Sourton Down

The Royalists followed up their advantage after Braddock Down by again invading Devon, and advancing as far as Tavistock, before turning their attention to Plymouth. The town’s defenders had expected an imminent attack after Braddock Down and had hastily strengthened their defences. Possibly because of the need to build up their forces, both sides entered into abortive negotiations for a truce. These never had any realistic prospects of success, for the Royalists demanded free passage for their forces to join the King, whilst all garrisons in Devon and Cornwall were to be either dismantled or handed over to Royalist control.

Another factor influencing Hopton was that, without the support of the Cornish Trained Bands, who continued to refuse to cross the Tamar, he could not establish a full blockade of Plymouth — which was, in any case, unlikely to fall as long as it could be supplied by sea. As in his previous attempt, Hopton could do no more than establish a series of outposts on the approaches to Plymouth, an endeavour which Bevil Grenville, for one, felt was unlikely to succeed. Writing to his wife on 20 February, he remarked that ‘Plymouth is still supplied with men and all sorts of provisions by sea which we cannot hinder, and therefore for my part I see no hope of taking it.’

His forebodings were justified the next day. The Royalists had stationed two regiments at Modbury to secure the eastern flank of their blockading troops. Meanwhile the Parliamentarians had been struggling, with some difficulty, to organise a relieving force in Devon. Eventually soldiers were mustered in the north of the county, and, advancing south-westwards, they chased a small Royalist detachment under Sir John Berkeley out of Chagford. Berkeley fell back to join Hopton’s main force, leaving the way clear for the Parliamentarian troops to move into south Devon and link up with men from Plymouth.

Early on 21 February 1643 they attacked Modbury, the Royalists crediting them with 9–10,000 men, a figure certainly inflated for a force which included many ill-armed ‘clubmen’. The Royalist defending force was formed around John Trevanion and William Godolphin’s Regiments of Foot, with some dragoons and about five light guns. In all there were perhaps 1,500–1,700 Royalists in the town. They threw up barricades covering the entrances to Modbury and placed musketeers in the hedges on its approaches, but after an exchange lasting for about three hours, with light casualties, the Royalist outposts were forced back into Modbury.

As the Parliamentarian assault continued into the night, the Royalists ran short of ammunition. Fighting eventually died down around midnight, and in the early hours of the morning the Royalists slipped away through an unguarded exit, leaving behind five guns. The defenders probably lost about a hundred men, compared with an admitted dozen casualties for the Parliamentarians. Losses had been relatively light because most of the fighting had taken place in the cover of thick hedgerows and steep banks, men firing more or less blindly in the direction of the enemy. The Royalist prisoners had a narrow escape from a more unpleasant fate, however, as the Earl of Stamford, it was reported, briefly considered giving them to the Barbary corsairs in exchange for existing captives who might be enlisted in the Parliamentarian forces. He was dissuaded on the grounds of likely Royalist reprisals.

The reverse at Modbury caused Hopton once again to abandon his attack on Plymouth. He pulled back to Tavistock. The Parliamentarians, for their part, were unable to follow up their success because of large-scale desertions among their troops, ‘the undisciplined forces of this county . . . consisting chiefly of Trained Bands altogether incapable to follow our victory into Cornwall . . .’

All that had been achieved at the end of the campaign was an uneasy stalemate, with both sides in need of a breathing space to rebuild their forces. A truce was agreed in March, and this would eventually be extended until 22 April; under it, the Royalists pulled back once more to the west of the Tamar. Neither side had any interest in a permanent peace settlement in the area, which would in any case have been rejected by their national leaderships, but they saw the truce as a much-needed opportunity to rest and strengthen their forces in preparation for what they hoped would be a decisive campaign.

The Earl of Stamford was able to raise three new regiments of foot, giving him a total of about 3,500 — 2,000 of them seamen — and eight troops of horse. He also imported 1,500 muskets from the Low Countries. For their part, the Royalists brought in at least one shipload of munitions from France, and on 10 April the Royalist gentry and freeholders of Cornwall agreed to a weekly assessment of £750 on Cornwall and a voluntary loan of £3,000 in plate.

