Saturday, 24 October 2020

The Battlefields of Tewkesbury 1471, Ripple Field 1643 and the Iron Age Soppa's Hill Fort

Somerset's Advance at Tewkesbury - Graham Turner
Mr Steve and I managed to get in another battlefield walk before the new set of travel restrictions took effect in recent weeks, with he and I heading out to Gloucestershire to take a look at the pivotal battle of the Wars of the Roses, that at the time must have seemed like the end of all House of Lancaster's aspirations to take back the throne of England when Queen Margaret and her son Prince Edward were defeated by King Edward IV and Prince Edward the Lancastrian heir to the throne together with key principle Lancastrian nobles, slain at Tewkesbury on Saturday 4th May 1471.

Not only that, but we picked up where we left off on our last adventure exploring the English Civil War battlefield of Lansdown Hill (link below), by popping up the road from Tewkesbury to Ripple to see where, prior to Lansdown, Sir William Waller was driven back from the Welsh borders by Prince Maurice, at the Battle of Ripple Field on the 13th April 1643.

We then concluded our day out by calling in at Little Sodbury to take a look at the Iron Age Hill Fort above the village atop the Cotswold Escarpment very close to where Edward IV gathered his army as Queen Margaret arrived at Bristol, where he thought he might block her march on London only for the Lancastrians to make a night march in the vale below from Bristol, heading to Gloucester and their final meeting with the Yorkists at Tewkesbury.

Of course this is not the first time Tewkesbury has been reported here on the blog as Mr Steve attended a guided walk which he posted about back in December 2019 (link below) and so he kindly offered to lead the way based on his previous visit together with our usual habit of referring to other sources on the battle which too date has seen at least five different versions of the battle as illustrated in Steven Goodchild's guide to the battle published by Pen & Sword which I took along for the day.

The sat-photo map below is based on the English Heritage version of the battle and troop positions produced in 1994 and I have marked some of the key features together with numbered position points to show where the various pictures were taken on the day; as this battlefield, now being partly built over in the following five-hundred and fifty years, can be tricky to follow at ground level and hopefully it will help in understanding what you are looking at in the pictures from the day which was gloriously sunny and warm for September.

The battle positions based on English Heritage with the Lancastrians (blue) lining the hedgerows in the area known as the Gastons, with their flanks protected by the Southwick Brook (highlighted in blue) on their right and the Swilgate on their left. However with the Rivers Avon and Severn to their rear, a hasty retreat, should their line be broken would likely prove problematic, possibly disastrous!

When walking a battlefield for the first time, I like to read the sources and get a picture in my own mind as to what was going on before, during and after the battle to cause the various commanders to put their forces where they are reported to have done in response to those situations.

Once that picture is clear, or as clear as the sources allow, I am then keen to see the ground to work out what most likely was there at the time that would have influenced those decisions and likely had the most impact on the ground for the poor bloody infantry.

The map illustrating the places we visited on our day out together with the approximate routes of march that brought the Lancastrian and Yorkist armies to Tewkesbury in 1471. Edward's Yorkist army was able to shadow the Lancastrian's as they marched along the Severn Valley from Bristol looking to cross into Wales, but getting caught at Tewkesbury with the river at their backs.

When summarising the Tewkesbury campaign and subsequent battle, we find Margaret and Somerset's Lancastrians marching up through the West Country, gathering supporters, from Weymouth where the Queen's army landed on the 14th April 1471, Easter Sunday, the same day that King Edward IV was hard at work destroying her ally, the Earl Of Warwick's army at Barnet, north of London.

Needing to gather yet further supporters in the light of events before confronting Edward en-route to London, the Lancastrians now head for Wales and the hoped for support of the Tudor's, only to have Edward rapidly refit and rearm his army and march from London towards Bristol in an effort to catch them in the process.

The Lancastrians end up making a difficult march up the Severn valley from Bristol via Gloucester to Tewkesbury hoping to cross into Wales, only to find Edward's host shadowing their march from the easier marching ground of the Cotswold escarpment, descending to rob the Lancastrians of their artillery gathered in Bristol and Gloucester and able to pursue at a more leisurely pace to close on them at Tewkesbury before they are able to get their army across the river and thus force them to turn and face with it at their backs.

