IT is reputed to be the biggest battle on English soil. The summer of 1644 saw York besieged by three armies – one Scottish, and two raised by England’s Parliament. Led by a trio of commanders, this joint force aimed to strangle York into submission and kill off the cause of King Charles I in the north.

Today (July 2) marks the 375th anniversary of the Battle of Marston Moor, which was the turning point in the English Civil War. It was a conflict in which brothers fought brothers, fathers fought sons and friends put aside friendships as the nation divided over support of the King or his Parliament.

That July day was make or break for both sides. “If York be lost”, the King wrote, he “would esteem his crown little less”. Therefore, a relief force was despatched under the command of his nephew, the famed Prince Rupert, who would carry the King’s letter on his person until his dying day.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine was a furiously energetic, loyal and brave commander with a reputation for ruthless cavalry charges. Undefeated after nearly two years, his arrival at Knaresborough Castle made the allies withdraw from York and form up on Marston Moor to block his advance. Rupert commanded 15,000 men, while the allies numbered 24,000. Yet the fates of 40,000 men were to be dictated by the foibles of a handful of individuals.

The unpredictable Rupert avoided the Roman road (the modern A59) to York. As if following his own 17th century sat-nav, he took a daring 22 mile diversion around the top of the allied armies. Crossing the River Ure and then the Swale, Rupert put a protective moat of water between him and the enemy. He approached the city and lifted the nine-week siege. York was saved and Rupert read his uncle’s letter once more.

“If York be relieved, and you beat the rebels’ army of both kingdoms which are before it, then (but otherwise not) I may possibly make a shift upon the defensive.”

The clear-cut Rupert saw this as a directive to defeat the enemy in battle. As he made immediate preparations, a second decisive letter arrived; from the Earl of Newcastle, who commanded York’s defenders.

“Your name, sir, hath terrified the great generals and they fly before it … I am made of nothing but thankfulness and obedience to Your Highnesses commands.”

Rupert took the gushing letter at face value and instructed Newcastle to bring his 3,000 men to Marston Moor. At 9am on July 2, Rupert arrived on the moor to find his hosts, the allies, had withdrawn to Tadcaster, having not expected him to seek battle. Hearing of the Prince’s phantom-like appearance, the allies quickly turned about.

Back on Marston Moor, they marshalled their men without hindrance. With no sign of Newcastle’s troops to even the numbers, Rupert reined himself in. By 2pm the mouths of the allied artillery spewed roundshot and their men chanted psalms. Humid air enveloped the moor and warned of a coming storm. Under clouds as dark as Rupert’s mood, the York men only arrived at 4pm and Rupert, judging the day to be spent, stood his men down.

At 7.30pm the allied commander, Lord Leven, let loose his men down the slopes as thunder rolled overhead. Oliver Cromwell and his cavalry on the allied left wing headed straight for Lord Byron’s royalist horsemen. Byron advanced – against orders – thus losing the defence of a ditch and masking the fire of his own musketeers, and was routed.

On the allies’ right wing, Sir Thomas Fairfax was forced to contend with the formidable terrain. His men broke and were chased off the field by most of the royalist horsemen who squandered their advantage. The remaining royalist cavalry grasped the opportunity to attack the allied infantry in the centre. As the allied soldiers crumbled, even their three commanders thought all was lost and fled to Tadcaster.

Rupert, sensing victory was within his grasp, took his cavalry reserve and went to head off Cromwell’s success. A mammoth struggle ensued until Cromwell, wounded on the cheek, was victorious and Rupert forced to hide for his life in a bean field. With the run of the moor, Cromwell defeated the remaining royalist horsemen and decimated their infantry.

Darkness attempted to obliterate sight of the carnage but the full moon picked out the faces of the 4,000 royalist dead. Newcastle’s whitecoats, after arriving late, courageously refused to surrender. They had once vowed to dye their tunics in the blood of the enemy, yet as they were massacred, it was their own blood that did so. Another notable casualty was Rupert’s dog, Boye. Portrayed by the enemy as demonic, and Rupert’s talisman, the poodle’s death signified the end of his master’s invincibility. Two hours of fighting was all it took to seal the fate of the King’s cause in the north and York would fall two weeks later.

nFor more information about Mark Turnbull’s historical novel set in the Civil War, Allegiance of Blood, due out this autumn, visit