Battle of Powick Bridge
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|Battle of Powick Bridge|
|Part of the First English Civil War|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Prince Rupert||Nathaniel Fiennes|
|1,000 horse||1,000 horse|
|Casualties and losses|
The Battle of Powick Bridge, fought on 23 September 1642, was the first major cavalry engagement of the First English Civil War. It was a Royalist victory. According to Hugh Peters it was "where England's sorrows began".
King Charles I of England had left London and raised his standard in Nottingham on 22 August 1642. Although there had been some skirmishing in various parts of the country, it was on 13 September that the main campaign of the First English Civil War opened. King Charles, in order to reach the armouries of Derbyshire and Staffordshire, and find recruits amongst his sympathisers and trained bands, and also to be in touch with his disciplined regiments in Ireland by way of Chester, moved westward from Nottingham through Cheshire to Shrewsbury. The Earl of Essex marched his army of about 20,000 men from Northampton to Worcester.
The city of Worcester had medieval fortifications, but by the start of the Civil War they were dilapidated. The gates were still opened in the morning and closed each evening, but they were rotten and in a bad state of repair ("so much so that they would hardly shut, and if they were actually closed there was neither lock or bolt to secure them").
On 16 September 1642, Worcester was occupied by Sir John Byron, who was on his way to deliver wagons of silver plate from Oxford to Charles I at Shrewsbury. Byron realised that he could not hold Worcester with a Parliamentary army under the command of the Earl of Essex already approaching the city, and had sent a request to the King for additional forces to aid him. The Parliamentarians were aware of Byron's mission, and an advanced force under the command of Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes arrived at the Sidbury Gate early on 22 September. What followed was typical of the inexperienced soldiery on both sides. The Parliamentarians were not challenged as they approached the gate; and had they but known it, they could have pushed it open and been in the town without difficulty. However they struck the gates with an axe which made a hole in it and then fired a musket through the hole. This aroused the lax Royalist guard who called out the Royalist garrison. The Parliamentarian assault team quickly withdrew. They then loosely invested the north of the city. In doing so they hoped to prevent Byron and his convoy leaving the city, which could be taken by Essex's main force in a day or so.
Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes decided to cross the river Severn, and remain on the west bank until the vanguard of the Parliamentary army, under the command of the Lord General, the Earl of Essex, should appear in the east, and then place himself on the Shrewsbury road in the line of Byron's retreat, meanwhile keeping watch on that Shrewsbury road to intercept any movement of Byron before Essex appeared. The plan was carefully thought out, and was probably the best one under the circumstances. By it Byron was placed in a trap, and Fiennes had only to wait for the arrival of Essex to compel Byron to surrender.
To carry out his plan Fiennes ordered his men to march south down the Severn so as to cross to the west bank and assemble at Powick, a village 3 miles (4.8 km) from Worcester. Whoever selected the spot, Fiennes or his expert advisers, the historian Willis-Bund thought it showed considerable tactical knowledge, for the post was a strong one, commanding good views of Worcester and the Severn valley, and one from which there would be no difficulty in intercepting Byron on the road to Shrewsbury as soon as Essex's arrival was seen.
Rupert reached Bewdley from Bridgnorth on Thursday, 22 September. He then knew, if he did not know before, that if Byron was to be saved instant action was necessary. He was 16 miles (26 km) from Worcester; Essex with his whole army was at about the same distance. Rupert set off from Bewdley very early on 23 September. Marching through Astley, Shrawley, Holt, and Hallow he reached St. John's, the western suburb of Worcester, about mid-day. Here he halted, probably hearing that some of the Parliamentary troops were at Powick. On this he divided his force, sending a detachment into Worcester to help Byron to get all ready for a start. The preparation that Byron made for this was probably the origin of the news that was brought to Powick and led Fiennes to march to intercept him.
The evening of 22 September passed off quietly, Fiennes and his men were not disturbed. In some way (it is not recorded in the primary sources) it was well known in Worcester that Fiennes had occupied Powick, for on the 23 September the Worcester people walked out in some numbers to Powick, if not to show sympathy with Fiennes, at least to see the soldiers and what was going on. Among those who went was Richard Baxter, who tells us he walked out to Powick to see the soldiers out of curiosity. His curiosity might have cost him dear. While he was at Powick, a message came in all haste from Worcester that Byron's men were mounting and preparing to set off. Fiennes and his men at once jumped to the conclusion, that hearing of the advance of Essex, Byron was making a desperate dash to get his convoy off towards Shrewsbury.
