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Resource Centre Home > Civil War > The Campaign for the North 1643  
William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle
The Campaign for the North 1643

When the first great battle of the Civil War, at Edgehill on 23rd October 1642, failed to deliver the resolution that many had expected, both parliament and the king had to seize control of extensive territories if they were to be able support a long campaign. In the North the king gave this task to the Earl of Newcastle. Following small engagements in December, at Piercebridge and Tadcaster, much of the region was secured with garrisons at Newark in Nottinghamshire to control the Great North Road at the crossing of the Trent; at Pontefract where the same road, running between the Pennines and the marshes, was the only major route from the south into the heart of Yorkshire, while most important was control of York itself. Since its foundation by the Romans the city has been the key to the North. Its importance is reflected in a concentration of battlefields in the region around York, with at least seven major battles from 1066 to 1644, as Vikings, Scots and then the competing sides in the Wars of Roses and Civil War struggled for control of the region and of York itself, which was effectively the capital of the North.

In 1643 the parliamentarian opposition in Yorkshire was led by Ferdinando Lord Fairfax and his son Sir Thomas. The heartland of their power was in the cloth towns of the West Riding but their situation was becoming increasingly desperate now that they were cut off from parliament’s major coastal garrison at Scarborough and especially from hope of re-supply from the major garrison port of Hull. Although the industrial revolution would not come until the next century, industrialisation had however already begun to transform the towns of the West Riding into important centres of population and wealth. From this region the Fairfaxes were thus able to draw substantial number of infantry troops, particularly musketeers, but their army was weak in cavalry. In contrast the Earl of Newcastle’s army was not only much larger, it also had a far higher ratio of cavalry to infantry, while the infantry themselves seems to have had a more equal balance between pikemen and musketeers. In the Vale of York, with its open fields and lowland moor, a balanced army of pike and musket, of cavalry and of artillery was critical, for in such open landscapes cavalry were the battle winning force and  pike were an essential defence for the infantry against cavalry attack. In contrast, in the increasingly enclosed landscape of hedged or walled fields rising westward towards the Pennines the musketeer was the most potent force.

The Fairfaxes desperately needed help, particularly cavalry support, from parliamentarian forces further south. Until it arrived the parliamentarians’ best strategy was to disrupt communication routes, to make rapid and unexpected strikes against royalist quarters and to exploit their advantage of firepower in the enclosed landscapes, avoiding confrontation in open country.

In March, in an attempt to disrupt any royalist advance, Sir Thomas marched to Tadcaster to destroy the bridge over the river Wharfe, the main road westward. He failed and, as he fell back into the West Riding, on the 30th March 1643 he was forced to give battle and was defeated on Seacroft Moor, where he lost as many as 1000 of his infantry. Newcastle’s room for manoeuvre was however constrained by the need to guard the Queen and her recently arrived shipment of munitions. Fairfax took advantage of this and on the 21st May he stormed Wakefield, retreating back to his garrisons with the prisoners and captured munitions. But Newcastle still had the upper hand, especially when in early June the expected march northward by Cromwell with parliament forces from the Midland failed to materialise. So, once the Earl had escorted the Queen to Pontefract and she had departed with her supply convoy for Oxford, he was free to strike back against the Fairfaxes. He advanced along the major road leading from his garrison at Pontefract towards Bradford, into the parliamentarian heartland. On the 21st June, to secure his supply route from Pontefract he stormed the garrison at Howley House and then, when the weather improved, on the 30th he advanced to attack Fairfax’s army, which was quartered in Bradford.


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