Saturday, 19 November 2011

Marston Moor and the Siege of York

It is 1644 and the English Civil War between King Charles I and his Parliament has been raging for two years. So far neither side has gained a decisive advantage and England is firmly divided between its two loyalties. By 1644 Parliament controlled London, the south east, East Anglia, Lancashire, parts of Yorkshire, and much of the Midlands while the King's forces controlled Wales, the West Country, the remainder of the Midlands and most of the north. Scotland was in the hands of Parliament's allies, the Scottish Protestant Covenanters.

With the country split so evenly down the middle, the outcome of the conflict hung precariously in the balance. The first two years of the war had gone fairly well for the Royalists overall but they had failed to seriously threaten their enemy's heartlands in the south east. By 1644 the Parliamentarians, driven by a fanatical religious zeal and a burning desire to defend their rights against what they perceived as a tyranical royal regime, had begun to slowly gain the ascendancy. Their commanders now felt that the time was right to undertake a campaign in northern England, which was a crucial Royalist stronghold but a vulnerable one in that it lay uncomfortably sandwiched between Scotland to the north and the Parliamentarian lands to the south.

Background: The Civil War in the North

During the early part of the Civil War, which began in 1642, the Royalist enjoyed an advantage of numbers and local support in the north of England. The only areas which favoured Parliament where Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, where the influence of the clothing-manufacturing towns persuaded the local squires and gentry to desert the King's side. The region saw its first fighting in the Summer of 1643 as the Royalists struck back against the encroaching Parliamentarians. A Royalist army commanded by William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle defeated the Parliamentarian forces of Lord Ferdinando Fairfax at the Battle of Adwalton Moor near Bradford on June 30th 1643. Fairfax and his son, Sir Thomas Fairfax were forced to retreat eastwards to the port of Hull, which was now the only town in Yorkshire still loyal to Parliament.

With the Parliamentarian threat to Yorkshire now largely dealt with, Newcastle planned to send his army south into Lincolnshire as part of a three-pronged Royalist assault towards London, alongside the armies of Lord Hopton and the King. Before they could attempt to capture the capital, however, the Royalists had to deal with the remaining Parliamentarian garrisions in the areas that they controlled, such as those at Gloucester and Plymouth in the West Country, as they still posed a serious threat. One such garrison was the one at Hull, which was established following the arrival there of the Lord Fairfax on July 22nd.

As Newcastle's main Royalist army moved into Lincolnshire during July 1643, the Parliamentarian General Lord Francis Willoughby moved his forces in as well and garrisoned the town of Gainsborough. Willoughby was immediately besieged by a small Royalist force led by Sir Charles Cavendish, son of the Earl of Devonshire. Lord Fairfax responded by sending a relief force, led by Sir John Meldrum and Oliver Cromwell, across the Humber Estuary from Hull. This force defeated the besieging Royalists and killed Cavendish at the Battle of Gainsborough on July 28th but the arrival of Newcastle's army forced them to withdraw, allowing the Royalists to recapture not only Gainsborough but Lincoln as well. All that now stood between them and London was the Parliamentarian army of the Eastern Association, commanded by Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester.

Instead of continuing south, however, Newcastle remained conscious of the threat to his rear and decided to take his army back north to deal with the Hull garrison. Having conducted a sortie out into the East Riding during August, Fairfax and his forces retreated back into Hull, allowing Newcastle's men to recapture Beverley on August 28th. The Royalist siege of Hull commenced on September 2nd but was hampered by the defenders' decision to open the sluice gates and break the banks of the Humber, flooding the countryside around the town. Starving out the garrison was practically impossible as the sea lanes were open and the English navy, which had declared for Parliament at the beginning of the war, was sailing in men and supplies without difficulty. The Parliamentarians were further bolstered by the return of Meldrum and Cromwell's forces on September 22nd, replacing the cavalry of Sir Thomas Fairfax which had left the city to join forces with the Eastern Association.

On October 9th the Royalists attempted to storm the defences but were repulsed and pushed even further away from the town by a Parliamentarian counter-attack. On October 11th the remaining Royalist forces in Lincolnshire were defeated at the Battle of Winceby, ending all hope of an advance on London. The following day Newcastle gave up, ended the siege of Hull and withdrew to the city of York. The Royalist forces in the north of England were now firmly on the defensive.

Besieging York

A Parliamentarian campaign against the Royalists in northern England was made possible thanks largely to the alliance, drawn up in late 1643, between Parliament and the Scottish Covenanters. The Scots agreed to join the fight in exchange for the establishment of Presbyterian church government in England, a demand which was acceptable to most of the members of England's Parliament, many of whom were of the Presbyterian denomination and detested the crypto-Catholic "High Church" policies that Charles I had attempted to impose on both kingdoms. Crucially, this new alliance, known as the Solemn League and Covenant, meant that the Royalist north could be attacked from both north and south. In January 1644 a Scottish army under Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven invaded Northumberland. Newcastle took his army north to meet him, leaving Lord Belasyse in command at York with a garrison of 1,500 cavalry and 1,800 infantry.

Meanwhile Sir Thomas Fairfax had moved into Cheshire, where his cavalry had taken part in the Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Nantwich, but was now returning east across the Pennines to rejoin his father's forces in Hull. To prevent the link-up, Lord Belasyse took a sizeable chunk of the York garrison to occupy the town of Selby, only for the lot of them to be captured when Fairfax and Sir John Meldrum stormed the town on April 11th. When he heared the news of what had happened, Newcastle realised that York itself, the lynchpin of the Royalist cause in northern England, was now under threat.

Newcastle retreated back to York post-haste, arriving there on April 19th just three days ahead of his enemies. Leven's Scots linked up with Lord Fairfax, who had linked up with his son and marched his army from Hull, and the combined force arrived outside York on April 22nd. As the Scots and Parliamentarians began preparing siege operations, Newcastle sent his Lieutenant General of Horse, Lord Goring and most of his cavalry out of the city to join up with other Royalist armies, escaping despite a determined pursuit. A garrison of 800 cavalry and 5000 infantry remained in York under the command of Newcastle and his Lieutenant General of Foot, Lord Eythin.

17th Century York was not an easy city to besiege. Lying at the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss, it possessed the only bridge over the Ouse between Boroughbridge and Selby, making movement around it a major logistical headache. The problem of the River Ouse was partially adressed by creating a pontoon bridge, consisting of boats lashed together with rope, over the river near the village of Acaster Mablis, several miles south of the city. With movement and communications improved, the besieging armies took up position around York. The Scots occupied the southern and western sectors while Fairfax's troops covered the eastern sector in order to safeguard their supply route from Hull. The northern sector, between the Ouse and the Foss, was left unguarded at first, allowing the garrison to send and recieve messages and bring in occasional supplies.

The first two months or so of the siege were relatively uneventful, with most of the activity during this time being undertaken by the garrison. They and the city's population had gathered up the surrounding crops before the siege so they were well-supplied and living fairly comfortably. York's many breweries kept up the production of ale which, in those days, was far safer to drink than the untreated water from the rivers. Between April and June, soldiers from the garrison made several sorties out the city to harass the besiegers, deny them shelter and generally be a nuisance. One such raid saw the burning of several houses in Acomb, an outlying village to the west of the city, which the Scots were using as billets.

The besieging forces, particularly those of Fairfax, were not yet strong enough to attempt anything drastic and were still in the process of consolidating their supply lines. Siege operations in the eastern sector were also hampered by the garrison's demolition of the River Foss bridges and the obstacle presented by the King's Pool, a large man-made marshy lake created by the damming of the Foss shortly after the Norman Conquest. The lake provided a key defence to the eastern side of the city but by the 17th Century it was deteriorating due to the accumulation of silt from upriver. It was shallow enough in 1644 for the Fairfaxes to consider having their forces cross it on foot as a way of breaking the siege but they ultimately decided against the idea.

