The Battle of Cheriton II

What Hopton saw from the brow of the southern spur was almost certainly the final stage of the engagement when some Royalist troops hurrying to help their fellows were being cut to pieces by enemy cavalry. The incident is described in considerable detail by eyewitnesses on both sides, and there is no doubt that the formation being destroyed was under the command of Henry Bard, colonel of a regiment of foot that had arrived from the north as escort for the first great munitions convoy of May 1643. According to Slingsby, Bard ‘leading on his regiment further than he had orders for, and indeed with more youthful courage than soldier-like discretion, was observed by the enemy to be a great space before the rest and out of his ground, who incontinently thrusts Sir Arthur Haselrig’s regiment of cuirassiers well armed between him and home and there in the view of our whole army kills and takes every man’. Slingsby’s identification of the attacking force is incorrect. Harley is very clear about the identity of the attackers. They were a commanded party of 300 men drawn from several of Sir William Waller’s cavalry regiments, including two troops of his own regiment and probably all four of Colonel Norton’s. Moreover, Sir Arthur’s account of the battle delivered to the House of Commons as reported by Yonge makes no mention of his own regiment’s involvement in the destruction of Bard’s infantry. Instead Haselrig claims to have taken ten men out of every troop of Waller’s horse to create the shock force. This is an unlikely story. The chance of destroying Bard’s regiment can only have been seen at the last moment, leaving insufficient time to complete such a complex reordering of the cavalry. Possibly Yonge misunderstood what he was hearing. It is also interesting that Royalist cavalry did not intervene, either because there was none on or close to the right wing at that juncture, which seems most unlikely as the cavalry engagement had not yet begun, or because it was all over in the flash of an eye, as may have been the case if Bard’s men were entirely musketeers or if the speed with which they advanced broke up their close order, something that could easily happen to infantry formations crossing rough ground.

The background to the incident on the left wing in which Bard’s regiment was destroyed is given only in Robert Harley’s account, but it is supported in general terms by Slingsby, Haselrig, and the writer of the report in Mercurius Aulicus. Harley wrote that a party of 1,600 Royalist foot, which, even allowing for exaggeration, must have comprised almost the whole of Forth’s infantry, had attacked the ‘little village’. This was probably at about 10 or 10.30 a.m., that is after Hopton had received Forth’s rejection of his proposal to attack the rear of the Parliamentary army from Cheriton Wood. At first the Royalists made good progress, according to Harley, driving the enemy from their hedges and setting fire to a barn, but Waller sent in reinforcements, the wind changed direction, sending smoke into the eyes of the attackers, and they began to fall back. Such an outcome is not at all surprising. Allowing for the fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved at this point, Forth could only have committed a maximum of 1,000 foot soldiers to the assault on the little village, as Hopton’s infantry regiments were all on the left wing of the Royalist army. The formation he was attacking, on the other hand, was probably much larger. Harley described the original force as ‘very strong’, and Waller drew a further 600 (Haselrig) or 1,200 (Harley) foot soldiers from the reserve to support the left wing when the attack began. The length of the engagement is uncertain, but it may have been quite lengthy as Balfour implies that he did not deploy his cavalry in the heath until after the attack had begun, and it was from the heath that the assault against Bard’s regiment was launched.

The fact that Bard’s regiment was not involved from the start suggests that it was Forth’s infantry reserve, possibly guarding the artillery. Bard therefore behaved in an appropriate manner in one respect. Seeing the main infantry body under attack, he had launched his regiment towards the fray, probably with the intention of attacking the advancing enemy foot in their right flank. The trouble was that in his determination to hit them hard, he almost certainly cut corners. First, instead of making his way to the village using the hedges that covered the slopes of the western end of the southern spur and the valley beyond, he led his men across a corner of the heath. Second, he advanced across open ground without a cavalry escort, taking a route that would have taken him to within a few hundred yards of where Balfour had drawn up Waller’s regiments of horse. If this was Bard’s most direct route towards the fighting, his regiment was almost certainly positioned in the centre of the Royalist front line rather than on the right. Otherwise a march through the enclosures followed by a short hook to the left over open ground just before he reached the enemy would have been more appropriate. That he had erupted from the centre of the Royalist line is apparent from Slingsby’s remark that the whole of the army could see the destruction of Bard’s regiment. If it had met its fate any further to the west, it would have been hidden from Slingsby’s line of sight by the gentle northward curve of the southern ridge of the arena as it neared Cheriton village. The corollary of this is that Bard’s regiment must have been close to Forth’s own position, which makes one wonder why the Lord General did not order it to halt as soon as the attack began. Possibly Bard was also under orders, but had exceeded them in his enthusiasm to get at the enemy. This may possibly explain Hopton’s statement that Forth was ‘much troubled with it, as the engagement was by the forwardness of some officers without orders’, which can be read as if it was Bard’s forwardness and its probable effects that caused Forth such concern, not the original attack.

