By John Barrett
There is still a tendency to regard the battle of Naseby as the fatal blow to the Royalist cause First Civil War, dooming the king to inevitable defeat. Indeed with hindsight this is an accurate conclusion.
But neither King nor Parliament saw it in that light at the time. Montrose was still winning his series of victories in Scotland, there were substantial Royalist forces in the West of England, and the King hoped to raise a new army in the Royalist heartlands of Wales and the Marches and yet obtain military support from the Irish Confederates.
Parliament still regarded the Royalist threat as still extremely dangerous.
The summer and autumn of 1645 saw, of course, a steady decline in the Royalist situation, but defeat at Langport and Montrose’s reverses in Scotland did not extinguish admittedly increasingly desperate Royalist hopes. Many garrisons, including Chester, vital landing place for any reinforcement from Ireland, still held out, and there was the prospect that the veteran Jacob Lord Astly could raise a last field army in the Welsh Marches to enable King Charles to make a final desperate bid to reverse the tide of defeat.
Living as I have in both the Cotswolds and the Welsh Marches I have been interested in these often neglected final stages of the war for many years,. The Stow on the Wold campaign in March 1646 tends to be fairly summarily dismissed as doomed to failure from its conception, and to be treated in isolation rather than set in context in the final fiercely contested struggle for the Welsh Marches, and its place in the King’s increasingly desperate strategy.
Sources for most Civil War battles tend to be scarce and incomplete, and Stow is a prime example. Though we have the despatches and accounts of the Parliamentarian victors, there appears to be no similarly detailed Royalist report. News of the defeat was given verbally in Royalist Oxford by fugitives from the battle, and with Astley and his second in command Sir Charles Lucas, both captives of the enemy, they research had no opportunity to provide their own accounts.
This scarcity of sources makes an examination of the battle on the ground, and use of research into the 17th century topography of the area especially vital. Making use of these, as well as the contemporary accounts, led me to question some hitherto accepted versions of the battle, in particular its location. So far archaeology has not provided any clear information on the location of the battle, though it is to be hoped that it eventually will do so.
In brief I concluded that the battle was fought much closer to Stow than the traditional location near the village of Donnington, which is marked by the monument to the battle. Indeed, I suggested, not entirely tongue in cheek, that it might be more appropriately located in the car park of the Tesco store on the outskirts of Stow!
Studying the campaign in its wider context also provided an opportunity to look again at some of the colourful episodes and personalities involved in the final desperate months of the Civil War in the Welsh Marches. The Siege of Chester, fought to the bitter end by fiercely Royalist Lord John Byron, against coldly and methodical Sir William Brereton, and the surprise of Hereford by the highly pragmatic John Birch, the ruthless operations of the disorderly horse of Sir William Vaughan, and the deal struck between Birch and Sir Michael Woodhouse for the surrender of Ludlow, are just some of the episodes and characters worthy of re-examination.
These less well-known closing days of the Civil War will appeal to anyone – student, historian, re-enactor – with an interest in this period.
“The Last Battle” I think, brings my total of books on the Civil war period up to around a dozen. And I haven’t finished yet 🙂 In preparation for Helion are books on the impact on the war of troops from Ireland, and contributions to a forthcoming book on the Royalist Oxford Army. And after that, who knows? Maybe I’ll even get around to that edition of Prince Rupert’s Correspondence I have been thinking about for years!
The Last Army. The Battle of Stow-on-the-Wold and the end of the Civil War in the Welsh Marches 1646 is available to order here.