Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Bovey Heath 9th January 1646

Cavalry in the snow - much as it would have looked on 9th January 1646
The cavalry clash at Bovey Heath in January 1646 continues the series of posts looking at battlefields in Devon, following on from the Battle of Bindon, I visited last month.

Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Bindon

The Westcountry was a busy theatre of operations in the English Civil War with its involvement in the struggle between King Charles I and his Parliament commencing in August 1642 as the war broke out. William Seymour, Marquis of Hertford was appointed a commissioner of array for Somerset, a commission granted to raise troops for the King, and also Lieutenant General of Royalist forces in South Western England and South Wales.

Prince Maurice
The area was fought over between the two forces between 1642-44 which saw the Royalist forces gain control of most of the countryside and the key cities of Bristol and Exeter, but with continued resistance by Parliamentary forces in Plymouth and Lyme, both placed under siege by Prince Maurice.

A Parliamentary relief army was sent to the area in 1644 under the command of the Earl of Essex which managed to break the sieges and relieve the two strongholds but then managed to get itself surrounded and defeated at Lostwithiel in Cornwall, with Essex ignominiously deserting his army and escaping by fishing boat.

General Sir Thomas Fairfax
In June 1645 the war turned dramatically in favour of Parliament with the defeat of Royalist forces at the Battle of Naseby and the Western Royalists could only brace themselves for the advance into the region by Sir Thomas Fairfax at the head of the New Model Army.

Lord Goring's Royalist army were defeated at the Battle of Langport on 10th July 1645, then Fairfax stormed and took Bristol on the 11th September. With a secure rear area to operate from, General Fairfax then began a steady march into the south west as the Prince of Wales, Captain General of the Western Royalist Army fell back to Truro in Cornwall as he desperately struggled to keep his forces in the field and by the end of October 1645 the New Model Army was in winter quarters in Tiverton and Crediton, laying siege to Exeter.

I recently discussed the siege of Exeter by Fairfax's army in the post about the Royal Albert Museum which has some amazing artefacts on show from that period.

The winter of 1645/46 was a particularly hard one with a carpet of snow covering the countryside which is not common in this part of the world. With the winter setting in and Fairfax keen not to leave Exeter as a Royalist stronghold on his line of communication, the two armies settled down to a period of static occupation, as Fairfax decided to starve the city into submission during the winter months leaving an area of no-man's land separating the two opposing sides outposts.

Sir Ralph Hopton
Sir Ralph Hopton, the Royalist army commander, seeing this move decided to put his forces into winter quarters and without the possibility of supplying his army from outside the region, was forced to disperse the troops as they struggled to feed themselves whilst not alienating the local populations of Devon and Cornwall.

The war of the outposts is always an interesting struggle within the context of a larger campaign and as well as forming the picket line and advance warning of a major attack is an opportunity for one side or the other to dominate the neutral ground and to gain an ascendancy over the other through aggressive patrolling.

Thus it was that the little town of Bovey Tracey on the River Bovey, found itself on the front-line of the Royalist outposts opposed to the New Model Army around Exeter. A force of three Royalist cavalry regiments under the command of Lord Thomas Wentworth, occupied the town, seeking to patrol and monitor the area as well as gather in supplies to feed the men.,_5th_Baron_Wentworth

Oliver Cromwell, Lieutenant General of Horse in blackened armour with a lobster tailed helmet under his arm, alongside a Parliamentary General Officer

The opposing cavalry commander was none other than Oliver Cromwell, who had defeated the Royalist cavalry at Naseby and had developed his tactics of having his men ride knee to knee in close formation, three ranks deep, relying on the shock of impact to disrupt and defeat the opposition. This together with tight discipline that didn't allow his men to disperse in pursuit of a defeated enemy but to maintain their close formation ready for further action were key factors in his success.

On the 8th of January 1646 following a particularly heavy fall of snow, Wentworth decided to call off his patrols for a few days and rest his men thinking it was unlikely for the enemy to be patrolling in the difficult conditions. The opposite was the case as Cromwell, deciding that the frozen ground offered much better conditions for patrolling than the mud and slush of previous days, decided to launch a reconnaissance in force from his base in Crediton, just a few miles north west of Exeter towards Royalist positions at Bovey.

Travelling across country it was just after lunchtime that Cromwell, having circled around the north of the town entered via East Street having so far avoided contact with any Royalist pickets. The advance was led in by a vanguard of six troopers who approached cautiously the Old Tudor Manor House that served as an Inn in 1646 (Point 1 on the map above).

