Much has been documented, quite justifiably, about the major confrontations of the Civil War, 1642-1651. This article relates to a much lesser know event but one that nonetheless proved quite significant. What was meant to be a brief synopsis, has somewhat expanded, mainly due to the event being of such local interest.
Powick was, and still is, a village just about 3 miles from the centre of Worcester, near to both the Severn and Teme rivers. Powick Bridge spans the River Teme half a mile north of the village on the old Worcester to Malvern road.
The “Battle” of Powick Bridge was fought on the 23rd September 1642 and was the first significant military action of the Civil War. Though described today as a skirmish, the impact of this clash of cavalry forces far outweighed it’s scale.
The first major engagement of the conflict was still awaited, but in the summer of 1642 the necessary ingredients were beginning to fall into the mix. Both armies were assembling and the inevitable showdown soon expected. The Lichfield or surrounding areas were to be the probable site.
The Lead Up:
King Charles I had raised his standard in Nottingham on 22nd August 1642. His Royalist army was being assembled and would subsequently make it’s way to Shrewsbury, gathering more recruits and visiting the armouries of Derby and Staffordshire en-route.
Shadowing this move, the Earl of Essex, Chief Commander of the Parliamentarian Army, would march his 20,000 strong force from Northampton to Worcester.
On the 10th September 1642, Sir John Byron left Oxford en-route to Shrewsbury with a force of 150 dragoons escorting a convoy of coin and silver plate donated by the University to help finance the King’s cause. He reached Worcester on the 16th September and encamped in the city. Aware of this convoy, Essex despatched an advance force of 1000 Parliamentarian Cavalry and Dragoons, led by Colonel John Brown, with the orders of occupying Worcester and intercepting the King‘s treasure.
This advance force reached Sidbury Gate, Worcester on the 22nd September and demanded the city’s surrender to Parliament. The city refused and Brown, being harangued by 3 over cautious Members of Parliament within his command, Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes, Edward Wingate and John Fiennes, decided not to attack. They withdrew south to cross the River Severn at Upton 8 miles away and then advanced north to Powick Bridge. Here they would wait for Essex’s army and intercept Byron’s convoy should it cross to the west bank of the Severn on it’s way to Shrewsbury. Brown’s deputy commander, Colonel Edwin Sandys was, however, eager to advance on Worcester immediately. On the 23rd September, Brown’s force took up positions on the south side of the strategic Powick Bridge on the Powick Hams between the bridge and the village.
Royalist intelligence had been ahead of the game, expecting a possible move against the convoy. Unknown to Brown, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, with a force of 1,000 cavalry, had been despatched by the King to escort Sir John Byron’s convoy from Worcester to Shrewsbury. They arrived at St. Johns, then a village on the west bank of the Severn opposite Worcester, at noon on the 23rd September. Some men were sent into Worcester to assist Byron’s preparations to leave, the remainder were positioned in Wick Field, north of Powick Bridge, where they would cover the convoy’s withdrawal to their rear. Pickets had been placed hiding in the hedgerows while the cavalry rested.
Parliamentarian intelligence was not so sharp. During the afternoon, reports reached Brown confirming that Essex was approaching Worcester from the south east and that Byron’s convoy was on the move. In reality, Essex was still some 20 miles away and Byron wasn’t ready to move out. The impatient Colonel Sandys advanced his cavalry troop across Powick Bridge and up the narrow lane towards Wick Field.
The Royalist dragoons immediately opened fire on Sandys’ advancing cavalry. Brown then despatched Colonel Fiennes’ troop of dragoons to clear the now congested lane of Royalist pickets. Sandys then followed Fiennes’ dragoons into Wick Field where the now readied Prince Rupert led his cavalry regiment into battle. They smashed through both Parliamentarian cavalry and dragoons; Sandys was himself mortally wounded.
The Parliamentarian cavalry retreated back to Powick Bridge covered by Fiennes’ dragoons who stood firm against the advancing Royalist cavalry troop of Sir Lewis Dives.
Fiennes himself then had to retreat, forcing his way through Rupert‘s cavalry and over the bridge, now being defended and held by Brown’s own regiment.
