The Battle of Turnham Green 1642

by Stephen Porter, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 14 (2005)

The raising of the Royal Standard at Nottingham on 22 August 1642 signalled the formal beginning of the Civil War. Over the following weeks both sides were busy recruiting and preparing their armies for a conflict which, it was expected, would soon be over, probably decided by one major battle. Charles I had left London in January and the city had then been secured for Parliament. Its recapture would have given the royalists a huge advantage and was their primary objective. On 12 October the King left Shrewsbury to try to get ahead of the parliamentarian army under its commander, the Earl of Essex, which was then at Worcester. This he succeeded in doing, but was pursued by the parliamentarians and forced to offer battle at Edgehill in Warwickshire on 23 October. The outcome was inconclusive, but the royalists were able to continue their march, first occupying Banbury before moving on to Oxford, a much more significant acquisition that was to serve as their headquarters thereafter. After a short delay they pushed on down the Thames valley and took Reading.

An attempt to seize Windsor Castle failed, but the King was prepared to leave it in his rear and continue the advance on London. At Colnbrook he received a delegation from Parliament as a preliminary move towards attempting to achieve a negotiated settlement. The delegation were hopeful and reported their progress to Parliament, which decided to offer the royalists a cease fire pending negotiations. Before this proposal reached the King, the royalists, under the command of the recently appointed Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth, launched an attack on Brentford on 12 November, defeated the two regiments that were posted to defend it and then sacked the town.

The armies assemble
The defeat of the parliamentarian regiments at Brentford came as a surprise in London. News of the attack arrived while the House of Commons was sitting and the response was prompt and effective. Earlier reports questioning the commitment of members of the militia and stressing the extent of royalist support within the capital proved to have been misleading, and the city’s forces were mobilised without difficulty. That Saturday night in the City was ‘a troublossom Night the Carts carying magazen all night & morning’. Essex’s army, too, responded promptly. Although morale was said to have been low in the return to London after Edgehill – some soldiers had abandoned their weapons during the march – he had kept his army intact and placed it to the west of the city to meet any royalist threat.

The Earl of  Essex, Commander of the parliamentarian army

The Earl of Essex, Commander of the parliamentarian army

The army was now reinforced by the London trained bands and auxiliaries under the command of Philip Skippon. The army’s nominal strength may have been around 12,000, augmented by the 8,000 men of the trained bands, a force of 3,500 men recruited by the Earl of Warwick, sailors from the fleet and an unknown number of volunteers. The presence of a hostile army so close to the capital also put the Members of both Houses and Parliament’s prominent supporters on their mettle. They could not be seen to be unwilling to appear in arms in the face of such an imminent danger and so Essex was joined by many gentlemen volunteers and leading citizens. The army also had support and encouragement from Londoners, fearful that a victorious cavalier army would sack the city. Their resolve had been stiffened by an effective campaign from the pulpits and in the newsbooks and pamphlets over the previous few weeks, vilifying the royalists as cruel plunderers and papists. Their accusations were directed particularly at the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, whose service in the Thirty Years War in Germany provided a link which they could use to connect the royalists with the notorious brutalities of those campaigns. News of the sack of Brentford, the first such atrocity of the war, confirmed their worst fears and, urged on by the preachers on the Sunday morning, they gave so many provisions for the troops that almost a hundred cart-loads were taken to the army, including ‘great store’ of beer and wine.

Philip Skippon, commander of the London trained bands, from a contemporary woodcut

Philip Skippon, commander of the London trained bands, from a contemporary woodcut

By eight o’clock on Sunday morning Essex’s army of about 24,000 men was concentrated at Turnham Green. The royalist statesman, the Earl of Clarendon, later described it as ‘a full army of horse and foot, fit to have decided the title of a crown’. The regiments of the trained bands were alternated with those of the army. Some foot regiments formed a reserve and Sir Phillip Stapleton’s and Colonel Goodwin’s regiments of horse were in the van, with the other horse regiments on the flanks. The horse probably numbered no more than 3,000 men, plus an unknown number of dragoons. The addition to the army of the city forces, sailors and other volunteers produced the unusually high proportion of foot. Both Essex and Skippon were conspicuous in going from regiment to regiment, encouraging the troops. A detachment of 3,000 men under Sir James Ramsay was withdrawn from Kingston, where they had been posted to defend the bridge, but because of the royalists’ control of the left bank at Brentford, they had to march on the south side of the Thames, cross London Bridge and then march out of London. Not until the following week was a bridge of boats constructed at Putney to speed up troop movements between the two sides of the river.

