Friday, October 9, 2015

The Importance of the Battle of Nantwich

by DW Bradbridge

The battle which took place on 25 January 1644 in the fields just outside the Cheshire town of Nantwich is not generally considered to have been one of the most important of the military clashes that took place during the English Civil War. To begin with, less than 300 people were killed in the battle, which took place in what was considered by many, at the time, to be very much a backwater in terms of the national picture.

However, Sir Thomas Fairfax and Sir William Brereton’s defeat of the forces controlled by John, Lord Byron, was strategically significant in that it was the first clear cut parliamentary victory in the entire conflict and, as such, prevented the Royalists from gaining ascendancy in the North of England, thereby potentially altering the course of the whole war.

In order to grasp the significance of the events which took place in and around Nantwich in December and January 1643-44, it is necessary to understand the balance of power in North-West England at the time.

By the late summer of 1643 the Royalists were as close as they would come to winning the war. Thanks to Sir Ralph Hopton in the south-west and the Marquis of Newcastle in the north, Royalist control extended over significant parts of the kingdom, and having won considerable victories at Roundway Down and Adwalton Moor, as well as having taken Bristol, hopes were again being revived of a triumphal march on London by the King. The one area outside of the south-east where Parliament was holding its own was in Cheshire and Lancashire.

Sir William Brereton
Chester itself was a Royalist stronghold, but the rest of Cheshire was in the hands of Sir William Brereton, who during the early part of the year had been victorious at the first Battle of Middlewich as well as capturing the garrison at Warrington. Despite being surrounded by Royalists in Shropshire, Wales and the Wirral, Brereton spent most of the summer of 1643 launching raids into Staffordshire, Shropshire and North Wales.

It gradually became clear that Cheshire was a strategically important location, because it sat between Hopton’s group in the south-west and Newcastle in the north. It was also a key link between the port of Liverpool and the Midlands and, therefore, the road to London.

During the Autumn of 1643, however, things began to change. Not only had the advances made by Hopton and Newcastle ground to a halt, resulting in the opportunity of capturing London being missed for the second year in succession, Parliament had finalised the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scots, who had promised an army to support Parliament’s cause in the north.

At the same time, on the other side of the Irish Sea, Ormond had arranged a one year truce with the Irish rebels, allowing him to send over reinforcements to Chester.

Lord John Byron
In late November 4,000 infantry landed at Mostyn on the Flintshire coast and proceeded to Chester. They were joined shortly afterwards by their new commander Lord Byron, who had ridden from Oxford with 1,000 cavalry. The Royalist plan was for Byron to overpower Cheshire and Lancashire, before bolstering Newcastle’s forces, allowing the Royalists to mount a defence against, and eventually defeat, the Covenanters before marching on to London.

Many have asked why Byron did not target Liverpool rather than Nantwich, and why he did not wait until Spring when he would have been fully reinforced, but it is also true that if Nantwich had fallen during the winter of 1643-44, Cheshire and most of Lancashire would have been under Royalist control, leaving Newcastle free to conduct a strong defence against the advancing Scots.

In the event, Byron, after a short rest, advanced on Nantwich, capturing the garrisons of Hawarden and Beeston on the way. He did not go unopposed, for Brereton tried to break through to come to Nantwich’s aid, but he was defeated on 26 December at the second Battle of Middlewich, leaving him to retreat into Manchester for reinforcements.

Sir Thomas Fairfax
Flushed with success, and realising he now had time on his hands, Byron mounted a full siege of Nantwich. However, a measure of the importance of Nantwich to the Parliamentarian cause can be seen by the fact that Sir Thomas Fairfax was ordered from his winter quarters in Lincolnshire to come to Brereton’s aid. He joined up with Brereton in Manchester, and, together with Lancashire Parliamentarians, they marched on Nantwich, arriving outside the village of Acton, a mile or so from their goal, on the afternoon of January 25.

There are several reasons why Byron lost the ensuing battle. Firstly he had delayed abandoning the siege until the very last minute in the hope that the town would surrender, or at least in order to minimise the opportunity for the townsfolk to restock provisions while Byron was away fighting Fairfax. This meant that Byron was forced to fight much closer to Nantwich than he really wanted to. There is evidence that his preferred location was Barbridge, a couple of miles further up the road towards Chester, which would have minimised the chance of the garrison breaking out to come to Fairfax’s aid.

Secondly, there was a great thaw the night before the battle, which resulted in the River Weaver sweeping away the temporary bridge built at Beam Heath and stranding a large part of Byron’s forces on the wrong side of the river. These men had to march six miles via the nearest bridge and barely made it onto the battlefield in time.

Thirdly, the guard placed by Byron to stop the garrison breaking out was far too small and was quickly overwhelmed, allowing the garrison to attack the rear of the Royalist centre, which had, at this point, barely engaged the enemy.

Nantwich was a disaster for Byron. Although he managed to escape back to Chester with his cavalry and his left flank, as many as 1,500 men were taken prisoner, many of whom switched sides after the battle. In addition, Byron had lost several hundred men a week previously in a failed attempt to storm the town, most prominent of which was the valiant firelock Thomas Sandford, who had famously stormed Beeston Castle with only eight colleagues a month earlier.

In the weeks following the Battle of Nantwich several minor garrisons fell, completing Brereton’s dominance in the region. The Royalists never came close to military supremacy in Cheshire again, and it quickly became clear that if Byron was not reinforced, Chester itself would end up being the subject of a siege. At a stroke the momentum in the war in the North-West had been turned on its head.

Fortunately for Chester, Prince Rupert saw the danger and was in Chester by early March, and he became the focus of parliamentary attention over the coming months as the Prince Robber cut a swathe through the north on his way to his devastating defeat on July 2, 1644 at Marston Moor.

Although Rupert’s defeat at Marston Moor was decisive and effectively ended Royalist ambitions in the North, it can be argued that the chain of events which ended in that stunning parliamentary victory was set in motion with Fairfax’s triumph in the fields of Cheshire.

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DW Bradbridge lives near Nantwich in Cheshire and is the author of the Daniel Cheswis series of murder mysteries, set in Cheshire during the English Civil War. The first novel, The Winter Siege, is set against the backdrop of the Siege and Battle of Nantwich.

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His website can be found at http://www.dwbradbridge.com
He also runs a blog http://nantwichconstable.blogspot.co.uk/
Follow him on Twitter at @dwbradbridge


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