hoisting himself into the saddle, James took command of the beast. “Hope you still have a good run left in you.” The moment he touched his spurs to the horse’s flanks, the animal flew across the field, churning up the turf. James fought to adjust his seat.
They galloped along the hedgerows, frantically searching for a break. Ahead, the line ended, revealing a rolling meadow beyond. This was his chance. James raced through the gap and gave the black his head. He stole a glance over his shoulder—he couldn’t believe his fortune. No one was in pursuit.
The field sloped towards a wooded gully. James found a narrow path leading into a shallow creek. They splashed their way northward, hugging the tree line. The sounds of battle dropped off behind them. He had made it—for now.
James slowed to let his horse catch his wind. Rubbing his stubbled beard, he grimaced. What the hell had happened? How had this engagement unravelled? At the outset, the King’s cavalry had managed to smash through the enemy horse—how had the other lines failed?
He thought of Stokes, and his conscience gnawed at him for leaving his man behind. The cornet had been a good Warwickshire man, full of fire and loyalty to the crown. He deserved better than being left for carrion. After three years of fighting, it never got easier.
James couldn’t stay here—he had to keep moving and find the rest of his unit. Where? He glanced over his shoulder towards the battlefield, and his mouth went dry. Nay. He had to believe they escaped. It was up to him to find them. He visualised the area from memory. The King had set up temporary headquarters in Market Harborough to the northeast. His best chance was to continue north several miles, then cut east to reach the Leicester road.
James urged his horse upriver. He followed the gully a couple of miles until he reached a stand of trees and followed a trail into the forest proper. The path narrowed, becoming more treacherous, with tangled roots heaved up across the track. He picked his way carefully, heading deeper into the woods.
After advancing a quarter of a mile, the black’s ears flicked a warning. James reined in and strained to listen. Wild whoops and laughter grew more distinct.
More bloody Roundheads.
James knew he should search for another way past them, yet something inexplicable pulled him forward. He advanced cautiously.
Through the trees, James spied the King’s baggage train. Rebels swarmed the site, crowing over the richness of their prize. He couldn’t see any of the baggage guards—didn’t know whether they had escaped or had been taken prisoner. Most of the carts and wagons were still there, pulled up in a defensive line. A few had been overturned, their contents raked across the ground. Casks and boxes were being smashed open as the looters seized the King’s effects—coin and private documents.
Back away—nothing you can do about it.
Shrill whistles and shouts farther down transformed the swarming men into a semblance of order. They jumped into the wagons, gathered the reins and set the horses in motion. The wagons creaked and rocked down the road, one by one disappearing from view.
All except the last one.
Two men pushed against the wooden panels, rocking the wagon back and forth to free the wheels from the mud while another tried to use the horses as leverage.
James studied the road. Here was a chance to salvage something of this day and save at least some of the King’s effects. One against three—and none with their muskets within easy reach.
He alighted from his horse and tied the animal to a sapling. After priming his carbine, he checked the charge on the stolen musket. The irony of using the enemy’s weapon against them brought a grim smile.
James crept towards the Roundhead soldiers, careful where he stepped lest a snapped twig alert his quarry. Oblivious, they continued at their labours, swearing and cursing.
When he reached as close as he dared, James lifted his carbine and aimed at the nearest man. Releasing a slow breath, he squeezed the trigger. A bark of an explosion—the man crumbled to the ground. The other two scrambled to take cover.
James dropped the carbine and settled the musket in his grip. He lined the sights on another who nearly disappeared behind the wagon. Fire. The Roundhead grunted and flew to the ground.
James sprang through the trees after the last man. By the time he reached the lead team of horses, the rebel soldier was already halfway down the footpath and barrelling back to camp—he’d never catch him in time. James whistled for his horse, then winced, remembering. He ran back towards the forest and trailed to a halt when he finally saw the road.
At first, he only registered the clothes strewn on the ground—cloaks, skirts and aprons trampled into the mud—and he wondered at the rebels for scattering them. Then with a slow, creeping horror, the truth set in. These weren’t just clothes—these were women—at least a hundred. Their camp followers—all massacred.
The shock drove a fist into his gut.
Broken bodies littered the ground. Their faces were slashed; fistfuls of tangled hair torn in clumps. Shredded skirts hiked up over smeared limbs—twisted, mangled limbs. So much blood—pooled in a scum over soaked ground. They had tried to defend themselves with whatever weapon they had on hand—kitchen knives and iron skillets. But they were no match against broadswords, muskets and an enemy fuelled by bloodlust.
James choked back the bile that rose hot in his throat. He bent over his knees, fighting for control.
He had never seen anything like this—even through three brutal years of war—nothing like this.
Three years of mourning men lying dead on the field, their bodies ravaged by shot, was nothing compared to seeing these women torn apart like corn dolls. At least the soldiers had a fighting chance. What ground had these rebels tried to take? Nothing strategic like a bridge or a pass. Just a group of wagons defended by women with kitchen knives.
Cowards—depraved, rabid dogs. Roundheads.
James recalled the ribald laughter as they drove away and now understood its darker meaning. And they had thought nothing of it—those damned, holier than thou, godly Puritans—preaching out of both sides of their mouths. Haranguing the King for not being godly enough, then tearing apart the country while they played the downtrodden and ill-used.
James began to search for faces he knew and squatted beside one woman—glassy eyes stared up at the sky, her legs set at an unnatural angle. Long Meg. She had been a matronly woman who scolded the lot of them with the authority of a hen-mother. A blade had sliced her from ear to jaw and finished across her throat. Her bodice was stained red, as though she had been dipped in a vat of dye. James reached across and gently closed her eyes. He bowed his head. Burning fury squeezed his chest like an iron band.
A scurrying from the direction of the forest alerted him. James straightened and drew his sword, advancing slowly towards the sound.
Let it be one of those whoresons.
As he drew closer, he heard a crack of snapped twigs and a muffled sob. He parted a low-hanging bough and found a cowering woman backed under a blackthorn shrub. Her white face was stark against smears of blood and mud. Her clothes were torn, and she clutched her shredded bodice with shaky hands.
“Keep away,” she whispered. “In God’s name, mercy.”
James smothered his surprise and lowered his sword. Extending his hand, he said, “You’re safe with me, lass. Come out.”
She shook her head and wedged herself even tighter. “I’ve seen the devil, and he is you.”
James frowned, puzzled, then it occurred to him. He yanked off his helmet and tossed it away. “I’m not one of them,” he tried to assure her, but her expression remained terrified. “I’m a king’s man, of that you may have faith.” He pulled out his troop’s flag from his buff coat and showed it to her.
A guarded relief replaced the panic. James squatted down so he could meet her at eye level. “You’ll not be harmed,” he softened his tone, “but we have to leave now—they’ll be upon us any moment.”
Tentatively, she accepted his hand and allowed him to help her to her feet. He led her to his tethered horse. By now, she was shaking uncontrollably. He had to get her out of here while he still could.
A blare of trumpets sounded in the distance. Their time had run out.