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A 17th century painting of the Battle of Naseby by an anonymous artist. Photograph courtesy Leicestershire County Council. See below for full caption.
The Battle of Naseby
Nearly 350 years ago, on June 14, 1645, a battle was fought that would decide the outcome of the English Civil War and ultimately change the way England was ruled.
The Battle of Naseby was a victory for Parliament against the King. The Civil War had been raging for almost three years; ever since Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham in August 1642.
King Charles I by Daniel Mytens © National Portrait Gallery, London
In those three years many set piece battles had been fought. At Edgehill the Royalists were victorious and at Marston Moor, the Parliamentarians carried the day but there was still no decisive overall outcome in the wars.
At Naseby all that changed.
"It was the battle that decided the war. It destroyed Charles’ main field army and many of his infantry officers were captured - it took the royalist force to pieces," said Glenn Foard, project officer of the Battlefields Trust and author of Naseby, the Decisive Campaign.
The field of Naseby today. The site of King Charles' decisive defeat of the Civil War in 1645 © BBC
The battle took place in a hilly area between Naseby, Northamptonshire, today a small village of about 500 inhabitants, and Market Harborough.
The battlefield appears on English Heritage’s Register of Historic Battlefields and is best approached via Sibbertoft Road. Here you will find a monument, erected in 1936 by Mr C. H. Reich, an ardent Cromwellian and student of the period, at the spot which he thought marked the start of Oliver Cromwell’s cavalry charge.
According to Northamptonshire County Council, responsible for the Naseby Monument, it in fact stands at the right hand flank of the Parliamentary infantry.
Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Baron Fairfax of Cameron. Unknown artist © National Portrait Gallery, London
There is another monument called the Naseby Obelisk built on an old windmill mound about a mile from the battlefield. This was erected as a memorial to the Battle of Naseby in 1823. Both monuments have an interpretation panel giving visitors information about the conflict and its consequences.
At Naseby the Parliamentarians were commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and, in charge of the cavalry, the newly appointed Lieutenant General of Horse, Oliver Cromwell. Charles I himself commanded the Royalist forces alongside his nephew and Lieutenant-General of his armies, Prince Rupert.
Parliamentarian pikemen and musketeers await the Royal charge at Naseby in a BBC reconstruction. © BBC
The National Portrait Gallery has portraits of all the main protagonists on show as part of their Civil War and Charles I display in Room 5.
The Battle of Naseby marks the first outing of Cromwell’s New Model Army (NMA), an attempt by Parliament to put under one command all their previous field armies. What was different about the New Model Army was that it put proven ability and commitment first - meaning that anyone could move up the ranks regardless of social status.
It was the first truly professional English army and today’s army traces its origins back to Cromwell’s NMA, according to Glenn Foard.
Prince Rupert, Count Palatine. Attributed to Gerrit van Honthorst © National Portrait Gallery, London
Charles, Rupert and the Royalist army arrived in Market Harborough in June 1645. Fairfax’s Roundheads were not far behind.
The painting is based on a famous engraving by Streeter and was probably painted within 30 to 40 years of the battle. According to Zara Matthews, curator at Harborough Musuem, it is believed to be quite an accurate description of the battle despite the white cliffs in the background.
Battle plan in Sprigge's Anglia Rediviva 1647, a near contemporary plan. Courtesy of the Cromwell Museum
On June 14 the two armies faced each other on opposite ridges. The royalists numbered some 10,000 infantry and cavalry but the New Model Army had the advantage with around 13,500 men. What followed was a close fought battle that, according to Andy Robertshaw, Head of Education at the National Army Museum, could have gone either way.
"[The Battle of Naseby] basically brought an end to the indecision of the fighting," he says. "It was a decisive victory for Parliament but could’ve gone the other way."
That day luck was on Parliament’s side. They killed or captured most of the King’s infantry and Charles I fled the battlefield.
Musketeers fire a volley in a Naseby reconstruction. Many inexperienced troops didn't grip their musket tightly enough and their shots missed the enemy completely © BBC
The National Army Museum is a good place to investigate the battle, it houses some of Britain’s finest military treasures including a series of prints of Naseby and an engraving of the battle by Joshua Sprigge, Fairfax’s chaplain.
The NAM also has a life-sized model of a royalist cavalryman as well as a selection of original arms and armour on show. Visitors can try on one of the highlights of the Museum collection - an English Civil War pot helmet, which would have been worn by both sides at Naseby.
Pikeman's pot helmet, c. 1640 © National Army Museum
The Royal Armouries, Leeds, boast weapons of the period having saved for the nation a cache belonging to Sir Alexander Popham, who armed the state militia and funded the Parliamentarian cavalry at his own expense. On show are swords, pistols and buff coats worn under armour in the mid-seventeenth century.
