Turning the tide in the north: The Battle of Marston Moor, 2 July 1644

Graham Goodlad analyses the events that enabled Parliament to win control of northern England.


The partnership of Oliver Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax was critical to the decisive defeat of the Royalist cause at Naseby in June 1645. But their collaboration had started to alter the course of the Civil War a year earlier, in an encounter that broke Charles I’s grip on northern England. This was the Battle of Marston Moor, fought some five miles west of York on the evening of 2 July 1644.

Approximately 18,000 Royalists faced a combined Parliamentarian and Scottish army 28,000 strong. This was the largest battle of the Civil War and, after Towton – fought in 1461 on a site 12 miles to the south – the second-largest ever fought on English soil. In two hours of fierce fighting over fields and moorland, some 4,000 Royalists lost their lives and a further 1,500 were captured, for the loss of fewer than 300 of their opponents.

Marston Moor destroyed the hitherto impressive reputation of Charles I’s cavalry arm, headed by his charismatic nephew Prince Rupert. It also made Cromwell’s name as a leading commander and set him on the path to political dominance. Why did the two sides clash in this location, and how did the battle result in such a crushing defeat for the Royalists?

Above and Below: The allied victory at Marston Moor, the largest battle of the Civil War, set Cromwell on the path to political dominance. 

The road to the moor

On the king’s instructions, Prince Rupert set out from Shropshire in mid-May 1644 with the intention of relieving the besieged city of York. He took a circuitous route through Lancashire, enlisting recruits in this staunchly Royalist region before heading east.

Still regarded as pre-industrial England’s second city, York had been surrounded by a joint Parliamentarian and Scottish force headed by Lord Fairfax (father of Sir Thomas), the Earl of Manchester, and the Earl of Leven. English Parliamentarians and Scottish Presbyterians were united in a common commitment to the reformed Protestant religion, in an undertaking known as the Solemn League and Covenant. In time, they would diverge over competing views of church policy and the future direction of the war. At this stage, however, the alliance held firm.

The besieging force had resorted to starving York’s garrison into submission after the failure of a costly and poorly executed attempt to breach the city wall. By late June, conditions for the defenders had become parlous in the extreme, with soldiers and civilians alike subsisting on one meal a day. But, as news of Rupert’s approach arrived, some of the besiegers left the vicinity to deploy seven miles to the west of the city on Marston Moor – the open expanse of fields and moorland that commanded the road to Knaresborough, where the Royalist army had camped on 30 June.

The prince outmanoeuvred his opponents, marching rapidly and capturing a bridge of boats across the River Ouse at Poppleton, north-west of York. In an astonishing reversal for the allies, he then relieved the city. The Parliamentarians and Scots feared that, unchecked, Rupert would move into the vulnerable counties of eastern England. They did not think that he would be willing to take them on, however, given their sizeable numerical superiority. But, unknown to them, Rupert believed that his instructions from the king required him to fight them as well as to lift the siege – an assumption that in any case accorded with his naturally aggressive instincts.

The battle took place between the villages of Tockwith and Long Marston, some five miles west of York. The two sides faced each other across a deep ditch, which ran parallel to the only viable road. Map: Ian Bull

The allies had begun to abandon their position on Marston Moor, intending to intercept Rupert further south towards Tadcaster. But, on the morning of 2 July, they sighted Royalist cavalry and hastily recalled the troops who had already left. They prepared to make a stand between the villages of Tockwith and Long Marston.

Crucially for the outcome of the battle, the Royalist troops were slow in assembling. The Earl of Newcastle, who had commanded the defence of York, lacked Rupert’s offensive spirit and resented the prince’s casual assumption of seniority. There were other reasons for the delay. The Royalist soldiers stopped to loot the abandoned siege camp outside York. They were also demanding payment of overdue wages – a perennial problem in Civil War armies. Had the 3,500-strong York contingent moved more quickly to lend its support, Rupert might have been able to launch an attack before the opposition was fully formed up. That might have given him a slim chance of success against his enemies.

Deploying for battle

For several hours, the two sides faced each other across a deep ditch that ran parallel with the only viable road, running east–west. The Royalist forces were stationed on the northern side of the road. Behind them lay an expanse of rough pastureland, dotted with clumps of bushes. Further back lay a small enclosure, known as White Sike Close, and beyond that an area of ancient woodland known as Widstrop Wood.

