The Battle of Worcester

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Worcester – The Faithful City

The Second phase Civil War had ended with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 and the establishment of the Commonwealth and confirmation of Oliver Cromwell as the main power in the land.

The young Charles Stuart however, still claimed the throne. Perusing this, he landed in Scotland in June 1650 and, in January 1651, was proclaimed King in direct opposition to the English Parliament and the Third Civil War followed – Charles invaded England heading south hoping to ignite a general uprising. When he was denied entry to Shrewsbury, he headed for Worcester which was known to harbour Royalist sympathies, known in fact as the Faithful City, due to its earlier role in the Civil War. In 1642 the Royalists had won the first skirmish of the Civil War in the battle of the nearby Powick Bridge. Furthermore, the city had had defended itself strongly against the Parliamentarians before eventually falling in the Siege of Worcester in 1646. The photo here is the 18th Century Guildhall, and the two statues are Charles I and Charles II, so the connection lives on.

As of August 1651, Worcester was garrisoned by a 500 strong Parliamentary garrison who, as a matter of strategy, offered minimal resistance to the Royalist army, thereby avoiding a siege which they felt would run counter to their interests. The Royalists entered the city on 23 August 1651 immediately  and started re-fortifying the city, including fortifying a substantial earthwork bastion, Fort Royal, to command the high ground overlooking Sidbury Gate.

The Royalist HQ was the Commandery, near Sidbury Gate, overlooked by Fort Royal. Charles watched the Battle from the Cathedral Tower; after the battle he went from there to his lodging near St Martin’s gate, from which he escaped.

Within five days of the Royalists securing Worcester, Parliamentary forces converged on the city. By 28 August 1651 the eastern approaches had been blockaded, but an all-out attack was delayed until Parliamentary troops were in a position to secure the Western side – Cromwell did not want the Royalists simply retreating into Wales. By 3 September 1651 he was ready to begin his assault and the Battle of Worcester commenced.

The Battlefield

This map gives an overview of the action, the city walls are the purple lines enclosing the shaded area. Cromwell had forces to the South-West of the city and at Red Hill to the East. The Royalist had troops close to the city, just over the River Severn in the area known as St John’s and also Fort Royal, just outside the city walls to the East (blue star, circled below) and close to their HQ, a building still existing and called The Commandery.

Battle map. The red rectangle, north-west of the large circle, is positioned in the battleground where the Parliamentarian forces gained an advantage after crossing the boat bridges and engaging with Royalist troops.

The River Teme and The Southern Battle

The early action centred on the South of the City, to the West of the River Severn. The first action was around midday, when Royalist troops confronted the Roundheads without success at Powick, where the church still bears marks of the conflict.

Powick Bridge

Gradually moving forward, the Roundheads failed to breach Powick bridge on the River Teme (the oval on the left of the map above) so the Royalists, still held the ground immediately south-west of the city and were protected by two rivers, the Teme and the Severn. Cromwell famously overcame this obstacle by use of two pontoon bridges at the confluence of the two rivers, one crossing each river. Precisely where the bridges crossing the Severn were positioned is not known with any certainty. The two possibilities are shown below, in the two versions of the photograph of the Teme and Severn confluence, which has been taken from the North, the city side.

The triangular piece of land in the centre in where the Royalist troops were and opens out to encompass the land to the southwest of the City (see large circle on map above). To the left, both the bridge over the Severn (red) and the bridge over the Teme (blue) are directly attacking the Royalist forces in the north of Worcester area. Alternatively, the right-hand photo shows a strategy whereby the bridge over the Severn (red) would have allowed all of Cromwell’s forces to group on the west bank of the Severn, with the second bridge (blue) allowing them to cross the Teme and engage as one unit with the Royalist army.

This is me standing by an information board on the East bank of the Severn, opposite the confluence.
Parma’s bridge over the Scheldt in 1584, built of ships.

It was a fierce battle. It is hard to believe that 370 years ago this now peaceful spot was the centre of vicious fighting in what is one of the last battles ever fought on English soil.

Fort Royal and the City Battle

While the forces were engaged South of the city, Charles, from his vantage point on top of Worcester cathedral’s tower, realised that an opportunity existed to attack the now-exposed eastern flank of the Parliamentary army. As the defenders on the Western side of the city retreated in good order into the city, Charles ordered two sorties to attack the Parliamentary forces east of the city. The north-eastern sortie through St. Martin’s Gate was commanded by the Duke of Hamilton and attacked the Parliamentary lines at Perry Wood. The south-eastern one, through Sidbury Gate, was led by Charles II and attacked Red Hill. Cromwell, seeing the difficulty that his east flank was under, rushed back over the Severn pontoon bridge with three brigades of troops to reinforce the flank.