By 22 April both Royalists and Parliamentarians had been mobilised for the next round. The main Parliamentarian field force of about 1,500 foot and 200 horse, under the energetic twenty-five-year-old Major General James Chudleigh — Stamford was at Exeter, incapacitated by gout — was mustered at Liston, three miles from the Cornish border. The Royalists were numerically superior, but disadvantaged in having to spread their forces to guard the several crossing places of the Tamar. Their main force, consisting of the 1,200 men of Grenville’s Regiment, accompanied by Hopton, was at Launceston. Chudleigh decided to make Launceston his initial objective, and during the evening of 22 April his advance guard moved up to the eastern end of Polson Bridge, awaiting the expiration of the truce. Early on Sunday, 23 April, the Parliamentarians seized the bridge and advanced into Cornwall.

Hopton, informed by his scouts of the enemy’s anticipated advance, led half of Grenville’s Regiment out to occupy a strong defensive position on Beacon Hill, to the east of Launceston, whilst sending messages for the remainder of his army to join him with all possible speed. William Godolphin’s Regiment soon began to arrive, whilst Grenville’s men had taken up position in the hedges at the foot of Beacon Hill, with reserves of pikes and musketeers higher up its slopes.

Chudleigh’s men advanced across the fields towards the Royalist positions and commenced a largely ineffective fire, the soldiers as usual firing blindly from cover. As the morning wore on, Hopton was reinforced by Lord Mohun’s Foot Regiment and some horse under Sir John Berkeley. The Parliamentarians were now significantly outnumbered but meanwhile had made slight progress, forcing the Royalists’ front line back towards their reserves.

Fighting is unlikely to have been continuous, and at about 5 p.m. Hopton was joined by Slanning’s and Trevanion’s Regiments. He was at last strong enough to counter-attack, and in the early evening he mounted a three-pronged offensive, under himself, Berkeley and Francis Bassett, employing 3,000 foot and 600 horse. His flanks threatened, Chudleigh began to fall back, but he was rescued from a potentially serious situation by the arrival from Plymouth of about 600 men of Sir John Merrick’s grey-coated foot regiment, who launched a counter-attack. This helped ease enemy pressure sufficiently for Chudleigh’s army to fall back across Polson Bridge to its starting point at Lifton.

The Parliamentarians admitted to the loss of seven to ten dead and forty wounded, whilst the Royalists’ losses are unlikely to have been much heavier. Hopton’s pursuit was half-hearted, partly because a hut containing the enemy powder magazine blew up, injuring a number of his men, and also because of a mutiny among the Cornish. As Hopton later wrote, scathingly, ‘The common soldiers, according to their usual custom after a fight, grew disorderly and mutinous, and the commanders were always short of means either to satisfy them or otherwise to command them.’ By the time any serious follow-up could be organised, Chudleigh had withdrawn to Okehampton. Here a number of his units went their separate ways, leaving him with about 1,000 foot and three or four troops of horse.

Hearing that the Parliamentarians at Okehampton were in a state of some confusion and disagreement, and with low morale, the Royalist commanders decided to exploit the situation with a dawn attack on 25 April. As the Royalist army formed up for a night march across Sourton Down towards Okehampton, they seemed to a complacent Hopton to be ‘the handsomest body of men that had been gotten together in those parts all that war’. Crossing Sourton Down, the Royalists formed into column. They were led by 150 mounted dragoons, intended to act as scouts, followed by 150 horse. Then came half of the foot, led by Mohun’s Regiment, followed by the artillery, in advance of the remainder of the foot, with another 300 horse and dragoons bringing up the rear.

Eventually news of the enemy’s approach reached an astounded and furious Chudleigh. As he wrote later,

By the intolerable neglect of our lying deputy Scout Master, we were surprised by the whole enemy body of horse and foot . . . and by the incomparable dullness of Sergeant-Major Price, the carriage of our Ammunition and artillery was dismissed, contrary to orders express against it, so that I was forced to this sad Dilemma, to loose the Ordnance, and all that we had here( which in all probability would have been the ruin of the whole Kingdom) or to hazard a desperate Charge (which for ought I knew might have routed the whole Army).