The destruction of Bard’s regiment seems to have had a highly significant effect on morale, raising the spirits of the Parliamentarians whilst dampening those of the Royalists. However, Forth and Hopton had only suffered a reverse, they had not yet lost the battle. Indeed, Forth was able to stabilize the situation in the Itchen valley, possibly by withdrawing infantry from Cheriton Wood, possibly by drawing his own retreating infantry behind hedges on the southwest corner of the southern spur, as nothing much seems to have happened on the Royalist right wing for some hours. However, elsewhere the battle flared into life. According to Hopton, Lord Forth’s response to the setback on the right was to order Hopton to launch a cavalry attack, probably against the centre of the enemy position on the heath. The decision seems an irrational one, as the southern slope of the ridge and the heath beyond were not good cavalry country – first enclosures, then a hedge line and finally a small, narrow piece of rough heath, which would have made it difficult for the Royalist horse to maintain close order in a charge, and where the Parliamentary horse were already drawn up under the cover of their artillery and musketeers. Moreover, for the king’s horse at Cheriton as for Sir Phillip Stapleton at Newbury and Sir Thomas Fairfax at Marston Moor, there was only a single entrance into the heath, which meant that his regiments could not deploy in close order until they had passed the hedge line. Slingsby goes so far as to say that they did not have time to deploy, as the Parliamentary horse were upon them as soon as they emerged from the entrance. However, this is not confirmed by any of the Parliamentary sources, which is rather surprising if it had had a major effect on the outcome of the battle. Possibly Hopton managed to stop it as soon as he realized it was happening by moving down some musketeers to provide sufficient firepower at the entrance into the heath to deter the enemy. There were certainly Royalist foot in the valley when the cavalry fight was under way, but this still leaves unanswered the question of why Forth ordered a head-on attack on the enemy horse, backed as they were by the firepower of their musketeers and artillery pieces. A possibility, but no more than that, is that the resources committed to the attack on the little village and the fierce enemy reaction to it combined with Hopton’s defences in and around Cheriton Wood left very few infantry in the centre of the Royalist line. To make matters worse enemy horse and foot were drawn up on the little heath and on the slope behind it in such a way that they could easily move forward and divide the Royalist army in two. Thus, as at the northern edge of Wash Common during the First Battle of Newbury, cavalry were required to plug a gap caused by shortage of infantry at the critical point in the battle line, with attack being seen as the best form of defence.

To carry out the Lord General’s orders, Hopton chose Sir Edward Stowell’s brigade, 1,000 strong. It fought bravely for almost half an hour before falling back, ‘broken and routed’ in Hopton’s words, leaving the brigadier in enemy hands ‘with five wounds upon him’ after he had managed to penetrate their gun line. Another brigade commanded by Sir John Smith apparently attacked the left of the Parliamentary cavalry formation. The evidence for this is slight, but his biographer wrote of ‘both lanes and hedges lined with musketeers’, which fits the part of the battlefield around the little village better than any other. However, the brigade’s performance apparently left much to be desired. When Smith was wounded, all except his own troop made a disorderly retreat. This may explain why none of the other Royalist accounts describe the encounter, but it may have been only a tiny episode inflated into something bigger by his biographer Edward Walsingham. Parliamentary accounts of the battle only portray the enemy horse in an unfavourable light when they retreated from the southern spur at the end of the battle. Jones in particular commended the Royalists for their valour and Harley praised them for their desperate and bold charges.

From this point onwards the traces of the past, almost always less common for the middle part of a battle than one would wish, become highly fragmentary. They are often no more than brief snapshots of the fighting, which are not only impossible to relate to one another but also rarely capable of being allotted a specific place in the timeline of the battle. On the Royalist left wing the rest of Hopton’s command may have been more successful than Stowell’s brigade. Slingsby wrote of the left wing as well as the right being ordered to advance after the capture of Cheriton Wood, and E.A., the writer of one of the Parliamentary reports, describes a defeat suffered by some or all of Waller and Balfour’s cavalry in that part of the battlefield:

The enemy presently came on with their main body of horse very powerfully, and were met courageously, yet being of the greater number (for our whole body was not then together) forced ours to a disorderly retreat, at which time the day was doubtful if not desperate, our foot all the while being engaged on the left wing.

This cannot be either the episode in which Smith was mortally wounded, or the one in which Stowell was captured, and the clear implication is that it took place on the Parliamentary right.

Slingsby also recounts an episode that occurred on the Royalist left wing soon after the battle became general, but it is not the encounter that E.A. described. Hopton’s regiment of infantry repulsed an enemy cavalry charge on three separate occasions by performing classical parade ground drill for pike and musketeers. There is enough detail in the account to show that the regiment was positioned on open ground some way in advance of the crest of the spur. Lord John Stuart then sent the Queen’s regiment of cavalry down to its assistance, but it made ‘an unhandsome charge’, after which the cavalry action became general. Interestingly, Stuart’s obituary talks of his receiving his mortal wound in an action that took place in a large open low-lying expanse of ground, not a hill full of hedges and bushes. This description neatly fits the lie of the land to the south and east of Cheriton Wood as I have depicted it.