Plaque at Fort Royal

Although they were pushed back, the Parliamentarians were too numerous and experienced to be defeated by such a move. For an hour, the Parliamentarians retreated before the unexpected attack. However, following their reinforcement by Cromwell’s three brigades, they reversed the situation and drove the Royalists back toward the city. The Royalist retreat turned into a rout in which Parliamentarian and Royalist forces intermingled and skirmished up to and into the city. The Royalist position became untenable when the Essex militia stormed and captured Fort Royal and turned the Royalist guns to fire on Worcester.

Meanwhile, the Royalist cavalry under the command of David Leslie that was gathered on Pitchcroft Meadow on the northern side of the city, did not receive orders to aid the sorties and Leslie chose not to do so under his own initiative. The non-participation of these troops remains something of an enigma and did the Royalist Army no favours.

Fort Royal Park today, overlooking the Commandery and the Cathedral

Returning to the city, legend has it that Charles II used an overturned ammunition cart to climb over Sudbury Gate, removed his armour and found a fresh horse; he attempted to rally his troops, but was unable to do so. A desperate Royalist cavalry charge down Sidbury Street and High Street, led by the Earl of Cleveland and Major Careless amongst others, allowed King Charles to escape along Friar Street to his lodgings and then leave by St. Martin’s Gate to the North and meet with some sixty of his officers. The flight was on.

This modern statue shows Charles in the act of escape

Casualties and prisoners

About 3,000 of Charles’s men were killed during the battle, and a further 10,000 were taken prisoner at Worcester or soon afterwards; the Cathedral served as a short term prisoner of war camp. Most English prisoners were conscripted into the New Model Army and sent to Ireland. Around 8,000 Scottish prisoners were deported to New England, Bermuda, and the West Indies to work for landowners as indentured labourers, or else to work on fen drainage. Around 1,200 “Scotch prisoners” were taken to London; many died from disease and starvation at Tothill Fields and other makeshift prison camps.

Parliamentary casualties numbered in the low hundreds.

Suggested walk

This section provides details of a straightforward alternative route to the one that starts the Monarch’s Way. It offers a wider coverage of the important locations and follows the timeline of the battle.

Timeline of the battle
  • The walk starts at Powick Bridge, as does the Monarch’s Way, follow the River Teme to the confluence with the Severn, the large, near circular, loop taken by the Teme can be omitted
  • At the confluence, follow the Severn onto Worcester, still on the Monarch’s Way.
  • The Monarch’s Way crosses the river at Diglis Bridge. This walk, however, ignores the bridge and stays on the west bank of the river.
  • Cross the River via Worcester Bridge, near where the bridge was at the time of the battle.
  • Rejoin the River path, this time going South along the East bank.
  • Just past the Cathedral, leave the River via Water Gate, go past the College Green and through Edgar’s Tower, the last trace of Worcester Castle, which was a prison at the time of the Civil War.
  • After the Tower, turn left along College Precinct to see more of (and perhaps visit) the Cathedral, then turn right at the main road. At the canal bridge, cross the road to see the Commandery, near the site of Sidbury Gate.
  • Carry on past the Commandery, turn left up Wylds Lane. Very soon, walk up the steps to the right into Fort Royal Park.
  • Climb up the park, seek out the cannons, the Liberty Oak and the battle plaque. Go back down and rejoin Wylds Lane, turn left, retracing your steps.
  • Turn right at the end of Wylds Lane, again passing the Commandery.
  • Arrive at and cross the dual carriageway, City Walls Road, along which fragments of the ancient walls are preserved.
  • Turn right into Friar Street, which Charles used to escape from the Sidbury Gate fighting. This road contains many remnants of Medieval Worcester.
  • Friar Street eventually becomes New Street, towards the end of which is the King Charles pub, a fragment of the house where he lodged at the time of the battle and to where he briefly returned after fleeing from Sidbury Gate.
  • At the end of the road, to the right, is another fragment of his lodging, now a hearing centre. There is a small statue of Charles escaping to be seen here. Moving slightly on, there is a plaque about St Martin’s Gate, where the King made his exit from the city.
  • To follow Charles route further, follow the A38 as it leads out of the City. This is a busy but interesting road, passing, for instance, Worcester Royal Grammar School and St George’s Square.
  • After about a mile along the A38, come to Gheluvelt Park on the left and the bridge over Barbourne Brook. It was here that Charles stopped to confer with his officers after leaving the city. This is an important location, but not one that is marked in any way.
  • To rejoin the Monarch’s Way, turn right along Sunnyside Street, right at St George’s Walk and left at St George’s Lane North, carrying on until you reach the canal, along which, the Monarch’s Way is leading out of the city. You could turn left to carry on the Monarch’s Way, or right to go back to the Severn.
  • Have fun!

See also