Thus with little option but to turn and fight, Somerset was forced to make the best use of the ground they were on which, close to the Rivers Severn and Avon, is obviously flat and low lying intercut with deep muddy banked brooks and criss-crossed with hedgerows, allowing for the defensive position adopted, but with little or no artillery, and facing an army using their own and the guns captured on the march, he was posed a significant problem in how to defend in the terrain whilst under bombardment with no significant means or reply whilst being inevitably 'softened up'. 

It would appear that even today the ground is very similar to that described in 'History of the Arrivall of King Edward IV' purported to have been written by an eyewitness to the battle referring to himself as 'Anonymous';

'Before them and on every hand foul lanes and deep dykes and many hedges with hills and valleys: a right evil place to approach, as could have been devised.'

Of course with a battle this far back in history, the sources are not often that precise with the detail we would like and thus educated guesswork comes in. So first off, where were the armies when they lined up? And what happened to cause the report of Somerset coming out out of his ensconced field to attack Gloucester's and King Edward's flank, only to be driven off by a Yorkist ambuscade party of possibly mounted light horse with spears placed overnight in the Deer Park on the Yorkist left flank? 

With those key questions, we set off to see the ground and make the first decision as to which map and version of this battle we would work with, which was the relatively latest interpretation from English Heritage and informs the satellite image map above.

Position 1 - Gupshill Manor

Steve and I started our expedition at one of the contemporary buildings from the time of the battle and right at the centre point between the two lines, Gupshill Manor, which today is a pub-restaurant and is the remains of what was a much larger complex of buildings partially destroyed by fire.

Close by, across the road, is an earthwork known as Queen Margaret's Camp and thought to be the remains of a medieval moated house 'probably', and I'm likely to be using that word or something similar a lot, demolished long before the battle.
Gupshill Manor is one of the several candidates for where Queen Margaret lodged before the battle

This area of the battlefield was likely 'no-mans land' at dawn on the the 4th May 1471 and likely area of bloody contest as the two lines closed before Wenlock's and Prince Edward's Lancastrians turned tail and fled back towards the town hoping to put the River Avon between them and King Edward's pursuing troops.

It would seem little in the way of archaeological finds have been recovered over the years from Tewkesbury and so unlike another recently uncertain battle site of the period, Bosworth for example, which has given up its secrets in artillery shot and other finds that have caused us to totally reposition and reconceive that particular battle, Tewkesbury remains one of educated conjecture.

The remains of the moated position of Queen Margaret's Camp are easily identified

The view from Queen Margaret's Camp with Gupshill Manor peaking above the hedges and with the fields occupied by Somerset's Battle behind it backed by the hills of Wales.

Position 2 - St Mary's Abbey

Looking to park our cars and walk the rest of the field we drove into town and specifically St Mary's or Tewkesbury Abbey the last resting place of some of the key notables to become victims of the fighting and, in its aftermath, witnessed the bloody retribution taken out on the vanquished by vengeful and pragmatic victors.

The abbey survived King Henry VIII's reformation thanks to the burghers of Tewkesbury delving into their deep pockets and buying it from the King in 1543 and likely saving it and its nearby lands, once those had been purchased from the crown by the town in 1609 from King James I and the nearby Vineyards later acquired by the town authorities in 1929, thus ensuring its survival into modern times and providing a time capsule of a building, its interior and exterior grounds, recalling those bloody times over five hundred years ago.

Sadly key parts of it such as the sacristy door were off limits to the public at the time of our visit due to the current pandemic restrictions and so key memorials and parts of the building specific to the battle were not on view, but hopefully the selection of pictures captures the feeling of this important building and its role in the battle.

Dr John Warkworth in 'The Warkworth's Cronicles' of 1479 describes the Abbey rapidly filled with fleeing Lancastrian soldiers, among them the Duke of Somerset, hoping to escape being cut down in the general rout by entering the holy building in search of sanctuary, and the arrival of King Edward at the head of his troops, sword in hand, to be met by a priest, with the sacrament in his hands having been  interrupted in the offering of the Mass, and describing how the priest met the king and;

'required him by the virtue of the sacrament, that he should pardon all those whose names here follow: the Duke of Somerset, the Lord of Saint John’s, Sir Humphrey Audeley, Sir Gervais of Clifton, Sir William Gremyby, Sir William Cary, Sir Thomas Tresham, Sir William Newburgh, knights; Harry Tresham, Walter Courtenay, John Florey, Lewis Myles, Robert Jackson, James Gower, James Delvis, son and heir to Sir John Delvis; which, upon trust of the King’s pardon, given in the same church, the Saturday, abode there still, when they might have gone, and saved their lives.'