This is what Fiennes anticipated would be done and this he was there to prevent. As the fact became known among Fiennes' men the excitement grew to be intense. They were most eager to set off at once and get in front of Byron on the Shrewsbury road. Fiennes was, however, not left without wise counsels. It was suggested that the news was false, and only invented to get him to leave his advantageous position at Powick, possibly to draw him into an ambush, or to lead him off so as to leave the way clear for Byron to escape. No one ever seems to have suspected the real reason of Byron's sudden movement.
Fiennes would not listen to the advice that he should remain at Powick until Essex came. He urged that "he had been sent to intercept Byron, that his force was superior to Byron's in discipline, in numbers, in arms, and in equipment, that if once Byron was allowed to escape he would never be caught again.
Sir John Brown, Fiennes' expert adviser, strongly urged an immediate advance should be made. In this view Fiennes cordially concurred, and ordered it to be carried out. This decision was, doubtless, the right one with the knowledge that Fiennes then had of the Royalist force in his front. He believed he had only Byron to deal with, and if that was so, as Byron was not reinforced (and Fiennes had no reason to believe he was), if he left Worcester his fate was settled.
Fiennes ordered his men to mount and fall in on a large meadow just below the village of Powick Ham. Across this meadow runs the road from Powick to Worcester (the road that Fiennes would have to take to intercept Byron). On falling in Fiennes allowed his troopers to indulge in singing a psalm. This ended, they were ordered to march down the road towards Worcester.
About 0.75 miles (1.21 km) from Powick the road crosses the River Teme by an old narrow brick bridge, so narrow (it is only 8 feet (2.4 m) wide) that not more than two men could ride over it abreast. Fiennes' leading files crossed the bridge, and following the road, which was little better than a lane, with high hedges on each side, concealing anyone going up the road from sight, passed a public-house, called "The Chequers", on up the lane to the point where it entered on a large open field, called Wickefield.
From Wickefield, which is comparatively high ground, on one side, Worcester is visible; the other overlooks the bridge and the lane leading to Powick. This lane which was called "Cut Throat Lane", and is now renamed "Swinton Lane", after crossing the field, passed on to the left, leading into the main road from Worcester to Bransford at a point about 1.25 miles (2.01 km) from Worcester. Near the point where the lane from the bridge opened out into the field there then stood a large thorn tree.
Fiennes' men, probably from their eagerness to push on, and from the narrowness of the bridge over which they were passing, got somewhat out of formation, and while passing up the lane did not regain it. They were going somewhat carelessly, never expecting to see anyone but Byron and his men trying to escape. They had not as yet got nearly far enough on their way to hope to see them; all they expected to do was to re-form when they gained the open field from the lane. Some of them reached this point. Those who did so saw a sight that was to them a somewhat startling surprise.
Rupert, with the main body of his men, marched up the Bransford Road, turned down "Cut Throat Lane", into Wickefield, Whether it was that he held the Parliament troops in supreme contempt, or whether it was carelessness or forgetfulness it is impossible to say, but on arriving in the field a halt was ordered. After their long march the men were allowed to dismount, no reconnaissance was made, no sentry posted. The day was hot, the men were tired; in a few minutes after the order was given to dismount officers and men were resting on the ground. Had it been a time of profound peace there could not have been greater slackness nor a greater disregard to all ordinary military rules.
It is not easy to say what was the actual strength of the force under Rupert in Wickefield. As he had sent a detachment to Worcester he had not the full strength with which he marched from Bewdley. Whatever its actual number, most writers agree it was an inferior force to that led by Fiennes, both in number, equipment, and discipline. But it had one priceless advantage which more than compensated for all these, it was the crack force of the King's army, composed not only of gentlemen accustomed to the use of the sword, but also of some of the bravest men in the Royalist ranks, Rupert and his brother Prince Maurice were present, Lord Wilmot, the Commissary General of the Royalist army, Lord Digby, Sir Lewis Dyve, and others whose names were soon to be famous as Royalist leaders.
