The Battle of Brentford 1642

by Simon Marsh, Brentford & Chiswick Local History Journal 15, 2006

Following the outbreak of civil war in the summer of 1642, the King and parliament gathered their field armies respectively at Shrewsbury and Northampton. By mid-September the parliamentary commander, the Earl of Essex, had assembled a force of over 15,000 men and had been ordered by parliament to ‘. . . march with such forces as you think fit, towards the Army raised in his Majesties Name against the Parliament and Kingdom. And you shall use your utmost Endeavours, by Battle or otherwise, to rescue his Majesty’s Person. . . out of the hands of those desperate persons [about him]’.

Prince Rupert, Commander of the royalist cavalry

Essex advanced to Worcester, possibly in order to forestall a royalist march down the Severn Valley to Bristol, at that time the second city of the kingdom. On 12 October, having learnt that Essex was no longer between the royal army and London, the King ordered his army to advance on the capital with the intention of ending the war at a stroke. Essex became aware of the King’s departure from Shrewsbury by 18 October and, giving chase, marched his army east, arriving in the vicinity of the royalist forces near Banbury on 22 October. Made aware of the proximity of the parliamentary forces, the King ordered his army to draw up on Edgehill in the early morning of 23 October. Both armies fought each other to a standstill during the battle that day, but Essex left the King in possession of the field and fell back to Warwick to rally his broken units. Essex subsequently retreated back to London via Northampton, Woburn and St Albans arriving in the capital on 7 November. The royalists meanwhile occupied Banbury (27 October), Oxford (29 October) and Reading (4 November) as they advanced slowly on London.

On 10 November the King marched from Maidenhead to Colnbrook, whilst, according to the Venetian Ambassador, parliamentary London was in a ‘great stir’ at the prospect of a royalist attack. With the King’s army deployed in a wide area to the west of London, including at Colnbrook, Egham, Ashford and Windsor, parliament voted to open peace negotiations with the royalists and members of both houses of parliament were sent to treat with the King, meeting him in Colnbrook on 11 November. The King agreed to talks at Windsor and the message was received ‘by both Houses with a great deal of joy’ on 12 November.

Advance on London
Parliament believed the King had promised to enter into peace negotiations and not attack London, but by early on the morning of 11 November the royalists had decided to re-supply their troops with match, powder and shot ready to march from Colnbrook toward London the next day. Three royalist regiments at Windsor, which were to be involved in the assault on Brentford, had been similarly re-provisioned on 10 November. During the morning of 12 November the royal army assembled on Hounslow Heath expecting to encounter parliamentary forces. Finding none, Prince Rupert, the King’s nephew who was commanding the royalist horse, apparently intended to lead the royal army for the assault on the parliamentary troops in Brentford which were blocking the main road to the west – the chosen route into London. But General Patrick Ruthven, the Earl of Forth, who would be made Earl of Brentford in 1644, came up and took overall control of royalist forces.

John Lilburne, a captain in Lord Brooke’s parliamentary regiment of foot

Writing after the civil war, the Earl of Clarendon blamed Prince Rupert for advancing to Hounslow with horse and dragoons, presumably prior to 12 November, so necessitating the King to bring up the rest of the army to counter the danger of Rupert’s force being cut off by parliamentary troops at Brentford, Acton and Kingston. But ‘Prince Rupert’s Diary’ makes reference to Rupert moving from Egham to Colnbrook, probably on 10 November, to request the King to draw up the royal army on Hounslow Heath and provide foot to clear the parliamentarians from Brentford. Given that ‘Rupert’s diary’ was not compiled earlier than 1662, it is possible that it represents post-justification for the activity. But the evidence in the Royalist Ordnance Papers suggests the decision to advance on London was taken by very early on 11 November 1642, presumably after discussions between the King and Rupert. At the very least this indicates the King had an opportunity to order Rupert to withdraw any cavalry at Hounslow, but chose not to take it. It also means that the King was disingenuous in his subsequent claims to parliament that he only made the decision to advance on Brentford after the departure of the delegation from both houses of parliament on 11 November.