Taking the king at his word the refugees stayed put and made no efforts to escape, but events, just two days later when the prisoners were led away from the building were to prove that Edward would not take the risk of sparing certain nobles who were life-long sworn enemies of him and his house and very likely to cause trouble in the future.

The south-east corner of the Abbey would have been that facing the two lines of battle, seen here with the River Swilgate to its front on a glorious September morning.

Tewkesbury didn't have or need a wall relying on the River Swilgate as a ready defence, seen here flowing around the grounds of the abbey with just the Holm Bridge, thought likely to have been a drawbridge to provide further security.

Position 3 - The Vineyards & Holme Castle

Heading south, away from the abbey, we made our way towards the battle lines on a very slight ridge known as the Gastons via one of the presumed locations for the stone built 13th-c Holme Castle, or at least so recorded on the battlefield monument.

Undulations in the ground and a slight motte like mound on which the monument stands had Steve and I going for this location, but who knows?

From the Vineyards and the monument we then worked our way along several town streets with several houses bedecked with the colours of one of the nobles or knights that fought in the battle, which is great to see Tewkesbury remembering its history and many thanks to the Tewkesbury Battlefield Society for supplying and maintaining the banners seen around the town .

Sir Humphrey Touchet's banner. Sadly for this Lancastrian knight, Tewkesbury would not end well.

Position 4 - Somerset's Position

On reaching the end of one of the outlying streets, Steve and I entered open fields, perhaps the least untouched by building development over the years and thus preserving a key area occupied by the Dukes of Somerset and Gloucester out on the flanks of their respective armies.

King Edward leads his men through the hedgerow as they close on Somerset's men behind it. His brother Richard Duke of Gloucester's banner can be seen advancing further along the line in the background - Graham Turner

It was along the hedgerows in these fields with the Southwick Brook running along the western most hedges bordering Lincoln Green Lane that Somerset's men would have taken their positions and from where they are reported to have launched their counterattack, working their way around the hedges and a very low lying hill to cross the front of Gloucester's battle and launch an attack on the gap between it and King Edward's

The manoeuvre, likely prompted by the barrage of arrows and artillery shot coming from the Yorkist line was repulsed and counter-attacked itself by the Yorkist mounted spearmen in the Deer Park beyond Lincoln Green Lane followed up by the Yorkist line advancing to the attack and driving the Lancastrians back from their positions before they broke and fled towards the River Severn and Tewkesbury town.

The hedgerows occupied by Somerset's men have been date tested to show that they are old enough to have been here during the battle

The Southwick Brook is still a formidable obstacle today, especially to heavily clad or armoured men on foot trying to get across it whilst having someone similarly clad trying to stop you with a sharp or pointed implement.

From the fields and hedgerows occupied by Somerset's men, Gupshill Manor can still be seen peeking through the bushes and trees.

Position 5 - Lincoln Green Lane

From Somerset's position there is a battlefield trail leading the walker out across Southwick Brook  towards Lincoln Green Lane along which Somerset's attacking group may have advanced to attack King Edward's line and in which they may have been counterattacked by the Yorkist mounted troops. 

Finally the lane was likely a main escape route back to the ferry point on the River Severn to the west of the town as Lancastrian troops tried to escape being cut down as their position collapsed.

