WORCESTER, SEPTEMBER 3rd 1651 – extract from The King’s Falcon
The morning was spent in a state of heightened tension as the Royalist army continued to await Cromwell’s attack. Colonel Peverell divided the time between his regiment just below Fort Royal, the army’s headquarters in the Commandery and the look-out atop the Cathedral tower. In this way he was able to at least feel busy during the last empty hours until it was time to fight.
At around noon, standing amidst a handful of other officers beside the King on the Cathedral tower, he saw and heard the first signs of activity; the crackle of musket-fire and puffs of smoke ascending from Colonel Keith’s outpost in the village of Powick. Ashley’s muscles tightened but he said nothing. The view, even through a perspective glass, was annoyingly indistinct but everyone knew that the outpost was too small to be held against a full attack. Keith’s stand, when it came, would be made at Powick Bridge; the place where, nine years ago, Prince Rupert had won the first victory of the war by defeating Nathaniel Fiennes.
It was harder to watch and wait than to do. By the time it became plain that Colonel Keith had been pushed back and was now fighting desperately to hold the bridge, Ashley was in a fever of impatience. And when, away to Keith’s left, the New Model started pouring across the bridge of boats at the mouth of the Teme towards Pitscotty’s brigade, he said tersely, ‘They’re trying to turn our right wing. Doesn’t anyone think it might be a good idea to stop them?’
Several pairs of eyes, their expressions varying from disapproval to agreement, turned in his direction. Then Lord Rothes said, ‘Quite right. If Keith is forced to give ground, Pitscotty will have to retreat or be cut off – and vice versa. And if both of them are driven back on Montgomery, our whole flank could be rolled right back to the city.’
A brief debate ensued until the King – as anxious as Ashley to be in the thick of things – said, ‘I’ll go down and assess the situation in person.’
General Middleton’s brows shot up.
‘I’d rather ye didn’t, Sir. It’s tae greet a risk.’
‘This whole venture is a risk, General. And my presence may be just the encouragement the men need.’ Charles glanced around him. ‘Colonel Legge – Colonel Peverell. Bring up a couple of dozen of your best men and let’s go.’
They left the city by Bridgegate and rode fast. Activity along the banks of the Teme was now extremely fierce. Colonel Keith was still holding the bridge in the teeth of some heavy opposition from Fleetwood’s troops and, also refusing to give ground, Pitscotty’s highlanders were engaged in a vicious struggle with Major-General Lambert’s infantry. Pikeheads pierced the smoke-laden air, bugles shrilled and steel rasped on steel. The overall impression was of sheer pandemonium.
Colonel Keith, a dogged Scots officer of some experience, had his hands full but the arrival of the King caused his face to lighten fractionally and he said, ‘It isna going sae bad, Your Majesty – not that we couldna do wi’ a wee bit o’ support. But I dinna doot ma laddies will fight the harder for seeing ye here.’
‘They seem to be fighting like demons already,’ replied Charles. ‘I can ask no more of them and only wished to say how greatly their efforts – and yours, Colonel – are appreciated.’ He paused briefly, surveying the fray. ‘I don’t need to tell you how vital it is that this bridge is held.’
‘No, Sir – ye don’t. And ye have ma word that we’ll hold it as long as we can. Tae the last man, if needs be.’
Charles met the Colonel’s eyes unsmilingly but with sincerity.
‘Thank you. And whatever comes of today, you may be sure I won’t forget.’
As the King turned to move on eastwards towards the Severn, Ashley said rapidly, ‘Sir – with Lambert’s fellows already on this side of the river, it would be madness to risk yourself visiting General Pitscotty. He seems to be holding them – just. But if something were to happen to Your Majesty …’ He stopped. Then, ‘I’ll go, if you wish. Meanwhile, perhaps you might put some heart into Montgomery and Dalziel.’
Charles drew a short breath, loosed it and looked at Colonel Legge who said, ‘I agree, Sir. Pitscotty’s position is no place for you at the moment.’
‘Very well.’ The King’s gaze, heavy with frustration, turned back to Colonel Peverell. ‘Make my apologies for not coming in person. And don’t stay to lend a hand.’
MEANWHILE, IN THE PARLIAMENTARIAN FORCES FACING GENERAL PITSCOTTY …
While Colonel Peverell was presenting His Majesty’s compliments to General Pitscotty and begging him to stand firm, Colonel Maxwell was wiping the sweat from his eyes and trying to ease the cramp from his sword-hand whilst conferring briskly with Major-General Lambert.