Officers of Royalist Horse Regiments
The Manor House was occupied by a group of senior Royalist cavalry officers who having just enjoyed their lunch were settling into a game of cards in the front room when the Parliamentary patrol prepared to enter and search the building. One officer on hearing a noise outside, looked out of the window and was astonished to see the enemy troopers about to enter, and with great presence of mind threw out the pile of coins on their card table into the street, which immediately drew the attention of the enemy as they made good their escape at the back of the house. Sadly for one of their number, the commotion and noise was not enough to disturb his post lunch nap and he awoke to find himself a prisoner.

Left centre, The Old Tudor Manor House and former billet of the Royalist cavalry officers, the first men to spot Cromwell's advance into the town.

The view down East Street still showing the narrowness of approach that presented to Cromwell and his men
With the element of surprise now lost Cromwell led his men at a brisk trot and headed for the Royalist camp on the southern edge of the town on the opposite bank of the River Bovey (Point 3 on the map above).

Will on a very wet rainy December day, next to the window where the Royalist officer threw the money into the street
We followed Cromwell's lead into town, but given the weather, which as you can see was not ideal for battlefield touring decided to stop for a very pleasant lunch in the aptly named Cromwell Arms.

The Cromwell Arms, just visible through the rain drops on the camera lens, with East street and Cromwell's route of entry seen on the right.
The pursuit of the Royalist cavalry pickets led Cromwell to take his men across the bridge over the River Bovey, a small but swift flowing little river coming straight of the tops of nearby Dartmoor.

On the opposite bank the New Model Cavalry drew up in line of battle opposite a scene of frantic action as Lord Wentworth was desperately calling his men to arms to counter the sudden appearance of the enemy.

Cavalry troopers of the period
The Royalist cavalry had constructed an embanked camp with wooden buildings for the men and horses and it is thought that Wentworth had managed to get about half his men armed and in the saddle when Cromwell's troops sounded the advance, eager to take advantage of the enemy's discomfort.

The Royalist cavalry answered the charge of Cromwell's men with a charge of their own hoping to use the advantage of their slightly up-hill position to offset the tighter better prepared formation of their enemy. The crash of the two lines soon developed into a swirling mass of intermixed troopers as the fight ranged across the open heathland. The Parliamentary men soon got the upper hand and the Royalists broke away to the south west, retreating back to Tavistock, just north of Plymouth leaving in their wake 163 of their number as prisoners and more killed in the fighting. The prisoners are recorded to have included four Colonels, three Lieutenant Colonels, five Majors, eleven Captains and along with the 140 soldiers, 150 head of cattle and 300 horses.

Cromwell called off his pursuit before the early winter dusk drew in and quickly reassembled his regiments before withdrawing with his prisoners and booty back through the town leaving via Cromwell's gate on the road towards Crediton. The dead were left on the heath to be buried by the locals and speaking personally has given the area that rather morbid feel made only more pronounced in the very inclement weather we had for the day.

The monument to the battle on Bovey Heath - the weather just kept on getting worse

The view from the monument with the undulations indicating the very rare remains of this English Civil War camp

Cromwell's arch (Point 2 on the map) through which the general led his victorious force back towards Crediton 
The action at Bovey Heath had a demoralising effect on the Royalist forces left contesting the South West and established a superiority of the  Parliamentary force over its enemy that lasted from then until the Royalist surrender by General Hopton at Truro on the 14th March 1646 .

Despite the rotten weather, Will and I really enjoyed our trip around Bovey and seeing the terrain over which the fighting occurred seemed to bring the history of three hundred and seventy years ago much closer.

This little action might make an interesting scenario with say five New Model cavalry regiments at about 300-350 men each up against three equivalent Royalist units and the challenge of getting close to the town and camp without detection, long enough to surprise the garrison and capture all those cattle and horses.

Other Sources consulted in this post
Battlefield Walks Devon - Rupert Mathews


  1. Continued interesting history and battle tours, Jonathan! What is the source of your uniform illustrations? I have seen them before but do not recall from where. If the Roundhead horse had been less focused on money, they could have bagged a few more Cavaliers! Great story.

  2. Thanks Jon, we really suffered for the hobby yesterday in that rain, but the company, lunch and appreciation of the site itself really made up for that. I have passed the site so many times and knew something had happened in the vicinity and it's great to know exactly what happened.

    I love those little human stories that bring the history to life. It was certainly quick thinking to chuck the money.

    The illustrations come from an old book in my collection; a 1983 first edition hard back "The English Civil War 1642-51, An Illustrated Military History" by Philip Haythornthwaite, the pictures were done by Jeffrey Burn, and continue to inspire me to get around to putting an ECW collection together at some time.

    1. Haythornthaite! That's it! No wonder these illustrations looked familiar. That book is sitting on my shelf!