Looking north along the lane leading behind the Lancastrian position and back towards the River Severn

Looking south along the lane towards the Yorkist line and its flank

The view over the hedge of Lincoln Green Lane and the trees beyond on what was the Deer Park from which the Yorkist mounted spearmen made their attack

The Arrivall describes King Edward's plan for the placement of his 'plump' of two-hundred, likely mounted spearmen in a wood overlooking Lincoln Green Lane in the Deer Park;

'he considered that upon the right hand of their field there was a park, and therein much wood, and he, thinking to purvey a remedy in case his said enemies had laid any ‘bushment [ambush] in that wood of horsemen, he chose out of his fellowship two hundred spears, and set them in a plump, together, near a quarter of a mile from the field, giving them charge to have a good eye upon that corner of the wood, if case that any need were, [and] to put them in devoir [service] and, if they saw none such, as they thought most behoveful for time and space, to employ themselves in the best wise as they could.'

Making our way north along Lincoln Green Lane we came to a junction with the field seen above leading down to the River Severn from the original position occupied by Somerset's battle; and on the opposite side of the road the one seen below. You have to imagine both these fields clogged with panic stricken Lancastrian soldiers running for their lives with the Yorkists in hot pursuit as the battle reached its dramatic conclusion. 

Position 6 - The Bloody Meadow

If you visit battlefields in the UK, and probably elsewhere, you will find many of them have a 'Bloody Meadow' or similarly ghoulishly named feature over which the vanquished of one army were bloodily slaughtered by the victors of another, often found at a particular choke point where numerous fugitives were trapped and forced to die in heaps due to the unmerciful nature of battle enraged soldiers.

This narrow field, still to this day bordered by thick undergrowth and trees, leads down to one of the main escape routes, the ferry crossing on the River Severn, which was just one of those choke points causing the men at the back of the crowd trying to get away along this route to be stopped in their flight and cut down en-mass by the pursers.

Position 7 - Holm Hill

From the morbidly named Bloody Meadow, we walked along the road into the town that crosses the River Swilgate at Holm Bridge to arrive at an open piece of ground just before it called Holme Hill and the second possible location described for Holme Castle and an observation position for Queen Margaret during the battle.

By the time we had walked to Home Hill, it was past midday and so we decided to take full advantage of the weather and enjoy our open air lunch amusing ourselves with the rendition of the battle offered up by Lieutenant Colonel Blythe in 1950 suggesting this position being the right flank of the Lancastrian line held by Wenlock's battle defending in the ruins of Holme Castle and used to anchor the Lancastrian position. 

Of course if HBO or some other likely organisation decide to make a TV depiction of the battle, that has got to be one of the principle scenes, with Queen Margaret on a battered battlement raining arrows on the Yorkists, perhaps with Sir Peter Jackson directing, as Yorkists in black armour attempt to scale the position!!

As you might imagine we weren't buying Colonel Blythe's account and it seems the stonework unearthed in the area has now been surmised as being possible outbuildings of the nearby abbey.

Looking out from Holm Hill towards the battle lines. A suggested rearward position occupied by Queen Margaret during the battle

The River Swilgate seen here from the bridge into town meanders its way up from the Severn to wind its way to the south of the Abbey seen in the pictures above

Position 8 - Town Centre and the River Avon

Following the road into town from Holm Bridge presents an opportunity of seeing more of medieval Tewkesbury with its timber framed houses along by the mill on the Avon where many of Wenlock's and Devon's soldiers would have been killed trying to escape; to the amazing abbey cottages lining church street, occupied during the battle and the Tewkesbury Cross, the site of the market house, where senior Lancastrians were tried before being marched to the scaffold in Church Street.

Classic timber framed houses at the back of town on streets which would have been chocked with Lancastrians trying to get across the river

The Abbey Cottages in Church Street close to where the Lancastrian nobles would have been executed

The Duke of Somerset meets his end on the block at Tewkesbury as illustrated in The Arrivall

Tewkesbury Cross the site of the market house at which the captured Lancastrians were tried for treason on the 6th May 1471, before Richard Duke of Gloucester and Constable and Marshall of England

Straight out of the 15th century and still indicating where to get a new string for your longbow

Position 9 - The Ferry Point (Fugitives Crossing) 

Finally before departing the town over the River Severn to head out to Ripple, we walked down to another picturesque site with a rather morbid history, the old ferry crossing, looking delightful in the September sunshine with a pub beckoning from across the water, but another likely scene of carnage in 1471 as the fugitives from Bloody Meadow desperately sought for a way across

The last hope of escaping a bloody day, with sanctuary so close and yet so far for many a Lancastrian

Ripple Field 

Recovering our cars parked up by the abbey and rapidly lowering windows to let out the heat of the day that had built up whilst we had been walking, we set course three miles north of Tewkesbury and the little village of Ripple.