‘They won’t budge. We’ve thrown everything we’ve got against them but are continuing to battle over the same few yards. Pitscotty must be one hell of a General.’
‘Clearly,’ agreed Lambert. ‘And I’m informed that Deane’s fellows are faring no better at Powick. Yet one or other of us must push through. It doesn’t matter which. If we can make Pitscotty retreat, his colleague at Powick will have to do the same. But if both of them stand, our whole strategy of driving their right wing back to the city will fail. The trouble is that neither Deane nor myself has any more men to send.’
‘So what are your orders?’ asked Eden, preparing to re-join his men.
‘Try again? And in the meantime, I’ll apprise Fleetwood of the situation.’
Colonel Maxwell gave a short, sardonic laugh. All the officers knew that Charles Fleetwood suffered from a chronic inability to make a decision and stick to it.
‘That will be a big help, I’m sure,’ he muttered. And rode off before the Major-General could ask him to repeat himself.
If Lieutenant-General Fleetwood came up with any good ideas, Eden never found out what they were. He spent the next half hour directing another assault against the highlanders – and was just resigning himself to yet another failure when reinforcements started pouring over the second bridge of boats which lay across the Severn. The Captain-General, it appeared, had decided to lend a hand in person and was leading three brigades against Pitscotty’s left flank.
Even as he re-formed his men to support the unexpected reinforcements, Eden realised that bringing troops to support Lambert was probably the last thing Cromwell wanted to do since it might enable the Royalists to make a sally against his men on Red Hill. On the other hand, if the Scots were to be driven back and trapped in the city, there wasn’t really any alternative. And even now, attacked on two sides simultaneously by vastly superior numbers, Pitscotty’s fellows were still standing firm and fighting like demons. Eden found himself hoping they weren’t going to hold their ground to the last man. They deserved better than that.
BACK IN THE COMMANDERY … (shown above)
On the point of re-joining the King, Ashley Peverell hesitated, watching the mêlée and swearing under his breath. Then, setting spurs to his horse, he galloped off at break-neck speed to obtain the order necessary to get help.
Charles gave it in two words.
‘Fetch Leslie,’ he said. ‘I’ll send Montgomery to hold them until he gets there. Join me back at the Commandery.’
Ashley nodded curtly and set off again. Minutes later and breathing rather hard, he was at the Pitchcroft, telling David Leslie what he wanted.
The General took his time about answering. Then he said, ‘His Majesty cannot have considered the matter. The ground above the Teme is too broken with hedges to be suitable for cavalry. I do not see how we could make a charge.’
‘I appreciate that, sir,’ said Ashley with commendable patience. ‘But the situation is grave. And I’m sure your great experience will suggest some way –’
‘My great experience, Colonel, tells me that my Horse is not to be wasted where it can do little good.’
‘But the highlanders are being cut to pieces!’ began Ashley. And then stopped, realising how little this would mean to the man who’d defeated Montrose. Sitting very straight and holding Leslie’s eye, he said, ‘General Pitscotty and his men are demonstrating loyalty and valour as great as any I’ve ever seen – and they’re paying dearly for it. Perhaps that doesn’t concern you. But the King has commanded your presence, sir. Are you refusing his order?’
‘From all I’ve been privileged to see of you, young man,’ came the irascible retort, ‘I’ve little doubt that this notion originates less from His Majesty than from yourself. And since it is so obviously foolish –’
‘You’re wasting time, General. Are you going to bring your cavalry up or not?’
There was a brief, explosive silence. ‘No, Colonel. I am not.’
‘I see.’ Ashley’s gaze was like flint. ‘Then I hope you can live with the consequences – and that your men are proud of you.’ Upon which he jerked his horse’s head about and rode fulminatingly back to Worcester.
Inside the Commandery, a Council of War was in progress. As Ashley entered, however, all eyes turned towards him and the King said, ‘Well?’
‘General Leslie,’ announced Ashley carefully, ‘considers the ground unsuitable for Horse. He won’t advance.’
There was a tiny pause and then everybody started talking at once. Only the King remained silent, his expression bitter but oddly unsurprised. Then, raising his voice over the din, the Duke of Hamilton said, ‘Gentlemen – please! We’ve time neither to damn Leslie’s caution nor coerce him into action.’
Colonel Peverell threw down his hat.
‘What’s Pitscotty’s present situation?’
‘He’s making a fighting retreat – and losing a great many men in the process,’ answered Will Legge grimly. ‘As for Colonel Keith, he’s been isolated and is being forced back from the bridge. If we don’t do something soon, our forces west of the Severn will be in total disarray.’