The Siege Intensifies

The Parliamentarians and Scots received a major boost on June 3rd when they were joined at York by Lord Manchester's army of the Eastern Association, which had spent the previous month mopping up the last Royalist garrisons in Lincolnshire and was now free to operate further afield. With the aid of another bridge-of-boats over the Ouse at Poppleton, Manchester's men duly took up positions in the previously unguarded northern sector, completing the investment of the city. Manchester's arrival freed up Parliamentarian forces which were then used to clear the surrounding area of any remaining Royalist strongholds, such as the one at Crayke castle near Easingwold.

Determined operations against the defences of York now began in earnest. The outer ring of Royalist defences consisted of a series of detached earthwork forts known as "sconces". The Scots captured two sconces in their sector but were unable to capture another at the Mount, located on the main south road out of the city about half a mile from Micklegate Bar (the city's southern gateway), because the men holding it were relieved by reinforcements sent from the main garrison. Following these events, Newcastle decided to maintain the position at the Mount but ordered his men to abandon the sconces in the other sectors and retreat into York itself, which was protected by its ring of Medieval city walls.

On June 8th Manchester, Leven and Fairfax formally summoned the garrison of York to surrender. Newcastle opened negotiatons but played for time, hoping that he might be eventually relieved by friendly forces if he could string out the proceedings for long enough. Both sides haggled for a week, during which a party of Royalist cavalry attempted to break out of the city but were driven back inside, until negoiations broke down on the 15th and full hostilities resumed. On June 9th news had arrived from London that a Royalist army commanded by King Charles' nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine was threatening Lancashire and that the besiegers should immediately detach forces to deal with this threat. Leven was against such a course of action, preferring to focus on capturing York first rather than compromise the strength of his army by splitting it up. Manchester and the Fairfaxes agreed with Leven and the siege continued.

As the Sconce at the Mount still remained in Royalist hands and the presence of a Royalist gun emplacement on Baile Hill deterring any assault from the south, the Parliamentarian commanders decided to concentrate their attacks in the other two sectors. In the eastern sector, Fairfax set up a battery of cannon on Lamel Hill which overlooked Walmgate Bar and the city's eastern ramparts. These guns pounded the walls for days and left scars on Walmgate Bar than can still be seen today. The attackers also attempted to destroy the gateway by digging a mine tunnel and laying explosives directly beneath it. This plan was thwarted when a deserter tipped off the Royalists, who responded by flooding the tunnel through a counter-mine.

In the northern sector, Manchester's men were also trying their hand at mining. Their tunnel was dug beneath St. Mary's tower, which was not part of the actual city walls but in fact stood at the northwest corner of the adjoining walls which enclosed the precincts of the former St. Mary's Abbey. On June 16th the explosives were detonated and the subsequent blast destroyed the tower. A Parliamentarian infantry regiment attempted to storm the newly-formed breach but were hampered by a lack of reinforcements and an even greater lack of judgement, which ultimately proved to be their undoing. Men from the garrison emerged from the Abbey's postern gate by the river and recaptured the breach from behind, trapping the attackers. The Parliamentarians lost some 300 men in the failed assault and they did not attempt to attack again. Nevertheless the breach remained a site of tense confrontation for the next several days as men from both sides traded insults and the occasional musket shot through it.

"We are now so near them that we are very ill neighbours one to another"
(Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester)


At the same time that Manchester's men were having trouble at the breach, events further afield were threatening to catch the Parliamentarians and Scots by surprise. On June 28th news reached them that Prince Rupert's Royalist army, having already captured several Parliamentarian strongholds in Lancashire, was mustering at Skipton and preparing to relieve York. Although a Parliamentarian force under Sir John Meldrum and the Earl of Denbigh was on its way north from the Midlands to reinforce the besiegers, there was no chance of it arriving in time to intercept Rupert. As Rupert reached Knaresborough Castle, just fourteen miles west of York, on June 30th, the Parliamentarian and Scottish commanders faced a major dilemma. If they stayed where they were around York, separated by the rivers, Rupert's army coud come along and destroy the three besieging armies one at a time, with the others unable to intervene effectively.

With heavy hearts all-round, Manchester, Leven and Fairfax decided that they had to break off the siege and move to intercept Rupert on their own terms. On the night of June 30th their armies abandoned their siege lines and withdrew to the west to take up positions on Marston Moor, blocking Rupert's direct line-of-advance on York from Knaresborough. It was not until the next day that Newcastle and his garrison realised that their enemies had gone, prompting a mad rush out of the city to plunder cannon, ammunition and supplies from the deserted siege positions.

Early on July 1st, a detachment of Royalist cavalry from Knaresborough appeared on Marston Moor and the Parliamentarians began preparing for battle. Too late did they realise that this was in fact a distraction and that Rupert's main army had outwitted them with a 22-mile flank march to the north and was already behind them. Rupert crossed the Ouse at Boroughbridge, placing the river between himself and the enemy, and then turned south back towards York and a link-up with Newcastle's forces there. His troops defeated Manchester's dragoons, which had been left behind to guard the Poppleton bridge-of-boats, and entered York to a raptuous welcome. Newcastle was reunited with his former cavalry commander, Lord Goring, who informed him that Rupert desired his assistance in the upcoming showdown on Marston Moor.

Newcastle fully intended to use the bulk of his garrison army to reinforce Rupert's but his troops were plagued by a lack of discipline in the immediate aftermath of the siege. They had not been paid for some time and many had mutinied, demanding either payment or discharge. Drunkenness and looting were also rampant, with many men having still not returned from their quest for plunder outside the city. Newcastle eventually managed to pursuade the men to return to the colours and, at around midday on July 2nd, led around 3000 of them away to Marston Moor, following Rupert's army. Around 1000 men were left behind to hold York.

Preparing for Battle

When the Parliamentarian and Scottish commanders at Marston Moor realised that Rupert had outsmarted them, they debated over what course of action to take. It was decided that they should move their forces south to Tadcaster and Cawood in order to protect their supply line from Hull against any move south by the Royalists. The Parliamentarian infantry began to move early on July 2nd, leaving Sir Thomas Fairfax and the cavalry behind on the moor to act as a rearguard. Some of the troops had already reached Tadcaster when news arrived at around 9am that Rupert's army had crossed the Ouse at Poppleton and was heading for Marston Moor. The men in Tadcaster were hastily recalled and only just managed to get back to the field in time for Rupert's arrival.

Just after midday, Rupert was joined on the field by Newcastle and several hundred "Gentleman Volunteers" from the York garrison. Again Rupert greeted him coldly, accosting him for not arriving sooner. The two sides now faced each-other on the field but neither attacked, with the Royalists exhausted from the previous day's march and the Parliamentarians still returning to the field from their aborted visit to Tadcaster. Newcastle was strongly opposed to the idea of a major battle and believed that the Parliamentarian/Scottish army would eventually collapse of its own accord. Rupert was not convinced and argued that he had specific orders from the King to destroy the enemy immediately. He also wanted to attack as soon as possible in order to catch the Parliamentarians and Scots by surprise and negate their increasing numerical advantage.

At around 4pm the rest of Newcastle's troops from York, led by Lord Eythin, arrived on the field and began shuffling reluctantly into position alongside the other Royalist forces. Eythin and Prince Rupert shared a mutual dislike for one-another, with the pair having fought and suffered failure together on previous occasions. Following the pair's defeat at the Battle of Vlotho during the Thirty Years War on the continent, Rupert blamed the defeat on Eythin's overcautiousness while Eythin pinned the blame on the rashness of Rupert's actions. At Marston Moor, Eythin criticised Rupert for deploying the Royalist army too close to the enemy, arguing that the lay of the land concealed their view of the Parliamentarian/Scottish frontline and would allow them to attack the Royalist army without being noticed until it was too late. Rupert tried to accommodate Eythin by suggesting the army pull back to a more advantageous position only for Eythin to then say that it was too late in the day to redeploy. The Royalist's remained in their positions and settled down for the night.

