THE BATTLE OF NASEBY was fought on the 14th of June 1645 between the Royalists, led by King Charles I and his nephew Prince Rupert of the Rhine, and the Parliamentarians, led by Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. It was a victory for the Parliamentarians and the last major battle in the (First) English Civil War (1642-1646), putting an end to any hopes that the king had of winning the conflict. The battlefield at Naseby is about 5 miles southwest of the small Leicestershire town of Market Harborough, which we visited for the first time in July 2021. We dove there, almost accidentally, after having had a frustrating experience navigating the ring road around the town of Rugby without finding a route to its old centre. Shamefacedly, I must admit that we were completely ignorant of this town’s connections with the Civil War and the Battle of Naseby.
It was at Market Harborough that King Charles had his headquarters before the fight at Naseby. I am not sure which buildings in the town were used by the king, but one of them, still in existence, might possibly have been visited by the royal person. This is the former coaching inn, The Three Swans. Its website informs us with appropriate cautiousness:
“Like most old inns, The Three Swans has become the subject of a number of legends, often passed on with varying degrees of accuracy. One is that Charles I visited the inn on the night before the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. According to surviving records made at the time, the king actually retired for the night two miles down the road at the private house of Lubenham Hall. He was raised from his bed at 11pm by reports of the unexpected arrival of the Parliamentarian army just eight miles away at Naseby. He rushed to Market Harborough to meet his senior General, his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, who had established his military headquarters in the town.
At midnight they met with several other commanders for a council of war. The venue for the meeting is unknown. It could have been The Swan, or it could just as easily have been anywhere else in the town…” (from a pdf accessed via www.threeswans.co.uk/about/history/).
An information plaque in the town suggests that on the eve of the battle, the king and Prince Rupert conferred in an Inn on Church Street, the site of the present Kings Head Pub. The present establishment was built in the 19th century.
There might be some uncertainty about the king’s whereabouts in Market Harborough before the Battle of Naseby, but there is no doubt where some of his soldiers spent some time as prisoners after the Royalists were defeated. After the battle, the Parliamentarian Provost Marshall had to secure the 4000 to 5000 Royalist soldiers who had been captured during fight at Naseby. The only building in Market Harborough large enough to house this large number of captives and to secure them was the centrally located church of St Dionysius, which is close to both the Three Swans and The Kings Head. They were held in the church for one night before they were marched to London via nearby Northampton.
The construction of the Church of St Dionysius with its tall tower with steeple was started in the 13th century, but much of its structure dates to the 14th and 15th centuries. High up on a wall at the west end of the church is a depiction of the royal coat-of-arms dated 1660. This was the date when the monarchy, led by King Charles II, was restored in England. Five years earlier, the church was crowded with tired soldiers, who had fought in vain for Charles’s father, who was executed on the 30th of January 1649.
Some, if not all, of the Royalist soldiers, who were about to be incarcerated in St Dionysius, might have noticed a curious structure next to its southern side. Built in 1614, this building, which stands on sturdy wooden posts at least 6 feet high, must have seemed quite new in 1645. It was the grammar school founded by in 1607 by Robert Smyth, a resident of the town who became Comptroller of the City of London’s Chamber and member of the Merchant Taylors’ Company. The structure, which you see today, was funded by Smyth’s money. The school, which is accessed by a staircase, stands raised high above the ground. The space beneath it was created to keep the town’s market dry in wet weather. Many years later, a descendant of this school was established elsewhere in the town. Now known as the Robert Smyth Academy, one of its past students was the Nobel Prize winning physicist, Sir William Henry Bragg.
Today, the centre of Market Harborough is pleasantly vibrant with a good range of shops and eateries. Contemporary life and memories of the town’s history rub shoulders harmoniously in this place that deserves the attention of more tourists.
On our return from Market Harborough and the fascinating Foxton lock staircase nearby, we did manage to find our way into the heart of the town of Rugby, which did not impress us nearly as much as Market Harborough.