Lyme & Lostwithiel, 1644

After the fall of Bristol in July 1643, the Earl of Carnarvon led a force of 2,000 horse and dragoons to reduce remaining Parliamentarian strongholds in the south-west. During August 1643, Carnarvon captured Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland in Dorset. In September, Prince Maurice took over command in the region with the bulk of Sir Ralph Hopton's old Cornish army. Although he quarrelled with Carnarvon, Maurice consolidated the Earl's success and went on to capture Exeter in September and Dartmouth in October. Maurice then marched to besiege Plymouth where he was met with a determined defence conducted by Colonel James Wardlaw. Maurice fell ill with camp fever in mid-November and withdrew from the siege to recover. The siege of Plymouth was abandoned towards the end of December 1643.

The Siege of Lyme, Dorset, April- June 1644

On 20 April 1644, Prince Maurice appeared before the port of Lyme in Dorset with a force of 6,000 men drawn from the Cornish infantry, the regiments returned from Ireland and from local Devonshire levies. Although it was a relatively minor port, Lyme was a staunchly Parliamentarian outpost in the mainly Royalist-held West Country. Its garrison, commanded by Colonel Were and Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Blake, mounted regular raids and its harbour, the Cobb, was a safe haven for Parliament's warships. By capturing Lyme, the Royalists also hoped to complete a chain of strongholds linking Bristol with the English Channel.

The town was overlooked by high hills. It had no walls but was defended with several newly-constructed turf blockhouses connected by a ring of earthwork banks and ditches. The Parliamentarians defiantly rejected Maurice's call to surrender and the Royalists deployed in an arc around the town, with the Irish regiments to the east, the Cornish to the north and the Devon troops to the west. Maurice systematically drove in outlying Parliamentarian outposts and began setting up gun batteries to bombard the town's defences. On 24 April, a picked raiding party from the garrison drove the startled Royalists from their guns and chased them up the hill until forced back by Maurice's main force. This was the first of several raids mounted by the defenders throughout the siege. After a major Royalist assault was thrown back with heavy casualties on 28 April, the besiegers kept up an intense artillery bombardment, interspersed with further attempts to take the town by storm.

Parliamentarian control of the sea meant that the Royalists could do nothing to prevent the Earl of Warwick's fleet from shipping supplies and reinforcements into Lyme. Around 14 May, Prince Maurice ordered the re-positioning of several heavy guns to target shipping in the Cobb and a determined attack was made on 21 May which resulted in the destruction of most of the supply boats in the harbour. Gradually, the relentless Royalist assaults wore down the defenders. Around 28 May, the defences were breached; the Parliamentarians wavered and were almost overrun but finally rallied to Ensign Moizier, who stood firm with the colours. The Royalists tried to set the town ablaze by shooting fire arrows onto the thatched roofs. Although several houses caught fire, the wind was in the wrong direction for a major conflagration.

Unable to re-supply the town indefinitely, Warwick reported to the Committee for Both Kingdoms that Lyme's plight was growing desperate and that it must be relieved by land. The Committee ordered Sir William Waller to march to the relief of Lyme, but his superior, the Earl of Essex, took it upon himself. On 6 June, Essex abandoned the Oxford campaign and set out for the south-west, ignoring the Committee's orders calling him back. On 15 June, with Essex's army at Blandford, Prince Maurice lifted the siege of Lyme and withdrew with his army to Exeter. The two-month siege had cost the Royalists hundreds of lives and large supplies of ammunition.

The Lostwithiel Campaign, Cornwall, June-September 1644

Having relieved the siege of Lyme in June 1644, the Earl of Essex continued his independent operations in the south-west. The Royalists expected him to march to besiege Exeter where Queen Henrietta Maria had recently given birth to a daughter. To avoid becoming trapped, the Queen left Exeter for Falmouth then sailed for France the following month. At a conference with the Earl of Warwick at Weymouth, Essex decided to bypass Exeter and march to Plymouth, a Parliamentarian stronghold threatened by the Royalists. With the aid of local Parliamentarian forces, Essex intended to gain control of the west for Parliament, thus cutting off vital supplies of Cornish tin that financed the Royalist war-effort.

