Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Battle of Edgehill 23rd October 1642

by Richard Denning

Today - 23rd October is the anniversary of the first full scale pitched battle of the English Civil War: the Battle of Edgehill. I thought I would take a look at this important event in English history.

A World turned upside down! England at war with itself.

For decades tensions between King and Parliament had been growing but became acute during the reign of Charles I. Charles believed emphatically in the divine right of Kings to rule without question, whilst parliament had been trying to gain more authority and rights for years.

The problem for the King was that most of the money in the country was in the hands and control of Parliament.  In 1641, after years of ruling alone Charles found that recent wars in Ireland and Scotland necessitated funds. As a result he was forced to go to Parliament to request financial support. When he did so, he found Parliament in uncompromising mood. They took steps to curb his powers and restrict his independence.   
After months of wrangling, Charles, outraged by the attacks of Parliament, took an armed party to the Commons to try and arrest the most prominent members. Never before had a King gone to the Commons and tried to do this. The members managed to escape. This incident is recreated even today when the Queen goes to open parliament and the door to the chamber of the commons is shut in the face of her representative to symbolize the commons having independence from the monarch. Today it may be ceremonial but in 1642 this failure was a political disaster as it pushed more members into the Parliamentarian camp. Charles and his family fled the capital soon after the incident. 

The King in the House of Commons

After this event Parliament passed the Militia Act.This act attempted to wrench control of the army from the king. This was a direct attack on the royal Prerogative. Kings controlled armies and waged wars. The House of Lords refused to pass the act. The King refused to give consent. Pym forced through the act via the Commons alone – a breach of the rules and laws of the land which required assent of Commons, Lords and Monarch. Conflict was now inevitable.
It’s War!
In the summer of 1642 both the King and Parliament began raising troops. The Earl of Essex took command of Parliament’s troops. On the 22nd of  August 1642, Charles raised his standard at Nottingham and called for an army to join him. He set up his capital at Oxford and began making plans. With the Royalist army assembling in the Midlands, Essex took the Parliamentarian army towards him.
The first conflicts of the English Civil war was about to begin.
The 1642 Campaign
The King, beginning with around 2000 men, raised more troops in the Midlands as he moved south west towards Shrewsbury.  Shortly after the King had raised his standard at Nottingham, Essex led his army north  into the Midlands and across into the Cotswolds. By September both Essex and the King had around 20,000 men and were in close proximity on either side of Worcester. A clash was inevitable. That first battle was at Powick Bridge on 23rd September when Price Rupert – the King’s nephew and cavalry commander – defeated a Parliamentarian cavalry force and showed that in the early war the Royalists had an edge in terms of cavalry forces.

The Battle of Edgehill
After that first battle, the King decided to strike towards London and try and reach it before Essex could get back there. Essex responded by marching towards London as well. So it was that Essex finally brought his field army into the path of the Royalist army at the little village of Edgehill. There on 23 October 1642, the first major battle of the war was fought. 

Looking down from Edgehill towards Kineton. On those fields Parliament and the King clashed.  That fateful day Jacon Astley (Major General on the King's side prayed "O Lord, Thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not forget me." 

Map of the Battlefield of Edgehill

The Opposing Forces
The two armies were evenly matched in numbers. Essex had better equipped infantry whilst the Royalist Horse had superiority over its opponents. The King Deployed on the steep ridge of Edgehill whilst Essex laid out his troops in the flat plain below.

Looking from Essex's original position toward the heavily wooden Edgehill in the distance.

The Battle
Essex made no move to advance up the steep Hill so the King descended from Edge Hill and deployed on the plains, infantry in the centre and horse on the wings just like Essex had done. Then the Royalist Cavalry charged. The Parliamentarian horse stood to receive the charge and attempted to discharge pistols to drive off Prince Rupert's horses on the right and that of Wilmot on the left. This failed and the Parliamentarian horse was swept away.

Rupert now made a critical error. Rather than turning to come onto flank and rear of Essex's foot soldiers (which could have ended the war right then), he went off with his cavalry to ransack Parliaments baggage some distance to the rear.

In the centre Essex's infantry initially fell back when they saw their cavalry running. But it was now the case that Essex had a superiority in horse because he had kept back several regiments in reserve behind his infantry. These - under Balfour - charged the King's infantry and so Essex's foot soldiers took heart and followed up and together they assaulted the kings foot regiments.

Charles found that his centre was crumbling and sent Prince Charles and Prince James away from the battle. Balfour's horses almost captured the princes as they reached the King's gun line at the bottom of the ridge.

Things could have gone very bad for Charles BUT at this critical moment royalist horsemen started returning and fell upon the rear of the parliamentarian army, saving the Royalist army.

The two forces drifted apart as night came. About 500 men had been killed on each side and around 1500 wounded. In the morning neither side showed any inclination to resume the combat.

