Cavalry Tactics: Prince Rupert

[posted by Gavin Robinson, 9:55 am, 28 August 2012]

Prince Rupert of the Rhine was, and still is, a controversial figure in the English Civil War. In 1643 he burnt down Birmingham, but he also did some bad things (see what I did there?). He’s often associated with the cavalier stereotype, in both positive and negative ways. Although he became famous as a cavalry commander, he was also an administrator who helped to build a new army for the King in 1643-44, governor of Bristol when it surrendered in 1645, and later an admiral. This post investigates what we do and don’t know about Rupert’s cavalry tactics.

Some historians will tell you that Rupert’s cavalry charged at the gallop at the battle of Edgehill in 1642:

Peter Young, Edgehill 1642: The Campaign and the Battle (Kineton, Roundwood Press, 1967), p. 108: ‘It must have seemed too good to be true when instead of charging serried ranks they had galloped in to cut up little platoons of deserted musketeers’

Others will tell you that they didn’t gallop:

Christopher L. Scott, Alan Turton, and Eric Gruber von Arni, Edgehill: The Battle Reinterpreted (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2004), p. 91: ‘This charge must have rolled forward, going into the “good round trot” or canter’; p. 93: ‘it is probable that Rupert’s cavalry at Edgehill did not go in at the full gallop. Although several individuals might well have done so, the general practice during a charge was to engage the enemy at a pace somewhere approaching a canter.’

Some historians will tell you that Rupert’s cavalry didn’t gallop at Marston Moor in 1644:

Austin Woolrych, Battles of the English Civil War: Marston Moor, Naseby, Preston (London, Batsford, 1961), p. 73: ‘for cavalry of that time charged in close order, almost knee to knee, and at a smart trot rather than a gallop, relying on the sheer weight of impact for their greatest effect’.

Some historians will tell you that Rupert’s cavalry charged at the gallop at the battle of Naseby in 1645:

Glenn Foard, Naseby: The Decisive Campaign (Barnsley, Pen & Sword, 2004), p. 251: ‘Rupert’s objective was to meet the enemy at a “full career”, breaking them with the sheer force of impact’; p. 252: ‘in his usual fashion, Rupert attacked “with a full career up towards our men”. His famous cavalry charge had been first seen in a major Civil War battle at Edgehill… both sides depended upon shock action rather than firepower to break the opposition’.

Peter Young, Naseby, 1645: The Campaign and the Battle (London, 1985), p. xiv also says Rupert charged at the gallop but I don’t have a direct quote in my notes.

The main problem with all these statements is that they’re not supported by any direct evidence. Suspicions should be aroused by phrases like ‘must have’, ‘might well’ and ‘it is probable’, and by generalizations about what usually happened. Nobody who was at these battles wrote down the pace used in the cavalry charges, or if they did, what they wrote hasn’t survived. (Another problem is that some of the quotes above strongly imply deliberate horse collisions, but I’ve already demolished that idea.)

I won’t quote every account of Edgehill and Naseby just to show that they don’t mention pace, but there’s one that needs to be dealt with in detail. Foard quoted part of it to suggest that Rupert’s cavalry charged at a gallop at Naseby. This from a newsbook called The Weekly Account, produced by Bernard Alsop in London (Thomason Tracts, E.288[33]):

our warning Peece shot off, upon which Prince Rupert who then commanded the right wing, of the Kings Horse, rid with a full Carreer up towards our men, but went back. Our forlorn hope and theirs in the mean time met, and played very hot one upon the other, each seeking to gain the Hill and wind, which was at length equally divided betwixt both Partees. One of the Dutch Princes (which we all supposed to be Rupert) led up their right Wing, and put our left to a shamefull retreat;

Foard took ‘with a full Carreer up towards our men’ out of context, adding the word ‘attacked’ before the quote and leaving out everything after it, including the crucial phrase ‘but went back’. This gives the false impression that the quote is about the main cavalry charge, but it almost certainly isn’t, as that’s described later, after the forlorn hopes have been firing and manoeuvring for some time.

