Civil War Years 1644-49

The Battle of Sowerby Bridge…and the fate of Heptonstall

On 4th January 1644, Major Eden marched a force of 600 men from Heptonstall to Sowerby, intending to attack the village of Sowerby Bridge at the bottom of the hill. The Royalists defended the bridge bravely in hand-to-hand fighting, but the bridge and 42 prisoners was taken. Three Royalist soldiers were killed. Dividing his forces, some of Eden’s men demolished Sowerby Bridge’s defences, while the other part, under Captain Farrer, pursued the defeated Royalists as they fled towards Halifax.

Battle of Sowerby Bridge © C Widdall
Battle of Sowerby Bridge © C Widdall

But Farrer pursued too far and found himself behind enemy lines. Farrer and his men then attempted to go around to the north-west of Halifax via Ovenden Woods towards Luddenden Dean, planning to cross Midgely Moor on the way back to Heptonstall. However, it was difficult terrain for the horses and the Parliamentarians were pursued and intercepted by Royalist Cavalry from King Cross. Farrer decided to make a stand and fighting occurred on the slope between Hunter Hill and Mixenden Brook at a place now known as “Slaughter Gap”. Approximately a hundred men were involved in the combat and eventually the Royalists prevailed, taking ten prisoners, including Captain Farrer and killing one soldier. Those of Farrer’s soldiers who evaded capture fled to the safety of Heptonstall, while Farrer and the other captured men were imprisoned in Halifax.

At Halifax, two of Farrer’s captured men were recognised as being deserters from Mackworth’s army. They were quickly condemned to death and were hanged on a gallows erected near Halifax Gibbet. Two more of the captured soldiers died from their wounds, at Halifax, over the following days.

On 9th January 1644, Sir Francis Mackworth led a force of more than 2,000 men to punish the Parliamentarians garrisoned at Heptonstall. Vastly outnumbered, Eden realised that retreat was the only possibility, so he abandoned Heptonstall and retreated towards Lancashire. His route would have taken him through Blackshaw Head, across the “Long Causeway” and over the moors until they reached Burnley and Colne. Eden and his troops were given new orders re-join Thomas Fairfax’s main army. Meanwhile, the Royalists marched unopposed up the Buttress, from Hebden Bridge into Heptonstall, where they razed to the ground fourteen houses and barns, which would have contained the looms, fleeces and cloth of the clothiers. This action would have reduced them and their families to penury and possibly starvation.

On 28th January 1644, after seven months of bitter fighting in the area, Mackworth was ordered to completely abandon Halifax, as his force was urgently needed to help to oppose the advance of Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.

1644 Parliamentarian Pact with the Scots

With the Royalist armies occupying themselves in Lincolnshire, the Fairfaxes sought re-inforcements and made a pact with the Scottish Covenanters.

The signing of the Solemn League and Covenant between Parliament and the Scots and the subsequent Scottish invasion of England marks a major turning point in the English Civil War. The Scottish Government agreed to provide an army of 18,000 foot, 2,000 horse and 1,000 dragoons to fight against the Royalists, giving a strong military advantage to Parliament.

Scots, under the Earl of Leven, occupied Berwick-on-Tweed in September 1643 and, on 19th January 1644, Leven ordered his troops to cross the Tweed and advance south into England. Leven advanced cautiously southwards through Northumberland but encountered little opposition. Sir Thomas Glenham, the Royalist Governor of Newcastle, had insufficient forces to challenge the Covenanters.

Death of Sir William Savile

Sir William Savile of Thornhill died near York, in fighting, on or around January 22nd 1644. He was 31 years old and was buried at Thornhill, Dewsbury, in the church next to his home. His widow, Lady Anne, reporting his death to Major Beaumont at Sheffield Castle said:

“I cannot expresse ye sorrow I have for the losse of your noble Colonell…”

The grieving Anne, who was pregnant with William Savile’s seventh child, continued to work for the Royalist cause and took her existing six children to part of the Savile Estate at Rufford Abbey in Sherwood Forest and later took refuge in Sheffield Castle.

Lady Anne Savile, widow of Sir William Savile, painted in 1660 when she was now Lady Thomas Chicheley.

Anne bore Sir William seven children and went on, after his death, to marry Sir Thomas Chicheley, with whom she had another two sons.

Bradford, Ferrybridge and Selby, March/April 1644

On 3rd March 1644, Colonel Lambert finally drove the Royalists out of Bradford and established the town as a base for raids in the West Riding. Royalist, Belasyse, had moved his Royalist headquarters from York to Selby and the Yorkshire Parliamentarians now planned an assault against Selby.

At Ferrybridge, near Wakefield, the two Fairfaxes, father and son, joined force with troops from Hull, Bradford and the Midlands. Their combined forces amounted to 1,500 cavalry and 1,800 foot soldiers. On 11th April 1644, they attacked Selby from three sides at once, completely overwhelming Belasyse’s Royalists. Most of the Royalist cavalry escaped, but about 1,600 foot soldiers were taken prisoner. Belasyse himself was wounded and captured. Leeds was also re-taken.