‘Or worse,’ said Ashley.
‘Yes. Or worse.’
‘The men Cromwell is leading against Pitscotty are ones he drew off from Perry Wood and Red Hill,’ remarked Charles, frowning down at the large map on the table. ‘Might either location be vulnerable to an assault?’
Hamilton and Legge exchanged glances. Then Hamilton said slowly, ‘As vulnerable as they’ll ever be.’
‘So it’s worth a try,’ breathed Will. ‘At least it may relieve the pressure on Montgomery and our other friends across the river.’
The King looked from one to the other of them and nodded.
‘Very well, gentlemen. We’d better get busy.’
A short time later, Colonel Peverell descended purposefully upon his regiment’s position south-east of Fort Royal and, finding Major Langley, said, ‘We’re going to advance against Red Hill. Inform the captains that the King will be leading his men out of the Sidbury Gate any minute – at which point, we join him. Hamilton, meanwhile, will ride out via St Martin’s against Perry Wood.’ Ashley paused, his mouth curling in something not quite a smile. ‘We’re hoping to catch Noll with his breeches down. So if anyone wants to pray, now would be the time.’
Francis went off without a word. But later, as the regiment swung into motion, he turned an oblique glance on Ashley and said, ‘Where’s Leslie?’
There was no time to talk further. The moment came to charge and the Royalist cavalry streamed up the hill towards the New Model’s lines. The Fort Royal guns gave them covering fire for as long as possible but still the ground around and amongst them exploded with answering shots from the Red Hill artillery. Even in those first few minutes, some men died or fell, horribly wounded. The rest thundered relentlessly on over the torn, vibrating earth.
The clash came with discharging pistols and savage yells. The Foot came in at push of pike … and then the real struggle began. The terrible, bloody business of hand-to-hand combat in which there was only one basic rule; kill or die.
It was a long and bitter contest during which Ashley concentrated, minute by minute, on encouraging, steadying and re-grouping his men. He glimpsed the King, hacking and slashing with the best – apparently without thought for his personal safety; and, nearer at hand, Francis Langley – his face set hard and his left sleeve soaked with blood.
Slowly but surely, Cromwell’s fellows started to give ground before them, falling back from their lines and away up the hill. Cheering hoarsely, the Royalists pressed on with renewed vigour. Ashley forced his way to the King’s side.
‘One good push now and we could rout them,’ he shouted.
Dishevelled and streaked with sweat, Charles nodded.
‘I’ve sent for Leslie. Again. I doubt he’ll come, though. He once told me that though the army looked well, it wouldn’t fight – which makes me wonder if he ever meant to.’
Time passed. The ammunition ran out and men fought with the butt-end of their pistols. Exhaustion set in and the battle became a sort of stalemate. Despite their retreat, the New Model lines never quite disintegrated; and General Leslie’s Horse – those desperately needed reinforcements which could have made all the difference – failed to materialise. Instead, after three hours of the hardest fighting Ashley could remember, what did materialise was Oliver Cromwell and the three regiments he’d led across the Severn against Pitscotty’s poor, decimated highlanders.
Ashley’s stomach turned ice-cold. They had come so close … so close. Success had been almost within their grasp. But now the scales were tipping again.
‘Holy Christ,’ he breathed. And, with feverish haste, started bellowing orders.
His men formed up fast and as best they could. They even withstood the first shock of Cromwell’s offensive. But they were exhausted, disadvantaged by having to fight uphill and badly outnumbered. Retreat was inevitable – first back on their entrenchments and then beyond them. Ashley tried to keep it tight and orderly but, in the face of the waves of enemy troopers crashing down on them from the slopes above, it couldn’t last. And worse was to come when Cromwell’s forces over-ran Fort Royal to tear down the King’s standard. Gradually Ashley’s men started breaking from their units to turn and run. And the retreat became a rout.
The Royalists pelted down the hill towards the Sidbury Gate but the stone archway was too narrow to admit them easily and, within seconds, men and horses were jammed in it like a cork in a bottle as those behind pressed forward in an attempt to escape the pursuing pikes of the Ironsides.
Finding Francis beside him, Ashley yelled, ‘This is suicide. They’ll be massacred!’
They? thought Francis wildly. And shouted back, ‘Leave it. You can’t rally them. No one could. They’re past listening.’
Although he knew it, Ashley couldn’t help trying. He was still trying when their own guns in captured Fort Royal were turned against them. Then the Roundheads swept down like the wolf on the fold … and all hell broke loose.