Sitting quietly under the thorn tree, surrounded by his officers, the last thing Rupert thought about was the near presence of the enemy. Something attracted his attention, causing him to look up towards the end of the lane, and there he saw emerging from it the leading files of Fiennes's cavalry, Rupert was fairly caught, and caught as the result of his own carelessness and neglect to post pickets.
Probably Fiennes was equally surprised. Had he possessed any military knowledge or spirit he would at once have ordered his men to charge. If he had done so the Cavaliers would have been routed, but Fiennes was not an experienced and bold military leader. He was too utterly astonished to take advantage of the opportunity and he let it pass. He was not given another.
Rupert, whatever his faults, knew how to act on an emergency. Without waiting to order his men to mount, he leaped on his horse and, calling out "Charge", rode right into the advancing Roundhead troopers. As quickly as they could his officers followed him. Before their men were in their saddles Rupert, followed by Prince Maurice (his younger brother), Lords Wilmot and Digby, and Sir Lewis Dyve, were in the midst of the Parliament cavalry. The fighting was sharp, as is shown from the fact that with the exception of Rupert all the other officers were wounded. However by their bold actions they had redeemed Rupert's folly.
Fiennes' men, taken at the moment they were emerging from the lane, were too surprised to fight. Turning their horses they tried to regain the lane. The confusion caused by this prevented the possibility of any formation being attempted. The dreaded Rupert was in their midst. Disconcerted, discredited, discouraged, they tried to get back down the lane. They blocked its entrance, forced back those behind them, who in their turn tried to escape. Thus before Rupert's men came up, the lane was filled with a struggling, frightened mass of horsemen, riding over each other in their efforts to get away. As the leading files turned and tried to get back, so did the rear files. Even without any pressure from the Royalists the rout was complete if the fugitives could not be rallied.
Fiennes, Colonel Edwin Sandys[a] and the Quarter-Master, Major Alexander Douglas, and Captain Edward Wingate drew across the lane and tried to show a front to the Royalists, but Rupert's troopers were now coming up, and cutting their way into the terrified Roundheads drove them back on their officers, who were ridden down by their own men. The fleeing, struggling mass pressed on for the bridge. The confusion was hopeless. What with those carried away in the rush, those cut down by the Cavaliers, those unable to control their horses, a rally was impossible. Major Douglas was killed and Colonel Sandys was mortally wounded (captured and died of his wound shortly afterwards in Worcester).
The Parliamentary officers would not believe it to be so. At the bridge Balfour[b] and the two Fiennes [c] facedabout and drawing across the road tried to turn their men. It was not to be, the men were past rallying. Pressed on by panic, they rushed through the line of the officers on to the bridge. Here things became worse, for the road narrowed. Some fell over into the water, some were trodden down by the horses, some were cut down by the soldiers, some got across the bridge into the road. The route continued across the Ham up into Powick village, through the village, along the Upton road. Beyond the village Rupert did not continue the pursuit Baxter, who says he was near enough to see the whole affair, states the pursuit was not continued "much beyond the bridge".
Possibly the fact of their long march in the morning, and the knowledge that to bring Byron into safety there must be another long march in the evening, for once made Rupert prudent; or possibly he did not know but that he might blunder into the whole Parliamentary army under the command of the Earl of Essex. Whatever it was, Rupert recalled his men.
Prince Rupert and his men had done their work so effectually that no pursuit was needed. Fiennes' troopers had the fear of Rupert before their eyes. Along the 11 miles (18 km) of road from Powick to Upton, over Upton Bridge, along the 8 miles (13 km) across Defford Common to Pershore, these men went as fast as they could get their horses to go, too much alarmed to turn aside or halt.
