Yorkshire Battles: The Battle of Selby, 1644

The Great Civil War of the Times of Charles 1st and Cromwell, Richard Cattermole

This week Josh Flint from the Local and Family History department will be using the Research Guide on Yorkshire Battles to examine the importance of the Battle of Selby, fought on the 11th April 1644. The Battle of Selby saw Lord Fairfax and his victorious Parliamentarian army signal the beginning of the end of the Royalists during the English Civil War. You can see our full range of research guides and the first entry in this Yorkshire Battles series elsewhere on the blog. 

The Battle of Selby’s importance is often overlooked due to the much larger event of the Siege of York and the Battle of Marston Moor both later in 1644, however this article will explain how the Parliamentarian victory at Selby and the tactical manoeuvres by Lord Fairfax after the battle led to the end of the momentum created by the Royalists and their inevitable defeat during the English Civil War.

After the Parliamentarian defeat at the Battle of Adwalton Moor, 30th June 1643, Sir Thomas Fairfax returned to Hull, while the Royalist leader, William Cavendish Earl of Newcastle, attempted to seize control of Lincolnshire to build the Royalist momentum. After the Parliamentarians defeated the Royalists at the Siege of Hull both Sir Thomas Fairfax and Lord Fairfax joined their armies together in an attempt to take the small but strategically important town of Selby under the control of the fierce Royalist leader John Belasyse. During the early years of the English Civil War York was Charles I’s powerbase and the Parliamentarians understood that they first had to gain control of Selby as it was one of the main roads leading to their main target, York.

Ferdinando Fairfax, Wenham, P. The Great and Close Siege of York, 1644 (Warwick 1970)

Upon arriving at Selby, Lord Fairfax urged Belasyse to surrender but Belasyse twice refused. Selby was not a well-fortified town but was surrounded by water obstacles causing great difficulty for opposing armies to enter. Only four roads entered the town due to these water obstacles. Lord Fairfax took the brave and risky decision to split his army into three and attempt to enter the town by three of the four roads. Fairfax wanted his army to clear the barricades in each entrance and then his cavalry would enter the town and defeat the Royalists. Lord Fairfax commanded the army attacking Ousegate, Sir John Meldrum and Colonel Needham attacked Gowthorpe and Brayton Lane.

The Wing Collection Civil War Tracts, A Letter Sent from the Right Honorable The Lord Fairfax to the Committee of both Kingdoms; Concerning The Great Victory, Lately Obtained (By God’s Blessing) At Selby in Yorkshire, April 19th 1644

One of the most exciting collections in the Leeds Library Catalogue is the Wing Collection of English Civil War Tracts, which are a collection of primary sources ranging from 1640 to 1700; these document the social, economic, religious, military and political events during and after the Civil War. A letter from the Wing Collection written by Lord Fairfax himself about the Battle of Selby describes the ferocity and bravery with which both sides fought. Fairfax acknowledges how strong the Royalist resistance was during the battle. The fighting lasted for hours and there were multiple counter attacks by both the foot soldiers and the cavalry on both sides. During the last Royalist counterattack, their leader John Belasyse was unhorsed, injured and captured by the Parliamentarian army. Fairfax states that this loss took the momentum and heart out of the Royalist soldiers and they quickly capitulated as his Parliamentarian soldiers marched into the town on all sides. A small number of Royalists escaped, mainly men with horses, while the majority of the Royalist army, around 1600 soldiers, were captured with their large amounts of arms and ammunition.

‘All of which wee must acknowledge to God alone, who both infuseth courage, and gives Victory wjere hee pleaseth: I shall now, I hope, be able to raise more Forces in this country, and improve this Victory that God hath bestowed on us, to the best advantage. This being all for the present, until further occasion, I rest.’

This fascinating statement from Lord Fairfax at the end of his letter shows how arduous the Civil War was becoming on Lord Fairfax both mentally and physically, as he is always planning his next move. What this letter also shows and what must never be underestimated is the role of religion during the English Civil War. Lord Fairfax and the Parliamentarians had to believe that they had God’s favour and that this favour gave their war effort purpose and legitimacy especially when challenging their sovereign King in Charles the First.

The War in Yorkshire 1642 – 1644, The Lord General, A Life of Thomas Fairfax, M. A. Gibb (London, 1938)

This map from the Lord Fairfax book, demonstrates how many battles were fought in Yorkshire during the early years of the English Civil War. The amount of battles fought between 1642 and 1644 shows how important strategically to both sides during the Civil War. The map also displays the importance of the Parliamentarian victory at Selby as there is then a straight road to the Royalist stronghold of York.

The role of the Battle of Selby cannot be understated during the English Civil War. The loss of Selby left the Royalist stronghold of York in a weak position as the Parliamentarians had a straight road to the Charles I’s powerbase. This forced William Cavendish, with his new title of the Marquess of Newcastle to return to York to help the Royalists with what he knew would be a prolonged siege. Lord Fairfax decided 11 days after Selby that the time was right to begin the Siege of York. The Battle of Selby represents the beginning of the end of the Royalist dominance in the English Civil War as it leads to the prolonged Siege of York and the disastrous Royalist defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor culminating eventually in the Royalist defeat and the execution of King Charles I in 1649.

References (all these books can be found in the Central Library)

Lord Ferdinando Fairfax, The Wing Collection Civil War Tracts, A Letter Sent from the Right Honorable The Lord Fairfax to the Committee of both Kingdoms; Concerning The Great Victory, Lately Obtained (By God’s Blessing) At Selby in Yorkshire, April 19th 1644

Cattermole, R. The Great Civil War of the Times of Charles 1st and Cromwell (London, 1857)

Cooke, D. The Civil War in Yorkshire, Fairfax versus Newcastle (Barnsley, 2011)

Gibb, M. A The Lord General, A Life of Thomas Fairfax, (London, 1938)

Wenham, P. The Great and Close Siege of York, 1644 (Warwick 1970)

Wilson, J. Fairfax General of Parliament’s forces in the English Civil War (London, 1985)

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