Parliamentarian and Scottish Deployment

Scottish Army of the Solemn League and Covenant
(2000 cavalry, 500 dragoons, 11000 infantry, 30-40 guns)

General: Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven

Lieutenant General of the Horse: Sir David Leslie

Right Wing:
  • Earl of Leven's Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Lord Balgonie, 8 troops)
  • Earl of Dalhousie's Regiment (7 troops)
  • Earl of Eglinton's Regiment (7 troops)
Left Wing:
  • Lieutenant General Leslie's Regiment (8 troops)
  • Earl of Balcarres' Regiment (8 troops)
  • Lord Kirkudbright's Regiment (8 troops)
  • Colonel Hugh Fraser's Regiment (6 companies)

Lieutenant General of the Foot: William Baillie
Sergeant Major General of the Foot: Sir James Lumsden

  • Crawford-Lindsay's Fifeshire Regiment (Earl of Crawford-Lindsay, 10 companies)
  • Midlothian Regiment (Viscount Maitland, 10 companies)
  • Clydesdale Regiment (Lieutenant General Hamilton, 10 companies)
  • Edinburgh Regiment (Colonel James Rae)
Main Battle Group:
  • Loudoun-Glasgow Regiment (Earl of Loudoun, 10 companies)
  • Tweeddale Regiment (Earl of Buccleuch, 10 companies)
  • Kyle and Carrick Regiment (Earl of Cassillis, 10 companies)
  • Nithsdale and Anandale Regiment (William Douglas of Kilhead, 10 companies)
  • Dunfirmline's Fifeshire Regiment (Earl of Dunfirmline, 10 Companies)
  • Strathearn Regiment (Lord Coupar, 10 companies)
  • Stirlingshire Regiment (Lord Livingstone, 10 companies)
  • Linlithgow and Tweeddale Regiment (Master of Yester, 10 companies)
  • Angus Regiment (Viscount Dudhope, 10 companies)
  • Minister's Regiment (Sir Arthur Erskine of Scotscraig, 5 companies)
  • Levied Regiment (Lord Sinclair, 7 companies)

General of the Ordnance: Sir Alexander Hamilton
  • 8 brass demi-cannons
  • 1 brass culverin
  • 3 brass quarter-cannons
  • 9 iron demi-culverins
  • 48 brass demi-culverins

The officers of the Scottish army were highly experienced and many had seen action in the Thirty Years War. Many of the ordinary soldiers were young and inexperienced, however, and the Scottish cavalry used smaller and lighter horses than the English, meaning that they had to be placed in the rear behind the heavier Parliamentarian cavalry.

Parliamentarian Army of the Eastern Association
(3000 cavalry, 4000 infantry)

General: Edward Montagu, Earl of Manchester

Lieutenant General of the Horse: Oliver Cromwell
Commissary General: Bartholomew Vermuyden
  • Earl of Manchester's Cavalry Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Algernon Sidney, 11 troops)
  • Cromwell's Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Edward Whalley, 14 troops)
  • Vermuyden's Regiment (5 troops)
  • Charles Fleetwood's Regiment (6 troops)
  • Lieutenant Colonel John Lilburne (strength unknown)

Sergeant Major General of the Foot: Lawrence Crawford
  • Earl of Manchester's Infantry Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel Clifton, 18 companies)
  • Crawford's Regiment (Lieutenant Colonel William Hamilton, 8 companies)
  • Sir Miles Hobart's Regiment (9 companies)
  • Francis Russell's Regiment (10 companies)
  • Edward Montagu's Regiment (10 companies)
  • John Pickering's Regiment (10 companies)

Manchester's army was arguably the best trained and administered force to take to the field at Marston Moor. The main problem in this army was the religious tension between the Puritans, who were backed by Cromwell, and the Presbyterians, who were backed by Manchester and Crawford. These tensions did not surface during the battle and the army maintained its cohesion throughout.

Parliamentarian Army of the Northern Association
(2000 cavalry, 2000 infantry)

General: Ferdinando Fairfax, Baron Fairfax of Cameron
Lieutenant General: Sir Thomas Fairfax

Lieutenant General of the Horse: John Lambert
  • Lord Fairfax's Cavalry Regiment
  • Sir Thomas Fairfax's Regiment
  • Charles Fairfax's Regiment
  • Sir Hugh Bethell's Regiment
  • John Lambert's Regiment
  • Lionel Copley's Regiment
  • Francis Boynton's Regiment
  • Sir Thomas Norcliff's Regiment
  • George Dodding's Regiment

Lieutenant General of the Foot: Unknown
  • Lord Fairfax's Infantry Regiment
  • John Bright's Regiment
  • Sir William Constable's Regiment
  • Francis Lascelles' Regiment
  • Robert Overton's Regiment
  • Ralph Ashton's Regiment
  • George Doddington's Regiment
  • Alexander Rigby's Regiment

The individual strength of the regiments in Fairfax's army is not known. What is known, however, is that many of the regiments were very weak due to an outbreak of disease in the army during the Siege of York. As a result, Fairfax's army had a far higher number of recent recruits than those of Manchester and Leven.

Royalist Deployment

Main Royalist Army
(2500 cavalry, 7750 infantry, 14 guns)

General: Prince Rupert, Count Palatine of the Rhine
Lieutenant General: John Byron, Baron Byron

Sergeant Major General of the Horse: Sir John Urry
  • Prince Rupert's Lifeguard (140 cavalry)
  • Prince Rupert's Cavalry Regiment (500 cavalry)
  • Lord Byron's Regiment
  • Colonel Marcus Trevor's Regiment
  • Sir John Urry's Regiment
  • Sir William Vaughan's Regiment
  • Lord Molyneaux's Regiment
  • Sir Thomas Tyldesley's Cavalry Regiment
  • Thomas Leveson's Regiment

Sergeant Major General of the Foot: Henry Tillier
  • Prince Rupert's Infantry Regiment
  • Lord Byron's Regiment
  • Sir John Girlington's Regiment
  • Henry Warren's Regiment
  • Sir Michael Erneley's Regiment
  • Richard Gibson's Regiment
  • Henry Tillier's Regiment
  • Robert Broughton's Regiment
  • Sir Thomas Tyldesley's Infantry Regiment
  • Edward Chisenall's Regiment
  • Henry Cheator's Regiment

14 assorted field guns

Prince Rupert's own regiments of horse and foot formed the core of this army. The rest consisted of Lord Byron's forces, which Rupert had picked up in Cheshire and North Wales, and various English regiments which had either been formed in Lancashire or recently returned from fighting in Ireland. Sympathy for the Puritans was said to be abundant among the men of these units, a fact which could potentially jeopardise their loyalty to the Royalist cause.

Contingent of Northern Horse
(3500 cavalry, 250 infantry)

General of the Horse: George Goring, Lord Goring
Lieutenant General: Sir Charles Lucas
Commissary General: George Porter
  • Sir Charles Lucas' Brigade (700 cavalry)
  • Sir Richard Dacre's Brigade (800 cavalry)
  • Sir William Blakiston's Brigade (600 cavalry)
  • Sir Edward Widdrington's Brigade (400 cavalry)
  • Colonel Samuel Tuke's Regiment (200 cavalry)
  • Colonel Francis Carnaby's Regiment (200 cavalry)
  • Commissary General George Porter's Troop (50 cavalry)
Derbyshire Contingent:
  • John Frescheville's Regiment (240 cavalry)
  • Roland Eyre's Regiment (160 cavalry)
  • Detachments from Frescheville's, Eyre's and John Milward's Regiments of Foot (around 220 men)

This force was made up largely of Newcastle's cavalry, which had escaped from York at the beginning of the siege. Other men and horses had been picked up by Goring in Derbyshire as he travelled to Lancashire to link up with Prince Rupert's army. There were to many weakened regiments to list initally and the cavalry was eventually reorganised into the groups shown above. The "Northern Horse", as they were known, were well known for their tenacity in battle but suffered from disciplinary problems in the ranks.

