The Sieges of Bristol & Gloucester, 1643

After the destruction of Parliament's Western Association army at Roundway Down in July 1643, the King's Council of War took the opportunity to attempt to secure the routes between Wales, the West Country and Oxford by seizing the Parliamentarian strongholds of Bristol and Gloucester. The arrival at Oxford of the Queen's munitions convoy from the north in mid-July provided the necessary resources. The western Royalist army under Lord Hertford and Prince Maurice advanced to take Bath, which the Parliamentarians abandoned after Roundway Down, while Prince Rupert marched from Oxford to join them with three brigades of foot, two brigades of horse, nine companies of dragoons and a train of artillery. The Royalists' first objective was Bristol, the second city of England and the major port on the west coast.

The Storming of Bristol, 26 July 1643

The Parliamentarians seized control of Bristol in November 1642 when the city was occupied by troops under the command of Colonel Thomas Essex, a tough professional soldier whose governorship was unpopular with the citizens. He was replaced by Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes in February 1643.

Fiennes was energetic in his efforts to strengthen and extend Bristol's medieval defences. An outer ring of fortifications was constructed, comprising a series of forts and redoubts connected by a curtain wall of earthen ramparts and dry ditches. The outer ring incorporated high ground that overlooked the city to the west and north. The inner defences surrounded the city itself, with the rivers Frome and Avon forming a natural barrier and Bristol Castle guarding the headland between the two rivers. The church of St Mary Redcliffe was converted into a fortified outwork. About 100 artillery pieces were distributed along the defences. Despite the city's apparent strength, however, Fiennes had insufficient troops to man the fortifications. Sir William Waller had taken 1,200 of the Bristol garrison for Roundway Down, leaving Fiennes with only around 2,000 regular troops and a number of poorly-armed town militia to defend the five-mile circuit of walls and forts. Furthermore, the ambitious new fortifications were not complete: the ditch was shallow in places and the forts lacked outworks.

The Royalist Oxford and Western armies met before Bristol on 23 July. The following day, Prince Rupert summoned the city to surrender, which Colonel Fiennes refused. Rupert and the Oxford commanders were convinced that Bristol's undermanned defences could be taken by storm without resorting to the lengthy process of a formal siege. At a council of war it was decided that four infantry tertias, or brigades, would attack simultaneously at different points in order to maximise the difficulties for the overstretched defenders. Once inside the outer defences, the infantry were to tear down the walls and fill in the ditches to allow cavalry to enter. The assault was planned for daybreak on 26 July 1643 with three tertias of the Oxford army approaching the northern defences while the Cornish tertia approached from the south.

The storming of Bristol 1643

On the morning of the attack, the Cornish tertia went into action prematurely before the signal guns were fired. The Cornish advanced in three columns under cover of darkness. Carts were driven into the ditch around Temple Gate to make a temporary bridge. However, the ditch was deeper than expected and the Cornish were forced to fill up the ditch with brushwood fascines before ladders could be brought up to scale the walls. After struggling for half-an-hour to reach the walls, they were thrown back under heavy gunfire from the defenders. The veteran Cornish tertia lost up to three hundred men before Bristol, including Sir Nicholas Slanning and Colonel Brutus Buck, who had led two of the assault columns.

On the northern side, Lord Grandison's brigade launched an unsuccessful assault on Stokes Croft gate, which Captain Fawcett tried to blow in with a petard. When this failed, Grandison led his men uphill to attack Prior's Hill fort. At the same time, Colonel Belasyse's brigade attacked Colston's Mount fort, but both forts proved too strong to carry by storm. Lord Grandison was mortally wounded. Prince Rupert's charger was shot from under him when he tried to rally Belasyse's retreating troops.

The vital breakthrough was made by Colonel Henry Wentworth's brigade, supported by Colonel Washington's dragoons. Wentworth's attack on Brandon Hill fort became disordered, but his men fortuitously found themselves in an area of dead ground not covered by the Parliamentarian guns between Brandon Hill and Windmill Hill forts. Hurling grenades, the Royalists drove back the defenders and succeeded in scaling the curtain wall. Once inside the defences, the Royalists began to tear down the wall to make a breach. By the time Colonel Fiennes counter-attacked with his cavalry reserve, 300 Royalists were inside the wall. The defenders were driven back with fire-pikes. Wentworth's men pushed forward to seize a strongpoint known as the Essex Work, which the Parliamentarians abandoned in panic. Belasyse's brigade and Sir Arthur Aston's cavalry advanced through the breach to reinforce Wentworth. While Rupert established a command post at the breach, Wentworth and Belasyse pushed on towards the inner defences. The fight raged around Frome Gate for a further two hours. Colonel Henry Lunsford was killed and Colonel Belasyse suffered a head wound, but the arrival of further reinforcements from Grandison's brigade enabled the Royalists finally to break through Frome Gate and into the city itself.

Rupert sent for the Cornish infantry to reinforce the attack, but with the Royalists established inside the city defences, Colonel Fiennes called for a truce and a parley at about 6.00 p.m. The Parliamentarians were running short of ammunition and the citizens of Bristol, many of whom were Royalist sympathisers, were unwilling to risk the destruction of their city. Fiennes surrendered under terms and marched his troops out the following day, leaving his weapons, ammunition and artillery. When he arrived back in London, Fiennes was court-martialled for incompetence and sentenced to death, though the sentence was revoked by the Earl of Essex.

Although it had been costly, the capture of Bristol was an important victory for the Royalists. It gave the King control of a major port and possession of its shipping—a small warship, eight armed merchantmen and a number of smaller vessels—to form the nucleus of a small fleet. The manufactories of Bristol eventually produced three hundred muskets a week, which ensured a regular supply of firearms and led to the gradual abandonment of pikes in the Royalist armies.