Civil War in the south-west 1644
Manoeuvres in the south-west, Summer 1644

Essex's Advance

Essex's progress was slow but by 23 July he had advanced to Tavistock in Devon. According to plan, Sir Richard Grenville abandoned operations around Plymouth and withdrew into Cornwall. The local Parliamentarian magnate Lord Robartes assured Essex that Cornwall was ready to rise up in support of Parliament and encouraged him to march further west. On 26 July, Essex crossed the River Tamar at Horsebridge with 10,000 men and advanced into Cornwall, arriving at Bodmin two days later. The expected Parliamentarian uprising failed to materialise. Then on 2 August, Essex received the terrible news that the King had marched down from Oxford and joined forces with Prince Maurice at Exeter. The combined Royalist army of 15,000 men was just 20 miles away at Launceston and was likely to rendezvous with Grenville's Cornish Tertia. Essex promptly marched south to Lostwithiel, where he took up a defensive position and waited to make contact with the Earl of Warwick and the Parliamentarian fleet.

The King's Advance

The disruption of Sir William Waller's army following the battle of Cropredy Bridge relieved the pressure on the Royalist capital Oxford. In early July 1644, the commanders of the Oxford army held a Council of War at Evesham in Worcestershire to plan their next move. News of Prince Rupert's defeat at Marston Moor was mis-reported at first and it was believed that the Royalists had won a great victory in the north. King Charles was particularly concerned about the situation in the west because the Queen was at Exeter, so it was decided that rather than march north to join Rupert, the Oxford army would pursue the Earl of Essex.

On 12 July, the King's army marched from Evesham and arrived at Exeter on 26 July — the same day that Essex crossed the Tamar and advanced into Cornwall — only to find that the Queen had already fled to France. Prince Maurice's army had garrisoned Exeter after being driven from the siege of Lyme and now joined the pursuit of Essex, bringing the strength of the King's army up to 15,000 men. On 1 August, the King marched into Cornwall, cutting off Essex's escape route. The Royalists arrived at Launceston the following day.

The Battle of Lostwithiel

Leaving a cavalry force to hold Bodmin, the Earl of Essex marched into Lostwithiel on 2 August 1644. Most of the town garrison fled as the Parliamentarians approached. A small band took refuge in the tower of St Bartholomew's Church. The Parliamentarians exploded a barrel of gunpowder at the base of the tower to drive them out, which destroyed part of the church roof. Royalists later alleged that Essex's soldiers held blasphemous mock services in the half-ruined church, christening a horse "Charles" in a ceremony around the font.

The battle of Lostwithiel, 1644
The battle of Lostwithiel

Essex deployed his forces in a defensive arc with strong concentrations at Beacon Hill to the east of Lostwithiel and Restmorel Castle to the north. The Royalist army, commanded by King Charles in person with advice from the Earl of Brentford, moved slowly and deliberately to contain the Parliamentarians and seal off all possible avenues of escape. Inspired by the presence of the King, the Cornish countrymen supported the Royalists with provisions and intelligence, but were unremittingly hostile to the Roundheads. On 6 August, the King called upon Essex to surrender his forces but, after several days negotiation, he refused. On 11 August, Sir Richard Grenville drove Essex's cavalry out of Bodmin and advanced to secure Respryn Bridge, the first crossing of the River Fowey above Lostwithiel, thus establishing direct communication with the King's army. During the next few days, Royalist detachments established strongpoints along the east bank of the Fowey to forestall any attempt to escape across the river. The Earl of Essex made no attempt to disrupt the Royalist deployments. He pinned his hopes upon the Earl of Warwick's fleet arriving to support his army and upon Sir William Waller sending a relief force.

Towards the end of August, the Parliamentarian army was completely cut off by land and contrary winds prevented the fleet from approaching the Fowey estuary. A Parliamentarian relief force of 2,000 cavalry and dragoons commanded by Lieutenant-General John Middleton tried to fight its way through to Cornwall, but was defeated at Bridgwater by Sir Francis Doddington and driven back to Sherborne.