Garrison of York
(3000 infantry)

General: William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle
Lieutenant General: James King, Lord Eythin
  • Sir Thomas Mentham's "Troop of Gentlemen Volunteers"
Sergeant Major General: Sir Francis Mackworth

As with Goring's horse, Newcastle's infantry were from too many weak regiments to list separately. They were formed into seven "divisions" on the battlefield at Marston Moor. The infantry regiments of Sir Thomas Glemham, Sir John Belasyse and Sir Henry Slingsby, totalling some 1000 men, had been left behind in York to hold the city.

The Moment of Truth

As the two armies moved into position in the late afternoon of July 2nd, the Parliamentarians and Scots occupied Marston Hill, a ridge of high ground between the villages of Long Marston and Tockwith. The Royalists occupied the low-lying moor behind a drainage ditch, which Prince Rupert hoped would serve as protection from cavalry charges. The Royalists were considerably outnumbered, fielding 17000 men in total against the 22000+ men of the Scottish/Parliamentarian force.

The onset of bad weather and the discouragement from Newcastle and Lord Eythin persuaded Rupert to call off his assault until the following day. As the Royalist troops broke ranks for supper as around 7pm, there lack of readiness for battle had not gone unnoticed by Lord Leven, who was watching from up on Marston Hill. Shortly after 7.30pm, just as a thunderstorm was breaking over the battlefield, Leven ordered his men to charge.

Lord Byron's cavalry, holding the right wing of the Royalist army, was quickly beaten back by a charge from Oliver Cromwell's "Ironsides". Despite being ordered to stand his ground, Byron rashly ordered a counter-charge which disorganised his horses and prevented the Royalist field guns from being able to fire without fear of hitting their own men. In the clashes that followed, Byron's cavalry was routed and put to flight. Cromwell was slightly wounded in the neck by a pistol shot and was obliged to temporarily leave the field for treatment. Rupert personally led his reserve cavalry to cover his collapsing right flank and launch a counter-attack against the Ironsides. The attack was beaten off by Sir David Leslie's Scottish cavalry and the cream of the Royalist horse fled the field in disarray. Rupert himself only narrowly avoided capture by hiding in a nearby bean field.

In the centre of the field the Scottish and Parliamentarian infantry, led by Crawford's, Baillie's and Lord Fairfax's regiments of foot, managed to successfully cross the drainage ditch and capture several guns. The 2000 horses and 600 musketeers of the Parliamentarian right wing, however, met with considerable difficulties. The commander of the right wing, Sir Thomas Fairfax, later wrote:
"Our Right Wing had not, all, so good success, by reason of the whins and ditches which we were to pass over before we could get to the Enemy, which put us into great disorder: notwithstanding, I drew up a body of 400 Horse. But because the intervals of Horse, in this Wing only, were lined with Musketeers; which did us much hurt with their shot; I was necessitated to charge them. We were a long time engaged with one another, but at last we routed that part of their Wing ... [I] myself only returned presently, to get to the men I left behind me. But that part of the Enemy which stood, perceiving the disorder they were in, had charged and routed them, before I could get to them."
Fairfax's second-in-command, Lieutenant General Lambert, was unable to reach his superior so he instead had his forces attack in another location, where they were easily picked off by Royalist musketeers as they advanced only four abreast. When Lord Goring's cavalry counter-attacked, the Parliamentarian right flank collapsed, with only the Scottish cavalry in the rear offering any major resistance. As the majority of Goring's cavalry ran off to loot the Parliamentarian baggage train, Sir Charles Lucas led the rest in an attack against the right flank of the Parliamentarian/Scottish infantry, which was now exposed.

Meanwhile, Newcastle's infantry from the York garrision had launched an assault against Lord Fairfax's infantry in the centre of the Parliamentarian frontline, throwing the latter off-balance. Sir William Blakiston's brigade of horse followed up the attack, accompanied by a troop of Gentlemen Volunteers led by Newcastle himself. By this stage it was starting to get dark and the deteriorating visibility coupled with the unrelenting Royalist pressure caused the cohesion of the Parliamentarian infantry to unreavel. Half the Scottish infantry and all of Fairfax's infantry were subsequently routed, with Lord Leven and Lord Fairfax leaving the battlefield shortly afterwards, believing the day to be lost. Lord Manchester was now the only remaining Parliamentarian commander still in the fight although his command was effectively limited to his own regiment of foot which remained in the rear.

With Leven gone, the remaining Scottish regiments in the battle were left in the hands of their individual commanders. An isolated infantry brigade on their right wing, consisting of the regiments of Viscount Maitland and the Earl of Crawford-Lindsay, held out against repeated charges from Lucas' cavalry. On the third charge Lucas' horse was killed from under him and he was taken prisoner. Further back, Sir James Lumsden managed to reform and redeploy the other Scottish infantry units which had not fled. They, along with Manchester's infantry, repulsed and scattered Blakiston's Royalist cavalry brigade.

By this stage it was almost fully dark and a full moon was rising over the battlefield. The countryside for miles around was strewn with scattered fugitives from both sides who had fled the fighting. A messenger from Ireland, Arthur Trevor, scoured the field looking for Prince Rupert, who was still missing. Trevor sent this account of the chaos back to his Royalist boss in Ireland, the Marquess of Ormonde:
"In this horrible distraction did I coast the country; here meeting with a shoal of Scots crying out, 'Weys us, we are all undone'; and so full of lamentation and mourning, as if their day of doom had overtaken them, and from which they knew not whither to fly; and anon I met with a ragged troop reduced to four and a Cornet; by and by with a little foot officer without hat, band, sword, or indeed anything but feet and so much tongue as would serve to enquire the way to the next garrisons, which (to say the truth) were well filled with the stragglers on both sides within a few hours, though they lay distant from the place of the fight 20 or 30 miles."
With soldiers fleeing and commanders missing-in-action on both sides, the Battle of Marston Moor seemed set to end in an inconclusive stalemate. The tide turned, however, when a patched-up Oliver Cromwell returned to the fight alongside his disciplined Ironsides, who had rallied behind the Royalist right wing. Sir Thomas Fairfax, meanwhile, had been separated from his forces and now found himself surrounded by Goring's men. Fairfax removed his field sign (a white handkerchief or slip of paper which identified him as a Parliamentarian) from his hat and slipped away to join Cromwell, passing on information regarding the tenuous situation on his side of the battlefield.

Cromwell and his cavalry, supported by Sir David Leslie's cavalry and Lord Crawford-Lindsay's infantry, charged across the field for what would turn out to be the decisive encounter of the battle. Their target was Goring's cavalry, who were now exhausted and still distracted pillaging the Parliamentarian baggage train. Goring managed to get them into position just in time but when the Ironsides struck, the outnumbered Royalist cavalry fell back and withdrew to the edge of the field. Despite the appeals of the few remaining officers who had not been taken prisoner, Goring's men refused to take any further part in the fighting. They eventually obeyed orders to return to York later that night.

The battle was now all but lost for the Royalists, with the Parliamentarians and Scots proceeding to mop up their remaining forces. The remaining infantry units in the Royalist centre were overwhelmed, with many of those attempting to flee being cut down by their triumphant pursuers. The remnants of Lord Newcastle's infantry, known as the "Whitecoats", put up a brave last stand in a ditched enclosure a mile north of Long Marston. With their position guarding the line or retreat back towards York, the Whitecoats valiantly refused to budge, repulsing charge after charge from Cromwell's cavalry. Their resistance was eventually broken by Colonel Hugh Fraser's Scots dragoons and the last thirty or so survivors finally surrendered.