Whilst all the royal army, which probably totalled around 12,000 men, appears to have advanced to Hounslow, not all of the army was engaged at Brentford. Working from contemporary accounts and, less reliably, restoration petitions, elements from at least eight royalist foot regiments and three cavalry regiments can be identified as being directly involved in the battle. Estimates based on surviving pay warrants for the foot regiments and the Edgehill order of battle for the cavalry suggest that up to 3,800 royalist foot and up to 800 cavalry might have been engaged at Brentford; only perhaps one third of the forces available to the King. At Colnbrook the royalists also appear to have readied four cannon for the advance on Brentford with the remainder of the artillery train following behind.

Defence of Brentford
For parliament, New Brentford/Brentford End (the western part of modern day Brentford either side of the River Brent) was defended by Denzil Holles’s regiment of foot consisting of probably around 700-800 men with Lord Brooke’s regiment of foot of 480 men seemingly in Old Brentford (the eastern part of modern day Brentford). These regiments had arrived by the morning of 11 November 1642 and had probably been ordered there to act as a defence against any royalist probing along the main road to the west. The parliamentary soldiers were short of arms, match, bullet and powder and ransacked the shops in Brentford for supplies. According to John Lilburne, the political radical – who was then serving as a captain in Brooke’s regiment – although the foot were supported by 10-12 troops of cavalry, most of the parliamentary horse fled on hearing of the royalist attack, leaving, apparently, only a troop commanded by Captain Robert Vivers. The parliamentary forces also seem to have had two or three artillery pieces.

The royalist attack appears initially to have been made by cavalry to the west of Brentford, probably along the London Road and along the road which then ran from Isleworth across what is now Syon Park to Syon Lane. Given that the royal army had to march from various locations west of London and assemble before commencing the advance on Brentford, it seems unlikely that the attack commenced much before midday, a view supported by contemporary sources.

Map of Brentford showing the relative positions of the two armies

Many accounts of the battle also make reference to the heavy mist over Brentford that day which helped the royalists achieve tactical surprise.

Sir Richard Bulstrode, serving in the Prince of Wales’s regiment of horse, noted that his regiment was forced to retreat after being surprised by parliamentary artillery placed behind a great hedge and had to await the arrival of the royalist foot before pressing the attack. Moses Glover’s 1635 map of The Hundred of Isleworth around Brentford shows a number of enclosures either side of the London Road to the west of Brentford. The enclosure around Brentford negated the useful-ness of the royalist cavalry and caused the engagement to become an infantry battle primarily, though not exclusively, involving musketeers.

John Gwyn, a soldier serving in Sir Thomas Salisbury’s Welsh regiment of royalist foot, indicates that the first parliamentary forces, almost certainly Denzil Holles’s red coated regiment of ‘butchers and dyers’, were engaged by the royalists at Sir Richard Wynn’s house, west of Brentford End. By tradition, just before his regiment went into battle, Sir Thomas is said to have told his men ‘gentlemen, you lost your honour at Edgehill, I hope you will regain it here’.

Whilst the mist and the associated stillness might have diminished some of the sights and sounds of this initial engagement, the discharge of cannon must have been heard in Brentford. But no parliamentary reinforcements appear to have been sent from Brentford to support the detachment at Sir Richard Wynn’s house. One possible explanation for this inactivity is provided by Lilburne who claims that on hearing of the royalist attack the remainder of Denzil Holles’ and Lord Brooke’s regiments, which were both lacking senior officers, began retreating to London and only his intervention caused them to return to Brentford to fight. Setting aside the self-serving aspects of Lilburne’s account, such confusion could explain why the initial defence was not reinforced from Brentford. In addition, parliament, in the light of the agreement it judged it had with the King to enter into peace negotiations, had ordered that ‘. . . [its] soldiers should exercise no acts of hostility against any of [the king’s] people’ and this command alone might explain some of the inaction.

