The Battle of Worcester

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, and was also close to Wales from where it was anticipated significant quantities of new recruits would be forthcoming. 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 building 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. 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 know as St John’s and also Fort Royal, a small hill just outside the city walls to the East and close to their HQ, a building still existing called the Commandery (blue star, circled below).

The River Teme and The Western Battle

The early action centred on the South of the City, to the West of the River Severn. Royalist troops initially confronted Cromwell’s troops around noon at Powick, where the church still bears marks of the conflict.

Gradually moving forward, the Roundheads won further skirmishes at Powick bridge (the oval on the left of the map). The Royalists, however, still held the ground immediately south-west of the city and were protected by two rivers, the Teme and the Severn. The large circle on the map above indicated this location; the small triangle of land in the foreground opens up to become the St John’s suburb where much of the Royalist army was stationed, on the west bank of the Severn.

Cromwell famously overcame this obstacle by use of two pontoon bridges, one crossing each river. Precisely where the bridge crossing the Severn was positioned is not known with any certainty. The two possibilities are shown below in the versions of the photograph of the Teme and Severn confluence which has been taken from the North, the city side. To the left, both the bridge over the Severn from the East (red) and the bridge over the Teme (blue) are directing attacking the Royalist forces. 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 East of the Severn, with the second (blue)bridge allowing them to cross the Teme and engage directly as one unit with the Royalist forces.

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 Eastern 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.

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.

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.

Fort Royal Park today, overlooking the Commandery and the Cathedral

Once back in the city, Charles II climbed over an overturned ammunition cart at 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

Summary of the battle

See also