The royalists brought up the remainder of the army behind the advance guard which had captured Brentford. Nevertheless, the King had only about 12,000 men, probably matching the parliamentarians in the number of horse, but with far fewer infantry. Unlike the parliamentarians, they were operating in a largely hostile area and were short of ammunition and supplies. The horse, in particular, were forced to live off the land, alienating the country people by taking food and fodder, and also seizing wagon-loads of cloth being taken to London from the West Country.

The battlefield
In the 1640s 100 acres of Turnham Green lay within the parish of Chiswick and perhaps a further 30 acres in Acton. The modern open spaces of Turnham Green, Chiswick Back Common, Acton Common, Acton Green and Stamford Brook Common are the remnants of that Turnham Green. On the north side were hedged fields on the rising ground towards Acton’s common fields, and there were also enclosures on the west side of the green, separating it from the riverside village of Strand on the Green.

On the south side of the green was Chiswick common field, extending almost to the village of Chiswick and St Nicholas’s church, and the walled gardens of the Jacobean Chiswick House. In 1662 the Dutch artist William Schellinks described Chiswick as lying ‘in a great plain’. This was the open space formed by Turnham and Acton greens and Chiswick common field: the site of the battlefield. The green alone was far too small to contain the two armies. Even so, the parliamentarian front must have been tightly packed. The royalists had the opposite problem; they could not match the parliamentarians’ frontage, so much so that Essex’s horse extended beyond their left wing, which was in danger of being outflanked and revealed the extent of their numerical weakness.

The forward positions of the two armies, 13 November 1642

The forward positions of the two armies, 13 November 1642

The two armies numbered roughly 36,000 men, making it one of the largest engagements in British history. Not since the battle of Towton in 1461 (for which the figures are much more uncertain) had so many troops been assembled on a British battlefield, and only at Marston Moor in 1644, where the rival armies mustered up to 46,000 men, were more troops engaged during the Civil War. Since Marston Moor, no British battle has seen so many men deployed. And, although precise figures are difficult to achieve, it seems likely that the three parliamentarian armies which were combined at Marston Moor contained only a few thousand more men than did the force under Essex’s command at Turnham Green.

The parliamentarians occupied the east side of the battlefield, with their front probably extending from the modern South Parade, on the fringe of Bedford Park, to the garden walls of Chiswick House. Musketeers placed in the gardens would have secured their left flank. Beyond the House was an expanse of meadows that was unsuitable for troop movements, especially so late in the year, and any attempt to cross them would have been countered relatively easily.

The royalist front probably ran from Acton Green across Turnham Green and close to the line of the modern Sutton Court Road, as far south as the branch of the Bollo Brook in the vicinity of the modern Elmwood Road. The gardens of Sutton Court, slightly further south, would have given cover for troops protecting their right flank. The parliamentarian front probably extended for 1,200 yards; the royalists’ line for rather less. This notional disposition of the fronts places them roughly 550 yards apart; a contemporary account describes them as being separated by about half a mile.

