With the nation divided over Brexit, historical author MARK TURNBULL recalls an earlier time when national division led to England’s largest battle on the outskirts of York

ON a moor just outside of York an overlooked battle took place 375 years ago. It is reputed to be the largest on English soil. July 2 1644 was a watershed moment in the English Civil War: a conflict that saw brothers fighting brothers, fathers fighting sons and friends putting aside friendships as the nation divided in support of King or Parliament.

Six months prior, a Scottish army crossed the border in support of the English Parliament and this game-changing event forced King Charles’s troops into a continued retreat from Newcastle to York. The city was surrounded by the Parliamentarian and Scottish allies and gradually choked for nine weeks in an attempt to kill off the King’s support in the north.

Enter the King’s nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine. A furiously energetic, loyal and brave commander with a reputation for ruthless cavalry charges and a renowned pet poodle. The King wrote that he ‘would esteem his crown little less’ if York was lost and the undefeated 24-year-old was charged with saving it. Leaving Shrewsbury armed with the King’s letter, Rupert would keep it on his person until his dying day.

Arriving within 14 miles of York, Rupert’s presence was keenly felt, and the allies withdrew from the city and formed up on Marston Moor to block his advance. Rupert led 15,000 men, while the allies totalled 24,000. The unpredictable Rupert did not adhere to the Roman road (the modern A59). As if following his own 17th-century sat-nav, he made a daring 22-mile diversion around the north of the allies. Crossing the River Ure and the Swale, Rupert put a protective moat of water between him and the enemy and raised the siege of York in one fell swoop. There he read the King’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 no-nonsense Prince saw only a directive to defeat the enemy in battle. With little rest, his military planning was interrupted by a second, crucial letter, this time from the Earl of Newcastle, commanding York’s royalist garrison.

“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.”

Taking the gushing letter at face value and not accounting for Newcastle’s pompous character, the Prince sent a messenger to instruct the earl to take his three thousand troops to Marston Moor forthwith. Rupert arrived on the moor at 9am on July 2 but found neither friend nor foe present. Instead, the allies never expected the outnumbered Prince to fight, and had withdrawn to Tadcaster. Strung out in marching columns, they were shocked to hear of ‘Rupert the Devil’s’ phantom-like appearance and turned about.

Once back on Marston Moor, the allies were surprisingly able to marshall their men unhindered. Rupert was tempered by the continued absence of Newcastle and his men, and the earl eventually arrived – alone – at midday. By two in the afternoon 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 arrived at four o’clock and Rupert, judging the day to be spent, stood his men down.

As royalist campfires smoked, the allied commander, Lord Leven, sent his men on the offensive and they marched down the slopes to rumbles of thunder. 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 four thousand 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.

Mark Turnbull's latest historical novel, Allegiance of Blood, set in 1642-43. is due out in the autumn