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History of the Bluecoats

"They were like a wall of brass." An epithet that looms large over the history of the regiment, a fearless last stand in the face of appalling odds, a doomed attempt, maybe, to protect the rear guard of the Royalist army. Rupert's Bluecoats were destroyed as a fighting force at the Battle of Naseby, 1645 during the Royalist rout. Parliamentarian sources note them as repelling all attackers before they were broken and Fairfax, the Parliament Lord General, took their standards in person.

Those captured standards were paraded through London on June 21st and, from the look of them, were hard won indeed. The history of the Bluecoats is one that fascinates me - so often, fate conspires to give them the air of the romantic, a piratical edge that tints their narrative with something of the fantastic. Allow me to indulge...

For those historians fated to the study of the English Civil War, the last stand of the Bluecoats at Naseby is one of those heroic high points, along with the stand of Newcastle's Whitecoats at Martson Moor. It is difficult then to reconcile these Homeric warriors with the regiment's inauspicious beginnings during the 1640 campaign. Sir Thomas Lunsford, who first raised the regiment from the Somserset Trained Bands, despaired that "hues and cries are of no effect...we are daily assaulted by sometimes 500 of them, have hurt or killed some in our own defence, and are driven to keep together on guard." Of course, the 1640 campaign ended in a squib at the Battle of Newburn, where Lunsford's regiment took heavy losses from Scottish artillery before, perhaps sensibly, beating a hasty retreat. So far, so ordinary.

Lunsford, in his own unique way, contributed to the constitutional crisis between Parliament and the Crown. More on him another day.

In 1642, Thomas' brother Henry was probably looking for the veterans of this campaign when he raised a regiment on his brother's behalf, again from the West Country. Sir Thomas took command of the regiment at Sherbourne. We are lucky, thereafter, to have a list of the regiment's actions from Sergeant William Stoakes of Shepton Mallett. After the war, applying for a pension during the Restoration, Sergeant Stoakes provided an extensive list of the many and varied places that he had been wounded during his service with the Bluecoats, inadvertently providing regimental historians with a convenient timeline. We will return to Stoakes' story another time.

Edgehill, the first battle, the battle that could have nipped the war in the bud, the stalemate that led to years of conflict. Prince Rupert made his presence known, leading a charge that routed the Parliamentarian left flank. However, the Parliamentarian centre broke through, wreaking havoc on the Royalist forces. Sir Thomas Lunsford was taken prisoner and held in Warwick Castle until 1644. His brother, Henry, reclaimed control of the regiment that he helped to raise.

There is a space for the regiment's every movement, every action, every engagement - but not here and not now!

We jump, then, to 1643 and the first Siege of Bristol. At one point, Lunsford himself found an abandoned Parliamentarian ladder and climbed up one of the forts to the palisades - though he was eventually forced back down. Lunsford's Royalist troops poured through a breach into the Parliamentarian-held city. The Bluecoats were ferocious. Close fighting, street to street led to heavy losses. Colonel Henry Lunsford was shot through the heart as he fought his way down the Christmas Steps - he died, instantly. His deputy, Lieutenant-Colonel Moyle, was shot heavily and died later of his wounds. The regiment was left without leadership, decapitated.

Rupert stepped in. He had known Henry well and had seen the ferocity of Lunsford's men in battle. He adopted the regiment as his own, and from then on it was forever known as Prince Rupert's Blew Regiment of Foote. Naturally, being a cavalry commander and eventual commander-in-chief of the Royalist Army, Rupert had neither the time nor inclination to command the regiment personally in the field. For this, he appointed John Russell as Lieutenant-Colonel and the actual commanding officer of the regiment.

The regiment was immediately deployed to the Siege of Gloucester, but were then quickly sent to winter garrison at Bristol. In 1644, they were involved in the bloody battle of Bolton. The regiment, again, took losses - Russell himself was wounded in the engagement - before they withdrew. They returned again to Rupert's army and were deployed in the 'Folorn Hope'. After waiting for many hours, the Folorn Hope sat down to have their supper - at which point the enemy attacked at full speed, one of the only times in the entire civil war that this occurred. Not much is really known about the regiment's performance at Marston Moor, save that it was bloody. Our old compatriot Stoakes notes that at Marson Moor he received 'many dangerous hurts...'

A similar story at Chester - the vanguard, once again hosting the Bluecoats, got cut off from the rest of the Royalist Army. Here, the Bluecoats "ran ere they were shot, and flang away their drummes; wheeling towards the waterside to save themselves". Perhaps a result of having their morale shattered at Marston Moor. Nevertheless, they were rested (or filled out with new recruits) by the time they attacked Leicester - the regiment cried "God and the Prince!" and were the first into the town. They promptly fell to plundering.

So, in 1644, the Bluecoats were brought to Naseby, a regiment much reduced by their engagements in prior weeks at Bolton, Marston Moor and Chester, though clearly not spent. So why a last stand at Naseby? Was it that what was left of the Bluecoats were so battle-hardened that they could hold their ground? Was it that they were a regiment used to doing what was needed? Was it, simply, that at this point, they were too tired to run?

I cannot say. Russell survived Naseby and took a place in Rupert's Army Council. He had a splendid career after the war, which we will look into another time.

So, who were the Bluecoats? It is hard to give a clear answer when there were so many different incarnations of the same regiment. It is fair to say that they were tough fighters, on more than one occasion praised by their foes. It is fair to say they hosted a number of characters in their leadership. It is fair to say that they were rogues - Parliament propaganda notwithstanding, there is a lot of reference to their tendency towards plunder.

As such, I shall do what historians do best - defer judgement to a wiser elder. As Lawson Nagel, perhaps the most notable Bluecoat historian of the 1970s, says:

Prince Rupert had recognised the regiment's qualities when he made it his own after the storming of Bristol...their record is a proud one, and it is an excellent example of the courage, loyalty and perseverance which distinguished the best of the King's supporters in the Great Civil War.

Needless to say, a history that we endeavour in which to delve deeper.

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