Battle of St Fagans

by Ellen Castelow

The Battle of St Fagan’s was the largest battle ever to take place in Wales. In May 1648, around 11,000 men fought a desperate battle in the village of St Fagan’s, ending in a decisive victory for the Parliamentarian forces and the rout of the Royalist army.

By 1647 it had seemed as if the English Civil War had come to an end. However arguments over unpaid wages, as well as Parliament’s demand that certain generals should now stand down their armies, inevitably led to further conflict: the Second English Civil War.

Revolts broke out around the country with many Parliamentarian generals changing sides. In March 1648 Colonel Poyer, governor of Pembroke Castle in Wales, refused to hand over the castle to his successor Colonel Fleming and declared for the King. Sir Nicholas Kemopys and Colonel Powell did the same at Chepstow and Tenby castles. The Parliamentarian commander in South Wales, Major-General Laugharne also changed sides and took command of the rebel army.

Faced with rebellion in Wales, Sir Thomas Fairfax dispatched a detachment of around 3,000 well-disciplined professional troops and cavalry under the command of Colonel Thomas Horton.

By now Laugharne’s larger rebel army consisted of around 500 cavalry and 7,500 infantry, most of whom however were volunteers or ‘clubmen’ armed just with clubs and billhooks.

Laugharne’s army began to march on Cardiff but Horton managed to get there first, taking the town before the Royalists could do so. He made camp to the west of the town, by the village of St. Fagans. He was waiting to be reinforced by a further Parliamentary force under the command of Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell.

Major-General Laugharne was desperate to defeat Horton before Cromwell’s army arrived, so after a brief skirmish on 4th May, he decided to launch a surprise attack on 8th May.

Civil War battle Kelmarsh HUK

Shortly after 7am that morning, Laugharne sent 500 of his infantry to attack the Parliamentary outposts. The well-trained Parliamentarians easily repulsed the attacks. The battle then degenerated into almost guerrilla fighting, with the Royalist troops hiding in and attacking from behind hedges and ditches where the Parliamentarian cavalry were less effective. Gradually however the training of the Parliamentarian troops and their superior number of cavalry told; Horton’s army began to advance and the Royalists began to panic.

A last ditch attempt to rally the Royalist forces – a cavalry attack led by Laugharne himself – failed and within just two hours, the Royalist army had been routed. 300 Royalist troops had been killed and over 3000 taken prisoner, the remainder fleeing west to Pembroke Castle with Laugharne and his senior officers. Here they endured an eight week siege before surrendering to Cromwell’s forces.

St Fagan’s was one of the last battles in the English Civil War, a bloody conflict that would eventually see King Charles I executed and England governed as a republican Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell.

You can learn more about the battle at St Fagan’s National History Museum in the grounds of St Fagan’s Castle in the village, which also boasts pretty thatched cottages and a country pub, the Plymouth Arms. The Museum is absolutely fascinating to explore, with over 40 historic buildings from all over Wales reconstructed on the site.

Footnote: After the siege at Pembroke Castle, Laugharne was sent to London where he and other rebels were court-martialed for their part in the revolt. Condemned to death by firing squad along with two others, rather bizarrely it was decided that only one should die, and the three rebels were forced to draw lots to decide which one of them would be killed. Colonel Poyer lost the draw and was duly executed. Imprisoned until the Restoration, Laugharne later became MP for Pembroke in the so-called ‘Cavalier Parliament’ of 1661 to 1679.

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