This time our journey was taking us back to the spring of 1643 that saw the English Civil War in the West Country and along the Welsh borders move up a notch in intensity as General Sir William Waller, newly appointed commander of the Parliamentary Western Association, following his successful campaigning in southern England and the capture of Portsmouth moved west looking to sever the King's communication with south Wales and the south west of England from his new capital, Oxford and these important potential sources of Royalist recruits.

Leaving a trail of devastated village churches in the wake of his Puritan army and making night marches to avoid the attention of Prince Rupert's cavalry, Waller occupied Bristol in mid-March 1643.

Avoiding Rupert yet again who occupied Cirencester, Waller advanced on Gloucester to join up with the garrison under Colonel Massey, driving off the nearby Royalists at Highnam on the River Severn just below Tewkesbury on the 24th March capturing 1,500 Royalist infantry in the process, advancing still further in April to plunder Monmouth and Chepstow in the wake of the Royalist retreat.

The response from the King in Oxford was rapid and Prince Maurice was dispatched to the area with 2,000 men but Waller was fortunate and skilful enough to evade back across the Severn and by the 11th April was back in Gloucester having suffered little loss.

The next day Colonel Massie marched from Gloucester and captured Tewkesbury, destroying a Royalist pontoon bridge close by forcing Maurice up river to Upton if he were to cross it and descend on Gloucester.

A recent review of the English Civil War Atlas revealed this gem of a page. I wish we had had it on the day!

With Waller joining Massey later that day, the plan was to move on the bridge at Upton to prevent Maurice from crossing and enabling Waller to press his advance north to Worcester, but when Maurice discovered his pontoon bridge destroyed, he was already on the march to Upton ahead of Waller and, getting across the Severn, the two armies met at Ripple on the 13th April, three and a half miles north of Tewkesbury.

Both armies numbered about 2,000 men but with Waller's force composed nearly all of cavalry which he deployed on Old Nan's Hill (Ordnance Hill) able to observe the army of Maurice deployed below in three divisions. 

Waller launched his cavalry in a charge that was repulsed by the Royalists, convincing Waller that discretion was the better part of valour, especially with a single narrow lane behind, his only escape route back to Tewksbury, should things go wrong he decided to withdraw under the cover of his artillery, dragoons and a few musketeers deployed on the ridge as cover.

Maurice, unsure of what his enemy was up to advanced cautiously with flanking columns sent along the lanes, but it soon became obvious that Waller was withdrawing and a Royalist cavalry attack over the ridge and a follow-up flank attack from one of the flanking columns turned a retreat into a rout, with the Parliamentarians now struggling to get clear of the village with its narrow hedge lined lanes.

The car-park layby opposite Ripple Village Hall makes a perfect place to pull in to walk to the battlefield, with the lane being one of the two advanced along by Maurice's flank columns 

A panoramic shot of Ripple field with Old Nan's Hill to the left and the Royalist start position at the far right hedge line of the ploughed field

Wallers cavalry would have occupied the hill ready to charge down into the field below

In an attempt to stem the Royalist pursuit, Waller threw in Sir Arthur Haselrig's Lobsters, heavily armoured cavalry, that brought a temporary respite, but not enough to prevent his army from being pursued almost to the walls of Tewkesbury until a relief force sent out from the town was able to drive off the Royalist cavalry and bring the remains of Waller's force into the town.

Superior Royalist cavalry had won the day yet again, with Prince Maurice drawing off to Evesham and later returning to Oxford.

Waller would recover his forces and capture Hereford on the 25th April to then persist in his attempts to advance on Worcester in June which was unsuccessful, by which time he would be forced to head back to the West Country to counter the advance of the Royalist army of Sir Ralph Hopton as it made its way into Somerset.

A view from the top of the hill looking towards the Royalist start line at the far end of the ploughed field.

Ripple Field seems little changed from 1643 save a few telegraph poles and one can stand atop Old Nan's Hill as we did, easily imagining Haselrig's Lobsters launching themselves down towards the Royalist lines at the far end of the lower field.