Chudleigh, however, a veteran of the Irish wars and a combative character, determined not to give up without a fight. After a hasty council of war he led three troops of horse, totalling 108 men, out on to Sourton Down. Breaking his force down into six squadrons, each of eighteen men, Chudleigh deployed them across the down in ambush, with a hill behind them which helped them blend into the darkness.

By now the Royalist column was approaching, blissfully unaware of the imminent threat, ‘never, as they conceived, in better order, nor in better equipage, nor ever, (which had like to have spoiled all) in less apprehension of the Enemy.’ Hopton, with Sir John Berkeley and Colonel Thomas Bassett, was riding at the head of the column, the commanders, by Hopton’s own later admission, ‘carelessly entertaining themselves’, when suddenly the first of Chudleigh’s troops, under Captain Thomas Drake, came galloping out of the darkness, firing at Hopton’s dragoons and yelling, ‘Fall on, fall on, they run, they run!’

The result was chaos. The Royalist dragoons, for the most part raw levies, broke and fled, carrying away with them in their rout the 150 cavalry immediately behind them, together with Sir Ralph Hopton and his companions. The remainder of the Parliamentarian cavalry now joined in the attack. Early in the fighting they overheard the Royalist field word, ‘Launceston’, which enabled them to add to the confusion.

The first body of Cornish foot were already alarmed and demoralised by the sudden onset of a thunderstorm, and the attack by the enemy horse, the small number of whom was not apparent in the darkness, proved too much. The Cornish fled in all directions, ‘the night growing tempestuous with Hideous Claps of Thunder’, and the lightning reportedly igniting the powder charges of some unfortunate musketeers. With cries that ‘the militia fought not against them but the Devil’, a large number of Hopton’s foot disappeared into the night, throwing away their weapons and equipment to hasten their flight.

Surging on, Chudleigh’s men briefly overran the Royalist guns and wagons, but the impetus of their attack was faltering. Hopton’s artillery guard counter-attacked, retaking their guns and positioning them behind a ditch. Here they were reinforced by musketeers from Slanning’s Regiment, some of whom had sharpened stakes — known as ‘Swedish or swines’ feathers’ — which could be erected as a defence against horse.

Avoiding these organised opponents, the Parliamentarian cavalry spent some time skirmishing with parties of fleeing Royalists. In the meantime Chudleigh ordered his foot in Okehampton to advance and attack Slanning’s position. However, the lighted match of the Parliamentarian musketeers was sighted glowing in the darkness by the Royalists, who discharged two drakes at them. The Parliamentarian foot broke in their turn and made off.

There was little more that Chudleigh could do to exploit his success and his troopers, having hung lighted match in gorse bushes to deceive the enemy, withdrew. By now the storm and heavy rain had reached a new intensity, and the Royalists pulled back to Launceston.

Sourton Down had been a major humiliation for Hopton. Considerably more of his men had been routed and scattered than killed or captured, though he lost a large quantity of weapons and other equipment. He probably suffered between 20 and 100 dead and a dozen prisoners. Of the latter,

Captain Wrey being then but 15 years of age, and little stature, but a spritely [sic] gallant youth, and then commanded a company in the Lord Mohun’s Regiment that had the vanguard was taken prisoner and carried down to Okehampton, but the troopers that took him being careless of him and thinking him but a trooper’s boy he took the opportunity to make his escape into the night, and three days after[wards] returned into Cornwall with a dozen or 13 Musketeers of the stragglers that he had collected.

It was a small comfort in a thoroughly humiliating and exasperating episode for Hopton, and one for which he had only himself to blame.

The Royalists spent the next few days at Launceston, reorganising and rounding up stragglers. They then advanced again to Tavistock, and considered another move against Okehampton. However, hearing that the Parliamentarians there had been reinforced, Hopton again fell back across the Tamar.


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