The Battle at Brentford Bridge, from a painting by John Hassall RA, 1928

The parliamentary pickets at Sir Richard Wynn’s House were cleared and the royalists advanced to find the entrance to New Brentford blocked by a small barricade, probably at the bridge across the River Brent. A further royalist attack, with overwhelming numbers – one royalist account talks of 1,000 musketeers – dislodged the parliamentary troops in under one hour and forced them to retreat from this defensive position to another ‘work’, probably a barricade between New and Old Brentford, and join Lord Brooke’s regiment of foot. The approaches to this new position were covered by a brick house and by two small pieces of artillery and the barricade is likely to have been at the crest of the rising ground at the western end of Old Brentford. The royalists seem to have had some difficulty in overcoming this obstacle.

A royalist soldier writing a few days after the battle noted that ‘my Colonel’s [Sir Edward Fitton] regiment was the sixth that was brought up to assault, after five others had all discharged, whose happy honour it was (assisted by God, and a new piece of cannon newly come up) to drive them from that worke too’. Gwyn also implies the fighting was hard throughout the battle when describing royalist tactics as ‘after once firing suddenly to advance up to push of pikes and the butt end of muskets’.

Parliamentary troops driven from this position are said to have routed, some through Old Brentford toward London but others into the River Thames with scores drowning. The parliamentary troops forced into the Thames must have been prevented from retreating toward London by royalist forces that had either worked around the right flank of the parliamentary defensive position through the enclosure and houses  –  making the barricade position untenable, or by a sudden breakthrough, exploited by the royalists with speed, that forced the parliamentarians defending the left flank anchored on the river to surrender or swim.

The royalists continued their advance through Old Brentford only to encounter fresh parliamentary troops in an open field outside the town, a possible reference to Turnham Green and Chiswick Common Field. These were the green coats of John Hampden’s regiment of foot which charged the royalist forces five times in order to cover the retreat of what remained of Holles’s and Brooke’s regiments toward Hammersmith, where parliament’s lightly guarded train of artillery was located. By now it was late afternoon and, with the light fading and royalist forces exhausted from around four hours of combat, the opposing forces disengaged.

Once captured, Brentford was sacked, according to the Venetian ambassador on Prince Rupert’s orders. Whilst subsequent parliamentary propaganda made much of the royalist sack, the parliamentarian search for provisions in Brentford prior to the attack must have been responsible for some of the spoil. Moreover, only one house was recorded as having been set on fire and, despite the fighting and subsequent looting, there seems to have been few, if any, civilian dead.

Parliament’s forces suffered in the action. According to royalist accounts between six and eleven colours were captured, suggesting at least that many broken companies, and a number of officers, including a lieutenant colonel, some captains and other junior officers, were killed. At least two parliamentary officers were also captured, Captains Robert Vivers and John Lilburne. Accounts of casualty and prisoner numbers vary, but it appears that around 50 parliamentary soldiers were killed in the battle, with perhaps more than this drowning during the rout. A contemporary, third hand, account, suggests 140 parliamentary soldiers were killed which appears credible. Others would have succumbed to wounds following the battle.

The accounts of the committee for maimed and wounded soldiers for November 1642 show that 21 officers from both regiments, 57 soldiers from Brooke’s and 249 soldiers from Holles’ regiments received payments of £1 each for the officers and 5 shillings each for the soldiers for being captured and ‘strypt’ at Brentford. Royalist losses are poorly recorded. One account details the deaths of 16 men, including one captain and two lieutenants. The King, in a subsequent letter to parliament, claimed ten royalist dead. One unsubstantiated account suggests the royalist dead were removed to Hounslow Heath.

Fighting on the Thames
Royalist accounts refer to parliamentary troops and equipment also moving down the Thames by boat from Kingston following the battle. This appears to have been either to reinforce the parliamentarian army in London or to defend the approaches to London from Kent, which at that time was viewed as a potential source of royalist threat. The most contemporary, royalist, account indicates that 14 barges with 600 troops and 13 pieces of artillery passed by Brentford in the early hours of 13 November. These were spotted by royalist musketeers in Syon House and engaged.

