Although the Magna Carta was signed in 1215, the Battle of Naseby (on 14 June 1645) has long been regarded as the turning point for the establishment of democracy in England, giving Parliament a right to a permanent role in the government of the kingdom.
The Battle of Naseby was the last and most important battle of the First Civil War (1642-45), a decisive victory of the Parliamentarians over the Royalists under King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine.
Naseby was also a victory for the army ‘new modelled’ – Britain’s first regular, red-coated soldiers and is therefore considered the birth place of the British Army.
The Royalists were thoroughly defeated by the disciplined New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. More than 1,000 Royalists were killed and around 6,000 captured.
Within a year the king, Charles I, was a prisoner of his enemies; the battle largely decided the first phase of the English Civil Wars.
During the 1620s there were frequent clashes between James I (1603-25) and his son Charles I (1625-49), and Parliament.
Between 1629 and 1640 Charles I, determined to impose his doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings, ruled without Parliament.
In 1640 the king recalled Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, from Ireland and summoned Parliament.
Under the leadership of John Pym, the Parliamentarians immediately attacked Strafford, who was impeached for plotting to bring an Irish army over to England. He was tried, found guilty and executed in November 1641.
In April 1642, after failing to arrest his five leading opponents in Parliament, the King left London (he would only return for his trial in the winter of 1648). He established his head-quarters at Oxford, while the Parliamentarians remained in control of London.
Soldiers on both sides of the conflict were largely inexperienced, with only their officers having had some exposure to warfare in Europe.
Despite several Parliamentary victories, its army was unable to deliver the knockout blow required to end the war.
In January 1645 Oliver Cromwell proposed to Parliament that a new army be set up, modelled loosely on his Ironsides, who first saw success at Marston Moor.
The New Model Army was to be raised through conscription and paid for by taxation.
Around 22,000 strong, its infantry would consist of twelve regiments and 14,000 men; the cavalry, eleven regiments and 6,600 men; and 1,000 dragoons or mounted infantry.
All these men were to be properly trained and dressed in a red uniform, the first time the famous "redcoat" was seen on the battlefield.
This new professional force overcame the reluctance of the local militias to fight outside their own counties, and soon became a highly mobile, motivated army.
After a brief truce over the winter, the war resumed in May 1645 when the Royalists captured Leicester.
The New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax ended its siege of the Royalist stronghold of Oxford and moved north to challenge the Royalist army, where Cromwell’s cavalry joined it.
The two sides met near Naseby, 20 miles south of Leicester.
As at Edgehill, the Royalists, led by Prince Rupert of the Rhine, the king’s nephew, drew up on a ridge, the Parliamentary forces taking lower ground to their south.
Again, as before at Marston Moor, both sides placed their infantry in the centre with cavalry on both flanks, the Parliamentary dragoons hiding behind a hedge to the left.
The land between the two sides was waterlogged, so Cromwell advised Fairfax to withdraw to higher ground.
Mistaking this movement, Prince Rupert decided to attack.
His cavalry on the Royalist right flank broke though the cavalry and dragoons on the Parliamentary left flank but instead of turning back to confront the infantry, rode on in pursuit of the enemy cavalry, just as Rupert had so impetuously led them to do at Edgehill.
The Royalist infantry then overwhelmed the Parliamentary infantry.
At this point, Oliver Cromwell stepped in with a decisive move to exploit Rupert’s reckless blunder.
With Rupert’s cavalry off the field, Cromwell’s cavalry carried out a disciplined charge against the Royalist left flank that broke through their cavalry.
He then charged the Royalist infantry in the centre, who were also under attack from the remnants of the Parliamentary cavalry and dragoons from the left flank.
Many of them surrendered, while Rupert’s returning cavalry refused to reengage.
After Charles was dissuaded from risking his reserves, he fled to Leicester.
The outcome was decisive. Within months, the remaining Royalist strongholds in the south and west of England fell to Parliamentary forces, while Charles’s army met its final defeat not far from Oxford.
On 5 May 1646, Charles surrendered, circumspectly handing himself over not to Parliament but to its Scottish allies, in the hope of dividing his opponents and saving his skin.
The first civil war between king and Parliament was thus brought to an end.