Battle of Stratton, Cornwall, 16 May 1643 I


Sir Arthur Hesilrige’s Cuirassiers (known as Hesilrige’s London Lobsters due to their armour).


Beacon Hill

At the time Stamford was lying at Exeter recovering from an attack of gout. In his absence the Parliamentarian field army was commanded by Major General James Chudleigh. Soon after midnight he set off from Lifton with 1,500 musketeers, 200 pikemen and five troops of horse with the intention of attacking Launceston. Warned of his approach Hopton took up a defensive position on Beacon Hill with Sir Bevill Grenville’s Regiment, and was joined there by Godolphin’s just before Chudleigh turned up at about 9am. Finding the hedges at the foot of the hill stuffed full of Royalist musketeers made Chudleigh hesitate, but an hour later he launched his attack and cleared the hedges. However, further progress was arrested by the arrival of Lord Mohun’s Regiment and some horse and dragoons led by Sir John Berkeley.

Thereafter, the battle settled down into an inconclusive firefight while both sides waited for further reinforcements to come up. The next to appear were Colonels Slanning and Trevannion, but Chudleigh was joined at the same by Sir John Merrick’s Foot (a regular regiment sent down by Essex), and a detachment of Northcote’s Regiment. Nevertheless, with his whole army now concentrated, Hopton felt confident enough to launch a full-blown counter-attack. By this time it was starting to get dark and the attack threw Chudleigh’s men into confusion. A hasty retreat then followed, covered by Merrick’s regulars, but as the Royalists took neither guns, colours nor any appreciable number of prisoners, it may be concluded that the victory was by no means as complete as they thought.

Sourton Down

At any rate, Hopton now decided to follow up the supposed victory by mounting a dawn assault on what he fondly imagined to be the shattered remnants of Chudleigh’s army at Okehampton, on the morning of the 26th. This entailed a night march but the Royalists blithely set off and walked straight into an ambush on Sourton Down.

Hopton himself admitted afterwards that he and some of the other Royalist commanders were ‘carelessly entertaining themselves in the head of the dragoons’ when they abruptly discovered a body of cavalry a mere carbine shot away. It was all too obvious that they were within carbine range, for they greeted the Royalists with a volley which inflicted few casualties but naturally inspired a fearful panic. As it happened, there were only 100 Parliamentarians, but none of the Royalists were disposed to hang around counting heads. Following up his initial success, Chudleigh plunged into the disordered Royalist ranks. Hopton’s dragoons turned and ran, carrying away their own cavalry who had halted uncertainly behind them. They in turn rode over the infantry until Grenville and Mohun made a desperate stand by the guns. Hopton himself, mounted on a faster horse, got as far as the rearguard, but then finding that no one was actually pursuing him, he turned around and brought up Sir Nicholas Slanning’s Regiment to reinforce Grenville.

At this point there was a pause as Chudleigh, not wishing to push his luck, drew off and summoned up 1,000 foot from Okehampton. During the lull the Cavaliers manned an old ditch and planted swine feathers (pointed stakes) in front of their guns. Eventually they saw the distinctive glow of slow-match as Chudleigh’s infantry came up and fired two cannon-shot into them. This unseasonable welcome halted the Parliamentarians in their tracks. They may not have been too keen about fighting in the dark – which can hold all manner of terrors for those unused to it – and the prospect of assaulting a force of unknown size dug in with artillery was too much for them.

Nothing daunted, Chudleigh himself essayed another cavalry charge but found his way blocked by the swine feathers. Baffled by this unexpected obstacle and thoroughly disgusted by the craven behaviour of his foot, he then decided to call it a night and returned to Okehampton under the cover of a sudden rainstorm which thoroughly drenched both armies. The Royalists had survived the night, but there was no disguising the reality of their defeat and they fell back in to Bridstowe in considerable disorder. In the process they also managed to lose Hopton’s personal baggage and with it correspondence detailing Royalist plans to advance into Somerset in order to open up communications with the King’s Oxford Army.

Stamford, whose gout had been miraculously cured by the victory on Sourton Down, was determined to prevent this, and ordering his forces to concentrate at Torrington, he crossed the Cornish border on 15 May. Knowing that Hopton would be certain to launch an immediate counter-attack, Stamford took up a strong position on a 200-foot ridge at Stratton and waited for him. The Parliamentarian forces appear to have comprised some 5,400 foot, 200 horse and thirteen small guns. Hopton on the other hand, distracted by Ruthven’s still active garrison in Plymouth and by a diversionary raid on Bodmin, could muster only 2,400 foot and 500 horse. Nevertheless, a council of war concluded that ‘notwithstanding the great visible disadvantage that they must either force the Enemies’ Camp, while the most part of their Horse and dragoons were from them, or unavoidably perish.’

