Sir Ralph, Lord Hopton, c.1596-1652
Royalist commander in the First Civil War who secured south-western England for the King
Ralph Hopton was born at Witham, Somerset, the eldest of six children of a wealthy landowner, Robert Hopton, and his wife, Jane, daughter of Rowland Kemeys of Monmouthshire.
According to some accounts, Ralph was a child prodigy who could read by the age of three. After attending King's Grammar School at Bruton in Somerset, he studied at Lincoln College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple. However, on the outbreak of the Thirty Years' War in 1618, Hopton abandoned his studies and volunteered to fight for the Protestant cause in Europe.
Protestant Soldier and MP
In 1620, Hopton joined Sir Horace Vere's expedition to rescue Elizabeth of Bohemia from Imperial Catholic forces. During the expedition, Hopton became friends with William Waller when they served together in Elizabeth's lifeguard. Hopton carried Elizabeth on the back of his horse for forty miles during her escape from Prague. Upon returning to England in 1621, he was elected MP for Shaftesbury and married Elizabeth Capel Lewin (d.1646) in 1623. Hopton gained further military experience in 1624 when he served as lieutenant-colonel in Sir Charles Rich's regiment on Count Mansfeldt's expedition to the Palatinate.
Hopton was made a Knight of the Bath in the coronation honours list when King Charles I came to the throne. He was elected MP for Bath in 1625 and for Wells in 1628. After inheriting his family's estates upon the death of his father in 1636, Hopton lived the life of a country squire. Throughout the 1630s, he served as a justice of the peace and deputy-lieutenant of Somerset. On the outbreak of the Bishops' Wars in 1639, Hopton returned to military service and was appointed a captain in the King's lifeguard.
In 1640, Hopton was elected MP for Somerset in the Short Parliament and for Wells in the Long Parliament. He was prominent in denouncing the Earl of Strafford, and also advocated reform of the Church and further measures against Catholics. As a trusted confidante of the King, Hopton was chosen to lead a delegation to present the Grand Remonstrance at Hampton Court on 1 December 1641. In all other respects, he remained instinctively loyal to the Crown. He defended the King's right to levy ship-money and spoke in favour of bishops retaining their religious offices and their seats in the House of Lords. In January 1642, Hopton supported Charles' attempt to arrest the Five Members. After he angrily protested at Parliament's criticism of the King, Hopton was arrested by order of the House of Commons on 4 March 1642. He was held in the Tower of London for two weeks. Upon his release from the Tower on 15 March, Sir Ralph declared his allegiance to King Charles.
Civil War in the West
Hopton attended the King at York in July 1642 then went with the Marquis of Hertford to rally Royalist support in the West Country. Confronted by strong Parliamentarian resistance in Somerset, Lord Hertford withdrew to south Wales, while Hopton rode into Cornwall at the head of 160 horse and dragoons. He gained the co-operation of Sir Bevil Grenville and other Royalists, but leaders of the Cornish Parliamentarians tried to arraign him at Truro Assizes for bringing armed forces into the Duchy. Hopton turned the tables by persuading the jury that his cause was lawful and was authorised to mobilise the militia to drive the Parliamentarians out of Cornwall. Finding the militia unwilling to cross the River Tamar into Devon, however, Hopton set about recruiting a volunteer army. After unsuccessful attempts to capture Plymouth and Exeter, he drove back a Parliamentarian advance into Cornwall at the battle of Braddock Down in January 1643. In May, he defeated the Earl of Stamford at the battle of Stratton, which left Devon and Somerset open to invasion by the Cornish Royalists.
Hopton joined forces with Prince Maurice and the Marquis of Hertford in June 1643 to march against Sir William Waller, Hopton's former comrade-in-arms and now commander of Parliament's western army. The marginal Royalist victory over Waller at Lansdown in July 1643 was soured by heavy losses, including the death in action of Sir Bevil Grenville. Hopton himself was seriously injured when an ammunition wagon was accidentally blown up the day after the battle. The Royalists withdrew to a defensive position at Devizes until Lord Wilmot arrived with reinforcements to inflict a decisive defeat on Waller at Roundway Down on 13 July 1643. The western army then joined Prince Rupert at the storming of Bristol, where the Cornish army suffered further heavy losses. After the capture of Bristol, Hopton was appointed lieutenant-governor of the city and raised to the peerage as Baron Hopton of Stratton.
In September 1643, having recovered from his wounds, Hopton was appointed commander of Royalist forces in south-western England and ordered to advance on London. He marched eastward into Hampshire and Sussex, intending to threaten London from the south. Hopton captured Arundel Castle in December 1643, but his advance was halted by Waller, then driven back the following spring at the battle of Cheriton (March 1644). After the failure of the campaign against London, Hopton's forces were absorbed into the Oxford army, and Hopton himself returned to his post at Bristol. However, he was back in an active military role in July 1644 when the King marched into the west in pursuit of the Earl of Essex. Hopton commanded a division in the manoeuvres to encircle and trap Essex's army at Lostwithiel. In August, he was appointed General of Ordnance (artillery) in the King's army and fought at the second battle of Newbury in October 1644.
The Prince's Council
In March 1645, Hopton was appointed to the Council of the Prince of Wales at Bristol as chief military adviser, but it proved impossible to co-ordinate the volatile Royalist commanders in the west, Lord Goring and Sir Richard Grenville. Hopton took personal command at the siege of Taunton until a detachment from the New Model Army raised the siege on 11 May. The following month, the King's army was decisively defeated at Naseby.
When Fairfax led the New Model Army into the West Country, the Prince's Council retreated to Exeter. Hopton was appointed lieutenant-general of the western army early in 1646, but by then the Royalist cause was lost. He was defeated by Fairfax at the battle of Torrington in February 1646. Having ensured the Prince of Wales' escape from England, Hopton surrendered to Fairfax at Truro on 14 March 1646 before following the Prince into exile. Around this time, Hopton's wife Lady Elizabeth Hopton, who had accompanied him on many of his campaigns, died in Jersey.
Hopton in Exile
Hopton attended Prince Charles on Scilly, Jersey and in Flanders, but left his service when the Prince decided to join Queen Henrietta Maria in France. Like most members of the Council, Hopton was deeply suspicious of the influence of the Catholic queen. He stayed with his uncle Sir Arthur Hopton, formerly the English ambassador to Spain, who lived in Rouen.
During his exile in Rouen, Hopton wrote Bellum Civile, his account of the civil war in the West Country. Hopton rejoined Prince Charles at The Hague in July 1648 and remained with him during the summer naval campaign in the North Sea. After the execution of King Charles I in January 1649, Hopton was appointed to Charles II's privy council but finally parted from him over the terms of the Treaty of Breda in June 1650. Hopton regarded Charles' agreement to impose Presbyterianism in England as a betrayal of the Anglican Church.
Hopton returned into exile and died of a fever in September 1652 at Bruges. His body was kept embalmed until 1661, when it was transferred to the parish church near his ancestral home at Witham in Somerset. In 1672, following a ruling by the House of Lords, Hopton's estates, which had been confiscated by Parliament, were returned to his sisters.
John Barratt, Cavaliers, the Royalist Army at War 1642-46 (Stroud 2000)
C.H. Firth, Ralph, Lord Hopton (1598-1652), DNB 1891
Hopton, Mark, The King's Man in the West www.newman-family-tree.net
Ronald Hutton, Ralph, Baron Hopton, Oxford DNB, 2004
Bellum Civile: Hopton's narrative of his campaign in the West www.archive.org