Ask people about the most decisive battle of the English Civil War and most will likely answer Naseby, which took place in Northamptonshire on 14th June 1645. This is where King Charles I’s veteran infantrymen were obliterated. His cabinet of letters was captured, and the private correspondence published to the world by Parliament. With the royalist cause billed as being irretrievably lost, victory for Parliament became a matter of when, not if. However – the King still had thousands of elite cavalrymen at his disposal. His Lieutenant-General in Scotland, the Marquis of Montrose, had just taken that entire kingdom. New infantry recruits were due from Wales and more reinforcements expected from Ireland. Yes, Naseby was a decisive turning point, but another less well-known battle dealt a killer blow to the royalist cause. It is an action that is not usually covered in civil war histories.
Sherburn-in-Elmet, Yorkshire, 15th October 1645
Lord George Digby, who I call the ‘English Rasputin’, had been King Charles’s Secretary of State since 1643. He was a silver-tongued, self-obsessed man with a devious streak. He could charm one minute, then stab in the back the next. What’s worse, like an impervious cockroach he would crawl out of the destruction he wrought time after time. The hard shell of this deluded politician believed that every setback was surmountable; there was always an answer around the corner that would reverse the situation. If there wasn’t, Digby would conjure one up, elaborate, make wild promises and blame others. In this way, he duped the similarly sanguine monarch. Four months after the Battle of Naseby, it was Lord George Digby who was placed in command of the king’s elite cavalry. His last hope. The Scottish Marquis of Montrose had been crying out for horsemen, and were he to receive them, he might conquer England and resuscitate the flagging royalist cause.
Digby had courageously served in the King’s army during the early days of the war, and was frequently wounded, until taking up his political role. Thereafter, as a civilian advisor, he did battle with the royalist army commanders. In this capacity, he orchestrated the dismissal of some and alienation of others, chief amongst them Prince Rupert and Lord Wilmot. By the last months of 1645, when Digby’s whispering campaign toppled the king’s nephew, he made a personal bid for a senior military role. This was confirmed, but the much more able Sir Marmaduke Langdale (who commanded the 1000-strong Northern Horse) was to support him. Typical of Digby’s two-faced approach was the fact that he had described Langdale as ‘a creature of Prince Rupert’s’ but now that he needed this ‘creature’ he embraced him.
It was on 13th October 1645, at Welbeck, that Digby’s fateful appointment was confirmed as Lieutenant-General of the royal forces north of the River Trent. It was a position once held by the feted Marquis of Newcastle. Digby’s commission seems to have been the result of his private connivance because none of the King’s officers – including the council of war – had any inkling that it was going to happen. The monarch blindsided everyone by revealing the decision in a speech to his troopers. Well may Digby have wanted it this way. The King had 2000 cavalrymen present, along with no less than 24 officers ranked a colonel or above who could have filled the role. The surprise prevented any coherent protest. Of course, Digby claimed never to have known that the appointment was coming. ‘At half an hours warning having (I protest to God) not dreamt of the matter before, I marched off from the rendezvous’.
The Parliamentarian, John Rushworth, notes their next move:
“it was agreed, that the northern horse, commanded by Sir Marmaduke Langdale, my Lord Digby, and my Lord Cornwath, should march into the north, to join Montrose [Charles’s Scottish general] the king, and the remaining horse, should go back to Newark.”
The advisors deemed the way north to be too dangerous for the King, therefore Digby jettisoned the monarch and galloped off with nearly half the cavalrymen in a bid to find Montrose. Even when news of the latter’s defeat broke, Digby refused to alter plans and continued north. Perhaps the fact that Rupert was heading for Newark, hoping to regain his uncle’s favour, influenced his motives. At any rate, the royalists struck at Doncaster, beating up some of the enemy and then scattering more at Cusworth. Upon nearing Sherburn-in-Elmet, the royalists ran into an infantry regiment of 1000 parliamentarians led by a Colonel Wren, who formed part of the army commanded by Sydenham Poyntz. Digby went on to defeated Wren’s force, but no sooner had he taken them all prisoner and seized their arms and weapons, he was informed of the approach of a second enemy detachment.
Colonel Copley led 1200 cavalrymen to the rescue of their parliamentarian colleagues. The Battle of Sherburn-in-Elmet that followed is a confused affair. It appears from most accounts that Digby’s small army had split up after the recent action. Copley’s men encountered half of the royalists south of the town, commanded by Sir Marmaduke Langdale, who marshalled his men with a speech.
‘Gentlemen you are gallant men, but there are some that seek to scandalize your gallantry for the loss of Naseby field. I hope you will redeem your reputation, and still maintain that gallant report which you ever had. I am sure you have done such business as never has been done in any war with such a number’.