The Aftermath
Both the Royalists and Parliamentarians claimed Edgehill as a victory but in truth it was inconclusive. The armies moved apart again and there was now a brief chance for Charles to reach London before Parliament, but he hesitated and by the time he did move that way Essex had again got in the way and  at the battle of Turnham Green was able to prevent the King breaking though.
The year ended with Charles forced to withdraw to Oxford which would serve as his base for the remainder of the war.

1642 had been a year of even honours with neither side able to get an advantage. The failure to achieve a decision at Edgehill meant the war would rage on for years and claim 100,000 lives - a higher % of the population than either world war.

The Monument on Edgehill Battlefield

Two important characters in my 17th Century Historical Fantasy Novel, The Last Seal  fought at Edgehill - Artemas the Cavalier on the King's side and Matthias the puritan for Parliament.
Here is a little bit about them both with some character sketches: 

At Edgehill, he had ridden with Prince Rupert’s cavalry as it charged and routed the enemy horse and then went on to ransack the baggage train. The Prince should have got his men back to the field where their presence might have won the day for the King, but Rupert had lost control of his exuberant troopers and instead they helped themselves to the enemy’s pay chest, and while they robbed and caroused, the battle was lost. Not that Artemas had cared either way, of course. Edgehill might have been a poor result for the King, but not for him.

He thanked God that he had purpose again after so many years of despair. He felt the same fire in his soul that he had when he stood on the battlefields of Edgehill and Naseby alongside his brother and father, and had known with utter conviction that they fought for God and against the evil influences that poisoned his enemies. Upheld by this faith he had fought bravely against the King and had delighted in Parliament’s victory.


  1. I've printed this out, as my 6year old son loves learning about the Civil War and we are looking at all the major battles. He's always asking me which side I would have been on had I been alive then, and I still don't know. Living in the West Country, there is loads of Civil War history about, esp Somerset and Lyme Regis. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks to Richard Denning, author of the 17th Century Historical Fantasy Novel, The Last Seal, for this interesting and informative article, (complete with illustrations) on The Battle of Edgehill 23rd October 1642.

  3. Great post!

    Jenna, if you're around the west country may I suggest checking out the battle of cheriton - it's my specialist battle and I wrote my uni dissertation on it. A beautiful site as well, have had a wander around the fields so many times now.

  4. Sam's website is Really worth a look-at!

  5. Sorry to slight Richard by sending people away before even mentioning what a wonderful post this is! Great pictures, too.

  6. I enjoyed the concise description of the political situation that led into the first real battle. I am not as familiar with this period of English history (Yank, here) and enjoy learning new things.

    Thanks for the post!

  7. Thanks for the tip Sam. Just googled, and Cheriton is a little too far at the mo for us - we are in deepest, darkest Devon, but we will be covering all the major battles with my son (I home educate) so look forward to that one. We've been to a few re-enactments for the Civil War, and we love it. Every year they have a Royalist Camp at Killerton House (Exeter) - fantastic! Langport isn't too far - may see if we can visit that place first.

  8. No probs Jenna - there is an absolute ton of cool ECW sites around here. Basing House had a massive siege (but again that may be a bit far for you as it's in Basingstoke) but there are always loads of re-enactments. For my sins I used to be a musketeer for the SK in Henry Tilliers regiment of foote, a Royalist! xD Do let me know if I can be of any help with anything as the ECW is my thing (as the cool kids these days say lol!)

  9. A thrilling recounting on the beginnings of the Civil War. Magna carts, as was pointed out in an earlier blog, guaranteed the lords' rights to approve any tax, so Charles was behaving stunningly badly -- and got what might be considered a good deal more than he deserved.

  10. Knowing all this, it always saddens me to look upon all those fine young men painted by Van Dyke (ie the Stuart brothers) and know that in the course of this war (often no more than a war of egos, I think) they were all killed. It always serves to remind me of the human face of this often-forgotten war. Thanks for this.

  11. Thanks for all the comments. I find this period fascinating. The 17th century in England is a dramatic time. Gunpowder Plot, Divine Right of Kings, Civil War, execution of a King, England as a republic, the Restoration of the Monarchy, Great Plague and Great Fire, The Glorious Revolution. Lots of history there.

  12. Great post, Richard. Really enjoyed it.

  13. Ok thanks Sam. And well done on being the Musketeer! My son has been re-creating the Edgehill battle with his lego mini figures. A few weeks ago he did a re-creation of King Charles' beheading! He says he would have been on the Roundhead side because they won!

  14. thank you for the helps me a lot for my research.

  15. Great Post!! REALLY helped with my essay!!!! Thanks!!! :D

  16. That was a great account of the battle of Edgehill. You just left out one thing - the equally interesting story of the phantom re-enactment that plagued the area for many years thereafter. When news of it reached King Charles in Oxford, he was so intrigued that he sent out an investigator to look into it and he confirmed it.

  17. Good article Richard, thanks for sharing


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