Where King Charles raised the Royal Standard and so began the Civil War
Every schoolboy knows the story of the events that led up to the great Civil War which cost King Charles I. his head. The country divided itself into Parliamentarians and Royalists—the former being dubbed the Roundheads in allusion to their mode of hairdressing; the latter being scathingly known as Cavaliers in consequence of their haughty manners and showy garb.
Parliament had the best of it at the very beginning; holding London, commanding the neighbouring counties, the large towns and seaports, the navy and the Thames, they had also at their disposal most of the military stores, imposed import duties, levied taxes on every hand; while the king had to be content with the crumbs that fell from the nation's table. What the country would not give him, his adherents endeavoured to make up for by mortgaging estates, pawning jewels, and melting plate.
The contrast between the two armies was also marked, but in this the king could boast some superiority—of a kind. Most of the nobles of the land ranged themselves beneath his standard, bringing with them their armed dependants, men trained in the art of war; while his "rebel" Parliament gathered in the tillers of the soil, the tradesmen from the shops, and the artisans from the bench—men to whom weapons of war were new, and the din of battle strange and terrifying. But when men are fighting for the liberty of the subject against the tyranny of kings these drawbacks count but little.
Marching on Hull, Charles was refused admission. It was a sore blow, for within the town lay the stores which had been garnered for his campaign against the Scots. Falling back on Nottingham, he unfurled the standard on August 25th, 1642.
The raising of the standard was a momentous event in English history. From the castle of Nottingham six hundred infantry issued forth and set up the standard, on which was a hand pointing to a crown, with the motto, "Give to Cæsar his due." After them went the king, attended by two thousand men, and followed by the inhabitants for miles round. Up went the standard, the king's proclamation was read; the Civil War had begun.
The Earl of Essex came out against the king with a force of fifteen thousand men, eventually taking up a position at Worcester. The king, feeling himself unequal to give battle, fell back on Shrewsbury. Here he gained confidence because he gained strength, being reinforced by a large number of recruits. He seized the arms of the militia of several counties, and also some Parliamentary stores destined for Ireland. Twelve thousand men now gathered round him, and Prince Rupert, the king's nephew, ravaged the neighbouring country with his cavalry, on which great hopes were placed.
Essex had come after the king but slowly, "as if," says a historian, "rather following than desirous of overtaking" him. It was September 23rd when he reached Worcester, but a few miles from the king. Here he dallied for some three weeks, and the king, gaining courage from Essex's inaction, and from success which had attended the Royalist skirmishers, determined to break through to London, and to seek by one crushing blow to finish the war. The Stuart had Fate against him.
True is it that London was agitated; true that the Royalists in the south looked forward with confidence to the king's coming; true, too, that the Parliamentarians were amazed and set about defending London. But true, too, is it that Essex, as soon as he heard of the king's resolve, set out to frustrate him.
The king began his march, but Essex met him at Edgehill, in Warwickshire. Here it was that while out skirmishing Rupert discovered that Essex was advancing. Riding like the wind, he brought the news to the king.
It was during the afternoon of October 23rd when the king received this information. It took him by surprise, for although only a few leagues separated the two armies each was unaware of the other's proximity. Late though it was, Charles determined to give battle at once. He need not have been afraid, for Essex had also resolved to adopt the same immediate course, although most of his artillery and a large number of infantry and cavalry were far in the rear.
Marching across the hills, Charles saw Essex taking up position on the plain called the Vale of the Red Horse, midway between Kineton and Edgehill. Clad in almost complete mail and mounted on his charger, Charles gave the signal for battle, firing the first shot with his own hand. Instantly the opposing artilleries opened fire upon each other. For an hour and a half the duel raged, and then, when the way was cleared, the infantry engaged. Pikemen and musketeers on both sides rushed forward, seeking to drive each other back. Essex, seeing that the Royalists were making some headway, sent off a squadron of dragoons, which after a fierce conflict succeeded in driving off the enemy's right. The main body, however, with which was the standard, pressed forward till almost within musket shot. The Roundheads charged than furiously; the Royalist pikes were like a steel wall which refused to be broken, and the enemy fell back, "and Sir Philip Stapleton, our captain," says Ludlow, in his description of the battle, "wishing for a regiment of foot to secure the cannon, we promised to stand by him in defence of them, causing one of our servants to load and level one of them, which he had scarcely done, when a body of horse appeared advancing towards us from that side where the enemy was. We fired at them with case shot (i.e. old iron, nails, stones, musket balls, etc.), but did no other mischief save only wounding one man through the hand, our gun being overloaded and planted on high ground; which fell out very happily, this body being our own army and commanded by Sir William Balfour." A narrow escape!
