On 14th June 1645, King and Parliament came to blows in the fields around Naseby. This small village, thirteen miles from Northampton, witnessed one of the great battles of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. It was certainly one of the most decisive. King Charles I’s army was resoundingly defeated, and his baggage and personal letters were captured, handing his enemies a propaganda victory too. The King narrowly escaped death. But all of this misfortune might have been avoided had it not been for one man.
A Dead Man
Robert Dalzell, 1st Earl of Carnwath, was a blunt Scottish peer. In the words of Brigadier Peter Young (founder of The Sealed Knot) nobody ‘took much notice of the profane scion of the house of Dalzell’ – at least until 1643, when England’s Parliament branded the royalist Carnwath an ‘incendiary’ to the war. At their prompting the Scottish Parliament sentenced him to death, but because he was with the King and out of their grasp, they simply declared him officially dead. The man’s title and estates here handed to his son. Had Carnwath really been disposed of, however, then Naseby might have had a very different outcome.
The battle started well for the royalists. Although contemporary accounts of the two armies’ strengths differ, all agree that the royalists were outnumbered – most estimating by around three thousand. Despite this shortfall, the gritty determination of the King’s veteran infantry soon gave them the upper hand. However, his cavalry did not fare so well. The royalist right wing chased their opponents off the field. But Sir Marmaduke Langdale and the left wing struggled to hold their own against Oliver Cromwell’s superior numbers. If Langdale’s horsemen broke, Cromwell’s cavalry could thunder unopposed into the royalist infantry. King Charles, upon observing this threat, readied his reserves to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
The Earl Intervenes
Sir Edward Hyde described what happened next. ‘The Earl of Carnwath, who rode next to [the King] – a man never suspected for infidelity, nor one from whom the king would have received counsel in such a case – on a sudden laid his hand on the bridle of the King’s horse, and swearing two or three full-mouthed Scots’ oaths (for of that nation he was) said, ‘Will you go upon your death in an instant?’ and, before his majesty understood what he would have, turned his horse round.’
Confusion spread. The royalists assumed the King was retreating and ‘all turned their horses and rode upon the spur, as if they were every man to shift for himself’ and the initiative passed to the parliamentarians. The King was pursued by Cromwell’s men, who had orders to forgo all plunder and seize only one prize; the monarch himself. At Bloodyman’s Ford, King Charles was converged upon and he discharged both of his pistols. The parliamentarians thought they had him. But the King, a first-class rider, spurred his horse through his hunters and escaped. Carnwath, that ‘profane’ and undead peer, had single-handedly wounded the King’s cause.
Mark Turnbull is the author of The King’s Spy, the first book in the Rebellion series, which features the character of Captain Maxwell Walker, a soldier turned royalist agent. The story opens with the Battle of Naseby.