Prince Rupert, the Royalist’s formidable military leader

On July 2nd, in 1644, the Royalist army of Charles I suffered its first big defeat of the English Civil Wars, ending royal power in the north of England. 

The royal force was led by Prince Rupert, the king's nephew, who had built a formidable reputation after earning his military spurs during the Thirty Years War, and then through early successes in England's civil wars. 

The Prince, who had been born in Prague but spent his childhood in the Netherlands, was captured by forces of the holy Roman Emperor while fighting for the Dutch in 1938. 

He spent three years in captivity, studying the theories of war and the power of the cavalry. When his release was agreed in 1942, he headed to England to join his uncle. 

Rupert was 23 at the outbreak of the conflict and his military brilliance was obvious, with early successes achieved at Powick Bridge, where he led a surprise cavalry charge, and at Bristol, where his forces captured the city for the king. 

But Rupert was also impetuous and other Royalist commanders considered him to be arrogant. 

His rashness was on display at the Battle of Edgehill, where his cavalry smashed through the enemy force, but instead of stopping to attack the exposed flank they sped on to plunder the distant baggage train, and by the time Rupert and his men returned to the fight Parliament’s forces had reordered and the Royalists were unable to force a decisive result.  

Rupert’s arrogance highlighted one of the weaknesses in the Royalist fighting force. While the Parliamentarians under Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Fairfax and the Duke of Essex were united behind their strategy, the Royalist hierarchy was divided and split into factions. Rupert thought them slow and unprofessional, in stark contrast the New Model Army that had been created by Parliament. 

In July 1645, Rupert, marching to lift the siege at York, was met by a combined force of Parliament’s armies at Marston Moor. 

The Prince arrived at the moor on the morning of 2 July, but Royalist reinforcements were slow to arrive. After a long march and with fewer numbers, Rupert decided against an immediate attack.

Royalist reinforcements came late in the afternoon and were led by Lord Eythin, who had a chequered history with Prince Rupert. The two men argued over tactics and decided to delay an attack until the following day, and the Royalist troops broke ranks for supper. 

Seeing that the enemy was not ready to fight, Parliament attacked at around 7pm. 

The Parliamentary cavalry, led by Oliver Cromwell, quickly made headway on the Royalist flank. Prince Rupert led a counter-charge but the Scottish Covenanters were able to outflank and rout them. Rupert escaped by hiding in a bean field. 

Defeat at Marston Moor was the first in a series of losses for Rupert and the Royalists. 

Less than a year later, the king’s army met the New Model Army at Naseby. Outnumbered, the king was convinced his battle-hardened troops could win, but they were destroyed and many of his best fighters were captured or killed. 

Prince Rupert was then ordered to defend Bristol, one of only two seaports still held by the Royalists. But he had a small force and quickly realised the futility of the situation, so surrendered the city to Fairfax’s forces and advised the king to seek peace. 

King Charles, stunned by the catastrophic loss, removed Rupert from his role at the head of the Royalist army and ordered him to leave England. 

The fall of Prince Rupert, the previously formidable Royalist commander, was complete. 

However, Rupert’s career as a soldier was not over. He went on to fight for the French against Spain, and then took the seas by leading a small fleet in the Mediterranean and then the Caribbean.

When Charles II was returned to the English throne in 1660, Rupert was invited back and installed as the head of the Royal Navy, where he fought for his adopted country in the wars against the Dutch.

The cavalry commander who had been banished from England had made a triumphant return, and continued to play a leading role in public life to his death of old age.  

Want to find out more?
Join our Oxford-based English Civil War history holiday. Expert Julian Humphrys will lead you on a walking tour of Oxford, visiting the sites that were most impacted by the Royalist occupation and detailing how the town changed during those years. The break also includes visits to the battle sites of Edgehill, Naseby, Stow-on-the-Wold and more. 

Picture credit: Charles I with the blue sash and Prince Rupert, seated, on the Eve of the Battle of Edge Hill, 1642