Civil War: Tactics

The Royalist and Parliamentary armies used similar tactics and weapons during the Civil War. Before a battle began both sides would line up facing each other. In the centre would be the infantry brigades of musketeers and pikemen. On each side of the infantry were the cavalry. The right-wing would be led by the lieutenant-general, the left-wing by the commissary general.

The heavy artillery was stationed at the rear where it could fire over the heads of the infantry. Smaller cannons, that fired nails and scrap iron in canvas bags, were positioned in front of the infantry. Most soldiers were provided with armour that covered their breasts and backs. Armour was expensive and on many occasions some members of the infantry were forced to wear leather tunics instead. Although completely inadequate against gunfire, these tunics did provide some protection against swords.

The pikeman carried pikes that were between twelve and eighteen feet long. When the enemy employed a cavalry charge, the musketeers sheltered behind and between the pikemen. During the cavalry charge the pikemen aimed their pikes at the chests of the oncoming horses.

Musketeers carried a matchlock. Although the matchlock was not very accurate it could kill a man from three hundred yards. Because of the state of medical welfare at that time, any shot wound would probably result in the soldier dying. The main disadvantage of the matchlock was the time it took to reload after each shot. To solve this problem, musketeers in the front line fired their matchlocks and then they retired to the back to reload.

Another strategy involved the musketeers in the first line kneeling, the second line crouching and the third line standing. The three lines of musketeers all fired at the same time. After firing, these men went to the back and were replaced by the next three lines of musketeers.

The men in the cavalry also carried either a short-barrelled musket or a flint-locked carbine. The main strategy was to advance at a quick trot until in range of the enemy. The men in the front fired, then wheeled away. In their second charge they advanced at full gallop using either a short sword or cutlass.

In the Civil War, the opening of the battle usually involved groups of cavalry. The main objective was to make the opposing cavalry run away. When that happened, the victorious cavalry turned on the enemy infantry. Well-disciplined pikemen, brave enough to hold their ground, could do tremendous damage to a cavalry charging straight at them. There are several examples of cavalry men having three or four horses killed under them in one battle.

Drawing from a pamphlet, The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert (1643)
Drawing from a pamphlet, The Cruel Practices of Prince Rupert (1643)

The king's nephew, Prince Rupert, was put in charge of the cavalry. Although Rupert was only twenty-three he already had a lot of experience fighting in the Dutch army. Prince Rupert introduced a new cavalry tactic that he had learnt fighting in Sweden. This involved charging full speed at the enemy. The horses were kept close together and just before impact the men fired their pistols.

During the early stages of the Civil War the parliamentary army was at a great disadvantage. Most of the soldiers had never used a sword or musket before. When faced with Prince Rupert's cavalry charging at full speed, they often turned and ran.

One of the Roundhead officers who saw Prince Rupert's cavalry in action was a man called Oliver Cromwell. Although Cromwell had no military training, his experience as a large landowner gave him a good knowledge of horses. Cromwell became convinced that if he could produce a well-disciplined army he could defeat Prince Rupert. He knew that pikemen, armed with sixteen-foot-long pikes, who stood their ground during a cavalry attack, could do a tremendous amount of damage.

Oliver Cromwell also noticed that Prince Rupert's cavalry were not very well disciplined. After they I charged the enemy they went in pursuit of individual targets. At the first major battle of the civil war at Edgehill, most of Prince Rupert's cavalrymen did not return to the battlefield until over an hour after the initial charge. By this time the horses were so tired they were unable to mount another attack against the Roundheads.

Cromwell trained his cavalry to keep together after a charge. In this way his men could repeatedly charge the Cavaliers. Cromwell's new cavalry took part in its first major battle at Marston Moor in Yorkshire in July 1644. The king's soldiers were heavily defeated in the battle. Cromwell's soldiers became known as the Ironsides because of the way they cut through the Cavaliers on the battlefield.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Parliament relied on soldiers recruited by large landowners who supported their cause. In February 1645, Parliament decided to form a new army of professional soldiers. This army of 22,000 men became known as the New Model Army. Its commander-in-chief was General Thomas Fairfax, while Oliver Cromwell was put in charge of its cavalry.

Members of the New Model Army received proper military training and by the time they went into battle they were very well-disciplined. In the past, people became officers because they came from powerful and wealthy families. In the New Model Army men were promoted when they showed themselves to be good soldiers. For the first time it became possible for working-class men to become army officers.

Primary Sources

(1) In 1643 Oliver Cromwell wrote a letter to Suffolk County Committee.

I would rather have a man that knows and loves what he fights for... than a man which you call a "gentleman".

(2) Richard Atkins, was a Captain in the Royalist army. On 13 July, 1643, he took part in the Royalist victory at Roundway Down. In this extract Atkins describes trying to kill General Arthur Heselrige, the leader of the parliamentary army at Roundway Down.

It was my fortune to charge Sir Arthur Heselrige... He discharged his carbine first but at a distance not to hurt us... I then... discharged mine; I'm sure I hit him, for he staggered and wheeled off from his party and ran... I pursued him... and in six score yards I came up to him, and discharged the other pistol at him, and I am sure I hit his head... but he was too well armed all over for a pistol bullet to do him any hurt, having a coat of mail over his arms and a headpiece that was musket proof... I employed myself in killing his horse, and cut him in several places... the horse began to faint with bleeding, and Sir Arthur fell off. Then a group of troopers... charged and rescued him.

(3) Joshua Sprigge was General Fairfax's chaplain. Later he wrote an account of the battle at Naseby.

Prince Rupert chased the left-wing almost to Naseby town... The Prince, probably realising by that time the success of our right-wing cavalry... he raced to the rescue of the King's army, which he found in such distress, that instead of attempting to rescue them... he went to look for the King... The prisoners taken in the field were about 5,000... The whole booty of the battlefield was given to the soldiers, which was very rich and considerable... besides the riches of the court and officers, there was also the goods stolen from Leicester.

(4) Edward Walker was a member of the Royalist cavalry at Naseby.

The first charge was by Prince Rupert and his troops... The infantry only made one volley... they were soon in great disorder.

(5) Sir Richard Bulstrode served in the Royalist army at Edgehill.

Just before we began our attack, Prince Rupert passed from one wing to the other, giving orders to the cavalry, to march as close as possible, to receive the enemy shot, without firing our pistols, till we broke in amongst the enemy... after a small resistance... we were masters of their cannon... Prince Rupert... eagerly pursued the (right-wing of the parliamentary cavalry), who fled... if we had only kept our ground after we had beaten the enemy, and not left our foot naked to their cavalry... we might have made an end of the war.