The battle
Royalist troops advanced on to the higher ground between Turnham Green and Acton, to secure the army’s left flank. Essex countered this by sending two regiments of horse and four of foot, including that of Colonel John Hampden, around the north side of the battlefield to drive off the royalists and probably also with the intention of their getting behind the King’s army. The royalists were too short of men to prevent the manoeuvre, although their infantry lining the hedges inflicted casualties on the parliamentarians before they had to withdraw. Having occupied the spur of ground between the shallow valleys of the Bollo Brook and Stamford Brook, which commanded the royalists’ left, Hampden sent to Essex for two pieces of artillery. Essex despatched them, but before they reached Hampden he changed his initial plan and recalled not only the guns but the whole detachment, which had covered about a mile, to rejoin the main army. Had they continued their march they would have had the opportunity to turn south towards the Thames in the vicinity of the modern Kew Bridge, trapping the royalist army between it and Essex’s force. But attacks launched simultaneously on the royalist front and rear would have been difficult to co-ordinate and Essex’s commanders may have thought them to be too hazardous to risk.

After the withdrawal of the parliamentarian detachment the two sides continued to face each other until mid-afternoon, with some skirmishing, with parties of troops advancing towards the enemy, but whether getting close enough to exchange musket fire is unclear. It was a confined battlefield, bounded by enclosures and gardens, giving little scope for the effective use of cavalry. One account describes troops of royalist horse riding towards the parliamentarian foot, probably as feints, to test their resolution; trying to draw out the inexperienced soldiers and break their ranks sufficiently for the horse to burst in. An attack on unbroken lines of pikemen and musketeers would have been bound to fail, but it would have been out of character for Prince Rupert, who commanded the cavalry, not to have attempted something of this kind, to end the deadlock.

Essex’s objective of simply blocking the royalist advance was made easier because he was operating very close to his base, which could provide supplies and recruits throughout the day. This had two disadvantages, however. One was that a number of Members of both Houses of Parliament who came from Westminster attached themselves to his entourage, observing his decisions and being willing to give advice, while Earl Holland was actively involved in the deployment of the army. Essex had to take into account their views and those of his senior officers who were professional soldiers. This may explain the change of tactics in sending the sizeable detachment around the royalist left flank and later withdrawing it. The professional soldiers were later accused of acting selfishly by urging a cautious approach rather than an attack on the royalist position, because they did not want the war to end so soon, bringing their employment to a premature end. The Members of Parliament, on the other hand, were said to have favoured an attack.

Some of the senior figures with Essex reportedly hoped that, under a flag of truce, members of the King’s entourage would have been prepared to negotiate his return and a resumption of talks. This was based upon the notion that the King was badly advised and that this provided the best opportunity, being ‘so neare to his Parliament . . . to have rescued himselfe from those that have thus misled him’. This would have been the hope of the ‘doves’, who preferred to explore the possibility of a negotiated settlement before pursuing further military activity. No such approach was made from the royalist side, however, nor did the parliamentarians themselves take the initiative and offer negotiations.

A second problem was caused by the hundreds of onlookers in the rear of the army, who had come out of London either out of curiosity to witness such a major event, or to get the earliest possible warning should the battle go against Essex. They took alarm when parties of soldiers advanced towards the enemy, or the soldiers gave a loud shout, and rode quickly off towards London, unsettling the troops to such an extent as to cause some desertions. But this did not cause any major problems and parliamentarian accounts stress the high morale of their forces, who were ‘full of corage and sange psalmes all day’, and nothing occurred to encourage royalist hopes of a numerous fifth-column in the ranks of Essex’s army.

The battle of Turnham Green became a stalemate, with the armies continuing to face each other for ‘many hours’. Essex was content to block the royalists’ further progress towards London and they were too weak to risk a frontal assault on, or to outflank, the parliamentarian positions. If the royalist cavalry had driven back their opponents they would have been exposed to musket fire from the hedgerows around the battlefield, where the parliamentarian troops were so numerous that they could form a continuous line behind the hedges. The artillery, protected by earthworks, was placed to cover the roads running across the battlefield. Essex was in a strong position.

During the afternoon there was an exchange of artillery fire. This seems to have been ineffective on both sides. The royalist guns were sited on relatively high ground and so their shot carried over the enemy lines, and the parliamentarian bombardment was said to have killed just a few horses, although the London pamphlets claimed greater success. The royalists then drew off their army, with Rupert skilfully using his cavalry to cover the removal of the artillery and the foot. Essex and his senior officers considered attacking the royalist rearguard, but they were afraid of being drawn into confused fighting among the enclosures in the growing darkness. Their objective had been achieved and they did not need to risk their troops.