The Royal Amouries also hosts occasional themed study days, which give visitors a chance to handle objects and listen to a talk from an expert in the field. Contact the museum for more details.
Harquebusier's armour, English, about 1660 © The Board of Trustees of the Armouries
Not many relics from the battle itself remain, but at Northampton Museum there is an intriguing coin hoard on display. It was found at Naseby and, according to Glenn Foard, is believed to relate to the rout of the royalist army. Museum staff believe it was probably buried during the battle.
Naseby was not the final conflict of the civil war but, as Andy Robertshaw from the National Army Museum explains, it was the battle that effectively lost Charles the English Civil War. With the loss of his best soldiers the King could no longer meet the New Model Army in open battle.
He was never able to put together such a large army again or, as a result, pose a significant threat to Parliament. Naseby is therefore often referred to as the decisive campaign.
The Sibberfort coin hoard was scattered throughout the soil suggesting it had either been buried for safe keeping before the battle, or that it was trampled into the ground before the pillaging of the battle train after the fighting. Courtesy of Northampton Museum & Art Gallery
"Victory at Naseby meant that Parliament was going to be victorious in the first civil war. It lead directly to the execution of the King and led to Britain becoming a republic," says Andy Robertshaw.
Charles I was beheaded on January 30, 1649 outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall, which still stands today. His death warrant is part of the Parliamentary Archives of the UK at the House of Lords Record Office, which has custody of the archives of both Houses of Parliament.
Death Warrant of Charles I, 29 January 1649, Parliamentary Archives, Main Papers, 1660
The archives include items that relate to the great constitutional struggles of the seventeenth century like the civil war. As well as the death warrant there are secret letters belonging to Charles I, which were captured at the battle of Naseby by the Parliamentary army.
The National Archives, Kew holds a document declaring England a republic from the same year. England was without a monarch for the following 11 years.
The archives are open to the public but if you want to view any of these documents it is best to make an appointment in advance. Alternatively you can visit Citizenship: a history of people, rights and power in Britain, a website set up jointly by the Parliamentary Archives and the National Archives which talks about the Civil War and has excerpts of all but the letters on show.
The document which made England a republic. Chancery: Petty Bag Office: Certiorari Bundles 1649, ref. C204/9. Courtesy The National Archives
If you are keen to find out more about the politics of the period the British Library Newspaper Library holds a fascinating collection of papers called the Thomason Tracts, described as one of the most important sources relating to the English Civil War.
The period saw a vast outpouring of tracts and pamphlets. Indeed the NMA was a hotbed of political and religious radicalism with groups such as the Levellers, the Diggers and the 5th Monarchists espousing a variety of militant doctrines.
The Thomason Tracts is a vast collection of pamphlets, books and newspapers, printed mainly in London between 1640 and 1661. Originally brought together by George Thomason, an important London bookseller, many of them have survived nowhere else. If you want to delve into the Thomason Tracts they are available to view in the New Reading Room.
Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker © National Portrait Gallery, London
The English civil war years of 1642 to 1649 were some of the most turbulent in British history. Challenging ideas of the Divine Right of the King, they pitched brother against brother, Roundhead against Cavalier and their outcome not only left England without a monarch for 11 years but meant that no monarch would ever have absolute power again.
After the Civil War, Oliver Cromwell became the head of state with the title, Lord Protector. He ruled England up until his death in 1658 when his son, Richard, took over. They remain to this day the only commoners ever to rule England.
The Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, the great man’s home town, is devoted to the life of Oliver Cromwell. There is information and objects that relate to the Civil War including a small amount of arms and armour and portraits of major figures like Fairfax and Charles I on show as well as a copy of Sprigge’s battle plan.
Cromwell Museum. Courtesy of the Cromwell Museum
But perhaps the most interesting relic of Naseby still lies beneath the ground. After the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 Cromwell’s remains were removed from Westminster Abbey and desecrated.
The head and body were separated. The head was put on show for many years before finally being buried at Sidney Sussex College, Oxford, (Cromwell’s old college) on March 26, 1960.
Among the rumours as to what happened to the body are that it was buried deep beneath Naseby battlefield. To find out more about this gruesome story visit the Cromwell Museum’s online exhibition.
To find out more about the BBC television series visit the Battlefield Britain website.
Photo: a 17th century painting of the Battle of Naseby by an anonymous artist. This painting, purchased by Daventry District Council (DDC) with assistance from the National Arts Collection Fund and the Purchase Grant Scheme administered by the Victoria & Albert Museum. Lent by DDC to Harborough Museum. Photograph courtesy Leicestershire County Council.