Yorkshire is famous for many things, and its historic battles are among them. We all know that our county can claim the bloodiest battle in England (Towton 1461), but were you also aware that the largest battle ever fought on English soil took place here in Yorkshire too? The title goes to Marston Moor just to the west of York, a battle during the Civil War.
In April 1644, a siege of York began. The city was held by the Earl of Newcastle and Lord Eythin who immediately impounded staple foods and rationed the population to dig in against the siege. Major assaults were launched against the city defences, but these were repelled with significant Roundhead casualties.
Under the orders of King Charles I, his nephew Prince Rupert began his march to aid York and arrived at Skipton Castle on the 26th June. Receiving reinforcements from the north, he marched on reaching Knaresborough on the 30th. Learning of the arrival of Prince Rupert’s troops, the Parliamentary and Scots army abandoned the siege and moved to intercept them, setting up position near Long Marston, 6 miles west of York.
On the 1st July, the Royalist army led a feint, using a large body of Horse units, which the Roundheads succumbed to. This enabled the main army of Prince Rupert to march around them and towards York, capturing a pontoon bridge at Poppleton and sending Lord George Goring into York to relieve the city. The objective was complete, but this was not enough for Rupert, who wanted to crush the enemy and impress his uncle.
On 2nd July 1644, Prince Rupert’s army of around 13,000 foot soldiers and 5000 Horse and Dragoons left York and marched for Long Marston. It took several hours for both armies to fully arrive into position. The Roundheads and Scots formed up on the top of rising ground running west to east, and must have looked imposing to their enemy, outnumbering them vastly with around 27,000 troops in total.
Skirmishes took place by the Horses on the left flank of the Royals until they withdrew under cannon fire. Due to the late hour, Rupert intended to camp overnight and attack in the morning but at 7pm a signal gun sounded the advance of the Roundheads. Rain arrived which extinguished the fuses of many Royal musketeers, meaning that by the time the enemy reached the ditch where they were lined up, the volley they were met with did little to slow their advance.
Sir Thomas Fairfax drove Royalist regiments off the extreme flank of the field and chased them most of the way back to York.
Lord Goring retaliated against Fairfax’s remaining troops so that by the time he returned, his brother was mortally wounded and many of the men were fleeing the battlefield. The Royalist horse troops dealt with three Scots regiments on the right wing forcing them to retreat. Cromwell’s horses were faring better on the left however, driving Lord Byron’s men off the battlefield despite Cromwell himself being wounded in the arm.
Prince Rupert had been dismounted at the start of the battle and upon remounting surveyed the battlefield. He saw the left wing winning but the right in trouble. He rode to the threatened wing and put up a fierce resistance. It was not enough though and the Royalists retreated, chased down by Cromwell’s horses.
The Battle of Marston Moor was a heavy defeat for the Royalist cause. The Roundhead-Scots casualties are estimated at around 1500, with Royalists at around 4000 killed and 1500 captured. Many more deserted. The roads to York were said to be lined with the dead and dying. Rupert fled to Richmond whilst Lord Newcastle and Lord Eythin went into exile sailing from Scarborough. The city of York surrendered to the Parliamentarians on the 12th July 1644.
Today, the area is largely the same and Marston Moor is one of the best-preserved battlefields in the country. Along the road running across the middle of the battlefield is a monument marking the battle, along with an interpretation panel for visitors.