As the morning dew settled over York, the Parliamentary and Royalist commanders sensed they were on the verge of a decisive battle. A battle which would either cement Royalist victories and return Charles I his kingdom or give new life to the struggling Parliamentarians. The Royalists, led by the dashing Prince Rupert, controlled most of the West and the North.
If Charles I was to regain London and crush the Parliamentary opposition, it was vital he destroy their Northern troops who were now allied with Scottish Covenanter forces. Rupert had already outmanoeuvred the Roundheads relieving the siege of York from under their very noses. This morning- 2nd July 1644- he aimed to deliver the final blow to the Parliamentary rebels. Marston Moor was to be the biggest battle ever fought on British soil.
At 4am Rupert rose. The Parliamentary forces, settled a mile south west of York at Long Marston, were still trying to regroup after their humiliating loss of the city to the Cavaliers. Rupert hoped to despatch them by surprising their disarrayed forces from the rear. Given the Cavaliers had only half the force of the Roundheads, speed was essential. But, tragically for the Royalists, their hapless commanders jettisoned this crucial element of surprise.
When Rupert arrived in York, and relieved the exhausted Earl of Newcastle, his attitude towards the commander who had sat besieged for two tortuous months was typically off-hand. This unnecessary rudeness towards Newcastle would cost him dear on the battlefield.
Upset by the haughty young Prince's attitude, Newcastle refused to obey orders and petulantly delayed his arrival at Marston Moor. Instead he allowed his troops, after months cooped up in York, to go on the rampage, drinking and plundering the supplies left by the retreating Roundheads - including over 4,000 pairs of shoes.
By the time Newcastle joined forces with Rupert in the late afternoon, the Parliamentary and Covenanter forces had fully regrouped on Marston Moor. An eerie quiet fell across the battlefield. The Parliamentarians chanted their metrical psalms whilst the Cavaliers grew frustrated at delay. Had Rupert charged then he would still have had the Roundheads on the back-foot.
But still he delayed as the various Royalist commanders thrashed out tactics and argued amongst themselves. Rupert delayed so long that by 7.30pm he was forced to retire his Cavalier force for the evening. It was Rupert's fatal error.
Across Marston Moor, the Parliamentary commanders spied the retreat. They knew instantly this was their moment. The Roundhead cavalry commander, Oliver Cromwell, gathered together his 3,000 strong force of horsemen known as the 'Ironsides' and charged. As they thundered down the slope, the heavens opened, unleashing an extraordinary summer hailstorm. Royalist forces turned in amazement to see the oncoming cavalry charge over the ditch dividing the two forces. Confused and frightened, they hastened back to their positions.
They were too late to stop the Roundhead advance. Many turned and fled. When Rupert heard the tumult from his tent, he threw down his supper and remounted his charger. Seeing some of his own horsemen in retreat, he bellowed: 'Swounds, do you flee? Follow me.' In he charged.
The Parliamentary and Royalist cavalry confronted each other in a clash of steel. Prince Rupert had deliberately positioned himself opposite Cromwell. The cream of the Roundhead and Cavalier forces fought it out hand to hand, horse to horse. Cromwell was wounded in the neck and briefly retired from the field.
Marston Moor memorial
But the discipline and training of the Ironsides secured their advantage. Such discipline ensured that his troops, instead of pursuing fugitives and raiding baggage trains, regrouped after every charge and returned to the fray. The Cavaliers had never seen anything like it. Further bad luck hit them when Rupert's horse was killed under him. The spirit and bravery Rupert instilled in his troops was lost. He retreated to hide ignominiously in a nearby beanfield for the rest of the battle. His long awaited duel with Cromwell was not to be.
But on the right-wing, the battle was not going Parliament's way. With a combined cavalry and infantry attack, the Royalists began to advance again - hacking through the Covenanter and Roundhead forces. Fear began to hit the Parliamentary force. Sensing loss, one of the Scottish commanders turned and fled - all the way back to Leeds. Another rode flat out for Hull. News spread as far as Newark of a great Royalist win. Church bells rang out in thanks. Only the brave Scottish pike-men stood their ground, but the battle looked to be going the King's way. Then Cromwell intervened.
Alerted by Fairfax to the damage being inflicted on the infantry, he took his Ironsides right across the field of battle to their assistance. Again and again, he charged the Royalist cavalry who now shamefully fled the field back to York.
They left behind, marooned on the battlefield, the infantry - alone, unguarded, with no 'air cover' but a great deal of Northern grit. The Earl of Newcastle's resolute Yorkshire force of Whitecoats stood firm as Cromwell's cavalry circled and circled, slashing and killing the foot soldiers, 'like stubble beneath our swords.' Scarcely a single man survived. In the words of one present, the 'Whitecoats had brought their winding-sheets about them into the field.'
With over 4,000 Royalist casualties, Marston Moor was a great win. 'Truly', a triumphant Cromwell wrote from the field, 'England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given to us, such as the like never was since this war began.'
Marston Moor was an absolute disaster for the Royalists. It was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War with 4,500 Royalist casualties and 1,500 captured troops - the Roundhead losses were limited to a mere 300. Rupert was humiliated and Newcastle fled the country in disgrace 'to avoid the laughter of the court.' But still the King remained remarkably positive. The West Country was Royalist and good news was coming in from Scotland. The Covenanters, still led by the Presbyterian nobleman the Duke of Argyll, had over-committed themselves. Their invasion of England had opened a flank in the Highlands, and forces loyal to the King were uniting together to stab the Covenanters in the back.