Signing his own Death Warrant:
the 1645 attack on Leicester and the Trial of King Charles I
Although the attack on Leicester in May 1645 barely registers as footnote in the history of the English Civil War, this brief action was seized on by Leicestershire parliamentarians at the time as undeniable proof of the King's bloody treatment of his subjects and was used as evidence against him at his trial in 1649.
The Military Situation, Spring 1645
In early 1645 the principle objective of the King's army lay north of the River Trent and aimed to re-establish a presence in the north of England following the defeat at Marston Moor the previous summer. The King's nephew, Prince Rupert, proposed a bold strategy: to march north from Oxford and relieve the besieged royalist garrison at Chester, then to cross the Pennines and relieve the beleaguered castles of Pontefract and Scarborough. Others among the King's advisers were more cautious, reluctant to leave the royalist capital of Oxford to the mercy of a parliamentarian force advancing from London. Faced with conflicting advice, the King opted for a compromise: having joined with royalist troops in Staffordshire, his army would remain in the north Midlands and march for Newark, maintaining a threat to the Parliamentarian north while keeping within striking distance of Oxford: “the best way we can take in case we are to march immediately unto you”, Oxford's garrison was informed (Digby, 26 May 1645). The route from Staffordshire to Newark would take the King's army through Leicestershire.
The Opening Moves
Although Leicester had been secured early in the war by the area's leading parliamentarians, much of the county was still dominated by local royalist garrisons at Belvoir Castle and Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Capturing Leicester would help the King secure the whole county and establish a line of communication and supply from Staffordshire to Newark.
Fortifying Leicester had been a long-standing contention between military commanders and Leicester's civilian authorities. The town corporation had been reluctant to dig defences and raise earthworks, possibly for fear of lowering the value of their property. As a consequence, Leicester's defences were rather modest. Although the town was surrounded on three sides by a ditch and earth ramparts, high enough to require scaling ladders, the walls' effectiveness was compromised by their extreme length: a defensive line of nearly three miles could not be adequately manned by Leicester's garrison of just 500 soldiers.
The Royalist advance on Leicester, May 1645, and the disposition of local parliament forces.
On 25 May Leicester was warned by parliament's garrison at Derby that the King's army was no longer heading north as expected and that Leicester was a possible target. Leicester's parliamentarian committee considered this to be “but probable, and uncertain” (An Examination Examined, 3) and troops were not recalled from outlying garrisons. Hundreds of soldiers that may have aided Leicester's defence thus remained distant and without orders. A 350-strong force at Cole Orton, with valuable artillery, made no move as the Royalist army swept by them. Better initiative was shown by the garrison commander at Kirby Bellars Hall, Captain Hacker. Hearing of the King's approach, he gathered spare weapons and made for Leicester with 100 horse, leaving his foot soldiers to hold their position with two days supplies.
Leicester's parliamentarian garrison comprised of four companies of foot under the command of Colonel Theophilus Grey, together with approximately 200 of the Leicestershire Horse under Sir Edward Hartopp. In the event of an attack it was planned to strengthen the foot with 900 armed civilians that the town's mayor was authorised to impress for military service. In the event, only 400 were enlisted, probably due to a shortage of weapons. Leicester was fortunate that other troops were in the vicinity: Sir Robert Pye's Regiment of Horse, part of a brigade detached from Fairfax's 'new model' to shadow the King's progress from Oxford, happened to be quartered at Leicester on their return south and were called on to help in the town's defence. Similarly, 200 dragoons from Newport Pagnell under Major James Innes, en route to reinforce Nottingham, were diverted to defend Leicester and rode into town just as the Royalist advance cavalry appeared on the evening of the 28 May. It was a rag-tag assortment of Parliamentarian troops, then (approximately 1,000 foot and dragoons, and 750 horse), that prepared to offer resistance to the King's army. Facing them was a force of between 10 and 12,000 men.
The twenty-three-year-old Colonel Pye held seniority and took overall command of the defence - Colonel Grey, though sixteen years Pye's senior, had only recently received promotion (see Colonel Henry Grey's letter of March 1644). They divided the fortifications between them, Grey commanding the north and east side of the ramparts while Pye took the south side and the south-east area of the town known as 'The Newarke'. The Newarke (literally, 'new work') had been a medieval ecclesiastical precinct, bounded by high stone walls and popularly supposed by Leicester's citizens to be the most easily defended part of the town, probably in the mistaken belief that its walls had been erected for defence (rather than as a property boundary) and a naive trust in stone buildings to withstand gunfire (A Narration of the Siege, 12). This, together with the corporation's reluctance to dig up the surrounding land, meant that the Newarke had not begun to be fortified until mid-May, and only then after pressure at Westminster from Lord Grey, the borough's MP and cousin to the garrison's colonel. The Newarke defences were still incomplete when the King's forces appeared in strength on 29 May.
Lord George Digby's letter to Secretary Nichols, dated 26 May 1645, in Hamilton, W. D. (ed.) Calendar of State Papers Domestic: Charles I, 1644-45, 507.
An Examination Examined: being a full being a full and moderate answer to Maior Innes relation concerning the siege and taking of the town of Leicester by the Kings forces, the last of May 1645 (Thomason E.303)
Grey, H. A Letter to the Lord Grey of Grooby (Thomason E.37)
A Narration of the Siege and Taking of the Town of Liecester (Thomason E289)