Gathering of non-conformists in 1644

These events were potentially disastrous for York, which now had only two Royalist regiments defending the city. The Earl of Newcastle, pursued by the Covenanter army, abandoned his campaign against the Scots invasion and withdrew his forces to York, to strengthen its defence.

At Thormanby on 16th April, Leven and his Scottish Covenanters marched via Boroughbridge to rendezvous with Lord Fairfax and the Yorkshire Parliamentarians at Wetherby.

The Siege of York, April-July 1644

The combined “Army of Both Kingdoms” now marched to besiege York, arriving outside York on 22nd April 1644. Consolidating their position, the Parliamentarians also took Stamford Bridge on 24th April and Cawood Castle on 19th May.

Taking York was seemingly impossible. The city was well defended. The walls had been repaired and strengthened and earthworks had been constructed beyond the walls. Each of the town gates was defended by cannons. However, early in June 1644, the Earl of Manchester and Oliver Cromwell arrived with the army of the Eastern Association, having secured Lincolnshire for the Parliament. Lord Fairfax’s Yorkshire forces and the Eastern Association now surrounded and besieged York.

15th Century York

Meanwhile, Prince Rupert was recruiting forces in Lancashire and Wales in preparation for attacking the Parliamentarians outside York, who were now bombarding the walls. Advancing through the north west, Rupert stormed Stockport and Bolton, where his Royalists massacred the Parliament forces in retaliation for the Parliament troops hanging several Royalist prisoners during the battle. Rupert then crossed the Pennines and reached Skipton Castle on 26th June. In Thomas Fairfax’s own words:

Soon after, Prince Rupert came to relieve the town (York). We raised the siege and Hessay Moor being appointed the rendezvous, the whole army drew thither, about a mile from where Prince Rupert lay, the river Ouse being between us which he, that night, passed over at Poppleton…

Being joined by the Earl of Newcastle’s forces…we resolved to march away to Tadcaster which made the enemy advance the faster…at Marston Fields…here we drew up our army.

The Memoirs of Sir Thomas Fairfax

Battle of Marston Moor – 2nd July 1644

Battle of Marston Moor 2nd July 1644

Newcastle’s forces joined Prince Rupert on the morning of 2nd July at Marston Moor, near the village of Long Marston, Warwickshire, where the Parliamentarians had drawn up their forces. Prince Rupert and the now “Marquis” of Newcastle disagreed about when to make their attack and how to interpret the King’s orders. This lack of co-operation between Newcastle and Prince Rupert was damaging to the Royalists and gave the Parliament forces more time to prepare. Consequently the Royalist lines of battle were not drawn up until late in the afternoon of 2nd July and the two armies engaged at 7 pm, the Parliament led by the Earl of Leven and the Royalists by Prince Rupert.

The Battle of Marston Moor is believed to have been the largest battle ever fought on English soil. The Royalist forces, numbering about 18,000 men, engaged with Yorkshire Parliamentarians, Scottish Covenanters and Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell’s Eastern Association and his infamous “Ironsides”. The combined armies on the Parliament side numbered about 28,000 men.

Oliver Cromwell, by Robert Walker, painting circa 1649

Lord Fairfax took the centre with the Earl of Manchester; Oliver Cromwell took the left flank and Sir Thomas Fairfax, the right flank. In just a couple of hours on Marston Moor, the fate of Yorkshire and the control of the whole of the North was to be decided. After initial Royalist success, the tide of the battle turned. Cromwell and his Ironsides broke through the Royalist army’s right flank and was able to engage them from behind. Prince Rupert was defeated as the Royalist Northern Army was effectively destroyed. All the Royalist ordnance, gunpowder and baggage were captured and almost all of Newcastle’s regiment of Whitecoats were killed. The Royalists lost 4,000 killed and 1,500 captured. Parliament lost only 300 men.

York surrendered two weeks later. Prince Rupert, with survivors of his army, retreated to Chester to begin to recruit, but the defeat at Marston Moor had broken the power of the northern Royalists and they abandoned most of their positions in the north of England.

The battle of Marston Moor also made the name of Oliver Cromwell as a great commander and showed how a well-equipped, trained and determined Parliamentarian army could win the war, though, to be fair, they also had the advantage of 10,000 more troops on that occasion!

After the surrender of York, only a few isolated Royalist strongholds remained in the north, including Pontefract Castle, and the main focus changed to the south and west of England.

The Marquis of Newcastle went into exile and lived at Hamburg from July 1644 to February 1645 before moving to Paris where he joined Queen Henrietta Maria’s court-in-exile.

Recapture of Sheffield Castle

In August 1644, 1200 Parliament soldiers under the Earl of Manchester were sent to re-capture Sheffield Castle. Finding their canon unable to breach the wall, they sent for a demi-cannon called “The Queen’s pocket pistol” and also a “whole culverin” which was used to bombard targets from a distance. During the bombardments, Sir William Savile’s widow, Anne, gave birth to their seventh child, Talbot, at the castle.