The Battle of Marston Moor was now over. It had been a complete and total victory for the Parliamentarians and Scots. The Royalists had lost all their guns and over 5000 men. 4000 of those were killed, many of which had fallen during the Whitecoats' last stand. 1500 Royalists had been captured, including Sir Charles Lucas and Sir Henry Tillier. The Parliamentarians and Scots lost around 300 men between them overall, including Lord Fairfax's son (and Sir Thomas' brother), Charles Fairfax and Cromwell's nephew, Valentine Walton who was mortally wounded after being struck by a cannonball early in the battle. Cromwell was with Walton when he died and he later wrote a religiously-charged letter to Walton's father (Cromwell's brother-in-law, also called Valentine Walton), informing him of the battle and his son's last words before his death:

To my loving Brother, Colonel Valentine Walton

It's our duty to sympathize in all mercies; and to praise the Lord together in chastisements or trials, that so we may sorrow together.

Truly England and the Church of God hath had a great favour from the Lord, in this great victory given unto us, such as the like never was since this war began.

It had all the evidences of an absolute victory obtained by the Lord's blessing upon the Godly Party principally. We never charged but we routed the enemy. The Left Wing, which I commanded, being our own horse, saving a few Scots in our rear, beat all the Prince's horse. God made them as stubble to our swords. We charged their regiments of foot with our horse, and routed all we charged. The particulars I cannot relate now; but I believe, of twenty thousand the Prince hath not four thousand left. Give glory, all the glory, to God.

Sir, God hath taken away your eldest son by a cannon-shot. It brake his leg. We were necessitated to have it cut off, whereof he died.

Sir, you know my own trials this way [Cromwell's own son Oliver had died recently, succumbing to typhoid while in garrison at Newport Pagnell]: but the Lord supported me with this, That the Lord took him into the happiness we all pant for and live for. There is your precious child full of glory, never to know sin or sorrow any more. He was a gallant young man, exceedingly gracious. God give you His comfort. Before his death he was so full of comfort that to Frank Russel and myself he could not express it, 'It was so great above his pain.'This he said to us. Indeed it was admirable. A little after, he said, One thing lay upon his spirit. I asked him, What that was? he told me it was, That God had not suffered him to be any more the executioner of His enemies. At his fall, his horse being killed with the bullet, and as I am informed three horses more, I am told he bid them, Open to the right and left, that he might see the rogues run. Truly he was exceedingly beloved in the Army, of all that knew him. But few knew him; for he was a precious young man, fit for God. You have cause to bless the Lord. He is a glorious Saint in Heaven; wherein you ought exceedingly to rejoice. Let this drink up your sorrow; seeing these are not feigned words to comfort you, but the thing is real and undoubted a truth. You may do all things by the strength of Christ. Seek that, and you shall easily bear your trial. Let this public mercy to the Church of God make you to forget your private sorrow. The Lord be your strength: so prays

Your truly faithful and loving brother,


Aftermath and the Fall of York

Those straggling Royalist troops who managed to escape the carnage on Marston Moor made their way through the darkness back to York. Newcastle joined them there as did Prince Rupert, who had barely managed to evade capture and make his own way back to the city. While there may certainly have been other forces in the north of England which could have been used to rebuild the Royalist armies, Rupert decided that he would be better off with the King's main "Oxford Army" in the south. On July 4th Rupert and Lord Goring left York for the last time, taking some 5000 cavalry and a few hundred infantry with him. The two men first took a detour north to Richmond in order to aviod interception before Rupert headed back across the Pennines. Goring continued north to Scotland so as to provide his services to the Marquess of Montrose, the leader of the Royalist forces there.

Newcastle, having staked his entire fortune on the Royalist cause, now considered the situation hopeless and decided that he could not face "the laughter of the court". Ignoring the pleas of Rupert and the King, Newcastle left York before the Prince and set sail from Scarborough on June 3rd to a life of exile on the continent, accompanied by his sons, brother and most of his senior officers, including Lord Eythin. After Newcastle's departure. Sir Thomas Glemham was left in charge of the York garrison, which now consisted of just 1000 men and a few cannon.

The victorious armies quickly regrouped. Lord Leven had fled to Leeds, more than twenty miles away from Marston Moor, and was surprised to learn that his side had won the day without him. On June 5th the Parliamentarian and Scottish armies, now reinforced by Sir John Meldrum and the Earl of Denbigh, resumed the siege. There was now no hope of relief and Glemham was in an inpossible position with only one way out. The Royalists negotiated honourable terms for surrender of York, the main one being that no Scottish troops be garrisoned in the city. On July 16th, Glemham's men marched out of the city with full honours and their dignity intact, heading for the other northern Royalist strongholds at Richmond, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Carlisle. Within days many of them had deserted, returning to their communities still without pay.

Following the surrender of York, Lord Leven's army headed north to mop up the other Royalist strongholds while Lord Manchester's returned south from whence it came. Lord Fairfax's army remained and he was duly appointed by Parliament as Governor of the York. He would later earn the thanks of the population for his efforts to protect the city's many churches, including York Minster, from the iconoclastic Protestant zealots in his army. His refusal to allow or tolerate any acts of vandalism ensured the survival of York's architectural, cultural and religious heritage through what would turn out to be a very rough period for the established Anglican church, which the zealots criticised as "popish".


The Royalist defeat at Marston Moor on July 2nd 1644 and the departure of Newcastle and Rupert marked the collapse of the Royalist cause in northern England, denying the King its crucial manpower and the use of the ports on the east coast. Over the next few months the Parliamentarians and Scots would eliminate the remaining Royalist garrisons in the north, culminating in Sir John Meldrum's bloody siege/assault against Scarborough Castle in the early months of 1645. The Northern Horse continued to fight for the King under Sir Marmaduke Langdale, making a number of forays south in order to relieve Royalist garrisons in South Yorkshire. Over time they became increasingly indisciplined, however, and their antics ultimately ended up doing their cause more harm than good.

Events in the north aside, Marston Moor turned out to be a critical setback for the Royalists overall. Prince Ruperts had been decisively beaten in battle for the first time, destroying the aura of invincibility that had previously surrounded him. He had also suffered a major personal blow as his favourite hunting poodle and animal companion, "Boye" had been killed during the battle, a fact that Parliamentarian propagando was quick to exploit. By contrast, Oliver Cromwell had proven himself as a popular and capable military commander. Following the battle, he was able to exert an increasing influence over both Parliament and its armies, eventually rising to dominate both.

The first phase of the English Civil War was brought to an effective conclusion when Cromwell and Sir Thomas Fairfax led the "New Model Army" to a crushing Parliamentarian victory at the Battle of Naseby on June 14th 1645. Within months King Charles himself was in Parliament's custody, pending an agreement that would limit the powers of the Crown for good. The naturally autocratic Charles resisted and, when he reignited the Civil War in 1648, Parliament now had grounds to put him on trial for treason. On January 30th 1649 King Charles I was executed and the Civil War ended with the establishment of a quasi-republican "Commonwealth". One can only imagine how differently things could have turned out had the crucial events in the north five years earlier played out differently......

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Dude, Where's My Colony?

The word "CROATOAN" is shown to John White

The more pop-culture-oriented amongst you should realise that the title of this post references nothing more historically relevant than a recent (and rather lame) comedy movie. However, it takes no real stretch of the imagination to believe that John White would have said those exact words when he made landfall at Roanoke Island on August 18th 1590. Three years earlier, Governor White had left over 100 people, including his daughter, son-in-law and baby granddaughter, at the newly-established English island colony, the first such colony to be established on the east coast of North America. Now the whole lot had vanished off the face of the earth, leaving behind only the dismantled remnants of their fortified encampment and a single word carved into one of the wooden posts.