Meanwhile Rupert and his cavalry had been busy on the king's right wing. Marching down a slope intent on charging the enemy's left, he saw coming towards him a regiment of Roundhead cavalry, lead by Sir Faithful Fortescue. On, on, they came—but on a different errand from that on which they had been sent. They came, not as foes, but as friends, deserters from the enemy. Joining forces with Rupert, their treachery demoralised the remaining cavalry squadrons coming after them. On the other hand, the Royalists took courage, charged furiously at the oncoming cavalry, and succeeded in breaking through their lines. Instantly all was confusion; the Roundheads, dispirited by Fortescue's desertion, turned and fled. Reckless, impetuous, and thinking not at all of the work that still remained to be done in the centre, Rupert pursued them upon the spur. Across the plain the fugitives sped, while on their heels the Cavaliers hung, hacking, hewing, cutting and shooting down with murderous ferocity.
At last, after a full-speed, death-followed ride of two miles, the routed cavalry came up with Hampden's artillery, which speedily made the pursuers turn about and gallop off for the royal standard.
The incident had cost the king dear. Thinking that the battle was won, a reserve regiment of cavalry had set out to follow Rupert in his wild rush across the plain, thus leaving Charles in a precarious position.
Essex had been quick to take advantage of the king's exposure. Two regiments of horse were sent to charge the Royalist centre. Both failed, but at last Sir William Balfour, whose squadron had so narrowly escaped disaster at the hands of their friends, suddenly swept his body of horse round to the king's rear, and fell upon the centre. Putting spurs to their horses, the Roundheads charged and charged again, breaking the Royalist line, working great havoc, and sending the foe flying in all directions. Quickly recovering themselves, the Royalists ranged round their king once more, though not before he had been in imminent danger of capture. As it was, the Earl of Lindsay, the commander-in-chief, was mortally wounded and taken prisoner; Sir Edmund Verney, the royal standard-bearer, was killed and the banner taken.
Thus did Rupert find the king when he returned from his wild pursuit. Had he but led his men as impetuously against the infantry of Essex, the battle might have been claimed as a distinct Royalist victory; but, almost exhausted, the cavalry refused to advance upon the solid line of musketeers and pikemen that faced them. On the other hand, Essex did not feel strong enough to move forward to the attack, especially as the Royalist cavalry had now returned. The battle, therefore, gradually eased off into an artillery duel, until night came on and put an end to it altogether.
The royal standard, however, had been recaptured. Lieutenant John Smith, snatching an orange scarf (the colour of the Earl of Essex) from a dead Roundhead, and wrapping it round himself, bravely galloped into the enemy's line, tore the standard from the hands of the man who was carrying it off in triumph, quickly turned his horse round, and galloped off with it to the king. For this deed Charles made the lieutenant a knight-banneret on the spot.
All that night the two armies lay under arms, waiting for the morning to come, both uneasy, both weary from the day's hard fighting. The day broke; it passed without a shot being fired. Neither side felt equal to renewing the conflict, though each claimed the victory of the previous day's battle. Without doubt it had rested with the Parliament, for Charles's attempted march on London had been frustrated.
Essex was advised to resume the attack at once. "The king," said some of his officers, "is unable to withstand it; three fresh regiments have joined us, and he will fall into our hands, or be forced to accept our conditions."
Essex and several other officers differed from this opinion, saying that it was best not to attempt too much at once, especially considering the untrained men who made up so large a part of the army.
Essex, therefore, moved off to Warwick, keeping in the king's rear. The latter fell back on his old position, though somewhat later he established his headquarters at Oxford.
But his first battle, though a drawn one, had put him on the blood-stained road of tragedy—a road which led to the scaffold in Whitehall.