The Battle of Torrington, 1646
During the final months of 1645, General Fairfax and the New Model Army advanced slowly into the south-west of England. The Prince of Wales, Captain-General of the West, had withdrawn to Exeter after Lord Goring's defeat at Langport in July. As Fairfax began his advance into Devon in October 1645, the Prince moved further west to Truro in the loyal county of Cornwall where the Prince's Council struggled to hold the demoralised western army together. In early November, Lord Goring himself abandoned the Prince and fled to France.
In mid-October, Fairfax advanced to Tiverton and quickly overran the town. The Royalist garrison of 250 men took refuge in the castle. Parliamentarian siege guns proceeded to bombard the castle until, on 20 October, a lucky shot broke the chains holding up the drawbridge and the garrison promptly surrendered. With forces blockading the Royalist stronghold of Exeter, Fairfax's army quartered around Tiverton and Crediton. Lieutenant-General Cromwell arrived from his campaign in southern England on 24 October to bring the New Model Army back up to full strength.
After the departure of Lord Goring in November 1645, Prince Charles appointed Lord Wentworth commander of the western Royalist army. While the Prince remained near the Cornish border, Wentworth quartered his cavalry for the winter around Bovey Tracey, 14 miles south-west of Exeter. The Royalists built earthworks to protect their encampment on Bovey Heath, to the south of the town.
Early in January 1646, the Parliamentarians began the final campaign against the western Royalists. On the afternoon of 9 January, Lieutenant-General Cromwell led a surprise raid on Wentworth's camp. The Parliamentarians entered Bovey Tracey from the north. Encountering no opposition they swept through the town, capturing a party of off-duty officers and troopers taking their ease. As dusk fell, Cromwell attacked the main camp. The unprepared Royalists put up a token resistance but their defensive embankments did not cover the approach from the town and they were quickly overwhelmed. A large number were killed or taken prisoner, the rest retreated to Tavistock.
The routing of Wentworth's cavalry left no Royalist forces in the vicinity of Exeter. Rather than close in on the city immediately, however, General Fairfax took the opportunity to advance further west towards Plymouth, which had been a Parliamentarian stronghold since the beginning of the war and was regularly under threat. When the Royalists abandoned the siege of Plymouth on 12 January, Fairfax turned back towards Exeter. On 18 January, Fairfax stormed and captured Dartmouth and its surrounding outposts. The surrender of Powderham Castle on 26 January completed the encirclement of Exeter.
After the defeat of Lord Wentworth at Bovey Tracey, the Prince of Wales appointed Lord Hopton commander of the Royalist western army and relegated Wentworth to lieutenant-general of horse. Sir Richard Grenville was appointed major-general of foot but Grenville, who had once commanded the King's entire western army, refused to acknowledge Hopton's authority. Hopton ordered Grenville's arrest for insubordination and he was imprisoned on St Michael's Mount until the end of the war.
The western army could muster only 2,000 Cornish infantry and Wentworth's 3,000 badly-disciplined cavalry. Early in February 1646, Hopton advanced into north Devon in an attempt to draw the New Model Army away from the siege of Exeter. He occupied Torrington on 10 February and took up a defensive position, constructing a circuit of earthworks around the town and barricading the approach roads. General Fairfax learned of the manoeuvre and marched with 10,000 men towards Torrington, leaving Sir Hardress Waller to cover the siege of Exeter.
The Parliamentarians approached Torrington from the east during the evening of 16 February 1646. A body of Royalist dragoons posted at Stevenstone Park was driven back by Fairfax's advance guard and there was fighting to the east of Torrington as Royalist horse and foot came up to support the dragoons' withdrawal. With heavy rain falling and darkness coming on, Fairfax decided to wait until the next morning to reconnoitre the Royalist defences before attacking. However, when Lieutenant-General Cromwell came to inspect the Parliamentarian outposts, he heard noises from the town which suggested that the Royalists were attempting to move out. Cromwell sent a patrol of dragoons forward to test the defences. They came under fire from the Royalist barricades and a general firefight developed as more troops were ordered forward in support. Fairfax decided to launch an immediate assault without waiting for daylight.
The fight at the barricades lasted for two hours at push of pike and with butt-ends of muskets. At last, the Cornish infantry were overwhelmed and retreated into Torrington, pursued by the Roundheads. Royalist cavalry commanded by Major-General John Digby counter-attacked and bitter fighting continued in the streets of Torrington. As the battle proceeded, a stray spark ignited the Royalists' powder magazine stored in Torrington church. Eighty barrels of gunpowder exploded, blowing the roof off the church and killing many Royalist soldiers and Parliamentarian prisoners in and around the church. Falling debris narrowly missed General Fairfax himself. The explosion effectively ended the battle. In the resulting confusion, Lord Hopton and the remnants of the Royalist western army withdrew from Torrington and escaped into Cornwall.
A few days after the battle of Torrington, Fairfax resumed his relentless advance into the west, occupying Launceston in Cornwall on 25 February. Early in March 1646, the Prince of Wales and his chief advisers escaped from Falmouth and sailed for the Isles of Scilly, pursued by Parliamentarian warships. Lord Hopton surrendered to Fairfax at Truro on 14 March 1646, agreeing to disband the western army and to go into exile.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1959)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iii (London 1889)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)