The disappearence of the Roanoke colonists shocked and baffled the Elizabethan establishment in England. Several explanations have since been offered to try and explain what could have happened to them. At the time the finger of suspicion was pointed at the Spanish, with whom the English were at war, and at the various local Native American tribes who met the European settlement attempts on their doorstep with varying levels of hostility. Little of note was done to follow up on the available clues, however, and the lost colonists were never found. It remains one of the greatest mysteries from Europe's Age of Discovery.

Founding a Colony

The creation of a permanent English colony in the New World was the brainchild of Sir Walter Raleigh, the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer and privateer. Raleigh, who was high in royal favour during the 1580s, had little trouble in gaining the support of Queen Elizabeth I and her ministers for these kinds of overseas ventures. The prospect of getting one over on Philip II's mighty Spanish empire was also an enticing one for the English. In March 1584 Raleigh was granted a royal charter for the colonisation of the area of North America which had been named Virginia, in honour of the Queen. The primary intentions of any new colonies would be to tap into the newfound riches of the New World and to provide bases from which English privateers could attack the Spanish treasure ships in the Atlantic.

Raleigh's charter stipulated that he would lose his exclusive colonisation rights if he failed to establish and maintain a successful North American colony so he moved quickly. He never visited North America himself, however, (The closest he ever got were expeditions to South America in 1595 and 1617, during which he searched for the legendary city of El Dorado in Venezuela's Orinoco River basin.) and instead dispatched others to scout potential sites. On April 27th 1584 he sent an expedition led by Phillip Amadas and Arthur Barlowe to explore the east coast of North America. On July 4th they came upon the island of Roanoke, which lay off the coast of what is now the state of North Carolina.

Sir Walter Raleigh

Roanoke was a suitable place for a colony. Eight miles long and two miles wide, the island was in a sheltered location between the mainland and a long chain of thin barrier islands, known today as the Outer Banks. The only problem was the presence of native tribes who inhabited the nearby mainland and, to a lesser extent, the island itself. Fortunately for the new arrivals, these Sectoan and Croatoan natives were of the more mild-mannered type, meaning that Amadas and Barlowe were able to establish a good relationship with them. Two Croatoans named Manteo and Wanchese accompanied Barlowe back to England, where they revealed important information about their homeland's geography and inter-tribal politics to Raleigh. The legacy of Manteo and Wanchese lives on on Roanoke today (which is now home to around 7000 residents) as the two towns on the island are named after them.

Using the information that he had obtained, Raleigh organised a second expedition with the intention of establishing a fully-fledged colony on Roanoke. This time the leader was Sir Richard Grenville, a cousin of Raleigh's. Grenville's fleet of five ships set sail from Plymouth on April 9th 1585 but soon ran into trouble when Grenville's ship, the Tiger, got separated from the other four in a storm off the coast of Portugal. Following previously agreed rules on what to do in such a situation, the Tiger headed for the Spanish-controlled island of Puerto Rico in the West Indies, the agreed rendezvous point where all the ships would meet should they be split up. The Tiger arrived at Puerto Rico on May 11th and Grenville quickly took advantage of the Spanish governor's generosity by engaging in a bit of discreet piracy. The Elizabeth arrived soon afterwards but the other three ships had still not arrived by June 7th, at which point Grenville lost patience and decided to continue on to Roanoke.

On June 26th Grenville's reduced flotilla reached the vicinity of Roanoke but hit another snag when passing through a gap in the Outer Banks. The Tiger was holed after hitting an underwater shoal and must of the food stored on board was subsequently ruined when seawater flooded the cargo hold. The ship itself was repaired and, in early July, she and the Elizabeth were reunited with two of the others, the Roebuck and the Dorothy, which had already arrived. The fifth ship, the Red Lion, had been with them but, after dropping off her passengers and cargo, had left for Newfounland to engage in privateering against the French.

John White's map of the coastline around Roanoke Island

Grenville's first task was to scout the mainland for native activity. Several Native American settlements were discovered but the people of one village, Aquascogoc, greeted him with indifference. This left Grenville's ego greatly bruised but he got his revenge when it was discovered that a silver cup had gone missing. The natives of Aquascogoc were blamed and the village was sacked and burned as a result, leaving relations between the English and their new hosts greatly soured but not irrevocable. Following this incident, Grenville remained troubled by the lack of available supplies and therefore decided to return to England and stock up. He left the explorer Ralph Lane and 107 men behind to establish a fortified settlement at the northern end of Roanoke Island. Before leaving, Grenville promised Lane that he would return in April 1586 with more men and supplies. On August 17th 1585, following Grenville's departure, Lane and the other colonists arrived on the island.

Left to their own devices and issued with only sketchy instructions, Lane's men occupied their time by building their fort and exploring the surrounding areas. Food soon became scarce, however, and April 1586 came and went with no sign of Greville's relief expedition. Trouble also erupted between them and the natives, who had been left smarting after the stolen cup incident. A native attack on the Roanoke fort was repelled but it was clear that, unless relief arrived soon, the colony would be eventually wiped out. When Sir Francis Drake, another great English privateer, explorer and seafarer, stopped off at Roanoke on his way home from the West Indies in June 1586, the colonists jumped at the chance to return to England with him (It was these returning colonists who introduced potatoes, maize and tobacco to England). The returning Grenville finally arrived two weeks after their departure and found Roanoke deserted. He immediately headed back to England with the bulk of his men, leaving a token garrison of fifteen men behind to defend the position, maintain the English presence and safeguard Raleigh's colonisation rights in Virginia.

The Second Attempt

In 1587 Raleigh tried again, this time planning was to establish a new permanent colony further north at Chesapeake Bay. A new group of around 150 colonists, which this time included women and children, were dispatched in three ships from Portsmouth on April 26th. Their leader was John White, one of the men who had returned from the previous abortive colony at Roanoke. Among the colonists were his pregnant daughter Eleanor and her husband (one of the twelve men appointed by Raleigh to serve as White's assistants) Ananias Dare. The voyage took three gruelling months, during which White had a falling out with his Portuguese fleet commander Simon Fernandez. It was a feud that would have profound implications on the colonists once they eventually reached North America.

On July 22nd 1587 White's ships arrived at Roanoke, where they had been instructed to pick up the fifteen men left behind by Grenville the previous year before continuing on to Chesapeake Bay. It proved to be an unexpectedly somber arrival, however, as it was discovered that the fort had been razed and the only evidence of the garrison was a single skeleton. Feeling understandably disturbed by what he had found, White was anxious to leave the island as soon as possible and continue on but his new worst enemy Fernandez refused point-blank to allow him to re-embark. Fernandez then suddenly announced to the colonists that he was dropping them all off right there and returning to England without delay. He left aboard the largest of the ships, leaving the colonists with the two smaller vessels but not enough supplies to get them all home. Faced with no other choice, White and his followers decided to re-establish the Roanoke colony.

It did not take long for the problems to start. It was too late in the year to grow crops and there were no longer any Native Americans on the island. They had all left, disgusted by the behaviour of their English neighbours from the previous expedition. Dependent on the generosity of the natives for food, White tried to rebuild the relationship with the hostile tribes on the mainland but their chieftains, who had still not forgotten about the fallout over Grenville's silver cup, refused to meet with him. The only remotely-friendly natives he came across were those who inhabited Croatoan, another island (known today as Hatteras Island) located around fifty miles to the south of Roanoke. Things came to a head when one of the colonists, George Howe, was murdered while searching alone for crabs in nearby Albermarle Sound.