The Royalist left wing, commanded by Sir George Goring, consisted of cavalry interspersed with musketeers – a mode of deployment copied from Swedish practice. This formation was mirrored on the right wing under the leadership of Lord Byron, with Rupert commanding the reserve. The terrain here favoured the Royalists. An attacking force would face boggy ground pitted with rabbit holes, if they succeeded in crossing the ditch and pushing through a line of hedges that ran close to it. In the centre of the Royalist army stood the foot soldiers in three lines, with a brigade of horse in the third line.

The allies formed up on higher ground, a mile and a half to the south. The landscape here was quite different, consisting mainly of open arable fields. The command post was close to a group of trees on a ridge, known later as Cromwell’s Plump. Sir Thomas Fairfax was positioned on the right wing of the allied formation, facing Goring’s troops. Cromwell’s Eastern Association cavalry and a Scottish contingent of horse under Sir David Leslie were stationed on the far left of the allied formation. Between them and Fairfax there stood a mass of infantry drawn up in four lines.

Details of the battle have been disputed. As with many Civil War engagements, we do not know with any certainty how many artillery pieces were deployed on either side, nor where they were placed. The distance between the two sides has also been a bone of contention, although the older version of events – that they were within musket shot of each other at the start of the battle – now seems doubtful.

Attack and counter-attack

During the afternoon of 2 July, there was some desultory skirmishing and cannon- fire. Parliamentarian chaplain Simeon Ashe recalled that his side’s artillery ‘had plaid [sic] one or two hours before [the start of the battle] from the top of the hill’. By early evening, Rupert and Newcastle had decided that they would wait until the following day to make their move. They were taken by surprise as the allied army suddenly began its assault around 7pm. The attackers headed down from the ridge at the trot as a thunderstorm broke overhead. The downpour extinguished many of the Royalist musketeers’ matches, hampering the defence and enabling the attacking troops to surge across the ditch.

Cromwell at Marston Moor (above) on 2 July 1644. The engagement made his name as a cavalry commander, but it was Sir Thomas Fairfax (right) who crossed the battlefield at great personal risk to draw Cromwell’s attention to the opportunity for victory.

On the right of the allied line, Fairfax encountered stronger resistance as he advanced over broken ground. The ditch posed more of an obstacle at this end of the battlefield and his men came under heavy musket-fire. A Scottish officer, Captain William Stewart, described the allied troops finding ‘no passage but at a narrow lane, where they could not march above 3 or 4 in front, on the one side of the lane was a ditch, and on the other an hedge, both whereof were lined with Musketiers [sic].’ Nonetheless, Fairfax put part of the Royalist left to flight and pursued them from the field. In his absence, his deputy, John Lambert, struggled to cope with a counter-attack by Goring. In the ensuing melee Sir Thomas’s brother, Colonel Charles Fairfax, was mortally wounded.

In the centre, the allied infantry came under strong pressure as the Royalists advanced. Lord Fairfax’s brigade of foot and some of the Scottish regiments broke in face of repeated cavalry charges. For a time, all seemed lost, as even Lord Fairfax and Lord Leven fled, fearing the worst. The Earl of Manchester also left the field, but later returned to rally a body of infantry, and managed to stabilise the situation.

At the western end of the battlefield Cromwell’s Ironsides – a term of grudging admiration originally conferred by their opponents – made contact with Lord Byron’s force. Instead of standing firm, and firing on the attackers as they struggled across the uneven ground, Byron ill-advisedly ordered a counter-charge. This meant that the Royalist horsemen blocked his musketeers’ line of fire. The Ironsides began to make inroads on the Royalist right in some of the most intense fighting of the battle. Lionel Watson, serving with the Earl of Manchester, wrote that ‘Cromwels [sic] own division had a hard pull of it… they stood at the swords point a pretty while, hacking one another; but at last… he brake through them, scattering them before him like a little dust.’

