Monday, 6 March 2017

Battle of Cropredy Bridge 1644

"Morale is to the physical as three to one", Napoleon Bonaparte

After a very pleasant tour around Edgehill it was a short drive down the Banbury Road to get to Cropredy Bridge.

By the time of the Battle of Cropredy Bridge in the summer of 1644, the war was into its second year and was still finely balanced with the King still occupying Oxford like a dagger at the throat of the city that mattered most to both parties, London.

The war was dragging in all the home nations with a Scottish army operating over the border against the Marquis of Newcastle's Royalist forces in the north and with troops expected from Ireland to reinforce them.

In the south Sir William Waller had finally got the better of his friend Sir Ralph Hopton at the Battle of Cheriton on the 29th March 1644, effectively throwing King Charles on to the defensive, leaving the forces of Essex and Waller able, should they choose, to concentrate against the King and his capital of Oxford.

The King merged the remnants of Hopton's army with his Oxford forces in April. Over the summer, Essex decided to head off to the West Country, like many of us do at that time of the year, and would later suffer ignominious defeat at Lostwithiel in Cornwall, leaving Waller to joust with the King around Oxford and surrendering the opportunity to defeat the King with their combined force.

Battle of Cropredy Bridge - John Fawkes
With Parliamentary fortunes in the ascendancy and the King on the defensive, Charles was very keen to draw the enemy away from his capital in Oxford and so with just Waller to contend with a summer game of 'Chase Me' developed as the two forces ended up marching in parallel across Oxfordshire with the River Cherwell between them, but with Charles content to draw the enemy away to the north.

Waller was probably not naive to this strategy and would have been eagerly looking for ground on which he could achieve a tactical advantage to bring the King to battle and hopefully neutralise his forces.

Since the heady days of Cheriton, Waller had to contend with the usual, London Trained Bands doing their normal routine of, 'we've done our bit so we're off home' leaving his army the task of incorporating new and probably inexperienced replacements.

Ancient boundary stone rediscovered in 2001
Having been drawn away from a particularly strong position at Banbury on the 28th June, Waller was positioned on Bourton Hill on the 29th observing the King's army heading towards Daventry when he thought he spotted an opportunity to seriously embarrass them.

This description so reminded me of my own specialist subject, the Peninsular War, and a similar game of cat and mouse between to similarly matched forces, The iconic moment in the high summer of 1812 when the Duke of Wellington observed Marshal Marmont's Army of Portugal get similarly strung out on the order of march and spied an opportunity to attack and destroy it in detail before its parts could come to the aid of one another.

Both plans tick the box for audacity, taking advantage of the enemy's mistake and Waller was in an excellent position.

It is very obvious why this battle makes such an interesting wargaming scenario, but I think illustrates well the frustration for any commander trying to pull off such an audacious attack with forces either incapable or unsuitable for such an action.

Officer of Royalist Horse, Trooper, King's Lifeguard 1642 - Jeffrey Burn

The two armies were well matched in size and composition with both forces numbering around 5,000 horse and 4,000 foot and thus the ability to mass one force against a smaller part of the other should have been a major force multiplier.

The ground was relatively open so facilitated rapid deployment with just some small hamlets providing minimal cover for the foot troops.

The fields to the left of Cropredy Bridge, where Wemyss set up the Parliamentary gun line looking towards Hay's Bridge

As it was Waller's men were unable to take advantage against the King's rearguard under Northampton and Cleveland and soon found themselves fighting hard to stem the Royalist advance at Cropredy Bridge and Slats Mill as the King brought the head of his army back over Hay's Bridge with his Lifeguards clearing the way and with Waller desperately forming a new defensive position atop Bourton Hill, should the Royal army press him by crossing the Cherwell.

The River Cherwell still presents a significant obstacle, but was probably wider at the time. A Victorian bridge has replaced the earlier version.
Compare and contrast the outcome at Salamanca in 1812 where the separated French formations were rapidly overcome and the other formations attempting to come to their aid found themselves assaulted from multiple directions and finally forced to surrender the field.

The view looking down river towards Slat Mill, with modern development and enclosures occupying the open ground present during the battle.
There are many issues that would have impacted on the results of both battles but I think the significant factor that weighs upon both is that of morale as mentioned by the Emperor in his insightful statement.

To quote Henry Ford "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right" and I think that captures the impact of how the French under Marmont felt about going up against Wellington and his army in 1812 given all that had gone before in previous encounters between the two sides.

Waller's army, no doubt had very experienced men within its ranks at Cropredy Bridge, but the loss of the advantage that the marching away of Essex's men had caused coupled with the infusion of new recruits into its ranks lacking the confidence of previous victories could not have helped when ferocity and total commitment in the attack was what was required to carry the day.

The road from the bridge up to Williamscot
As if to emphasise their morale failure, Waller's army practically fell apart after the battle which having lost the eleven guns under Wemyss in the retreat over Cropredy Bridge and an estimated 700 casualties, prisoners and deserters during the battle, now found the London Trained Bands leaving for home and mutinous responses from other units, leaving the army with 2,000 fewer men.

Waller set off for London, leaving the remains of his army in Abingdon when the King did not pursue. Reporting in person to Parliament, he recommended that 'a new dedicated army must be formed, free of the idiosyncrasies of the Trained Bands', recommendations that would lead to the creation of the New Model Army the following year.

On the 12th July 1644 King Charles received a dispatch from Prince Rupert reporting his overwhelming defeat at Marston Moor near to York, at once undoing the gains from the victories at Cropredy and later Lostwithiel, with the north of England lost to the Royalist cause and his southern command separated from his Scottish supporters under Montrose over the border.

There is nothing quite like seeing the terrain a battle was fought over and I came away from Cropredy with lots of ideas and inspiration. I think on a return visit, hopefully with more time to explore I would like to check out the other key areas, but in the summer when the battle was fought to get a better impression.

We followed the road through Williamscot, still a small hamlet, on our way south to Dorchester with the evening drawing in and the thought of a good dinner to finish off a very fun day.


  1. Thanks again to share another great report ! all the best, ciao Carlo

    1. Thanks Carlo, glad you enjoyed the read. I need to go back at some time and have a proper look around as I really only scratched the surface, but I was glad to get an impression of the terrain.

  2. Very cool and enjoyable,thank you!

    1. Thanks Rodger, Cropredy Bridge has the potential for a great wargaming scenario and to be used for different periods, particularly for the horse and musket era.

  3. Dear Jonathan, i like so much how English people valorized every moment of their history. And I appreciate also the great passion of the detectorists to discovery little treasures (as also a musket ball can be) of daily and really moments of the past time (as show in your previous post). Anyway, sorry for my bad English :( All the best, ciao. carlo

    1. Hi Carlo, well one thing we do have is lots of history and with a small country like the UK it is all readily accessible if you are prepared to make the effort and just look.
      It is one thing to read about a battle three hundred odd years ago of more, but it is something else to be able to see artifacts that are directly connected with it and to walk in the footsteps of those who took part. We Wargamers then take it no the next level and use that information to bring these old battles to life on the tabletop, hopefully giving the players some of the challenges faced by the historical commanders and thus extending the understanding still further, and with luck delighting the casual and not so casual observer.
      Oh and your English is perfectly serviceable and thank you for taking the time to comment.