Battle of Edgehill
Edgehill was the first major set-piece battle of the Civil War . A clear victory for either side at this point could have meant a rapid end to the conflict. Instead a combination of the particular circumstances surrounding the battle and poor leadership of both armies saw the clash end indecisively. The war would drag on for four bloody years yet.
The long descent into the conflict had finally reached a point in 1642 when a resort to arms had become inevitable. Charles I had been obliged to quit London , making York his capital for a time. With Civil War on the horizon Charles attempted to enter Hull , where a major cache of materiel built up to fight the Bishops War was kept. The garrison was loyal to Parliament, and denied the besieging king and his troops access to this weaponry.
In August 1642 Charles was able to arm his forces better, taking the supplies held at Leicester and Lincoln . Raising his standard at Nottingham on August 22 Charles to all intents and purposes signalled that he was at war with Parliament. Failing to gather much support in the Midlands, however, he moved north to Chester and Shrewsbury , expecting to be greatly reinforced by Welsh supporters.
Meanwhile the Earl of Essex was given command of Parliament’s military response to this challenge, mustering an army of some 20,000 men in Northampton . Charged with keeping Charles from London, however, Essex failed, seemingly let down repeatedly by his intelligence sources. The king and Prince Rupert , more by luck than judgement it seems, moved their army between that of Essex and the capital. The royalists camped near Edgecote in Oxfordshire . Essex had managed to reduce his army’s strength by leaving garrisons in various major towns and cities. His forces now numbered about 15,000, roughly the same size as the royalist army.
Essex was alerted that Charles threatened Banbury , and marched his men to face them there. Prince Rupert’s cavalry patrols spotted the Parliamentarians, giving Charles time to line his forces up on the escarpment at Edge Hill, a major tactical coup as this control of the high ground would give them a distinct advantage over anyone attacking them.
Although not the most brilliant of commanders, Essex refused to attack the royalists on their terms as dawn broke on October 23, arraying his men some distance away. With more Parliamentarians arriving through the day, Charles and his nephew Rupert, commanding the cavalry, moved to close with Essex at around midday, redeploying closer to them by 2pm.
The manoeuvring finally ended when Essex had his artillery open fire at 2.30pm. Small sorties by dragoons from both sides were eventually followed by a full tilt charge by Rupert’s cavalry, smashing through feeble resistance by the opposing cavalry, musketeers and artillery. Setting a pattern repeated with moronic regularity in various encounters after Edgehill, the Cavalier horse pushed on to attack and loot the Parliamentary baggage train in the rear, joined by cavalry who had not even been engaged in the first charge.
Though without cavalry support to follow up the advantage gained, the Royalist infantry in the centre pushed on, but were met with stern resistance. Worse, the Parliamentary horse was able to charge the Cavalier foot with impunity, driving them back.
Neither side was able to marshal their forces to press home advantages gained, though at one point Princes Charles and James were in danger of capture as cavalry under Balfour pressed deep into the Royalist centre, the lack of a reserve nearly costing the king dear.
As dusk fell Essex ordered his men to withdraw, and though they remained in fairly close proximity, battle ceased for the night. The next day Essex was offered the chance of pardon were he to surrender, but he refused. Neither side wished to join battle on October 24, indeed their supply situation may have dictated their lack of aggression, and on the following day Essex retreated to Warwick . Charles, with the road to the capital open to him, chose caution, taking in turn Banbury, Oxford , Aylesbury and Reading , giving Essex the time to return to London. Charles would not have as good a chance to strike the enemy stronghold of London again.
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