During this phase of the battle, Cromwell himself was struck on the neck and had to withdraw to have his wound dressed. Rupert rallied his men as they began to flee, calling to them, ‘’swounds, do you run, follow me.’ His counter-charge temporarily checked the allied assault. With matters in the balance, David Leslie’s Scottish cavalry intervened, launching a flank attack that forced Byron’s horse to retreat in disorder towards York. Rupert took cover in a bean field as his broken forces swept by. It was an ignominious fate for the dashing cavalry leader.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine (1619-1682)

The Royalist commander at Marston Moor was Charles I’s nephew and most senior general. He gained military experience in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) before being appointed to lead the royal cavalry in the first Civil War. He gained a reputation for impetuous bravery and, with less justice, for harshness towards opponents. Parliamentary propaganda credited him with supernatural powers centred on his spaniel, Boy, which was killed at Marston Moor. In November 1644, Rupert was appointed general of the whole royal army, a post that he held until he was dismissed the following year for surrendering Bristol to Parliament. Returning from exile after the Restoration, he took up a naval command and served as the first governor of the Hudson’s Bay fur trading company in Canada.

At this stage Fairfax played a critical role in the battle. Removing the white handkerchief from his hat, which the allies wore as a distinguishing sign, he worked his way around the Royalist formations. Cromwell was startled to encounter Fairfax, his face cut by a cavalry sword, approaching him in the gathering twilight to warn him of the plight in which the Parliamentarian right wing found itself. As Cromwell’s senior officer, he now urged him to wheel eastward to rescue his beleaguered troops. In a daring move, the Eastern Association men rode around the rear of the Royalist lines to take Goring’s cavalry by surprise. They drove them triumphantly from the field and then turned to ride down the infantry.

Finding themselves hemmed in, most of the Royalist foot soldiers surrendered as night fell. The exception was Newcastle’s Whitecoat regiment, who fought doggedly in an enclosure. Some accounts argue that this was White Sike Close, in the centre of the Royalist position, while others place the action further east on the army’s left flank. A Parliamentarian captain described the Whitecoats as unable ‘to rise for their wounds, yet were so desperate as to get either sword or pike or a piece of them, and to gore the troopers’ horses as they came over them.’ They stood firm for a full hour, at the end of which there were just 30 survivors. The regiment’s heroic rearguard action enabled other Royalist infantry to escape in the direction of York.

The loss of the north

In the aftermath of Marston Moor, the Royalist cause in northern England effectively collapsed. Division at the highest levels had played a large part in the defeat. Newcastle had been slow to deploy his troops before the battle, depriving his side of the opportunity to launch a pre-emptive strike. In the aftermath of the defeat, he and Rupert engaged in bitter recrimination. Briefly entrusted with continuing the struggle in the north, Newcastle soon gave up and disappeared to the Continent, remarking that he could not endure the laughter of the court. Rupert moved north with some 6,000 men, before heading westwards and regrouping his forces at Chester.

Two weeks after Marston Moor, Lord Fairfax took the surrender of York, granting generous terms to the defenders. These included guarantees to protect the historic minster and other church buildings against possible vandalism by radical Puritan soldiers.

The battle saw the emergence of Cromwell as a cavalry commander of substance. The victory was a tribute to the discipline and training of his Ironsides. They were a formidable fighting machine, whose efforts completed the destruction of the Royalist cavalry following their bold swoop across the rear of the enemy lines. But Cromwell did not act alone. This opportunity had been pointed out by Fairfax, who had crossed the battlefield at great personal risk to draw Cromwell’s attention to the situation on his own wing.

Others deserve credit too. It was Leven who had given the initial order to engage the enemy, even if his contribution was undermined by his panicked flight midway through the battle. David Leslie led the charge that destroyed Rupert’s counter-attack, giving Cromwell vital breathing space before he led his men around the north of the field to crush Goring’s cavalry. It was a battle won by teamwork rather than a single outstanding individual.

In retrospect, Marston Moor marked the beginning of the end for the Royalist armies. Yet remarkably, in the short term, the Parliamentarians were slow to translate battlefield success into national victory. The complete overthrow of the king’s cause was arguably within reach. But the caution of the conservative-minded allied leadership reasserted itself, and the second half of 1644 saw Parliament make little headway. The Earl of Essex embarked on a poorly planned expedition into the West Country that ended in defeat. In October, a Royalist defeat at the second Battle of Newbury failed to yield decisive results.

Marston Moor could be regarded as a missed opportunity. But this should not detract from the ruthlessness and skill with which the victory had been won. And, although it was perhaps to take longer than should have been the case, it set the Royalists on a path to ultimate disaster.

Graham Goodlad teaches History and Politics and is a regular contributor to MHM.

Further Reading: Peter Newman and Paul Roberts, Marston Moor 1644: the battle of the
five armies
(Blackthorn Press, 2003).

All images: Wikimedia Commons, unless otherwise stated