The first great battle of the English Civil War


  The first great battle of the English Civil War began in the afternoon of 23 October 1642 at Edgehill in Warwickshire and by nightfall 5,000 men had been killed. It was a desperately fought battle but neither king nor parliament gained victory so both had to accept the prospect of a long war. It was not a war against a foreign country. The commanders and soldiers on each side were not mercenaries but men from every part of Britain and Ireland. In wars today it is impossible to understand why people of the same country take loyalties to the point of bitter, unforgiving conflict. It happened in 1642 and, as in war torn nations today, every person and place was part of it. Essex experienced no battles or campaigns other than in the summer of 1648 when a Royalist army seized Colchester but it was still involved in the war. The county and its people were vital to Parliament's military strength and eventual victory over the king. Control of London was Parliament's great asset and in 1642 the king tried to bring a swift end to rebellion by a determined onslaught along the Thames valley. Had London also been threatened from the east the parliamentary cause would have been in great danger but Essex protected that approach and there was never any doubt that as a county it would be loyal to parliament. Essex commanded the Thames estuary and east coast ports. If Charles had obtained help from Holland and France his war effort would have been immensely more effective, but Parliament was in command of the navy and prevented any foreign help arriving. Essex's loyalty was invaluable in maintaining this advantage and in 1643 Robert Rich, Earl of Warwick, the county's most important nobleman, was appointed Lord High Admiral. East Anglia, with London, was the wealthiest region in England largely due to trade with the continent. Parliament was sure of a regular source of income from this region, something denied to the king who was forced to mortgage land and even pawn the crown jewels to help pay for his campaigns. In 1643 Essex became part of the Eastern Association, a group of East Anglian counties combined to organize their own defense and also raise troops for parliament's campaigns elsewhere in the country. From this association the New Model Army emerged to gain the final parliamentary victory over the king. From the beginning of Charles' reign the Members of Parliament for Essex, influential landowners and all the towns of the county all objected to forced loans, forest fines and ship money as misuse of royal power. Puritan ideas were held fervently in many Essex parishes which resisted the king's attempt to impose a new uniformity in worship. When war with the Scots and rebellion in Ireland plunged the king's government into crisis there was intense interest in Essex in the bitter debates in parliament. Closeness to London meant that national news quickly reached the major towns of Essex and even distant villages. By 1642 when it was clear king and parliament would not be reconciled without war, individuals in those towns and villages were choosing their sides. The most influential people in Essex were already for Parliament and against their king. On 4th January 1642 Charles I entered the House of Commons with an armed guard, determined to arrest five leading Members of Parliament whom he accused of treason. The five, led by John Pym and John Hampden, had been warned and made their escape. To many people the king's use of force on this occasion was the moment when civil war became inevitable. In the following months leaders of both sides continued to talk but for every conciliatory gesture there were as many preparations for armed conflict.

  As war approached both king and Parliament tried to place their supporters in positions of authority in every county and town. Even one respected local person could influence the half-hearted or those racked with doubt about who they should support. It was also the way to obtain an army because the only organized troops in England were the trained bands. These were formed by ordinary men of every village and town who provided their own weapons and turned out regularly for training by a professional soldier called a muster master. In each county they were commanded by the Lord Lieutenant so king and Parliament competed for his allegiance. On 5 March 1642 Parliament passed a Militia Ordinance naming new Lord Lieutenants. They were to appoint Deputy Lieutenants who were to raise all the trained bands ready for war as Parliament directed. The king condemned this ordinance in a proclamation in which he revived a practice called a Commission of Array. This gave authority to groups of men in each county, usually Justices of the Peace, who were to array loyal subjects for military service for the king. Though a Commission was proclaimed for Essex in June 1642 it came to nothing for by that time the Essex trained bands were firmly loyal to Robert Rich, 2nd Earl of Warwick, the most powerful landowner in Essex and the key man in bringing it so strongly to the side of Parliament.

  On 6 July 1642 both Houses of Parliament voted to raise an army of 10,000 to be placed under the command of the Earl of Essex. By autumn this force was in the Midlands ready to block the king's advance on London. Parliament's leaders were aware of the danger of a swift change of direction by the king and decided to have a reserve force defending the capital. The Earl of Warwick was summoned from the fleet on 22 October 1642 and made captain-general of an army to be raised in the city and adjacent counties. It came to be known as Warwick's 'second army'.

The second army included trained bands and volunteers from London as well as men from the Fleet, but most of the troops came from Essex. Two days after receiving his command Warwick held a general meeting at Chelmsford at which the gentry and freeholders agreed to raise and pay for a substantial force of volunteers. It was a tribute to Warwick's high prestige in his own county which, said a newsletter of the time, wished 'to show their zeal to Parliament and love to the Earl of Warwick'.

On two occasions early in November the second army prepared to withstand major attacks. Immediately after the battle of Edgehill the first Parliamentary army withdrew to Warwick leaving open the way to London. Royalist forces advanced as far as Reading but then hesitated. On November 12th the Royalist cavalry attacked outposts even closer to London at Brentford but Warwick's army and the trained bands confronted them next day at Turnham Green. The danger passed for Parliament when the arrival of the main army under Essex caused the withdrawal of the king to Oxford. Once that happened the Earl of Warwick resigned his commission so that he could return to the fleet.

Parliament had hoped to keep much of Warwick's army in service but many Essex soldiers were deserting and heading for home. Lack of pay and poor organization encouraged their departure as well as rumors of a sea-borne invasion of Essex by foreign mercenaries and 'most unspeakable cruel' cavaliers. Warwick caused annoyance too by trying to place professional soldiers, mostly Scots, in positions of command. The Essex-born officers took this as an insult, claiming that their men would serve only under those they knew. 'You have withdrawn from you the hearts of the Essex soldiers', they told their commander.

This was the major difficulty in keeping a Parliamentary army in the field. Warwick's concern for his own county had enabled him to form his army of Essex soldiers but now it seemed they were being asked to put Essex second to Parliament's interests and the majority were not willing to do that. By the end of November most of the Essex men had returned home.