Thus far, the fighting in the west had been extremely volatile and characterised by sudden assaults and even more precipitate retreats, but the battle of Stratton was altogether different. The Royalists moved forward to their start-line under cover of darkness, and at dawn commenced a brisk firefight with the Parliamentarian musketeers lining the hedges at the foot of the hill.

For some reason, the Cornish Royalists do not appear to have deployed their infantry in conventional brigade or battalion formations, but rather seem to have favoured forming a front line of musketeers behind which stands of pikemen waited until called forward to effect a breakthrough, or to mount a counter-attack, as the case might be. This can be seen quite clearly at Stratton, for while the musketeers were thus engaged Hopton formed his pikemen into four assault columns each about 600 strong. The first, under his personal command, was to attack on the right against the southern end of Stamford’s position, two more under Grenville and Slanning were to attack in the centre, while the fourth led by Godolphin formed the left wing. In reserve were some 500 horse under Colonel John Digby

At about 5am all four columns rolled forward but were unable to clear the hedge-line, and the battle degenerated once more into a desultory firefight. Hopton stubbornly refused to pull off, and this phase of the battle lasted for about ten hours. By about 3pm, however, the Cornish musketeers were running short of ammunition and Chudleigh decided, possibly independently of Stamford, that the moment had come for a counter-attack. Placing himself at the head of a stand of pikemen, he swept down the hill and ran full tilt into Sir Bevill Grenville’s pikemen. So sharp was the shock of the onset that Grenville and most of his front rank were knocked off their feet.9 Naturally enough, Chudleigh’s men were also a little disordered as a result and unable to withstand a very prompt counter-attack launched by Sir John Berkeley. Not only were the Parliamentarians thrown back in their turn, but Chudleigh too may have been knocked off his feet for he was amongst the prisoners. While the Parliamentarians were thus distracted the Royalist flanking columns renewed their assault and this time managed to push their way on to the upper slopes of the ridge. Stamford’s left abruptly gave way, and with his infantry reserves already committed to Chudleigh’s ill-fated counter-attack and most of his cavalry off raiding Bodmin, he was unable to prevent his line being rolled up. Regiment by regiment his army was broken, but he bravely remained on the field until, according to Colonel John Weare, he had but twenty men standing by him. Then, having fired off his guns one last time, he and Weare fled to Exeter, leaving behind 300 dead, 1,700 prisoners, the thirteen guns and most precious of all, seventy barrels of powder – enough to fight another battle.

Hopton now proceeded to occupy Launceston where he received the happy news that the Marquis of Hertford and Prince Maurice were marching to join him with a substantial force of horse and foot. He had already received warning that such a move was imminent, and so he made a dash for Chard in Somerset and there rendezvoused with Hertford and Maurice on 4 June. Once combined, their forces mustered a very respectable 2,000 horse, 4,000 foot, a regiment of dragoons and a useful train of artillery. Clarendon implies that the army’s command structure was less than satisfactory for:

… how small soever the Marquis’s party was in number, it was supplied with all the general officers of a royal army, a general, a lieutenant-general, general of Horse, general of the ordnance, major-general of Horse, and another of Foot …

It was no doubt intended that they would recruit an army large enough to justify their employment. In the meantime, although Hertford still held the King’s commission as notional General of the Western Counties, his Lieutenant General, Prince Maurice, was the one who actually exercised that command. The Earl of Caernarvon was General of the Horse, with Sir James Hamilton as Major General under him. The Earl of Marlborough was General of the Ordnance, and Sir Ralph Hopton served as Field Marshall. As was customary the important strategic decisions were taken by a Council of War comprising all the senior officers of the army.

As to those strategic decisions, thus far the campaign in the west had been of only local significance, but now the Cornish army was required for something far more important. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the Royalists’ overriding concern at this time was the security of the King’s Road. Bitter experience had shown that it could not be kept open by locally raised forces, and that it was equally dangerous to divert troops from the main Oxford army for that purpose. Now Maurice was once again charged with taking Bristol and securing the lower end of the Severn valley.

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