Unearthing the past at Marston Moor
PUBLISHED: 00:00 13 June 2017
The peaceful rolling fields of a York farm were once the scene of a battle which changed the course of English history. Richard Darn reports.
It was the biggest battle fought on English soil, with over 40,000 soldiers desperately fighting for their cause on a summer’s evening.
Marston Moor on July 2 1644 was a turning point in the British Civil Wars when Royalist and Parliamentarian forces with their Scots allies clashed five miles west of York.
Over two hours fate swung against King Charles I, not least because of the generalship of Oliver Cromwell, whose cavalry charged and regrouped to unleash mayhem on the enemy ranks.
By nightfall more than 4,000 men were dead, many more injured or captured, and the north of England lost to the crown.
The brutal encounter had a far more profound effect on the course of English history than more celebrated battles such as Towton Moor or Bosworth. But Marston Moor is often inexplicably overlooked or misunderstood despite its massive significance.
The Smakman family, who own Marston Grange, one of several farms occupying the registered battle site, are intent on keeping its memory alive.
The 406-acre arable business has been in the family since 1942 and is now run by David Smakman and wife Jo, who with an archaeology and marketing background, is in no doubt about the site’s immense significance.
‘Our farmhouse is located on the part of the battlefield where Cromwell’s cavalry and that of Prince Rupert faced each other,’ said Jo. ‘We have found belt buckles, muskets balls and spurs and we can never forget what happened here. It gives me goosebumps just to hold them. The lay of the land is now agricultural, but with a bit of guidance you can still see features that played a part in the battle such as hedges and woodland and the dip that hid some of the Parliamentarian army.’
Jo and David linked up with the Royal Armouries in Leeds and the National Civil War Centre in Newark for the first time to host a battlefield day on the farm.
Glyn Hughes said: ‘Marston Moor is one of the best preserved and most evocative sites from the period. The battle was hugely important as it was the beginning of the end for King Charles. Most of the key figures were here; Cromwell, Fairfax, Leven, Goring and Prince Rupert. At the end of the day the Crown lost control of the northern shires, York and the North Sea ports, which was a terrific blow.’
The battle had its genesis in the Royalists’ successful move to relieve the siege of York, when the dashing Prince Rupert, the most feared solider of his day, arrived in the nick of time to stave off the threat. But instead of consolidating his hold on the city he choose to meet his enemy in a pitched battle at Marston Moor, citing orders from the King to destroy the rebel army, even though he was outnumbered by an allied Parliamentarian and Scottish force 28,000 strong.
Even so, the battle swung in favour of one side then the other. The allies’ right wing under Sir Tom Fairfax – whose tomb is in Bilborough church – suffered from royalist musket fire, while Cromwell’s cavalry, dubbed the Ironsides, tore into the King’s ranks on the other flank. Although Cromwell was wounded in the neck he recovered to sweep around the Royalist rear to relieve his beleaguered colleagues and seal the day. Many fled or were captured, but some stood their ground, including the Marquis of Newcastle’s Whitecoats, who were repeatedly charged by the Ironsides until just 30 were left alive. Their sacrifice has become emblematic of the day.
Reports of ghostly armies flanked by pillars of light appearing to re-fight the battle circulated for years afterwards such was the battle’s impact on the nation’s psyche. The more earthly reckoning was that King Charles never recovered from the setback (York fell two weeks later) and within two years he surrendered to the Scots at Newark, in May 1646.
‘It’s strange to think that such a beautiful location could have witnessed such events,’ added Jo. ‘These days we are nurturing a special place with two acres of gardens and wildflower meadows, while helping people understand what happened here 370 years ago.’
The event will run from 10am-3pm and includes refreshments and a buffet lunch in a well-appointed education barn, specially built to cater for battlefield and other events focusing on farming, wildlife, horticulture, crafts and literature.