Hungry and expectant of an attack from the Native Americans, the colonists feared for their lives and were soon pressuring White to return to England for supplies and reinforcements. He eventually agreed and left Roanoke aboard one of the remaining ships in September 1587, promising to return in six to eight month's time. The 115 remaining colonists were instructed to use the other ship to relocate to the safer environs of Chesapeake Bay at the first available opportunity, and to leave twenty-five men behind on Roanoke to direct White to the new settlement when he got back. Before leaving for England, however, White had cause to celebrate when his daughter gave birth to a baby girl on August 18th. The first English child to be born on American soil was christened Virgina Dare, named in honour of the Virginia colony and its "Virgin Queen" Elizabeth I.

The baptism of Virginia Dare

Unfortunately for White, his plans to resupply the colonists quickly were thwarted as the Anglo-Spanish War (1585-1604) suddenly escalated. The war had begun three years earlier after Elizabeth I reluctantly agreed to provide military assistance to the Protestant Dutch, who were fighting to break the Netherlands free from the control of Catholic Spain. The activities of seafaring privateers like Sir Francis Drake had been crucial to the English war effort, plundering Spanish treasure ships and conducting raids on the coast of Spain itself. Elizabeth gave her full blessing to this state-sponsored piracy. In April 1587, around the same time that White's colonists left England for Roanoke, Drake "singed the King of Spain's beard" when he destroyed 37 Spanish ships at the port of Cádiz. This event, coupled with Elizabeth's execution of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots two months earlier, finally snapped the patience of Philip II, who vowed to put Elizabeth and her gaggle of gentlemen pirates firmly in their place once and for all. In July 1587 Philip obtained papal permission to invade England, overthrow Elizabeth and install whoever he wished on her throne.

What this meant was that by the time White completed his crossing back to England, the kingdom was in the grip of invasion fever. Pretty much every seaworthy vessel available was needed to fight the Spanish, leaving White with few opportunities to arrange a return voyage back across the Atlantic. In the Spring of 1588, with weather conditions in the Atlantic improving, he managed to secure two small ships that were deemed unecessary for the defence of the realm, stocked them with provisions for the colonists and set sail for Roanoke. Poor fortune intervened once again, however, as the ships' greedy captains attempted to capture some larger Spanish ships on the outward journey in order to boot their profits. This backfired spectacularly and they ended up being captured themselves, losing their cargo to the victorious Spanish. With nothing left to deliver to the colonists, White turned the ships around and went back to England.

A Colony Vanished

Philip II's invasion attempt on England eventually came in August 1588, when the Spanish Armada arrived in the Channel. The massive fleet of 130 Spanish warships, commanded by the Duke of Medina Sidonia, was intended to achieve naval superiority and then transport the Duke of Parma's Spanish army in Flanders across to England. It was a straightforward plan but one which unexpectedly came unstuck when Francis Drake launched an English fireship attack on the Armada while it was anchored off Calais. This attack broke up the Armada's formiddable cresent formation and allowed the English fleet to strike. With Drake's smaller English ships running rings around Medina Sidonia's cumbersome galleons, the Spanish commander abandoned the invasion attempt and headed home. The unfavourable southern winds forced him to first sail north up the east coast of England and around the British Isles before he could turn back towards Spain. Many ships were subsequently wrecked in bad weather off the dangerous Scottish and Irish coastlines, with only around fifty making it home to Spanish ports.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada saved England from invasion and laid the foundations of the English domination of the seas that would come to characterise subsequent centuries. It did not end the war, however, and the Spanish threat to England remained. All this could not have come at a worse time for John White, who was still trying desparately to find a way to get himself and some badly-needed supplies back to the colonists he had left behind on Roanoke. He had promised them that he would be back in six to eight months but the unforseen difficulties posed by the war meant that his absence in England ultimately stretched out into three long years. Finally, in March 1590, Sir Walter Raleigh pulled some strings and managed to secure White and his cargo passage aboard the privateer vessel Hopewell. The ship, along with some others, was due to go raiding in the West Indies but her captain, Abraham Cocke, agreed to stop off at Roanoke on the return journey.

The defeat of the Spanish Armada

And so it was on August 18th 1590, his granddaughter's third birthday, that Governor John White at last returned to his colony. As the Hopewell drew close to Roanoke Island, Captain Cocke ordered the firing of a single cannon shot to announce their arrival. Smoke could be seen rising from the island, presumably from a fire maintained by the colonists. White was rowed to the island in a hail of celebratory shouts and trumpet blasts but when he got there, he found that the colonists' settlement was deserted and partially dismantled. The smoke he had seen was in fact the product of an unattended brush fire. There was no trace of the ninety men, seventeen women and eleven children that White had left behind three years earlier, nor was there any sign that a struggle or battle had taken place there.

The disappearance of the Roanoke colonists baffled White and the crewmen from the Hopewell who had gone ashore with him. Although White had instructed them to move north  to Chesapeake Bay before he left, he had still expected them to keep at least a token presence at Roanoke. A quick search of the abandoned camp led to the discovery of the clues which, had they been acted upon at the time, might have solved the mystery. The word "CROATOAN" was found carved into one of the entrance posts of the wooden palisade which had been built around the camp. The word "CRO" was also found carved into a tree which stood along the path leading from the camp to the beach.

These clues appeared to suggest that the colonists had voluntarily moved to Croatoan, the aformentioned island fifty miles south of Roanoke and home to a friendly native tribe, rather than Chesapeake Bay. John White was certainly of this opinion as he himself had told them to leave a message revealing where they had gone if, for whatever reason, had to abandon Roanoke Island. He had also told them to carve a Maltese cross should anything bad happen to them (such as an attack from the Spanish or Native Americans), as an indication that their disappearance had been forced. As there was no such carving of a cross to be found, White had every reason to believe that at least some of the colonists were still alive and living just a short hop down the coast.

White wanted to set sail for Croatoan immediately, so desparate was he to find out what had happened to his family and the other colonists. He was not favoured by the weather, however, and soon a storm began to brew. The Hopewell broke free of her moorings and began drifting out to sea, prompting a mad rush to get back on board and bring her under control. Having just managed to avoid being left stranded on Roanoke, the ship's crew refused to make the short journey to Croatoan and demanded that they return to England immediately. White was in no position to change their minds and, on October 24th 1590, he arrived back in Plymouth for the final time. He would never see his daughter, son-in-law or granddaughter again. The fate of the Roanoke Colony immediately became the stuff of legend.

Were the Spanish Responsible?

Twelve more years passed before anything was done to try and find out what had happened to the Roanoke colonists. In 1602 Raleigh dispatched Samuel Mace to the Virginia colony with orders to carry out a search of the coastline. This expedition differed from the previous ones in that Raleigh gave Mace one of his own ships and personally guaranteed the crew's wages in order to deter them from the distractions of privateering. Raleigh still hoped to profit from the voyage, however, and  Mace's first destinations were the islands of the Outer Banks, which contained an abundance of valuable aromatic woods and plants. By the time Mace had shifted his focus to the missing colonists, the weather had turned bad, forcing him to return to England without having reached Roanoke, Croatoan, the mainland or indeed anywhere else where his missing countrymen might be living. Raleigh did not send any further expeditions to North America. In 1618, following his ransacking of a Spanish outpost during his second search for El Dorado, Raleigh was arrested upon his return to England and executed by King James I at the request of the Spanish ambassador.

So just what did happen to them? The potential fate of the colonists has become a fascinating subject for debate. There is a particular interest in the young Virginia Dare who, due to her special status as the first white child born in the Americas, has since become a prominent figure in American myth and folklore. She has since appeared as a character in many books, songs, poems, comic books, TV shows and movies, most of which tell of her having survived long after leaving her birthplace on Roanoke and subsequently going on to do all kinds of plausible and implausible things (at this point I feel obliged to give a shout out to my girlfriend and her much-loved copy of Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602, in which Virginia Dare appears as some kind of magic superhuman who gains the ability transform into animals). As she and the lost colonists where never found, however, we can only speculate on what really became of them and many people both at the time and in the centuries since have put forward theories.

