Today we think of Turnham Green as a peaceful and pretty spot in the heart of one of our favourite parts of West London. It is hard to imagine the park we know and love as a battlefield where over 35,000 people prepared to fight. However, in 1642, the Royalists and Parliamentarians faced each other here in what would become one of the major events of the English Civil War.
The first major battle of the war took place at Edgehill, north of Banbury in Oxfordshire. Neither side could claim a decisive victory, and the King Charles I continued to march towards London – held by Parliament – hoping that taking the city would win him control of the country again.
The Royalist army, led by the king’s nephew Prince Rupert, arrived in Brentford on 12th November. At the time, Brentford was only a small fishing village and was defended by only 1,300 men. Rupert and his men burned the settlement down, which encouraged many Londoners to side with Parliament. The Royalists then continued to march towards the capital.
Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex, used this fear to recruit men for an army to defend London. The next day, around 24,000 men assembled at Chelsea Fields – now the Belgravia area of Chelsea – and marched along the Great West Road – which still follows the same route today – to Turnham Green, near where the Royalists had set up camp.
The Royalist forces drew up their battle lines between the modern-day site of Chiswick Park station and the A4, near where the Porsche garage stands today. The Parliamentarians faced them about a kilometre away, from somewhere around the site of Turnham Green station. Their lines stretched south to the outskirts of Chiswick House, which had been built around thirty years before the battle took place.
The Royalists knew that they were heavily outnumbered, and were also short of ammunition after the battle at Brentford. Charles was also advised by his generals that the Parliamentary army was made up mainly of armed civilians, so an attack would not endear him to ordinary Londoners, whose support would be needed to hold the city once it was won. Charles was therefore reluctant to sound the advance.
On the other side of the green, the Parliamentarians, too, chose to hold their ground. Their aim was simply to stop Charles advancing – they had no need to begin the battle themselves.
In the end, there was no battle at Turnham Green. Both sides retreated after a small skirmish, with fewer than 50 casualties in total. It seems the bravery of the West London civilians showing they would defend their homes was enough to deter the Royalist army.
Charles’ retreat meant that he failed to capture London in 1642. The battle-that-never-was at Turnham Green turned out to be his best chance. The Royalists suffered a series of setbacks over the next few years before decisive Parliamentarian victories at Naseby and Langport in 1645 ended the war.
Had there been a battle on that November day on Turnham Green, would the outcome of the war have been different? It is difficult to say for certain who would have won the day. The Royalists were
outnumbered, but Prince Rupert was one of the finest generals of the age and the Parliamentarian army was made up mostly of civilians who had never been in a battle before.
What is certain, though, is that the Civil War would have been a lot shorter if a decisive victory was won at Turnham Green. A Royalist victory would have meant that Charles would have taken London and won the war, while a victory for Parliament would have destroyed the Royalist army and forced the King to negotiate.