The Battle of Naseby was the pivotal battle of the First English Civil War. Before the battle, neither the Roundheads nor the Cavaliers had managed to land a decisive blow on their opponents. Charles II’s 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. Parliament's overwhelming victory at the Battle of Naseby put a stop to this impasse, making Charles's defeat in the Civil War all but inevitable.
Following the Second Battle at Newbury (17 October 1644), the Parliamentarians became convinced of the potential efficacy of a national army loyal to one national commander. This marked a paradigm shift in military thought. Traditionally, regional loyalty to a particular area was thought to motivate soldiers sufficiently. Parliament concluded that their army needed to be modernised. The New Model Army was created in 1645, with Sir Thomas Fairfax as its overall commander. Historian Martyn Bennett argues that this force represented the start of Britain’s professional army.
On paper, the NMA was made up of 12,000 foot soldiers and 6,000 horsemen. The infantry and horse were each divided into 12 regiments. The cavalry force was created without too much struggle, but the infantry force was trickier to bring together. Desertion was a problem. When the NMA first went into battle around 5,000 of its troops were conscripts. The Self-Denying Ordinance debarred Oliver Cromwell from military service, but his commission was given continued extensions and he was allowed to remain in parliament.
In May 1645, the King led his troops northwards to confront the Parliamentarians besieging Chester. The Parliamentarian force, led by Sir William Brereton, retreated when news of the Royalist march spread: Charles missed the opportunity to show the supremacy of the Royalist army. Charles was keen to do this and opted to turn south and attack Leicester - a Parliamentarian stronghold. The Royalists launched an attack on Leicester on 30 May 1645 with 12,000 men. Leister had only 2,000 defenders and the town’s defences only lasted three hours.
Motivated by this win, Charles decided to target Oxford which was currently under siege from Fairfax. Fairfax was presented with two options: to continue besieging Oxford or to take on the advancing Royalists. In the end, he chose the latter. On 3 June, Fairfax headed away from Oxford to meet the King in battle.
Charles confronted unrest among his senior military commanders, including Prince Rupert. Many Royalists thought that a more fruitful strategy would be to move North, defeat the Scots and then move back South to tackle Fairfax. However, Oxford was symbolically important to Charles. It is likely that he overestimated the strength of his army after his victory at Leicester. His army marched out from Leicester, halting at Daventry, a market town in Northamptonshire.
Fairfax was a skilled military commander. He was aware that the New Model Army had not yet reached its full potential strength and effectiveness. When he arrived at Newport Pagnell on 8 June, he knew that it was essential he gained support to bolster his forces. Fairfax and Charles both waited for support. However, Fairfax’s support was closer, with Cromwell and new men joining the ranks on 13 June. The Royalists had to wait for men to come from Somerset and Wales. These troops had not materialised by 14 June 1645, the date of the Battle of Naseby.
Charles realised the fragility of his position and moved north of Daventry. But Parliamentary scouts tracked the Royalists’ actions. On the evening of 13 June, Charles opted to continue North would help Parliament. Prince Rupert did not want to attack the New Model Army, but a Royal Council of War voted for the attack. Misled by his over-optimistic appraisal of the strength of the Royalist army, Charles decided to attack. The battle took place on 14 June.
The New Model Army positioned itself on a nearby ridge before the battle. However, they were forced to move when Cromwell that it was too strong a position: Charles was incompetent, but even he would not dare attack the Parliamentarians there. He returned his troops to Naseby village.
Charles’ army numbered up to 9,000 troops, while Fairfax had 13,000 men. Cromwell’s horsemen were Parliament's right flank; he could call on 3,500 men. He was facing Marmaduke Langdale’s 2,000 horsemen. Henry Ireton’s horsemen were on Parliament's left flank, opposing Princes Rupert and Maurice’s cavalry
Before the battle, Cromwell famously said:
“I could not riding out alone about my business, but smile out to God in praise, in assurance of victory because God would, by things that are not, bring to naught things that are.”
The battle began at 10am after Rupert attacked Ireton’s force. Langdale timed his attack on Cromwell to coincide with Rupert’s attack on Ireton. However, unlike Ireton, Langdale’s men were quickly defeated which exposed the King’s infantry. Cromwell attacked. This attack on the right flank of the Royalists infantry made the Royalist defeat almost inevitable. The Royalist infantry lacked firm leadership and broke up, but it did manage to push back Parliament’s first line of infantry.
The main Royalist military force had been decimated; the king had lost his best officers, seasoned troops and artillery. All that now remained was for the Parliamentarian armies to wipe out the last pockets of Royalist resistance, which it did within the year.
Many historians view the Battle of Naseby as the day that Charles lost the war. The Royalists could not recover from their defeat. Around 1,000 Royalist troops were killed, with a further 5,000 taken captive. Around 400 New Model Army troops were killed or injured.
See also: The New Model Army
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