BILLOWING cornfields line the little road from Hessay to Long Marston in a scene of tranquillity. Only birdsong breaks the silence. It’s hardly changed in centuries – except once, that is, on a momentous July day more than 350 years ago.

Then, the birds stopped singing as the peace was shattered by volleys of musket fire and a confusion of horse hooves as cavalrymen made a desperate bid to gain advantage.

All around, the air was heavy with acrid smoke; the cornfields splashed in fresh blood. Overhead a harvest moon offered some half-light amid the gathering dusk as Royalists took on Roundheads in the Battle of Marston Moor. The stakes were high; York was the prize on offer and with it the key to ruling northern England.

Today, Russell Marwood is reading the lie of the land, searching for clues about the events of July 2, 1644. It’s part of his job as York Archaeological Trust’s battlefields project officer and driving along the dust-ridden back road, Russell points out where the opposing regiments were positioned. He does so for what seems like miles, because the numbers involved were vast; estimates vary, but up to 50,000 men took part in the most decisive battle of the Civil War.

This week marks its anniversary. The conflict had been going badly for Royalist forces in the north with The Marquess of Newcastle besieged in York by General Fairfax. However, things began to look up when Prince Rupert led a relief force and outmanoeuvred the Parliamentarians to regain the city. Next day, he decided to take on Fairfax, but a series of rain showers convinced him to delay his attack until the following morning.

Then, according to contemporary accounts, at around 7pm a huge clap of thunder, accompanied by heavy rain, heralded the start of the biggest battle ever fought in Britain.

The allies had taken Rupert by surprise in conditions that were far from ideal. Seventeenth century corn grew a lot higher than it does now and it was hard enough to wade through at the best of times; now it was soaking wet. The musketeers would have been cursing as they struggled to keep their firing cords alight in the downpour and then there were the ditches which made any attack – be it on foot or horse – potentially lethal.

But the storm proved to be a portent as Cromwell’s cavalry finally pounded across the fields to smash Rupert’s right wing before riding behind the Royalist army to defeat them. The battle was over within a couple of hours and a fortnight later, York fell to the Roundheads. The north was effectively lost to the king. Few people know more about the fateful events of July 2, 1644 than Russell, who suggests we park opposite the battle memorial and head up a surprisingly steep incline to the ridge dominated by Cromwell’s Plum; a tree which marks the surveillance point used by Roundheads to track Royalist cavalry heading ever closer from Knaresborough.

At the summit, we stand where the Earl of Manchester assembled his infantry and just a stone’s throw to our right, was the mustering point for Fairfax’s cavalry. The scene is largely as it was during the seventeenth century – apart from the lone stretch of pylons – and you can really sense the history.

“If Fairfax came back today I think he’d know where he was again,” says Russell. “The only things that have changed really are one or two more lanes and some of the hedges. This is the view that he and possibly Cromwell would have looked across.”

In his day job, Russell often wears the uniform of a Parliamentary officer. He conducts guided walks around some of York’s bloodiest sites and delivers talks about the weapons and tactics used by armies of the past.

But at the weekend he is willingly reduced to the ranks as a musketeer in the Sealed Knot’s John Lilburne’s Regiment of Foote. So he, more than most, knows what must have been going through the soldiers’ minds all those years ago at Marston Moor.

He says: “I get a big buzz every time I come here, I can picture where the men were standing and now with the Sealed Knot I can imagine what it would have been like to have been in the middle of a group of soldiers, to lose your bearings. I once ran around at a battle re-enactment having lost my regiment and flag. I didn’t know where to go, didn’t know what to do.

“The first time I faced a row of musketeers was quite frightening, even though it wasn’t for real. It’s the shock of seeing guns pointed at you that gives you empathy for the soldiers, because you’re standing there and these guys are going to fire a wall of lead at you. If you’re lucky it will miss.”

Russell was bitten by the history bug when at the age of six he was given a second-hand book about the Civil War. As an adult, he joined a Manpower scheme to become an archaeologist.

“At the time I couldn’t spell archaeology,” he says. “And I thought it would be all bush hats and beards. Well at the interview it was.”

Within a few months, Russell hit gold. In 1982 on a watching brief with the builders after main excavation work had been carried out at the Coppergate centre, he saw a JCB digger scrape away some clay to reveal a small rectangular box.

Russell could tell it was potentially important, so he called work to a halt, opened the box and made his own piece of history; inside was the now world-famous Anglo-Saxon Coppergate Helmet.

“I didn’t really get over-excited about it, to be honest,” he says. “I suppose the problem was I hadn’t been doing it that long, so I thought this sort of thing happened all the time. In hindsight though, it really was a ‘wow’ moment because York hasn’t found anything as major since.

“Then again perhaps that’s unfair because people tend to think of archaeology as objects. But that’s only part of it, there’s the landscape you’re discovering as well.”

Which is where his job as battlefields project officer comes in. It would be difficult to excavate at Marston Moor because all of it is farmland, but archaeology can still be studied here.

Topography offers many clues to the tactics employed and there is documented evidence of where the troops lined up and how the battle unfolded. Armed with this information – and finds such as musket balls and belt buckles – Russell is able to bring history back to life during his tours.

He does so with a passion for the subject. Standing on the edge of the billowing corn field near Cromwell’s Plum, Russell appears lost in thought as he gazes up at the flawless blue sky.

“In the Sealed Knot, we don’t pretend that it’s anything like the real thing,” he says.

“But there are still feelings of did I want to be there, would I have been pressed into it and would I have been on the right side? I think the terror of it all would be overwhelming.”

Marston Moor battle facts

At the Battle of Marston Moor, Parliament and its allies lost 300 men while the Royalists suffered around 4,000 dead and 1,500 captured. Afterwards the Roundheads returned to their siege at York and captured the city on July 16, effectively ending Royalist power in northern England. On July 4, Rupert, with 5,000 men, began a retreat south to rejoin the king.

• Russell Marwood conducts evening battlefield tours from the memorial. The next will be at 7pm on July 22, costing £3. He will also lead an all-day visit to Marston Moor on July 28, leaving from York at 10am, costing £15, which includes lunch. Reserve a place to both tours by phoning 01904 615505 or visiting

• Russell also takes schools workshops at Micklegate Bar museum which has been taken over by York Archaeological Trust to bring the city’s military history to life.