This just shows how little we can know about cavalry tactics in this period. Even a basic detail like pace is missing from eyewitness accounts. The only royalist eyewitness I know of who wrote down the pace of the charges he took part in is Richard Atkyns. He served in the western army under Rupert’s brother Prince Maurice. Atkyns used the word ‘gallop’ in his account of a fight at Little Dean in April 1643 (Atkyns, Vindication, p. 20):

The Charge was seemingly as desperate as any I was ever in; it being to beat the Enemy from a Wall which was a Strong Breast Work, with a Gate in the middle; possest by above 200 Musqueteers, besides Horse: We were to charge down a Steep plain Hill, of above 12 score Yards in length; as good a Mark as they could wish: Our party consisting of between Two and Three Hundred Horse, not a man of them would follow us; So the Officers, about 10 or 12 of us, agreed to Gallop down in as good Order as we could, and make a desperate Charge upon them; the Enemy seeing our resolutions, never Fired at us at all, but run away;

A small party of officers attacking infantry behind a wall doesn’t necessarily tell us much about what happened in big cavalry versus cavalry engagements. Also, in this period the word ‘gallop’ can often mean what we know today as a canter, while our gallop was usually called a ‘career’. Atkyns fought against cavalry in June at Chewton Mendip: ‘when we came within 6 score of them, we mended our pace, and fell into their left Division’ (p. 27). I think ‘mended our pace’ probably means they got faster, but this is very ambiguous and doesn’t tell us what pace they ended up at. In July, Atkyns came up against Sir Arthur Heselrig’s famous cuirassier regiment at Roundway Down. In this case, he wrote that ‘we advanc’d a full Trot 3 deep, and kept in order’ (p. 37). Even the same regiment in the course of about three months seems to have used different paces in different circumstances. Another problem is that later sources that give more details instructions tend to recommend starting a charge at the trot, gradually increasing the pace and only galloping towards the end. Because of this, there’s a chance that Atkyns is describing different parts of the elephant.

While the pace of Rupert’s charges is mysterious, we do know quite a bit about his tactics from a second hand version of his orders at Edgehill. This is in the memoirs of Sir Richard Bulstrode, who fought in the battle as a cavalryman. The problem with memoirs is that they’re not strictly contemporary, so they can be distorted by hindsight or misremembering things, and they’re often pushing some political position. But Bulstrode is the best source we’ve got, and at least no-one has disproved his account of what Rupert said. It doesn’t say how fast the cavalry went, or were ordered to go, but it has lots of other useful details. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it’s very well known and has been used to ‘prove’ lots of things that it can’t really support. It’s very important to try to read it with no preconceptions and try to concentrate on what it actually says (pp. 81-82):

Just before we began our March, Prince Rupert passed from one Wing to the other, giving positive Orders to the Horse, to march as close as possible, keeping their Ranks with Sword in Hand, to receive the Enemy’s Shot, without firing either Carbin or Pistoll, till we broke in amongst the Enemy, and then to make use of our Fire-Arms as need should require; which Order was punctually observed. The Enemy stayed to receive us, in the same Posture as was formerly declared; and when we came within Cannon Shot of the Enemy, they discharged at us three Pieces of Cannon from their left Wing, commanded by Sir James Ramsey; which Cannon mounted over our Troops, without doing any Hurt, except that their second Shot killed a Quarter-Master in the Rear of the Duke of York’s Troop. We soon after engaged each other, and our Dragoons on our Right beat the Enemy from the Briars, and Prince Rupert led on our right Wing so furiously, that, after a small Resistance, we forced their left Wing, and were Masters of their Cannon;

Does that remind you of anything? What about that quote from La Noue last week? Let’s have that again:

the perfect Reistres doe never discharge their Pistols but in joyning, and striking at hand they wound, ayming alwaies either at the face or thigh. The second ranck likewise shooteth of so as the forefront of the men of armes squadron is at the first meeting halfe overthrowne and maymed. Also although the first rancke may with their speares doe some hurt especially to the horse, yet the other ranckes following cannot doe so, at the least the second and third, but are driven to cast away their speares & helpe themselves with their swordes. Herein wee are to consider two things which experience hath confirmed: The one, that the Reistres are never so daungerous as when they bee mingled with the enemie, for then be they all fire.

