Battle of Cropredy Bridge
After the major Parliamentary success at Cheriton in March was followed by inconclusive sparring between the two sides, the two Roundhead commanders, Essex and Waller, it seems partly for personal reasons, split their forces. Essex was to head for the South West, and Waller remain in the Midlands.
General Sir William Waller was, however, still confident and looking to close with the army commanded by the king as it ventured out of Oxford . The two armies tracked one another, seeking to gain an advantage by out-manoeuvring their enemy. Eventually they found themselves marching northwards in parallel, either side of the River Cherwell near Banbury. Charles headed roughly 9,000 men, with some 4,000 of these being cavalry, a very high percentage and a significant factor in the following battle. Waller is thought to have had fewer men, though the difference was not enormous. His force was probably inferior in terms of cavalry numbers, however.
The two forces clashed in a battle of movement, very different from the set-piece affairs more common in the era. Indeed it is tempting to depart from precedent and rather than calling the affair The Battle of Cropredy Bridge, term it The Battles of Slat Mill, Cropredy Bridge, and Hays Bridge.
Charles at the head of his already stretched-out line of march pushed still further ahead to attack a small force of Parliamentary horse riding to join the main body, leaving a gap of well over a mile between the vanguard and the rear commanded by Northampton. Waller tried to split his enemy, knowing them to have slightly superior numbers, by taking the crossing of the Cherwell at Cropredy Bridge and driving a wedge between them.
The initial move was successful, the small force of Royalist dragoons guarding the bridge easily driven off by the brigade led by Middleton, but the advantage was quickly lost as Middleton with his cavalry pursued the enemy north, leaving the foot at Cropredy Bridge. Waller at the rear of the Parliamentary line of march crossed the river further south, and was met by stout resistance from Royalist cavalry under Northampton.
With Middleton and his cavalry fighting at the northern end of the clash near Hays Bridge, and Waller at the ford well to the south at Slat Mill, the Parliamentary forces had become just as stretched and divided as the Royalists. Worse, both attacks were repulsed and they found themselves on the back foot.
The decisive element of the battle came in the central area, where the foot and 11 guns left by Middleton near Cropredy Bridge were attacked by Royalist cavalry under the Earl of Cleveland. All the Parliamentary artillery was taken in this action, Cleveland’s advance only stopped by desperate resistance by Roundhead dragoons near the bridge.
Though the Royalists attempted to force their enemy further back, and did move some troops to the west of the river via Slat Mill ford, the battle descended into a stalemate, neither side willing to commit to mass attack. Small skirmishes by Forlorn Hopes and mounted contingents continued, but after nightfall had intervened Charles decided to move his forces away, worried that Roundhead reinforcements were en route to the area.
The battle of Cropredy Bridge was perhaps most significant for what it showed the Roundhead leadership. Their poor communications, ineffective second-tier leadership and ill-discipline on the field had lost them the advantage. Their cavalry above all was not yet the equal of the Cavaliers’: the decisive factor in the battle had been the Earl of Cleveland’s mounted force defeating the Parliamentary foot at Cropredy Bridge, in stark comparison to the failure of Middleton’s cavalry further north failing to rout the Royalist foot. The eternal political phrase ‘something must be done’ sprang to Parliamentary minds. That something would be the creation of the New Model Army.
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