On 21 August, under cover of an early morning mist, the Royalists made a carefully co-ordinated general advance. Sir Richard Grenville stormed the ruins of Restmorel Castle on the western side of the Fowey. Although the castle was semi-derelict, it still provided cover, but Colonel Weare's garrison fled as the Royalists approached. At the same time, Prince Maurice and Lord Brentford attacked Beacon Hill and the neighbouring strongpoint of Druid's Hill from the east. Once again, the Parliamentarians abandoned their positions with only token resistance. Their resolve stiffened after these setbacks, but by nightfall the Royalists had secured the northern and eastern approaches to Lostwithiel. With their troops strung out on a 15-mile front, the King and Lord Brentford were taking no chances. During the next few days, the Royalists continued their methodical containment of the Parliamentarian army. On 26 August, Lieutenant-General George Goring and Major-General Basset occupied St Blazey on the western side of the River Fowey to deny the Roundheads the use of the port of Par in St Austell Bay and to prevent them from foraging in the area.

The Parliamentarian army was now in a desperate situation, trapped in a narrow tract of land five miles long and two miles wide. The Royalist cordon was in danger of becoming over-extended but rather than attempt to take advantage of this, the Earl of Essex decided to abandon Lostwithiel and withdraw to Fowey in the hope that the infantry could be evacuated by sea. There was no possibility of evacuating the cavalry so Sir William Balfour made an attempt to break through the Royalist lines. During the stormy early hours of 31 August, Balfour led the 2,000 Parliamentarian cavalry out of Lostwithiel along the Liskeard road. Although fired upon by Royalist sentries and pursued by the Earl of Cleveland's cavalry, Balfour succeeded in escaping to Plymouth with the loss of around 100 men.

At daybreak, the Parliamentarian infantry began moving out of Lostwithiel. The Royalists immediately occupied the town, drove out Essex's rearguard and set off in pursuit down the Fowey road. Hampered by rain and muddy conditions, the Parliamentarians were forced to abandon much of their baggage and artillery as they struggled towards Fowey. A running battle developed with the Royalists contesting every hedge and field. King Charles was at the forefront of the pursuing Royalists; he knighted Major Edward Brett on horseback for leading a gallant charge against the enemy. In the early evening, the Parliamentarians made a stand on the high ground around Castle Dore, an Iron Age hill fort just north of Fowey. Royalist attacks drove the Parliamentarians back into the fort itself but nightfall prevented any further action.

King Charles spent the night under a hedge amongst his frontline troops in anticipation of the total defeat of the enemy the next day. The Earl of Essex, accompanied by Lord Robartes, commandeered a fishing boat and escaped to Plymouth, abandoning the Parliamentarian infantry and artillery. Major-General Philip Skippon was left in command. He was in favour of the army attempting to fight its way out, but the officers and men were so dejected that Skippon was obliged to surrender on 2 September. The King was anxious to settle the matter before reinforcements could arrive, so granted generous terms. The defeated army was allowed to march away after surrendering all its weapons, artillery and stores, on condition that it should not take up arms until reaching the Parliamentarian garrisons of Portsmouth or Southampton. As the disarmed Roundheads marched out of Lostwithiel in the pouring rain, they were set upon and robbed by local Cornishmen, who claimed to be recovering their own plundered property. Royalist soldiers joined in until King Charles agreed to provide an escort as far as Poole. Many of the exhausted, half-starved soldiers died of exposure and disease on the terrible march from Lostwithiel, while hundreds of others deserted. Little more than 3,000 of Essex's infantry eventually arrived at Southampton.

News of the defeat reached London on 7 September. Parliament did not censure the Earl of Essex but laid the blame for the disaster on Lieutenant-General Middleton for failing to relieve him. When the House of Commons drew up a letter of congratulation to thank Essex for his conduct, only Sir Arthur Hesilrige objected. His loud laughter during the reading of the letter was greatly resented by the House.


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Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies (Staplehurst 1998)

P. Young and W. Emberton, Sieges of the Great Civil War (London 1978)