The Faithful City and that turbulent battle of 1651.
There is now little sign of the violent battle that raged in and around Worcester on that momentous day of 3rd September 1651. The remains of Fort Royal are still visible, as are the musket ball marks on Powick church and the damage to Powick bridge. The Battle of Worcester was so much more than just another battle it was the final stage in a series of civil wars that not only affected England, but Scotland, Ireland and Wales too.
This was a battle that changed the social, political and historical landscape of England forever and one of the most momentous events in our history. With a unique place in English Civil War history, it started with a small but bloody skirmish at Powick Bridge in 1642, and ended with the large-scale bloodshed of the 1651 Battle of Worcester, fought on the 3rd September starting at midday and lasting for ten hours. So important was the outcome of the Battle of Worcester, that two of the founding fathers of the United States of America, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, came to Worcester in 1786 to see the battlefield for themselves.
Charles II was attempting to win back the English throne after his father, Charles I had been executed in 1649. Proclaimed King in 1650, having been in self-imposed exile, he marched his 15,000 men into England under the command of the Duke of Hamilton, choosing Worcester to make his stand and The Commandery as headquarters.
Oliver Cromwell led the Parliamentarian new model army against Charles II’s men, arriving in Worcester with 30,000 soldiers, twice the amount as the Royalists.
Cromwell’s tactics succeeded in cutting off both sides of Worcester and preventing Charles army escaping the city. Cromwell sent 4,000 men to aid the attack on Powick, crossing the river Severn via bridges of boats. The Royalists under Colonels Pitscottie and Keith retreated north from Powick to the bridge across the river Teme whilst royalist cavalry under General Leslie refused to reinforce their comrades at Powick.
King Charles rode out from Worcester to rally his men, having watched from the tower of Worcester Cathedral. Leading a charge on Red Hill and Perry Wood the Royalists were forced back, when Cromwell resumed command of the Parliamentarian right flank, threatening Fort Royal.
It was here Duke of Hamilton was mortally wounded by a musket shot to the leg and died days later in The Commandery from gangrene. Oliver Cromwell refused permission for his body to be returned to Scotland after the Duke refused surgery by Cromwell’s own surgeon, that could have saved his life. His body was buried under the floor of The Commandery for a while, then later exhumed and reburied at Worcester Cathedral.
The Royalists were forced back into Worcester through the Sidbury Gate after Fort Royal was captured resulting in a bloody massacre. As Parliament’s men began to break into Worcester Royalists staged a final cavalry charge on the High street to buy time for Charles to escape along with general Leslie who had earlier refused to fight. David Leslie was later captured attempting to reach Scotland and sent to the tower of London. The final Royalist stronghold in the city, at Castle mound, surrendered to Cromwell after negotiations and parliament recorded a complete victory apart from their failure to capture Charles.
The Battle of Worcester destroyed the final hopes of the Royalists regaining power by military force. Charles was forced into exile and the long and bitter Civil War was over, appropriately ending where it had begun. This was Cromwell’s last great victory in battle and it secured his dominant position, political as well as military, contributing to his appointment in 1653 as Lord Protector.
A visit to the battlefield is well worthwhile and if you are feeling energetic and have an interest in the history of our great county then a day out walking the walk is a must.
The area to the south of Worcester between Powick Bridge and the confluence of the Severn and Teme is the best-preserved part of the battlefield. There is good access to the old Powick Bridge and there are footpaths leading across the battlefield, including paths on the north side of the Teme and on both sides of the Severn.
Here the ground is still open agricultural land, where the manoeuvres of the armies between the bridge and the position of the pontoons can be best appreciated. Further north and to the east of the city late 19th and particularly 20th-century development has destroyed large parts of the battlefield and most traces of the landscape.
Within the city, there are several buildings and monuments associated with the battle. The top of the Cathedral tower gives the best view of the battlefield.
The Commandery tells stories from the Civil War and the Battle of Worcester as part of its long and varied history from its location in the heart of Worcester, just 3 minutes walk from Worcester Cathedral.
Open: Tuesday-Saturday 10.00am-5.00pm. Sunday 1.30pm-5.00pm.
Tel: (01905) 361821
Special thanks to Alex Bear for telling me in great detail the turbulent story of The Battle of Worcester.
Oliver Cromwell described Worcester as a “crowning mercy”. It was his final battle as an active commander.
There’s a legend that on the eve of his great victory at Worcester, Cromwell went alone into Perry Wood and ”sold his soul” to the Devil on condition that he could emerge triumphant from the following day’s conflict. The devil promised Cromwell victory in exchange for his soul, saying he would come to collect the debt in 7 years time. Cromwell died on a stormy night, 3rd September 1658, seven years to the day after the Battle of Worcester!
In 1651, King Charles II’s hopes were crushed in The Battle of Worcester, the final conflict of the Civil War. Young Charles was forced to flee for his life, blocked by Cromwell’s patrols, he found refuge at Boscobel in Shropshire hiding in a tree, which is now known as The Royal Oak. Then moving from this hiding place in The Royal Oak, he spent the night hiding in a priest-hole in the same lodge before travelling in disguise to other safe houses, later escaping to France.
The Commandery’s Survival
The Commandery itself has always been an important building to Worcester. Originally a monastic hospital, its grandeur aided it’s survival during the reformation, as rather than being destroyed it was sold into the hands of a wealthy Protestant family.
It has survived two major engagements during the English Civil War; In 1646 when the city was besieged and all buildings outside the city walls in the Sidbury area were torn down to remove any potential cover for an advancing enemy and in 1651 when the building served as General Hamilton’s headquarters.
During the 1651 battle, the wounded Scots were being held and treated in The Commandery whilst the battle raged. Considering the building’s location between Fort Royal and the city itself, it is important to remember that once the fort fell, The Commandery would have been a perfect target for the Parliamentarian gunners as the surviving Scots fled towards the safety of the building.
However, it has been theorised that the Parliamentarians were unable to depress their cannons far enough to actually aim at the building and had to resign themselves to hurling cannonballs over the building and into the city behind instead.
This would explain why such little battle damage can be observed around the building despite fighting no doubt taking place in and around the building’s grounds.