As I previously mentioned, the main suspects at the time were the Spanish. This is understandable when you consider the fact that they and the English were at war with each other at the time the colonists vanished. This accusation is a fairly plausible one though, as the Spanish were vaguely aware that an English colony had been established somewhere on the east coast and, knowing that such an outpost could be used by privateers, they had made it their mission to destroy it. On the flip-side, however, there is convincing evidence to suggest that they couldn't have been responsible, namely that fact that on the only recorded occasion that the Spanish visited the Roanoke during John White's three-year absence, they found that the island had already been abandoned.

Spain's American empire at it's height

The Spanish theory has its roots in 1586, when Sir Francis Drake sacked the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine on the Atlantic coast of what is now Florida. He then headed north up the coast, stopping off at Roanoke to pick up Sir Richard Grenville's colonists before heading back to England. The Spanish governor of Florida, Pedro Menendez Marques, was soon hearing rumours that the English had established a colony somewhere to the north. The fact that Drake had headed off in that direction led the Spanish to the incorrect conclusion that this colony was being used as a Winter base by English privateers. If that were true (which it wasn't) then it would mean that the English could attack Spain's American territories and trade routes all year round rather than just during the Summer months. This was something that the Spanish could not tolerate.

Of course Menendez Marques could never have known exactly what the English were up to, nor could he have known the true nature and extent of their presence in North America. Based on what little information and hear'say that had reached him, he believed that the English colony was far more successful than it actually was. In June 1588 Menendez Marques sent a ship north to search Chesapeake Bay, where he believed the main English settlement to be. The Spanish found no evidence of English settlement in that area during their two-year hunt but, while returning south in early 1590, they happened to come across Roanoke Island. They found the island to be uninhabited albeit with some evidence of English settlement. The fact that the Roanoke settlement was already deserted by the time the Spanish discovered it seems to suggest that they were not behind the disappearance of the colonists.

Despite having failed to find any English settlers, the Spanish were not deterred. They still believed that the main English settlement was at Chesapeake Bay, and that Roanoke Island was merely a minor outpost that just happened to be unmanned when they dropped in for a visit. It was only after the Spanish expedition returned that Menendez Marques received concrete information revealing that the main English colony was based at Roanoke. He received orders from Philip II to destroy it but he never got the chance, nor did he ever find out that the colonists had already vanished. As was the case with their English enemies, the war meant that the Spanish too needed every available ship to protect their territories and treasure fleets from attack. This effectively ended any Spanish involvement with the already-deserted Roanoke colony.

What about the Native Americans?

If you discount the Spanish as being the culprits then the spotlight of suspicion next falls upon the Native American tribes, several of which had good reason to hate the colonists and want them off their doorstep. When he was a member of Richard Grenvilles previous aborted colony, serving as artist and cartographer, John White had received a warm welcome from most of the native population. The colonists had to maintain the spirit of good neighbours with the natives as their cooperation and hospitality would be crucial to the survival of any new settlement. Could the initially friendly relationship have really deteriorated to the point that the locals would be willing to violently bump off the Roanoke colonists?

The answer to that questions is possibly. Although the natives were at first willing to assist, showing Grenville's colonists how to plant corn and catch fish, the English settlers were seemingly unwilling to reciprocate this kindness. They key turning-point in the relationship was the previously-mentioned silver cup incident, which led to the sacking of Aquascogoc by Grenville's men. This was followed by another attack on the natives by Grenville's successor Ralph Lane, which caused further bad blood between the two sides. After hearing the rumour that a local native chieftain named Wingina was planning to attack the colony, Lane made a pre-emptive strike on his village, killing Wingina and his councillors. By the time the second Roanoke colony was established by John White, Anglo-native relations were at a very low ebb, with most local tribes now either hostile or indifferent.

Native Americans conduct trade with European settlers

With all this in mind it makes sense to think that the Roanke colonists ended up on the receiving end of Native American's sword or in a Native American's cooking pot (several tribes practiced cannibalism) but that theory is contradicted by the evidence provided to White when he returned to the colony in 1590 and found it abandoned. There was nothing there to suggest that an attack had taken place, the settlement had been methodically dismantled and removed rather than forcibly destroyed. The lack of a carved Maltese cross also seems to suggest that the colonists were not under threat, or at least did not consider themselves to have been under threat. Then of course there is the carving of the word "CROATOAN" which implies that the colonists voluntarily moved on to Croatoan and set up a new home alongside the friendlier natives there. Because John White never got the opportunity to investigate Croatoan in 1590, we can never truly know for certain.

OK so all the available evidence seems to prove that the Native Americans did not destroy the Roanoke colony, but that does not mean that they could not have attacked and killed the colonists after they had left the island and resettled elsewhere. This idea is based upon an account given by Chief Powhatan, who was the leader of a confederation of native tribes based around Chesapeake Bay. After the establishment of the first permanent English colony at Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, Powhatan told the settlers there that he had killed the Roanoke colonists during his campaign against an enemy tribe who were sheltering them, the Chesepians. The chieftain then reportedly produced several English-made iron tools to back up his claim but no bodies or archaeological evidence have ever been found, nor did Powhatan offer any explanation as to why the colonists were in Chesapeake Bay when the evidence points to them being over 100 miles away on Croatoan. Whether this account is true or not, the Jamestown colonists never found any trace of their Roanoke predecessors.

So What DID Happen to them?

There is no way of knowing for sure exactly where the Roanoke colonists went or who, if anybody, was responsible for their disappearance. For all we know they could have starved or just tried to return to England on their own and ended up being lost at sea. Based upon the evidence discovered by John White and the later account given by Chief Powhatan, however, some have tried to come up with plausible theories that take all the clues into account. One such theory, the one that I personally believe most likely happened, I shall try to explain here:

This theory, which accepts Powhatan's account as the truth, goes that the Roanoke colonists could wait no longer for the return of John White so they decided to go through with their original plan to relocate to Chesapeake Bay. The majority of them moved north and settled with the Chesepians at their village, Skicoac, where they were given protection from the other hostile tribes of the Powhatan confederation. Eventually, at some point between 1590 and the establishment of nearby Jamestown in 1607, the Chesepians and the colonists were wiped out by Powhatan's forces, just as he claimed he did. Meanwhile, a small group of colonists had remained behind on Roanoke in the hope that White might still come back in the near future. Eventually, running out of food and fearful that the natives or the Spanish might attack them, these remaining settlers abandoned Roanoke and moved to Croatoan, leaving behind the carved message that White later discovered.

If this story is true then there is a good chance that those colonists who made it to Croatoan survived and thrived alongside the locals. As they years passed they would have adapted to the natives' lifestyle and eventually merged with them. People have often found or looked for evidence of European ancestry among the east coast tribes in order to support this version of events. As the mystery of the Roanoke colonists rumbled on into the present day, there have been many documented sightings of and encounters with Native Americans who exhibited strange outsider traits such as grey eyes, blond hair and and a more European-style bone structure. There was even a report, from over a century after the disappearance of the colony, of Croatoan natives speaking in a dialect that sounded suspiciously similar to Elizabethan English.

Could these people, assuming of course that they are not merely the product of interbreeding with later settlers on the American frontier, really be the descendants of the lost colonists of Roanoke Island? Of course there is no way of knowing for sure. Any real hope of finding out the truth was lost back in 1590 when the clue of "CROATOAN" was not immediately investigated. Had John White been able to make the short hop from Roanoke to Croatoan, at least some of his old colonists, including possibly his daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter, could have ended up accompanying him back to England.