Exhilarated by triumph, the Army of Saints prosecuted the Lord’s work with merciless vigour. They descended on the children of Amalek and cut them down where they stood. Suddenly the air was full of screaming and within minutes the ground beneath and around the Sidbury Gate began to resemble a charnel house. Bodies of men and horses lay in tangled, grisly heaps, their blood staining the cobbles bright red and running sluggishly into the gutters.
Francis and Ashley were amongst the few dozen who defended themselves. Ashley, indeed, would have gone on mechanically fighting had not he suddenly caught sight of the King who, with total disregard for his own life, was frantically exhorting the demoralised Scots to make one last stand.
‘Hell and the devil!’ swore Ashley. And, yelling for Francis to follow, started hacking a path to Charles’s side at precisely the same moment that an enemy trooper swooped down from the other direction, bawling ‘Belial!’
For an instant, it seemed that the King was a dead man. Then someone dragged an abandoned ammunition cart into the oncoming trooper’s path … and somehow, His Majesty simply disappeared.
‘Where the –?’ began Francis.
‘There,’ pointed Ashley. ‘That gap between the walls and the Commandery. Leave your horse and let’s go.’
The passage was narrow. At the end of it, the remains of the Royalist cavalry were fleeing down Lich Street while the King, throwing himself on the nearest loose horse, beseeched them to join him. Buckingham hovered nearby and Wilmot, his plump face overflowing with distress, grasped Charles’s bridle and begged him to stop.
‘It’s over, Your Majesty. You must see that!’
‘It’s not over,’ snapped Charles. ‘If Leslie will make one last charge –’
‘Don’t you mean one first charge?’ sniped Buckingham.
‘Don’t be clever, George. There’s no time. I must get to Leslie.’
‘No, Sir,’ said Ashley from behind him. ‘With respect, you must not. If Leslie wouldn’t fight before, he certainly won’t do so now. And your duty is to save yourself.’
Charles stared at him in mutinous silence and Wilmot said swiftly, ‘He’s right, Sir. Poor Hamilton is dying. Montgomery, Pitscotty and Keith are all taken and the enemy is breaking in all around the city. You must fly – now.’
Intensely weary and awash with despairing bitterness, the King said violently, ‘I’d rather you shot me than let me live to see the consequences of this day. Thousands have died. I can’t let it be for nothing!’
‘Then go, Sir,’ urged Ashley. ‘You can’t stay here. And you’d be better employed destroying any papers you don’t want ending up in Cromwell’s hands.’
It was, perhaps, the only argument that could have swayed Charles. His face twisted and he said, ‘Oh God. I hadn’t thought of that. Letters, lists – everything! I must get to my lodging.’
‘And from thence, God willing, out through St Martin’s Gate,’ murmured Buckingham. ‘By all means, let us go immediately.’
Charles looked at Ashley and Francis. ‘You’ll come?’
‘Presently. First we’ll see what resistance may still be offered to cover your retreat.’ Colonel Peverell smiled briefly. ‘Go, Sir. And God speed you.’
The answering smile was crooked.
‘Amen to that. Because the truth is that I’m better dead than taken.’
As the light began to fade, pandemonium ruled over Worcester. The citizens who, earlier in the day, had come out to watch the fight, now bolted themselves into their homes and looked down on the carnage through chinks in the shutters. Cromwell’s Ironsides continued to pour into the city like avenging angels while their defeated foes ran hither and thither, hammering desperately on locked doors in a vain attempt to escape capture or death.
Only two forlorn pockets of Royalist resistance were left. Lord Rothes continued stubbornly defending the Castle Mound; and, in the High Street, the Earl of Cleveland attempted to rally the last vestiges of the King’s cavalry for one final charge. Ashley and Francis caught spare horses and joined the latter … and found themselves unexpectedly reunited with Nicholas. There was no time for more than a brief nod of acknowledgement. They had barely got their meagre troop formed up when Fleetwood’s Horse pelted down upon their rear.
The encounter was short and bloody. Caught between the devil and the deep, the Cavaliers made a fighting retreat into the side-streets and then separated to pursue the only course left to them. Flight.
Musket-fire punctuated the din of iron-shod hooves and manic voices. Reaching Friar Street and still miraculously unscathed, Ashley finally accepted the hopelessness of it. Furthermore, Francis’s arm was a blood-soaked mass and his face a greyish blur which said that he wouldn’t make it out of the city without help. Sick to his stomach, Ashley made the only possible choice. He grabbed Francis’s bridle and hauled him down the nearest alley.