During a fierce contest, Langdale’s troops eventually began to gain the upper hand. So far, so good for the royalists. But, yet another detachment of parliamentarians closed in under Colonel John Lilburne, a north-east man and Leveller leader. Langdale could not content with both Copley and Lilburne together. Now was Digby’s moment for glory; the chance for him to reinforce his subordinate and secure a second glittering victory that day. Such an outcome would have established him as a crusader for the King’s flagging cause and earned a military reputation that would have silenced his many doubters.
When some of Copley’s hard-pressed men broke and fled through Sherburn’s streets, Digby took them to be Langdale’s troopers. Thinking that his royalist sidekick had been routed, the Lieutenant-General marshalled his troops and simply left. Abandoned by their commander, Langdale’s 1000 cavalrymen could not withstand Lilburne’s added might and eventually broke with the loss of several hundred losses. The victorious parliamentarians went on to free Wren’s men and took back the arms and weapons that Digby had piled high in Sherburn’s streets. Though Digby and Langdale escaped, the parliamentarians secured a greater prize.
In the aftermath of Naseby, four months earlier, Digby had expressed his shock that anyone could have allowed the king’s coach and correspondence to fall into enemy hands. At the same time, he commented with some smugness that his own was safe and sound. Now, at Sherburne, he suffered the same fate. Ironically, the site where the carriage was taken (at Milford about one mile from the parish) is reputedly where the dead were buried too. The stash of letters was sent to London for Parliament’s urgent attention. Some were in cipher, but the breadth of secrets and military intelligence they revealed was worth multiple victories. Parliament even established a committee to scrutinise the correspondence. After wringing out every last detail, they handed them over to their Scottish allies, using the contents as a means of keeping them on side.
The 69 papers revealed the King’s hopeless position at Newark, cut off from his armies like a sitting duck, and identified a spy in the heart of Parliament, and who was summarily arrested. They also evidenced the Scottish royalists’ desperation for new recruits, documented the movement of the Prince of Wales, who was to be sent into the West Country, as well as the fact that at the heart of the royalists were many individuals (named) who were pushing for peace. The writing was on the wall. Crucially, there was evidence that the king was flirting with the idea of calling in a foreign army. The Queen was sending munitions from France, and in one she detailed the route they were to take, while the King of Denmark confirmed he was prepared to assist. The opinions of a senior royalist, that they should encourage Dutch and Portuguese ships to prey on the vessels of Parliament, was good propaganda for MP’s. One deeply personal letter even betrayed King Charles’s innermost thoughts. In a reply to a letter from Prince Rupert, the king accepted that speaking as an ordinary man he had no doubt of his defeat, but as a Christian, he confirmed that he would fight on in the believe that God would not allow traitors and rebels to prosper.
Dame CV Wedgewood, in her book ‘The King’s War’ reveals what happened to Digby and Langdale’s surviving troops. ‘On a false rumour that Montrose had rallied and was in Glasgow, they pressed on to Scotland as far as Dumfries, where they learnt the truth and turned back again, planning to winter in the inaccessible region around Cartmel, between the mountains and the sea and await (as always) the coming of the Irish. Their troops, lacking all confidence in them now deserted by the hundred’.6 It was at Dumfries, that Digby and Langdale suffered a second defeat – it appeared that Sherburne had taught both men nothing. Employing the same tactics, Langdale had advanced against the enemy, while Digby remained in reserve. When his advanced force eventually began to buckle, Digby turned and left them to their fate.
At Sherburn-in-Elmet, the king’s cavalry was all-but wiped out, thereby completing the defeat of Naseby. But perhaps as well for Charles, Digby’s flight to the Isle of Man, and then Ireland, rid the monarch of a malign influence.
Book Two in my Rebellion series opens at Sherburn, where both the king’s future and my main character’s, are jeopardised by a spy in the ranks. The trail leads to France, and the heart of Louis XIV’s government, which seeks to control the outcome of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
Mark Turnbull is the author of Rebellion.
- Thomas Carte, A History of the Life of the Duke of Ormonde, VI, p. 303. (1736)
- State Papers, Collected by Sir Edward Hyde. Vol II, p. 199. (1773)
- John Rushworth Memoirs, Part IV. Vol. 1, p. 123.
- Christopher Hibbert, Cavaliers and Roundheads, p. 258. (1993)
- Edmund Bogg, The Old Kingdom of Elmet: York and the Ainsty District. (1902)
- V Wedgewood, The King’s War, p. 504. (1958)