She gave a gallant and warlike defence to the battering from guns on all sides, in spite of her advanced pregnancy. Against her orders, the garrison eventually surrendered the crumbling castle and she gave birth the same night on 11 August 1644.


Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Castle during the 17th Century

When the Civil War began, Pontefract Castle was held by supporters of the King. The castle had dominated northern England for 500 years and housed the Royal Armoury in Yorkshire. It was considered to be impregnable and became a key stronghold in West Yorkshire during the war…from there, Royalist forces could set out to attack the clothing towns held by Parliament.

The castle remained in Royalist hands and proved impenetrable when Parliament troops laid siege on Christmas Day 1644. By the 22nd January 1645, 1367 cannon shots had been fired at the castle but still only one small tower was destroyed. Parliamentarians then tried to mine the castle, but it was built on solid rock and it was impossible to break through.

Pontefract Castle…is situated on rock in every part of it and therefore difficult to mine. The walls are very thick and high, with strong towers, and if battered, very difficult to access, by reason of the depth and steepness of the graft.

Oliver Cromwell

Eventually the occupants were starved out in June 1645.

Three years later the Royalists re-took the castle but only held it for five months and it finally surrendered to the Parliament forces on 24th March 1649.

Sandal Castle

Painting from a survey done in the 16th Century.

Sandal Castle near Wakefield was already in a neglected state at the beginning of the Civil War when Royalists occupied and garrisoned it.

In 1645, after the fall of Pontefract Castle, manpower and artillery were sent to Sandal and it was besieged three times that year by Parliamentary troops, until the small garrison of ten officers and 90 men eventually surrendered the castle on 1st October 1645. Their store of 100 muskets, 50 pikes, 20 halberds, 150 swords and two remaining barrels of gunpowder were seized.

Sandal was one of the last Royalist castles in Yorkshire to hold out, with only Bolton Castle and Skipton Castle remaining in Royalist hands. Between 1646 and 1648 it was systematically demolished. Today it is a complete ruin, though the motte (mound on which the keep was built), a few fragments of wall and the deep ditches remain. From the top of the motte to the west can be seen the river and the view towards Emley.

Below: Sandal Castle Ruins, May 2019

Aerial photo here.

New Model Army – Battle of Naseby

The Parliamentarians became divided about the conduct of the war. Some wished a reconciliation with the King, while the so-called “Independents” desired a complete victory.

The Independents re-organised the army, forming the New Model Army, in 1645. The story of Naseby is well documented and will be noted only briefly here in this article principally about the West Riding.

The Battle of Naseby, fought in Northamptonshire on 14th June 1645, was the decisive battle between the Royalists and the New Model Army. The Parliamentarians, commanded by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell, had 14,000 disciplined and well trained troops and the King could only field 9,000 men – the Royalists lost six men for every one of their opponents’.

Cromwell at Naseby by Charles Landseer

Afterwards, the King was never again able to muster an army strong enough to oppose the Parliamentarians in a major engagement. Even so, the war dragged on until, in May 1646, King Charles eventually surrendered to the Scottish Army at Newark. The King was taken captive and handed over to the Parliamentarians.

Negotiations between the King and Parliament took place over the next three years, but eventually failed. During this time, clashes between the two armies continued.

Destruction of Thornhill Hall

In 1648, 200 Royalist troops from Pontefract marched to Thornhill Hall, the seat of Sir William Savile (at Thornhill, Dewsbury) to obtain arms and provisions to supply Pontefract Castle. Sir William had been killed in battle, but his widow Anne was still working for the Royalist cause and kept the hall fortified and provisioned.

However, a Parliamentary army of 700, under Sir Thomas Fairfax, pursued them and laid siege to Thornhill Hall. Some of the Parliamentary troops arrived in Ossett and set up cannons at the bottom of Runtlings Lane, which were used to bombard the Hall from across the river Calder.

Bombardment of Thornhill Hall from Runtlings Lane, Ossett – from a distance of at least 1400 yards. Map is from 1775.

The 1775 map of Ossett and Thornhill shows that Runtlings Lane would have originally led all the way down to a small escarpment above the river, where the cannons were presumably sited. The cannons were at a distance of at least 1400 yards from the Hall, across the river Calder. That seems to be a very long way, but 17th century siege cannons had a maximum range of between 1500 and 7500 yards* depending on their size, so it was well within range of the hall. Although aiming was difficult and Civil War cannons were not therefore very effective, being fired on could break the morale of the besieged.

*Cannon typeMaximum range (yards)estimates vary according to source

The Royalist troops were eventually forced to surrender. During the surrender, a gunpowder explosion destroyed part of the hall, and the remainder of the building was destroyed by fire. No cause of the explosion has been determined. Whether it was the result of accidental ignition of its store of gunpowder by the defenders, or was deliberately ignited by the attackers, is unclear.

Some ruins of the house and the intact moat still remain at Thornhill Rectory Park. The images show the remains of the moat today and a 19th century drawing of the ruins.

© Christine Widdall 2019

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