The South-West, 1642

In July 1642, King Charles commissioned the Marquis of Hertford lieutenant-general of the six south-western counties of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall and sent him into the West with a Commission of Array and instructions to rally support for the Royalist cause. Hertford intended to set up his headquarters at Bristol, but abandoned the plan in view of the strength of Parliamentarian support in the city. Accompanied by three troops of horse and about two hundred foot raised by local Royalists, Hertford advanced to Wells in Somerset from where he issued warrants requiring the local gentry to provide men, arms and supplies for the King's cause. Meanwhile, Parliament appointed William Strode of Barrington deputy-lieutenant in Somerset and instructed him to raise forces under the the authority of the Militia Ordinance.

Marshall's Elm, Somerset, 4 August 1642

Soon after Lord Hertford's arrival at Wells, news reached him of an intended meeting of local Parliamentarian leaders at Shepton Mallet. On 1 August, Hertford sent his second-in-command Sir Ralph Hopton into Shepton Mallet with a troop of horse to proclaim the King's Commission of Array. A street fight broke out when Colonel Strode confronted Hopton and called out the local militia for Parliament. Although Hopton read out the commission, the Parliamentarians forced him to make a hasty withdrawal.

While most of the old county families of Somerset supported the King, a powerful class of minor gentry was predominantly Parliamentarian in sympathy. John Pyne, MP for Poole, recruited a force of six hundred foot and marched to join forces with Colonel Strode. One of the earliest skirmishes of the English Civil War took place at Marshall's Elm on 4 August 1642 when the Royalist Sir John Stawell led a troop of eighty horse to prevent Pyne from reaching Shepton Mallet. Advised by Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Lunsford, Stawell drew up his troops on Walton Hill as the Parliamentarian column approached. Stawell sent dragoons to take up positions in quarry-pits at the foot of the hill in preparation for an ambush. The Parliamentarians faltered when the Royalist dragoons opened fire, then Lunsford led a charge down the hill with the rest of the cavalry. The inexperienced Parliamentarians broke and fled, leaving seven dead and twenty wounded.

Sherborne and Babylon Hill

Campaign map: Somerset 1642
Civil war in the south-west, August-September 1642

On 5 August 1642, Colonel Strode, Sir Alexander Popham, Sir John Horner and other gentry of Somerset gathered all available Parliamentarian forces and advanced to occupy a commanding position in the Mendip Hills above Wells, where the Marquis of Hertford had set up his headquarters. Although the Parliamentarians were poorly-armed, their numbers were daunting. After a tense stand-off, Hertford ordered a withdrawal from Wells through Glastonbury and Somerton to concentrate Royalist forces at Sherborne in Dorset.

While Hertford repaired the defences of Sherborne Castle and made further efforts to recruit his army, Parliament sent the Earl of Bedford to take overall command of its forces in Somerset. By the end of August 1642, Lord Bedford and the Parliamentarians of Somerset, Dorset and Devon, had mustered a force of 7,000 foot, eight troops of horse and four artillery pieces at Wells in preparation for a march on Sherborne. When the Parliamentarian army approached Sherborne on 2 September, the Royalists withdrew into the castle. However, they were surprised to find that the Parliamentarians did not take possession of the town but set up their camp three-quarters of a mile to the north. Sir Ralph Hopton drew off three hundred musketeers to occupy the town while Sir Thomas Lunsford took command of the castle garrison. The Parliamentarian artillery was too far from the town and castle to be effective, and the Royalists mounted several raids to harass and disrupt their camp. On 4 September, the Parliamentarians began to move their artillery closer to Sherborne, but Lunsford set up a battery of small field pieces in the castle. When he opened fire on the new Parliamentarian position, 800 of Bedford's troops are said to have fled in panic. Complaining of desertion, cowardice and refusal to obey orders among his men, Bedford abandoned the siege of Sherborne on 6 September and marched away towards Yeovil.

The day after the the Parliamentarian withdrawal, the Marquis of Hertford sent Sir Ralph Hopton with 100 horse, sixty dragoons and 200 musketeers to reconnoitre the surrounding region. Hopton drew up his troops on Babylon Hill to keep watch over the Parliamentarians guarding the bridge over the River Yeo at the western approach into Yeovil. There was minor skirmishing during the day, but the Parliamentarians seemed reluctant to approach the Royalist position. As evening fell, Hopton prepared to withdraw. The foot were marching away, with the dragoons and horse covering the rear, when the Royalists realised that two troops of Parliamentarian horse had advanced unobserved along hollow lanes to launch a surprise attack from different directions. Hopton and his officers struggled to reform the cavalry to fend off the attack and were almost routed. However, the Royalists managed to retain cohesion and retreated in good order to Sherborne, for the loss of about twenty men.