From the top of the hill looking back into modern day Ripple with later buildings in the village seen below

Further into the village on the lane from the village hall, the buildings are readily recognisable as being of the period and before the battle, and would have seen Royalist and Parliamentary cavalry come and go.

Soppa's Hill Fort - Little Sodbury

With the afternoon drawing in, but still with plenty of sunshine left, we headed off back down the motorway towards Bristol, heading for Little Sodbury above the M4 and atop the Cotswold escarpment on which King Edward IV drew up his army from its long march from London looking to intercept Queen Margaret, who he anticipated would head straight for the capital following her entry into Bristol.

One of the likely sites suggested as a potential camp and muster area for Edward is the Iron Age hill fort above the village of Little Sodbury known as Soppa's Hill Fort, a seemingly perfectly defensible set of earthworks and ditch enclosing ground offering excellent views towards Bristol and into the vale of the River Severn.

King Edward is described in the sources as marching on Sodbury Hill, which given that the name is not in use today is not easy to pin down.

The Arrivall states;

'The King, the same Thursday, soon after noon, came near to the same ground, called Sodbury Hill, and, not having any certainty of his enemies, sent his scowrers all about in the country, trusting by them to have news where they had been. About that place was a great and fair large plain, called a wold, and doubtful it was to pass further, until he might hear something of them, supposing they were right near, as so they might well have been, if they had kept forth the way they took out of Bristol.

Our first view of the outer rampart of Soppa's Hill Fort as we left the tree line of Little Sodbury Wood

And when he could not hear any certainty of them, he advanced his whole battle, and lodged his vanward beyond the hill, in a valley toward the town of Sodbury, and lodged himself with the remnant of his host, at the same hill called Sodbury Hill.

Early in the morning, soon after three of the clock, the King had certain tidings that they had taken their way by Berkeley toward Gloucester, as so they took indeed.'

As well as its interest as a possible site for Edward's camp on the march to Tewksbury, Soppa's fort has a long history of its own, perhaps just as important a landmark for its role as a camp site for the Saxon Army that would defeat the Britons at the Battle of Dyrham (Deorham) in 577 AD, which would drive the Romano Britons down further into the southwest in the face of the relentless Saxon advance.

Even today the ramparts look formidable at ground level

This amazingly preserved ancient hill fort made a perfect way to end our day and we still had one reward left on the way down with a glorious view out over the River Severn Valley between Bristol and Gloucester.

A fantastic view from the Cotswold Escarpment into the Vale of the River Severn as we made our way down from Soppa's Hill Fort. An amazing way to end a great day walking, talking and enjoying exploring the history of an ancient landscape 

Thanks to Mr Steve for his company on another fun day exploring British history in the landscape and just in time before things got crazy again with a small minority of people insisting on behaving in a way that seems determined to pass on a virus likely to cause yet more unnecessary deaths before the year is out and now requiring large parts of the country to lock down, yet again, preventing traveling and association.

Oh well at least we have days like these to console ourselves with until better times arrive, and I hope everyone keeps safe and sound in the mean time.

Sources referred to in this post:
Tewkesbury, Eclipse of the Hose of Lancaster - Steven Goodchild (Pen & Sword)
Tewkesbury 1471, The Last Yorkist Victory - Christopher Gravett & Graham Turner (Osprey Campaign)
The English Civil War Atlas - Nick Lipscombe (Osprey)

Next up: The French Third Rates of Renown are joined by the 80-gun Tonnant class Formidable, another book review and more adventures in Vassal Land with a third game of Mr Madison's War.


  1. A(nother) couple of brilliant battlefield tours Jonathan. My you take excellent photos!
    Regards, James

    1. Thanks for your comment James, that's really much appreciated and I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

      Kind regards

  2. An excellent tour of the battlefields. It is great to see the ground in ypur photos when you aren't able to visit in person.

    1. Hi Jason and thank you.

      I always aim to write these posts with that person in mind, assuming nothing in terms of knowledge about the battle and aiming to make sure, as much as possible, the reader can see what they are looking at in each and every picture, and its context.

      So it is really great to get comments from other folks who enjoy that approach and I hope they will feel inclined to visit these places for themselves should the opportunity present.