They reached Pershore just as the advanced guard of Essex's army was marching into it. Seeing these frightened troopers galloping wildly into their midst, Essex's men also turned and went back as quickly as possible, thus causing alarm and terror even to the main body of Essex's army. Edmund Ludlow, who was present, serving in Essex's body guard, the crack corps of his army, describes the effect of the appearance of Fiennes' troopers on the best of the Parliament troops:
The body of our routed party returned in great disorder to Pershore, at which place our Life Guard was appointed to quarter that night. When we were marching into Pershore we discovered horsemen riding very hard towards us, with drawn swords, and many of them without hats, from whom we understood the particulars of our loss, not without improvement by reason of the fear with which they were possessed, telling us that the enemy was hard by in pursuit of them, whereas it afterwards appeared they came not within four miles of that place. Our Life Guard, being for the most part strangers to things of this nature, were much alarmed with the report. Yet some of us, unwilling to give credit to it until we were better informed, offered ourselves to go out upon a further discovery of the matter. But our Captain (Sir Philip Stapleton) not being then with us, his Lieutenant, one Bamham, an old soldier (a generation of men much cried up at that time), drawing us into a field, where he pretended we might more advantageously charge if there should be occasion, commanded us to wheel about; but our gentlemen, not understanding the difference between wheeling about and shifting for themselves, their backs being now towards the enemy, whom they thought to be close in the rear, retired to the army in a very dishonourable manner, and the next morning rallied at the head-quarters, when we received but cold welcome from the general, as we well deserved.
Halting his troops at Powick, Rupert collected his men, took up his wounded, marched back to Worcester. His detachment that had gone into Worcester earlier in the day had made all the preparations for the convoy to move. A halt of a few hours was all that Rupert allowed, the private soldiers who were taken prisoners were released on their promise not to serve again against the King, the wounded were left in Worcester, and in the evening Rupert was ready to set off for Shrewsbury with the convoy.
Rupert and his command with Byron's convoy left Worcester that evening, marching back along the road they had come in the morning, through Hallow and Holt. They turned off by the Hundred House, over Abberley Hill to Tenbury, halting in the morning at Burford, having marched some 20 miles (32 km).
The party rested on the Saturday, 24 September, after their exertions on the previous day. On Sunday, they had a short march to Ludlow, and on Monday, 26 September, at last, after all its dangers and perils, Byron brought his convoy safe to its destination, Shrewsbury.
Essex arrived in front of Worcester on 24 September (the day after the battle) and without opposition his forces marched in. Essex and his army treated Worcester as a hostile city, officially for letting the Royalists in without a fight, but also due to their frustration at losing the convoy of silver and the Battle of Powick Bridge.
At the King's headquarters in Shrewsbury, many Royalist officers eager to attack Essex's new position at Worcester. But the road to London now lay open and it was decided to take it. The intention was not to avoid a battle, for the Royalist generals wanted to fight Essex before he grew too strong, and the temper of both sides made it impossible to postpone the decision. In the Earl of Clarendon's words: "it was considered more counsellable to march towards London, it being morally sure that Essex would put himself in their way". Accordingly, the army left Shrewsbury on 12 October, gaining two days' start on the Parliamentarians, and moved south-east. This had the desired effect. Essex remained in Worcester for about a month before leaving with the bulk of his army for Warwickshire (to intercept the Royalist march on London) and on to the battle of Edgehill (23 October 1642).
By coincidence the English Civil Wars ended with another clash at Powick Bridge almost exactly nine years later during the Battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. The Royalists broke the bridge, but Major-General Richard Deane forced his way over the River Teme and pursued them into Worcester. After the battle Hugh Peters gave the Parliamentarian militia a rousing farewell sermon that included the sentence "When your wives and children shall ask you where you have been, and what news: say you have been at Worcester, where England’s sorrows began and where they are happily ended".
- BFT staff 2012
- Atkin 1998, p. 120.
- Atkinson 1911, p. 403.
- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 37.
- Willis-Bund 1905, pp. 37–40.
- Willis-Bund 1905, pp. 40–49.
- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 39.
- Willis-Bund 1905, pp. 41–42.
- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 40.
- Willis-Bund 1905, pp. 40–41.
- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 41.
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- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 43.
- (Find A Grave Memorial 2013)
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- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 44.
- Willis-Bund 1905, p. 44 cites Ludlow Memoirs p. 18.
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- Atkinson 1911, p. 404.
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- Atkin, Malcolm (1998). Cromwell's Crowning Mercy The battle of Worcester 1651. Sutton Publishing. p. 120.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- BFT staff (2012). "UK Battlefields Resource Centre - The Civil Wars - The Edgehill Campaign - The Battle of Battle of Powick Bridge". Battlefields Trust.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Atkinson, Charles Francis (1911). "Great Rebellion". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. 12 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 403–404.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Willis-Bund, John William (1905). The Civil War in Worcestershire, 1642-1646; and the Scotch Invasion of 1651. Birmingham: The Midland Educational Company. OCLC 5771128.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
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