A series of engagements lasting for between three and four hours then ensued across the centre and east of the battlefield, which seems impossibly long for what appears to have been primarily a cavalry engagement. Possibly the situation in the valley in front of Hinton Ampner became completely chaotic by midday, with a seething mass of horsemen pushing backwards and forwards across the small heath under no control, a scene first suggested by Burne and taken up by many historians since. However, it is more likely that fighting was intermittent, but such as to force both sides to feed in all except their last reserves. Initially, the Royalists were on the offensive pushing back the enemy cavalry to the foot of the Hinton Ampner ridge but, as we have seen, they were unable to break through. When the brigades commanded by Stowell and Smith fell back in disorder, the Parliamentary horse appear to have gained complete control of the heath, but they in their turn found difficulty in making progress against enemy infantry drawn up behind the hedge that marked the northern boundary of Balfour’s Little Heath. Haselrig indeed uses very similar words to those used by Hopton in describing Stowell’s difficulties in breaking through the Parliamentary position in the centre: ‘their horse were surrounded by musketeers who lined the hedges and beat us back always when we drove them back.’

The nature of the landscape in which the heath was set, that is, with enclosures both to the north and the south, probably explains why neither the Royalist nor the Parliamentary cavalry was able to achieve a breakthrough. It may also explain why those accounts of the battle written by Parliamentarians had very little to say about the part their horse played in the major cavalry action. The report of Sir William Balfour, Essex’s lieutenant general of horse, was completely silent about the cavalry actions, but this may be because Essex’s regiments had failed to distinguish themselves yet again. However, in the end, inspired, E.A. says, by some London Trained Band musketeers, the right wing of the Parliamentary cavalry accompanied by some infantry appears to have pushed back a weak Royalist cavalry screen and gained the brow of the southern spur of the arena somewhere near Cheriton Wood.

Long before the cavalry and infantry moved forward on the right, however, the tactical manoeuvre that would decide the outcome of the battle was under way on the opposite side of the battlefield. In mid-afternoon Waller’s infantry and dragoon regiments supported by some of the London brigade began pushing around the west side of the cavalry mêlée safe in the knowledge that they would not be attacked. Moving out of the Itchen valley, they began to ascend the slopes of the southern spur of the arena from the direction of Cheriton village, where they were successful in pushing back the Royalist infantry, a body which by then included troops that had earlier taken part in the attack on Cheriton Wood, as it was here that their commander Colonel Matthew Appleyard was wounded.

The advance of the enemy foot on both flanks put the Royalist army in great danger of being surrounded. Hopton took the credit for securing the retreat of the shattered brigades of horse and their supporting infantry from the heath using a small body of Oxford army cavalry, with which he successfully defended the entrance into the enclosures on the southern spur of the arena. That the withdrawal from the heath was successfully accomplished is confirmed by other sources, but Hopton’s role in it rests on his testimony alone.

Initially Forth and Hopton attempted to make a stand on top of the southern spur, probably where it was crossed by Broad Lane, but the fire coming from the Parliamentary infantry and dragoons making their way along the southern spur towards them was too strong, and they decided to retreat to the place where the Royalist army had camped on the night of 27 March, the high ground to the south of Alresford.

There followed a pause of anything up to an hour, which gave the Royalist generals time to collect most of their infantry into a body and also some of their horse, and to plan their army’s escape to Basing House, eighteen miles to the north. Eventually Waller’s artillery commander, James Wemyss, brought some cannon into play, and the Royalist army ran for cover. The artillery train started off in the direction of Winchester, but then quickly turned northwards into a landscape of woods and valleys that made cavalry pursuit difficult, whilst the infantry with a small cavalry escort pursued a parallel course using a lower route with plenty of passes to delay the enemy. A small body of foot remained behind in Alresford to win the rest of the infantry and the artillery train time to reach the safety of the woods. Some were killed or captured, but most also managed to make their escape. Finally the horse took off over the downs, pursued for some miles by the enemy. All three sections of the army arrived safely at Basing House just after midnight. Both Harley and Birch’s biographers blame senior commanders for showing too much caution once the battle was clearly won, but Adair is probably right to absolve Waller (and by implication Balfour) from blame. Even if Harley’s own troop was fresh, and keen to harry the Royalists as they retreated, the rest of the Parliamentary cavalry were probably too exhausted and too scattered to do much against an enemy that had not broken and run.

The immediate reaction of the London newspapers and of the Parliamentary officers who had fought at Cheriton and written reports of the fighting was that through God’s mercy the army led by Waller and Balfour had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. However, once under way, the battle had been an uninspired slogging match, which appeared to develop its own momentum (or lack of momentum) after the initial Royalist error of attacking Parliament’s left wing with too small a body of infantry. To Birch’s biographer Roe it was ‘the worst prosecuted battle I ever saw’. It is therefore surprising that only he was of the opinion that there was a logical order of events, beginning with the decision not to retreat and ending with the infantry advance on both wings at about 4 p.m.

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