Histories and Mysteries: Devon and the English Civil War

Ben Fox
Ben Fox

This month marks 371 years since the execution of King Charles I. He met the executioner’s axe on the 30th January, 1649, outside Banqueting House in London. This followed years of war with his fellow countrymen.

However, what people tend to forget is that Devon actually played a fundamental part during the English Civil War (1642-1651), as one of the key battlegrounds during the war between the King and Parliament.

The war began as a result of a conflict over the power of the monarchy and the rights of Parliament. During the early phases of the war, the Parliamentarians expected to retain Charles as king, but with expanded powers for Parliament. Though the Royalists won early victories, the Parliamentarians ultimately triumphed.

So which side was Devon on? The answer is not a simple one. 17th Century Devon country folk were, for the most part, poor and uneducated. They were guided by their rich landlords as to who they should support.

Some of the more well-to-do families, if they had more than one child, would send one to fight for the King and the other to fight for Parliament. Talk about hedging your bets!

In simple terms, most of Devon could have done without it but pretty much every city, town and village found itself embroiled in the dark struggles of what turned out to be three English Civil Wars that claimed the lives of more than 85,000 in armed conflicts and 100,000 more from war related diseases: this from a population of some five million. In fact, relative to population size, it was worse than British losses in the First World War.

North Devon saw the first of the action to hit the county, with skirmishes taking place in Barnstaple and Ilfracombe.

While most of Devon declared for the King, some of the small industrial towns preferred the Parliamentarian cause. Chagford was one such and in February 1643 a small troop of Parliamentarian horse was sent to the town to secure it against the Royalist forces mustering in Devon. Colonel Northcote and his officers stayed at Whyddon House, now the Three Crowns Hotel, while the men were billeted in the houses of the town.

The Royalists were, indeed, in the process of occupying all of Devon. Chagford was known to be hostile to their cause, but that made their commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, all the more determined to capture it and ensure that taxes due to the government from the town went to the King, not to Parliament. When he heard that Northcote and his men had arrived in the town, Hopton sent his own Colonel Berkeley with a troop of cavalry, and another of dragoons, to attack.

A street fight ensued in which the royalist poet Sidney Godolphin was badly wounded and reputedly bled to death in the porch of the Three Crowns.
Shortly after, the Battle of Sourton Down near Okehampton took place on 25th April, 1643. The ambush took place after a failed Parliamentarian
attack on Royalists-held Launceston.

After the Parliamentarians had retreated to Okehampton, Sir Ralph Hopton led a Royalist army, planning to attack the town at dawn. When the Parliamentarian commander, Major-General James Chudleigh found out, he had a dilemma; he was outnumbered, but did not want to leave his artillery for the enemy to capture. He opted for a counterattack, and ambushed the 3,600-strong Royalist force on Sourton Down, laying in wait with just 108 of his own cavalry.

The ambush caught the marching army completely by surprise, and a large part of their force was immediately routed. Chudleigh called for reinforcements from his infantry in Okehampton, but they were spotted on the march there, and scattered under fire from the Royalist artillery. The Parliamentarians, still outnumbered despite their successes, chose to retreat; the Royalists, who were in complete disarray, and still did not know the size of the force they had faced, did likewise.

The defeat was humiliating for Hopton. Along with the weapons and equipment abandoned by his forces and captured by the Parliamentarians, there was a letter to Hopton from the King, ordering him to march his forces to Somerset to meet up with a larger Royalist army from Oxford.

As the war spread, Henrietta Maria, the King’s wife who was heavily pregnant, left the Royalist’s capital of Oxford and fled to the West Country. She intended to escape to France from Falmouth – she couldn’t head to Plymouth as it had already declared for Parliament. She got as far as Exeter, a city then in Royalist hands following siege upon siege, arriving on 1st May, 1644 and stayed at Bedford House, close to the city centre, where, aged 35, on 16th June, 1644, she gave birth to Princess Henrietta Anne.

At this time the Parliamentary forces led by the Earl of Essex were yet again threatening the West and planned to attack Exeter and hold the Queen to ransom as a bargaining chip in the King’s surrender. Although she had had a difficult labour and the baby was poorly, the Queen was hurried on again, this time to Cornwall and then on to France.  King Charles and his army arrived in Exeter on 26th July, 1644 before moving quickly into Cornwall where he defeated the Parliamentary forces of the Earl of Essex at Lostwithiel. But the war continued to ebb and flow as the opposing forces battled for supremacy in the West until Parliament gradually gained the upper hand.

Whilst Royalist Exeter was still under siege (this time by Fairfax and Cromwell), 10,000 Parliamentarians broke away from the siege and marched north to Torrington where the Royalists had barricaded the town including storing 80 barrels of gunpowder in the church. The battle began in pouring rain and total darkness on the bitterly cold night of 16th February, 1646: it was to be not only the last battle in the West, it was also the last to be fought on English soil.

As Fairfax waited for dawn to break Cromwell arrived with his cavalry and advanced on the barricades at the edge of the town to test their strengths by firing blindly into them. All hell broke loose.

Some 17,000 men and horses fought in the freezing downpour, street by street – with the townsfolk watching the bloodshed below them from upstairs windows.

Eventually, the Royalists scattered towards Cornwall: it was the beginning of the end of resistance by their forces in the West Country and led eventually to the capture and execution of the King. Dartmouth and Exeter surrendered to the New Model Army in April, 1646.

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