Faced with a generally hostile population and discouraged by news of the surrender of the Royalist garrison at Portsmouth, the Marquis of Hertford regarded his position in the West as hopeless. He abandoned Sherborne Castle on 20 September 1642 and marched through Somerset to Minehead, intending to cross the Bristol Channel to raise support for the King in south Wales. On arriving at Minehead, however, Hertford found only two transport ships, which was insufficient to convey his whole army. With the Earl of Bedford's forces marching in pursuit, Hertford decided to take his infantry and artillery to Wales, leaving his small force of 160 cavalry and dragoons in England.

Cornwall and Devon, September-December 1642

The Marquis of Hertford sailed from Minehead on 25 September 1642, leaving Sir Ralph Hopton to command the small force of Royalist cavalry left behind. Hopton rode westwards through north Devon into Cornwall, intending to raise the county for the King. He joined forces with the Royalist Sir Bevil Grenville, though most of Cornwall remained uncommitted to either side.

Sir Richard Buller, Sir Alexander Carew and other Parliamentarian leaders in Cornwall gathered at Launceston and attempted to arraign Hopton at Truro Assizes for bringing armed forces into the county. Hopton retaliated by issuing bills of indictment against Buller, Carew and the rest of the Cornish committee for unlawful assembly at Launceston and for causing riots and misdemeanours against the King's subjects. Hopton voluntarily stood trial at Truro where, by meticulous legal argument, he convinced the jury that his cause was lawful. The court issued an order on the sheriff to call out the Cornish militia (posse comitatus) in the King's name, and for all unlawful assemblies to be dispersed. Hopton and the sheriff's posse occupied Launceston on 15 October. Sir Richard Buller and the Parliamentarian committee fled into Devon.

Cornish Royalists secured the fortresses at Pendennis and St Mawes which guarded the approaches to Falmouth, from where Sir Nicholas Slanning organised a fleet of privateers to raid merchant shipping in the Channel in defiance of the Parliamentarian fleet. Realising that the militia was likely to refuse to fight outside Cornwall, Hopton dismissed the posse comitatus and began recruiting a volunteer army of five regiments of foot and 500 horse with the intention of marching against the Parliamentarian stronghold of Plymouth. By November 1642, Hopton's cavalry were raiding across the River Tamar into Devon.

Campaign map Cornwall and Devon 1642
Civil war in Cornwall & Devon, September-December 1642

In early December 1642, Hopton secured the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound by occupying Mount Edgecumbe and Millbrook, but his attempts to blockade Plymouth itself were thwarted by the spirited defence conducted by Colonel William Ruthven, the Parliamentarian military governor. Ruthven commanded a regiment of Scottish mercenaries, which had been raiding rebel-held territory in Ireland. When the mercenaries put into Plymouth early in October, they were hired to defend the city pending the arrival of Lord Robartes with three newly-raised regiments. Ruthven mounted two amphibious raids across Plymouth Sound against the Royalist outpost at Millbrook. Realising that a siege was untenable, Hopton and Edmund Fortescue, the Royalist high sheriff, attempted to call out the posse comitatus of Devon at Modbury on 6 December but they were disappointed to find that the Devon militia showed little enthusiasm for the King's cause. Colonel Ruthven led 500 cavalry from Plymouth in a surprise attack to disperse the gathering. Sheriff Fortescue was taken prisoner; Hopton and his officers narrowly escaped the raid.

At the end of December, Hopton made one more attempt to secure a base in Devon when he approached Exeter and called for its surrender. The Royalists seized Topsham and Powderham to the south of the city in order to prevent supplies or reinforcements being shipped in via the River Exe. However, Colonel Ruthven had reinforced the city with troops from Plymouth and the summons was rejected. Lacking supplies, and with his troops threatening to mutiny, Hopton was unable to sustain a siege or blockade and withdrew towards Cornwall. Colonel Ruthven led a force in pursuit, with the intention of capturing the Royalist artillery. Once back in Cornwall, however, Hopton's troops rallied to him, and the Parliamentarians were halted by a successful rearguard action at Bridestowe.


Sources:

A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1959)

C.E.H. Chadwyck-Healey (ed), Bellum Civile (Somerset Record Society 1902)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. i (London 1888)

Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)

P.R. Newman, Atlas of the English Civil War (London 1985)

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