In the early weeks of 1644, the course of the English Civil War, which until recently had seemed to be flowing in King Charles I's favor, began to swing towards Parliament. A Scottish army had invaded the Royalist-held North of England in support of the English Parliament, and on January 25th, at Nantwich, Sir Thomas Fairfax had defeated Lord Byron's "Anglo-Irish" army.
Capitalizing on these successes, Parliament's forces in the Midlands, joined under the command of a Scottish professional soldier, Sir John Meldrum, turned their attention to the Royalist-held town of Newark-upon-Trent. This was a key garrison. If it could be captured, not only would the Royalists lose most of their remaining foothold in the East Midlands, but communications between the King's headquarters at Oxford and his forces in the North of England, under the Marquis of Newcastle, would be severed. During the next few weeks, the attentions of both sides became increasingly focused on events at this Nottinghamshire town.
On February 29th, Sir John Meldrum, with about 2,000 horse, 5,000 foot and 11 guns, drawn from the Parliamentarian forces of Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, advanced on Newark. The town was strongly fortified and the River Trent aided its defenses. The Governor, Sir Richard Byron, sent away most of his cavalry before siege operations began, but retained a powerful garrison of at least 2,000 foot and about 300 horse.
Meldrum opened operations by seizing and fortifying the ruins of the Hospice, known as the Spittal, which lay just to the north east of the town. He established his headquarters here, whilst a force under Colonel Sir Michael Hobart operated on the east side of town. Byron still had links with the outside world via the area of land, known as "the island" which was enclosed by the River Trent, and whose northern exit at Muskham Bridge was guarded by a fort held by Sir Gervase Holles' Regiment of Foot, about 350 strong.
Meldrum had earlier ordered its occupation by his cavalry commander, Sir Edward Hartop, with troops from Leicestershire and Derbyshire, reinforced by 5-600 of Colonel Hutchinson's men from Nottingham, but the unreliable Hartop "had more mind to drink than fight", with the result that he gave Holles' men time to dig in at Muskham Bridge. However, the Parliamentarians constructed their own bridge of boats across the Trent onto the island, and on march 6th Major John Lilburne led a force of foot across. Meldrum's cavalry scared off a sortie from Newark by Byron's horse, and the Parliamentarian foot went on to storm the fort, killing Holles' brother, William, a captain in his Regiment, and taking 200 prisoners.
Newark was now surrounded, and the Parliamentarian leadership were apparently confident that Meldrum would soon take it, but the Parliamentarian general faced a number of difficulties. Not least among them was that his army had been assembled hastily from contingents from a wide area. These not only lacked experience in serving together, but their commanders were both unwilling to cooperate with each other and to take orders from Meldrum. Added to this, Meldrum met with unexpectedly firm resistance from the Royalist garrison. Byron's men not only repulsed at least one assault, but in a major sortie took 200 prisoners, but it was clear that unless relief came soon, Newark must fall.
There were still fairly strong Royalist forces in the area, principally those commanded by Lord Loughborough, based on Ashby-de-la-Zouch, but they lacked any clear plan or overall direction. Some outside intervention would be needed if a relief expedition was to be mounted.
The Northern Royalist forces under the Marquis of Newcastle were fully occupied with the Scottish invasion. Instead hopes rested with the King's nephew, Prince Rupert. On February 19th, Rupert had assumed command of the Royalist forces in Wales and its borders, and King Charles lost no time in recommending to him "the succouring of Newark". Early in March, the Prince learnt in a message from Newark that the town could only hold out for about 16-20 days. On March 12th, whilst at Chester, he received positive commands from the King to march to the relief of the besieged town.
This was easier said than done. Rupert was still in the midst of reorganizing and recruiting the troops under his command with the intention of eventually invading Lancashire and then marching to the support of the Marquis of Newcastle, and he did not have large numbers of men immediately available, especially as Newark might fall within a short time. Fortunately, Rupert's command had recently been reinforced by two strong, battle-hardened foot regiments from Ireland, under Colonels Robert Broughton and Henry Tillier, which were now based on Shrewsbury, and the Prince also had his own veteran Lifeguard and Regiment of Horse with him.
Hurrying back towards Shrewsbury, Rupert sent ahead Major Will Legge, with orders to muster as many musketeers as possible - for speed of movement - from amongst the foot there. Colonel Tillier, with 1,120 musketeers, was transported by boat from Shrewsbury to Bridgenorth, where they linked up on March I5th with Rupert and 800 horse. Orders were dispatched to Lord Loughborough at Ashby-de-la-Zouch to ready his forces, and have the enclosures on the line of march "laid open for better passage", and an experienced guide was obtained.
The Royalists probably mounted their musketeers, and on March 16th, at Wolverhampton, Colonel Thomas Leveson, Governor of Dudley Castle joined Rupert, with 100 horse and 200 foot. Loughborough, meanwhile, stripping his garrisons of men, had mustered at Ashby about 1,500 horse and 1,200 musketeers. En route to join him were 1,000 horse and 600 musketeers from the Marquis of Newcastle's command, under Commissary-General George Porter.
Meldrum, aware at least of some of the Royalist moves, sent his horse under Sir Edward Hartop to intercept Porter and generally to disrupt enemy preparations, but Hartop once again failed to carry out his mission. After some indecisive skirmishing with Porter, himself not a brilliant commander, Hartop, possibly on a premature report of Prince Rupert's approach, broke off the action and hastily retreated back to Newark. Not only had he failed to intercept the Royalist relief forces, Hartop by his unauthorized withdrawals, had left Meldrum without any accurate information on enemy movements.