The Siege of Gloucester, 10 August-5 September 1643

On 1 August 1643, King Charles arrived in person at the newly-captured city of Bristol in order to settle a number of disputes amongst the fractious Royalist commanders and to plan the next phase of Royalist strategy. At a council of war, the decision was taken to separate the victorious Royalist armies. The Cornish regiments of the Western army were growing mutinous after sustaining heavy losses at Bristol and were reluctant to advance further east. Prince Maurice replaced the Marquis of Hertford as commander of the Western army and was sent with Lord Carnarvon into the south-west to attack remaining Parliamentarian strongholds in Dorset and Devon. Lord Hertford was invited to return to court at Oxford. Sir Ralph Hopton, who was badly wounded after the battle of Lansdown, was raised to the peerage and appointed deputy-governor of Bristol under Prince Rupert. The Oxford army was re-organised. A detachment was left to garrison Bristol while the rest marched with the King, Prince Rupert and the Earl of Forth for Gloucester.

Situated twenty miles north of Bristol at the lowest bridgeable crossing of the River Severn, Gloucester was the only major Parliamentarian stronghold remaining between Bristol and Lancashire. It was a major hindrance to the Royalists because it disrupted communications between Oxford and the Royalist recruiting-grounds of south Wales. The city council was dominated by Alderman Thomas Pury, who was a zealous Puritan and anti-episcopalian. The governor of Gloucester was Colonel Edward Massie, who had co-operated effectively with Sir William Waller during his campaign on the Welsh border in the spring of 1643. However, the city defences were barely adequate to withstand a siege: Gloucester's walls dated from Roman times and did not complete the perimeter of the city; its medieval castle had been largely dismantled and was used as a gaol. Massie had two regiments of foot, comprising about 1,500 men, under his command. He lacked sufficient artillery and had only forty barrels of gunpowder.

After the fall of Bristol, Massie wrote to Parliament requesting money, supplies and reinforcements, but also took what steps he could to improve Gloucester's defences. The civilian population joined with the garrison in building earthworks to fill the gaps in the perimeter wall and to strengthen the existing defences. Lead was obtained to cast bullets and two powder mills set to work to make gunpowder. As the Royalist army approached, Massie ordered the burning of the suburbs outside the city walls to deny cover to the enemy.

King Charles expected Gloucester to surrender when he summoned the city on 10 August but Colonel Massie and the leading citizens were defiant. Prince Rupert realised that the city's defences were barely adequate and recommended taking it by storm. King Charles, however, preferred to avoid a repetition of the heavy casualties sustained at the storming of Bristol so ordered a formal siege, which was directed by the Earl of Forth. The River Severn formed a natural defence to the west of the city and the ground to the north was marshy so the Royalists concentrated their forces to the south and east. Sir William Vavasour brought in troops from Wales to complete the blockade to the north. Further reinforcements from Worcester and Oxford eventually brought the strength of the Royalist army before Gloucester to around 25,000 men, which led to heavy plundering of the surrounding district.

The main Royalist battery was situated on Gaudy Green and began bombarding the south walls. Sappers started work on siege trenches and miners were brought in from the Forest of Dean to undermine the east gate. Steps were also taken to cut off the city's water supply by severing conduit pipes. The mathematician Dr Chillingworth designed elaborate siege engines to provide cover for musketeers in preparation for an assault when a significant breach had been made. However, the siege proceeded slowly. The artillery bombardment proved ineffective. The mining operations were hampered by underground springs and counter-mines sunk by the defenders. Massie conducted an aggressive defence. Frequent raids were mounted on the Royalist lines which disrupted operations and cost the besiegers as many as 1,000 men; the Gloucester garrison lost only fifty during the entire siege. Massie worked tirelessly to encourage the defenders and to assure them that help would soon be on its way.

Essex's Relief March

News of the siege of Gloucester had a galvanising effect on London, where the mood had grown gloomy from so many Royalist successes around the country during the summer of 1643. However, the Earl of Essex's field army had been weakened by sickness. It had remained inactive for several months while Essex complained to Parliament over shortages of money, supplies and recruits. Essex had only 5,000 foot and 3,000 horse, which was inadequate for the relief of Gloucester. On 19 August, the Common Council of London agreed to authorise a brigade of Trained Band and auxiliary regiments to march for Gloucester with Essex's regular army. Five foot regiments were chosen for the campaign by drawing lots. The Council also provided a regiment of militia cavalry, a garrison regiment and small train of artillery. A further two infantry regiments were provided by the county committee of Kent.

The Gloucester campaign 1643
The Gloucester Campaign, 1643

Essex's army and the London Brigade set out for Gloucester on 26 August, taking a northerly route around Oxford on parallel roads. The whole force rendezvoused at Brackley in Northamptonshire on 1 September, where they were joined by cavalry regiments under Sir Samuel Luke from Bedfordshire and Lord Grey of Groby from Leicestershire. Lord Wilmot led harassing attacks with the Oxford cavalry as the advance continued, but these were successfully fended off by the Parliamentarian horse under Sir James Ramsay and Colonel Middleton. Prince Rupert with most of the King's cavalry joined forces with Wilmot on 4 September and fought a series of delaying actions around Stow-on-the-Wold, but Essex's army reached Prestbury Hill, ten miles from Gloucester, on 5 September. Rather than risk becoming trapped between Essex's army and the Gloucester garrison, King Charles broke up the siege and withdrew to Painswick, covered by Rupert's cavalry. Essex occupied Gloucester on 8 September. The relieving army had arrived in the nick of time — Massie's garrison was down to its last three barrels of gunpowder.


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