Edgehill: The biggest 'what if' question of the English Civil War

Prince Rupert (seated) and Charles I (blue sash) on the eve of the Battle of Edgehill
The Battle of Edgehill, fought on 23 October in 1642, presents one of history's great 'what if' moments. 

Today, the battle is remembered as a bloody draw. Both sides believed this would be the one major skirmish that would settle the conflict between King and Parliament, but neither was able to land the decisive blow. 

Charles was slightly outnumbered, but he held the high ground on Edge Hill and his cavalry, led by Prince Rupert, were believed to be the best fighters in England. 

He launched them into the fray quickly, sending them out to attack Parliament's own horsemen and overpowering them quickly. The speed of this success led to over-confidence, and Rupert and his men chased their fleeing opponents and then rode on to loot the Parliamentary army's baggage train.

But by leaving the battlefield they left Charles' infantry exposed. 

A small number of the Parliamentary cavalry were still on the battlefield and they were able to make lighting strikes against the Royal infantry, inflicting terrible casualties. 

The King's troops were battered back to their starting position on Edge Hill, but Parliament's fighters couldn't land the final blow that would settle the battle in their favour. 

As darkness fell both sides withdrew to their original positions. The Earl of Essex decided to head north, to the sanctuary of Warwick, leaving the road to London open to the King.

So the question remains, if Charles' cavalry had stayed on the battlefield and completed their destruction of the Parliamentary army, would it have ended the English Civil War at the first battle, saving almost a decade of death and destruction?

Want to know more? Visits to the Edgehill battlefield are part of our English Civil Wars tours with Julian Humphrys, an expert on the period. We tell stories. We don't take sides. Julian will put you in the boots of soldiers from both sides, explaining how the battle played out, how different tactical decisions affected events, and also shed light on the terrors of the battlefield. Based in Oxford, the three-night tour starts on 5 March 2021, and there is a four-night tour starting 17 July 2021.

Photo credit: The Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642, credit: Walker Art Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


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