If Bulstrode’s account is accurate then Rupert wasn’t ordering anything new. The idea of reserving fire during the advance and using pistols in close combat was already available in the 16th century, and if La Noue is right then it had been used successfully by reiters. In the case of Edgehill we don’t know how well it would have worked because most of the parliamentary cavalry on the wing fired too soon and then ran away before Rupert’s men needed to use their pistols. Last week I showed that the kind of tactics that failed for Essex’s army at Edgehill succeeded for Goring’s wing at Marston Moor. Although Goring was commanding the cavalry of Newcastle’s northern army, his tactics were probably approved by Rupert. The prince may have intended the same thing to happen on the right wing. The source known as ‘Prince Rupert’s journal’ was probably compiled by someone close to Rupert, but isn’t strictly contemporary. For Marston Moor it includes the cryptic and passive-aggressive comment, ‘Represent here the Posture the P[rince] put the forces in and how by the improper charge of the Ld Byron much harm was done’ (Young, Marston Moor, p. 197). As it happened, most of Rupert’s men were caught unprepared by Cromwell’s attack but they apparently still managed to counter-charge into close combat, which they eventually lost (I’ll probably come back to this in more detail when I do a post on Cromwell).

Byron had earlier used the same close-range fire tactics that Rupert had ordered at Edgehill. This is from his account of Roundway Down in 1643 (this is after Heselrig’s lobsters had run away; JSAHR, 31, 1953, pp. 130-31):

upon this Waller drew his whole army down the hill, and advanced with his own brigade of horse, with two pieces of cannon before it, and two great bodies of foot on the left flank of it, these it fell to my share to charge with my brigade, my Ld. Wilmot meanwhile rallying his men together to second me if occasion should be. As I marched towards them up the hill, their cannon played upon me at a very near distance, but with very small loss, killing but two in Col. Sandyes regiment; the musketeers all this while played upon our flank and hurt & killed some; and another regiment of their horse was watching an opportunity to charge us either in the rear or in the flank, but were hindered by Ld. Crawford. By this time we were come very near to Waller’s brigade, and the command I gave my men was, that not a man should discharge his pistol till the enemy had spent all his shot, which was punctually observed, so that first they gave us a volley of their carbines, then of their pistols, and then we fell in with them, and gave them ours in their teeth, yet they would not quit their ground, but stood pushing for it a pretty space, till it pleased God, (I thinke) to put new spirit into our tired horse as well as into our men, so that though it were up the hill, and that a steep one, we overbore them, and with that violence, that we forced them to fall foul upon other reserves of horse that stood behind to second them, & so swept their whole body of horse out of the field, and left their foot naked, and pursued them near 3m., over the downs in Bristol way till they came to a precipice, where their fear made them so valiant that they galloped as if it had been plain ground, and many of them brake both their own and their horses’ necks.

Waller used similar tactics to Ramsey at Edgehill, but in this case there doesn’t seem to have been any difficult terrain to give the defenders an advantage. Waller’s men did better than Ramsey’s, standing their ground and firing at a shorter range, but this didn’t make them win. Byron’s troopers held their fire until close combat, but this didn’t make them win immediately. There was a long fight, and in Byron’s view the outcome was uncertain for a long time. It appears that there was no major advantage or disadvantage in the way either side used its firearms. Byron doesn’t mention swords, but it’s reasonable to assume that the troopers must have used them once they’d spent all their pistols (some of them could have had pole axes too – some of Essex’s troopers certainly did in 1642). It could be that the typical arquebusier/horse armour, consisting of back and breast plate, lobster helmet and buffcoat, made cavalrymen too well protected to hurt each other easily with their swords because they’d have to thrust at hard-to-hit areas at just the right time, without exposing themselves. I’m just speculating here, but this could be a reason why it was considered so important to make the best use of pistols. In the 16th century, reiters seem to have used pistols more effectively as tin openers than as ranged weapons – in close combat the muzzle could perhaps be made to touch the target area, guaranteeing a hit on the most vulnerable point with maximum velocity. Although 17th century arquebusiers weren’t as well armoured as 16th century men-at-arms, it’s plausible that similar considerations applied and that this is why the better kind of reiter tactics were still used in the 1640s. Looking at it this way, it probably was a mistake for parliamentary cavalry to stand still and fire at a distance, but not for the reasons most historians seem to assume. The object may have been to intimidate the attackers into turning and running away before contact, but it rarely seems to have worked this well (this also chimes in with what Warnery said about firing at irregular cavalry in last week’s post).

As far as I can tell from the limited sources available, royalist tactics seem to have varied according to circumstances. There’s surprisingly little evidence of shock charges however we define them, but then there’s surprisingly little evidence of anything at all. If someone tries to tell you exactly what Prince Rupert’s cavalry usually did, be very suspicious.


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