On March 18th, Rupert linked up with Lord Loughborough at Ashby, which gave him a total strength of about 3,500 horse, over 3,000 foot (all musketeers) and three light guns. Pressing rapidly on, Rupert reached Bingham on March 20th, and camped 10 miles southwest of Newark, sending ahead scouts to glean the latest information on enemy reaction.
Though left somewhat in the dark by Hartop's failure. Meldrum was preparing early on the 20th to send his horse out again, when news reached him that Rupert, with a force reported to be 8,000 strong, would quarter that night within 8 miles of him. A hasty Council of War was called, where opinion was divided. Colonel Sir Miles Hobart, no doubt representing regional interests, urged that the parliamentarians fall back on Lincoln, but Meldrum decided to stand, concentrating his foot and guns behind the defenses of the Spittal whilst sending the horse out over Muskham Bridge to bring in supplies and contest the enemy advance. He may have feared that his composite army would disintegrate if called upon to conduct a difficult retreat in the face of the enemy, or may have been confident that he would hold out behind fixed defenses long enough to be relieved by the Earl of Manchester and the Army of the Eastern Association, which were wrongly reported to be marching to his support.
Royalist scouts sent back reports of enemy movements, as Meldrum's foot and guns withdrew behind the defenses of the Spittal, leading Rupert to fear that they might be about to retreat. Anxious that the enemy should not escape him, the Prince in the early hours of March 21st ordered the advance to be resumed: "the moon then well up, the drums beat, and all marched...."
Rupert and his vanguard of about 1,500 horse pushed on ahead of the foot, guns and rearguard of horse, and when they crested Beacon Hill, overlooking Newark, probably at about 4 a.m., with the main Royalist force probably about two miles behind the Prince. Some of Meldrum's horse that had been on the hill withdrew on the Royalist approach, falling back to the cover of their guns in the Spittal. Looking down from Beacon Hill, the Royalists could see the enemy horse deployed on the lower slopes.
Rupert had no intention of waiting for the rest of his army to come up before he attacked, and addressed his men: "Courage, let's charge them in God's name with the horse we have here, and engage them till our Rear and Foot be marched up to us."
During the charge Rupert and his Lifeguard of Horse penetrated deep into the enemy's ranks yelling their field word "King and Queen", to counter the Parliamentarian cry of "Religion". The Prince found himself almost surrounded: "having pierced deep into the enemy, and being observed for his valor, was dangerously at once assaulted by three sturdy Rebels, whereof one fell by his Highness's own sword, a second being pistolled by Master Mortaigne, one of his own Gentlemen, the third now ready to lay hand on the Prince's collar, had it almost chopped off by Sir William Neale." Rupert, as usual, came out of the battle with nothing worse than a pistol ball lodged in one of his gauntlets.
The Parliamentarians "though for a good while they disputed it roughly, yet by fine force they, and all the rest, were driven quite out of the field." They retreated back to their fortifications at the Spittal, as the rest of the Royalist forces arrived, and forces from Newark had sortied out to sever Meldrum's links with the Island. Although, after an exchange of an ineffective volley at extreme range, an attempt to seize the bridge of boats by the Royalist foot was unsuccessful, after which they fell back out of range of the Parliamentarian guns.
The Parliamentarian besiegers, now completely hemmed in, became the besieged. Their situation worsened when their garrison of the Muskham Bridge fort abandoned it without a fight, quickly followed by a mutiny by some of the Norfolk Foot in the Spittal. Yielding to the inevitable, and with no more than two days supplies with him, Meldrum requested a parley.
From information obtained from a deserter Rupert knew the Parliamentarians could not resist for long, but concerned by (false) rumors that the Army of the Eastern Association was marching to the enemy's relief, he granted them lenient terms. Early on March 22nd, the Parliamentarians were allowed to march away with their colours, swords and personal belongings, after surrendering all firearms, artillery and ammunition.
The Royalists took over 3,000 muskets and 11 brass artillery pieces, including "a Basilisk of Hull, four yards long, shooting a 32 (pound) ball", which under the name of "Sweet Lips", this huge gun was next to be fired in anger in the King's cause. Total dead in the engagement was about 200 Parliamentarians, and less than half that number of Royalists.
The Parliamentarian defeat at Newark resulted in a Royalist recovery in the region, with most of Lincolnshire falling back into the King's hands. Historically, the problems that beset the Parliamentarians was a lack of cooperation amongst subordinate commanders, as their forces were collected together from various commands. Although Rupert's reputation was greatly magnified by the victory and "master stroke", he was too urgently needed elsewhere to have time to follow it up. Indeed, the need to divert his attention to saving Newark had prevented the Prince from launching an offensive into North-West England, perhaps coming to the aid of the Marquis of Newcastle before he was besieged in York, and thus making the fateful Battle of Marston Moor unnecessary.
Battlefields of the Civil War,
The Great Civil War, Alfred H. Burne & Peter Young, 1959
"Mercurius Aulicus" (Royalist Newsletter)
Nottinghamshire in the Civil War, A.C. Wood, 1937
Newark: The Civil War Siege Works, Peter Young, 1964
The Royalist Army at the Relief of Newark (Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Vol.30) , Peter Young, 1952
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