Prince Rupert did not attempt to force his way over the bridge, deciding instead to withdraw and follow his orders to protect Byron’s convoy. This action ensured the safe passage of Byron’s convoy on it’s journey to Shrewsbury. Brown’s force fled all the way back to Pershore, here joining up with Essex’s army. The following day, the Parliamentarian army finally arrived and occupied Worcester.
There are small variations on reported casualties, Royalist’s being described as negligible while the Parliamentarians suffered 40 dead and over 100 injured.
Compared with later battles, this skirmish would be considered insignificant. However, this brief action gave a psychological boost to the Royalist army. The troops gained confidence in themselves and their leaders, Prince Rupert was established as a formidable adversary and the much needed Oxford silver had been secured for the King.
The Parliamentarian cavalry had suffered a bitter blow. They had been better equipped but they lacked discipline, training, commitment and leadership. (Meddling MP’s didn’t help Brown’s cause either!). The Earl of Essex immediately instigated an improved training programme. This would in some way contribute to Cromwell’s Ironsides eventually becoming the dominant military force of the war.
Note 1: The first major Civil War engagement, the Battle of Edgehill, took place a month later on 22nd October where Essex’s army, supplemented by a 2nd army under the Earl of Warwick, engaged the Royalist forces. Though reported widely as a stalemate, some suggest a thin victory for the Royalists.
Note 2: The final battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Worcester, was fought both in and around Worcester (the major action being centred on the fields between Powick Bridge and Worcester) on 3rd September 1651 where the Parliamentarians’ taking of Powick Bridge played a significant part in their victory.
After this final action, Preacher Hugh Peters gave a sermon to the victorious Parliamentarian forces: “…. when their wives and children should ask them where they had been and what news, they should say they had been at Worcester, where England’s sorrows began, and where they were happily ended.”
The Earl Of Essex was a Member of the House of Lords and originally a staunch Royalist. He had previous military experience but of little distinction. He changed sides at the outbreak of the civil war and was made Commander in Chief of the Parliamentarian Army. He showed little desire and was replaced a few years later.
Colonel John Brown and Colonel Edwin Sandys were both professional cavalry officers. Sandys was subsequently buried in Worcester Cathedral.
Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes was MP for Banbury and a staunch Parliamentarian, Troop Commander.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine was a cousin of King Charles 1, an experienced soldier, General Of The Royalist Cavalry. He was banished later in the campaign following the fall of Bristol.
Sir John Byron, a staunch Royalist, had been MP for Nottingham and was Lieutenant of the Tower Of London at the onset of hostilities.
Sir Lewis Dives was a staunch Royalist, a Cavalry commander and former MP for Bridport. He was imprisoned after the war and escaped captivity several times thus avoiding execution.
Hugh Peters was a Protestant Pastor who was at Cromwell’s top table for the duration. He eagerly helped pursue the trial and execution of Charles 1. He would be eventually hung drawn and quartered for Regicide.
Footnotes and other crumbs:
Powick Bridge still stands, (albeit now on the expanding city boundary), now pedestrianised I use it often. Part of the lane still exists either side of the bridge. A new Teme bridge was built just yards away in the 1800’s carrying the new Malvern route (later the A449) which kept the old bridge free of traffic. The necessary but abominable Worcester by-pass and Powick Island lie within 100 yards.
Adjacent to the bridge, lies what was the world’s first combined steam/hydro power station. This substantial 19th century building has now been converted into houses.
Cromwell’s Indian Restaurant (ex Yellow Lion/Vernon Arms) is just over the road; nearby also is St Peter’s church, Powick, which was used as a lookout during the Battle of Worcester, musket holes are still visible on the tower; the Red Lion next-door(ish) was, I am informed, used as a hospital.
Powick was the birthplace in 1870 of Lord Alfred Douglas, poet son of the Marquis Of Queensbury who owned a country pile there. Better known as Bosie, Douglas was the long term lover of Oscar Wilde.
A mile or so to the west in Lower Broadheath is the birthplace of Sir Edward Elgar (1857).
Powick was the site of a rather large asylum. Closed in the 1980’s, if word of mouth is true, this sanatorium housed many famous (or infamous) patients, sometimes voluntarily. Maybe that’s a tale for another day….
© b-bob deluxov 2018