There seem to have been few casualties on either side and most accounts do not give the numbers. A parliamentarian report referred to more than 800 royalist dead on the battlefield and 120 of Essex’s army being killed, but there is no other evidence for casualties on such a scale and the figures are implausibly high, given the extent of the action. Another parliamentarian account mentions that no more than 20 persons had been killed. No special arrangements were made for the care of the parliamentarian wounded, suggesting that the numbers were small, and the number of royalist casualties is unlikely to have been higher.

That evening a party of royalist horse occupied Kingston, threatening the possibility of an attack on London from the south or a movement to link up with the King’s supporters in Kent. They were too weak to attempt either manoeuvre, although their incursions into Surrey over the following few days were alarming and gave further justification for the parliamentarian writers’ accusations of plundering.

Parliament’s supporters had the greater reason to be disappointed with the outcome, given the numerical superiority of its army and the prospect that the aborted enveloping manoeuvre could have resulted in the complete defeat of the royalist army and the end of the war almost at its outset. Unlike the aftermath of Edgehill, with conflicting accounts and interpretations, the events at Turnham Green were quickly known. Initially blame was directed at the professional soldiers, but the parliamentarian commanders’ conduct of the battle subsequently merged into the growing resentment of Essex and his adherents and their alleged reluctance to defeat the King, leading to the Self Denying Ordinance and the foundation of the New Model Army in 1645.

On the royalist side, some thought that at Turnham Green they had missed their best opportunity to win the war, by not attacking an inexperienced army containing many soldiers of doubtful loyalty. The defeat of Essex’s army would have been followed by the return of the King to his capital in triumph, able to impose a settlement of his choosing on his political opponents and quell the rebellion among its citizens. John Gwyn, who was with the King’s army at Turnham Green, later wrote that this was unrealistic, given the royalists’ numerical inferiority and the shrewd placement of the parliamentarian troops and artillery. Clarendon, too, thought that a royalist attack would have been ‘a madness’, and Thomas Hobbes justified the King’s withdrawal by explaining that he was opposed by ‘a most complete and numerous army’. Even had they driven Essex’s troops from their positions at Turnham Green, they would have faced a running fight through enclosed country towards the city, which was protected by newly erected strong points mounting artillery, with the streets behind them blocked by barricades. Only the total defeat of his army could have offered them the prospect of capturing London and, given the disparity in numbers, that was improbable.

Although the first Civil War continued until 1646, the royalists never again approached London, which had firmly displayed its loyalty to the parliamentarian cause, and their attempts to capture or demoralise it were channelled into futile plots to stage coups and economic warfare, through the disruption of internal trade and the depredations of naval privateers. None of their strategies was successful and the battle of Turnham Green proved to have been decisive, marking the high water mark of their campaign against London.

The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke 1605-1675, ed Ruth Spalding (1990)
The Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow… 1625-1672, ed CH Firth, I (1894)
Edward Earl of Clarendon, The History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, I (1839)
The Military Memoirs of John Gwyn, ed Norman Tucker (1967)
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Marquess of Ormonde, new series, II (1903), pp 381-2
Historical Manuscripts Commission, Manuscripts of the Duke of Portland at Welbeck, III (1894), pp 100-1
British Library, Thomason Tracts, E127, E128
British Library, Add MS.40,883, Nehemiah Wallington his Booke
The Journal of William Schellinks’ Travels in England 1661-1663, ed Maurice Exwood & H L Lohmann, Camden Soc 5th series, I (1993)

Dr Stephen Porter has recently retired from the Survey of London section of English Heritage. His books include Destruction in the English Civil Wars (1994), The Great Fire of London (1996) and The Great Plague (1999), and, as editor, London and the Civil War (1996). He is a founder-member of the Battlefields Trust, which is proposing to provide information boards, leaflets and educational resources relating to the battlefields of Brentford and Turnham Green.

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