The action reportedly sank four or five vessels with the remainder being captured, with eight pieces of artillery, by the royalists. But the likelihood of musketeers alone sinking any vessel is remote. A separate parliamentary account is more credible and indicates that eight barges were laden with cannon, powder, match, bullets and ammunition at Kingston and rowed down the Thames on the night of 12 November. The barges came under musket fire from Syon House injuring three or four crew members. But between Old Brentford and the modern-day Kew Bridge the royalists had deployed cannon covering the river and, judging they had no chance of escape from this threat, the parliamentarian sailors scuttled the barges.

Separately on the afternoon of 13 November two parliamentary vessels on the Thames attacked Syon House with cannon, damaging the house. Royalist counter-fire, from cannon located on the top of Syon House and ‘lower’, appears to have sunk one of the vessels. This artillery duel is in part corroborated by the 1643 Household Accounts for Syon House which detail the expenditure of £26 10s for repairs where the house had been shot through with ordnance, for damage to the battlements and to ‘the three ovals in the middle gallery at Syon which were shot through by the King’s forces’.

On 13 November 1642 at Turnham Green, the King’s forces were faced by Essex’s field army and the London militia. Neither side appeared willing to commit to battle and, with his army outnumbered two to one, the King ordered a retreat covered by dragoons at Brentford. The Royal army withdrew to Hounslow Heath and then went on to Kingston and Reading before retiring to winter quarters in and around Oxford.

Whilst Brentford had been a tactical victory for the royalists, the campaign had not been a strategic success. The ease of the royalist advance on London and Rupert’s probable encouragement appears to have persuaded the King to press his advantage with the attack on Brentford and subsequent confrontation at Turnham Green. But the attack and sack of Brentford, when in the midst of peace negotiations, hardened parliamentarian sentiment against accommodation and rallied opinion in parliament and the City in favour of a stand against the King.

Turnham Green was seen in some royalist quarters as a lost opportunity for the King to win the war. However, in reality, the King’s best chance had been the day before at Brentford. Had the royal army not been held up by the parliamentary delaying action there, more progress could have been made against London. The parliamentary field army was dispersed, the trained bands were not mustered together and the parliamentary artillery train at Hammersmith might well have been captured. Nonetheless the extent of enclosure on the western side of London, the defensive works built rapidly to protect the capital after Edgehill and the threat from parliamentary forces in the royalists’ rear would still have made such an advance risky and the outcome unpredictable.

Ashmole MS 830 folio 292-293 (reprinted in Turner’s History of Brentford (1922); Battle of Brentford by Neil Chippendale, 1991; Thomason Tracts E73, E242, E217, E314/2, British Library; The Trial of John Lilburne 24-26 October 1649 at the Guildhall, Complete Collection of State Trials, Cobbett London 1809 Vol IV pp1270-1470; Cornwall Record Office DDT (Tremayne of Heligan) 1609/1; Edgehill by Peter Young, 1995; Historical Manuscripts Commission 29th Report Vol III (Portland MSS); A Brief Relation of the Life and Memoirs of John Belasyse Written and Collected by His Secretary Joshua Moore; Historical Manuscripts Commission: Calendar of the Marquess of Ormonde Vol 11 New Series (1903); House of Commons Journal Vol II; House of Lords Journal Vol V; History of the Great Rebellion by Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, 1967; Military Memoirs of the Great Civil War: Being the memoirs of John Gwyn, 1987; National Archives SP28/141B part 3 – accounts of the committee for wounded and maimed soldiers; Royal Ordnance Papers, ed Ian Roy (Oxford Record Society) 2v, 1964, 1975; The English Civil War: A Contemporary Account, vol 2 1640-1642, eds Edward and Peter Razzell, 1996.

Simon Marsh is a civil servant and lives in east London. He has a long standing interest in the military history of the English Civil War and is a member of the Battlefields Trust. He has presented widely on the Battle of Brentford and is currently writing a book with Dr Stephen Porter on the parliamentary defence of London in November 1642.

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