In 1642, Britain faced a political deadlock. Rivalry between Parliament and the monarchy reached boiling point as Charles I’s government was branded “arbitrary and tyrannical”. The time for deliberation and diplomatic compromise was over.
It was only a chance meeting of the Parliamentarian and Royalist quartermasters, both scouring around the villages of South Warwickshire, when it became clear the Royalist and Parliamentarian armies were closer than anyone had realised. It was only a matter of time before battle would commence.
Robert Devereux and The Roundheads
The Parliamentarian army was led by the Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex, an unwavering Protestant with a long military career in the 30 years war. His father, the Earl, had been executed for plotting against Elizabeth I, and now, it was his turn to take a stance against Royal authority.
On Saturday 22 October, 1642, Essex and the Parliamentarian army based in the village of Kineton. It would have been swarming with the sounds, smells and paraphernalia of a 17th-century baggage train. Around 15,000 soldiers, well over a 1,000 horses and 100s of wagons and carts, would have swamped this tiny village.
At 8 o’clock the next morning, a Sunday, Essex headed to Kineton church. Although he knew Charles’ army was encamped nearby, he was suddenly informed that just 3 miles away, 15,000 Royalist troops were already in position, and hungry for a fight.
The King Is Your Cause, Quarrel and Captain
As Essex scrambled to prepare his men for war, morale on the Royalist side was high. After praying in his private apartments, Charles dressed in a black velvet cloak lined with ermine and addressed his officers.
“Your King is both your cause, your quarrel and your captain. The foe is in sight. The best encouragement I can give you is this, that come life or death, your King will bear you company, and ever keep this field, this place, and this day’s service with his grateful remembrance”
Charles had no experience in war, the closest he’d ever come to an army was spying at one through a telescope. But he knew the power of his presence, and was said to have spoken “with great Courage and Cheerfullness”, provoking “Huzza’s through the whole army”. It was no mean feat to rally 15,000 men.
Rallying cries and Strengths of Conviction
For the Parliamentarians gathering in the fields outside Kineton (now an MOD base) this roar from the top of the ridge must have been unnerving. But they too were rallied. They were commanded to call upon their ancestors, to have conviction in their cause, that to remember that the Royalist troops were “Papists, Athiests and irreligious persons”. The well-known “Soldiers’ Prayer” was given before the battle:
O Lord, Thou Knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget Thee, do not Thou forget me
Both armies were pretty equally matched, and around 30,000 men gathered on these fields that day, brandishing 16 foot pikes, muskets, flintlock pistols, carbines, and for some, anything they could get their hands on.
The Battle Commences
At around midday, the Royalist army moved off the ridge to face the adversary in the eye. At 2pm the dull boom of the parliamentary cannon blasted through the Warwickshire countryside, and the two sides traded canon shot for about an hour.
Prince Rupert’s Famous Cavalry Charge
Just as the Parliamentarians seemed to be gaining the upper hand, Charles 23-year-old nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, pulled off a terrific attack.
Some thought Rupert was an intolerable youth – arrogant, boorish and impudent. Even that morning he had driven the Earl of Lindsey to storm off in rage, refusing to lead the infantry. Henrietta Maria had warned:
He should have someone to advise him for believe me he is yet very young and self-willed … He is a person capable of doing anything he is ordered, but he is not to be trusted to take a single step of his own head.
But despite his youth, Rupert had experience of leading calvary regiments in the 30 Years War. At Edgehill, he directed the cavalry to be a kind of battering-ram, thundering into opponents in a single mass, and driving the enemy back with such a force it was impossible to resist.
The future James II was watching on,
“the Royalists march’d up with all the gallantry and resolution imaginable … while they advanced the Enemy’s cannon continually played upon them as did the small Divisions of their Foot … neither of which did in the least discompose them so much as to mend their pace”
The Push of Pikes
Back at Edgehill, a fierce infantry fight raged. It would have been a deadly environment – musket shot whizzing past, cannon blowing men to smitherines, and 16-foot pikes driving into anything that it came across.
The Earl of Essex was deep in the action in a deadly tustle known as the ‘push of pikes’, Charles galloped up and down the lines crying out encouragement from a distance.
After two and a half hours of fighting and 1,500 men slain and hundreds more wounded, both armies were exhausted and running short of ammunition. The October light was fast fading, and the battle petered out into a stalemate.
Both sides encamped for the night near the field, surrounded by frozen corpses and the moans of dying men. For the night was biting cold, so much so that some of the wounded survived – their wounds froze over and prevented infection or bleeding to death.
A Trail of Bloodshed
Edgehill saw no clear victor. The Parliamentarians retreated to Warwick, and the Royalists made tracks south, but failed to monopolise on the open road to London. Edgehill was not the decisive, one-off battle everyone had hoped for. It was the start of a long slog of years of war, tearing the fabric of Britain apart.
Essex and Charles may have moved on, but they left behind a trail of bloodshed and upheaval. Corpses which littered the fields were tossed into mass graves. For those who survived, they were pretty much ruined, becoming dependent on local charity. One Royalist account of Kineton:
“the Earle of Essex left behind him in the village 200 miserable maimed solders, without relief of money or surgeons, horribly crying out upon the villainy of those men who corrupted them”