Sunday, 4 December 2016

Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Torrington 1646

Very fine illustration of a cavalry trooper of the period armed with a wheel-lock pistol, one
of the five illustrations I bought in Torrington by Chris Collingwood 
It was back in December 2015 that Will and I spent a very rainy, wet afternoon exploring Bovey Tracey and Bovey Heath as we retraced the actions of Oliver Cromwell during the fighting that happened their in January 1646; as the New Model Army lay siege to Royalist controlled Exeter and the two forces skirmished with each other in the Devon winter countryside.

There is a link to that post along with the others in the series below the map of Devon showing the battles covered so far and the subject of this post, the Battle of Torrington, February 16th, 1646.

In the post about the Battle of Bovey Heath, I covered the background to the English Civil War in Devon up to the battle, and the Battle of Torrington occurred soon after in the February as part of the same campaign so if you want to understand the situation leading up to this battle, then I would suggest reading the Bovey Heath post first.

Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Bindon
Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Bovey Heath
Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Lydford
Battlefields in Devon - Battle of Sourton Down

This time my companion back to the English Civil War was Will's elder brother Tom, and the weather we enjoyed on the day was much better than the previous year. That said it was great to be able to picture the area at a similar time of year to when the battle happened three-hundred and seventy years ago.

The journey up from Exmouth took just over an hour and after parking the car in the town centre car park we decided to partake of a tea and mid-morning cake in the themed 1646 cafe close by, before setting off on our four and half mile walk around the town exploring where the fighting happened.

While enjoying our pre-walk refreshments I noticed some great illustrations of Civil War soldiers by Chris Collingwood done in the early 90's together with a hard back copy of "The Cromwellian Gazeteer" by Peter Gaunt which is an illustrated guide to Britain in the Civil War and Commonwealth. So five cards and a book for just over £12.00, what a nice start to the day.

The illustrations I bought accompany this post to help capture the look of the combatants on that winters day in 1646.

So following the cavalry clash at Bovey Heath in January, both armies settled back into winter quarters with Sir Thomas Fairfax concentrating on strangling Exeter of any succour from the Royalists in Devon, confident that starvation would force the city to surrender.

Sir Ralph Hopton, General commanding Royalist forces in Devon in 1646
Meanwhile the commander of Royalist forces in the Westcountry, the fifteen year old Prince Charles, together with the real commander, the wiley experienced Lord Ralph Hopton who had led the Royalists in the Westcountry from the start of the war, were focused on raising as many men as they could from the local Royalist sympathisers to prepare for the next stage of the struggle.

Hopton's army had been denuded of veteran soldiers sent north to bolster the King's main army. These men had been lost as the war had turned in favour of Parliament and now outnumbered he was forced to gather in the inexperienced local volunteers to form around the core of veterans he still had with him.

Prince Charles c1642-43 by William Dobson aged 12-13. Nominally in command of the Royalist Army,
the boy was just 15 when he escaped capture at Torrington in 1646
At the end of January, Hopton at Launceston in Cornwall had successfully raised an army of about 7,000 men of whom about half were cavalry. Enthusiastic for the cause but very under-trained and poorly equipped, they were, despite their numbers, a poor match for the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell.

Sir Thomas Fairfax commanding the New Model Army
Thus Hopton decided on a strategy of discretion over valour, that would buy him time to improve the training and abilities of his force whilst avoiding any serious fighting and perhaps outmanoeuvring his Parliamentary foes at the same time.

He thus opted for a plan to cross the River Tamar from Cornwall into Devon, heading for Barnstaple where he would collect supplies and ammunition.

He would then develop the march into a move around the southern edge of Exmoor to threaten the New Model's rear area, before falling rapidly back to Launceston in response to the New Model likely moving to protect their supply line, thus drawing them away from Exeter and relieving the city.

On the face of it the plan looked like a good one providing his army was mobile enough to avoid interception and pursuit and thus any serious fighting.

However the New Model Army and particularly the cavalry under Cromwell were going to be difficult to outmanoeuvre without being detected at the best of times and Hopton's plan began to unravel on arriving in Torrington on the 9th of February, to discover that Fairfax was already on the march to intercept him rather than moving north east to protect his supply line.

The hunter was now the hunted and it was Hopton who risked being cut off from Cornwall if he advanced any further, thus either forcing him into ignominious retreat before his campaign had really started or a defiant stand in the steep hill top town of Torrington with it medieval walls and to try and cause as much damage to Fairfax's army as possible using favourable terrain.

Choosing to make a stand, Hopton set his men at strengthening the old Parliamentary works left when they had controlled the town in 1642 and building barricades with fire-steps at each and every entrance. The church was commandeered as a supply depot and makeshift prison for captured Parliamentary troops and with houses near the barricades used to billet the troops guarding them, Lord Hopton and Prince Charles took up residence in the Black Horse Inn in the High Street.

Whilst Hopton was busy fortifying Torrington the New Model Army was on the march from Exeter enduring heavy rains that quickly turned the high hedged narrow Devon roads into a quagmire that must have made the march an even worse slog without warmth or shelter.

Both armies were lacking artillery, Hopton because he didn't have any to bring, Fairfax because he realised the terrain prohibited the moving of guns easily and the high banked stone built hedgerows characteristic of Devon minimised the effect of artillery by providing ample cover from such fire to defending troops.

Thus both armies were composed of cavalry and infantry with about half of Hopton's 7,000 men being composed of each type and the 10,000 men of the New Model Army having 2,000 cavalry and about 1,000 dragoons or mounted infantry.

Map illustrating the move to contact on the 6th February 1646 between the two armies
The two armies made first contact, with the rain finally having stopped, at about 2pm on a sunny 16th February near the hamlet of Whitsley Barton on the road to Torrington when opposing cavalry met at the fast flowing stream in the valley below.

The Royalist cavalry fell back about a mile on its supports to halt the Parliamentary advance at Allin's Week on the outskirts of Torrington.

At about 4pm the main Parliamentarian Army came up pushing the Royalist line back towards the town and swinging west towards Hatch Moor and the flatter ground above the steep ravine of the River Torridge that runs to the south west of the town. The advance then came to a halt as Fairfax and his commanders surveyed the Royalist defensive positions in front of the eastern side of the town with infantry lining the thick banked hedgerows that barred their approach to the old medieval wall beyond.

Thus our tour around the battle begins from the focal point, visible to the New Model Army as they prepared to attack the Royalist defensive lines, namely St Micheal and All Angels Church.

Point 1 - St Micheal & All Angels Church 

The church in Torrington makes an excellent point of reference when walking this battle as its new spire acts as a perfect easily seen landmark. It is a replacement for the damage caused to the original  by the explosion that occurred during the battle as Royalist ammunition supplies caught light, practically destroying the building and doing enormous damage to the other town dwellings nearby.

It served as our start and finish point and the repair work carried out after the battle is easily observed in the walls where the newer stone can be seen distinctly from the lower original stonework

Note the lighter stone work directly under the roof showing the post battle repair work 

The Church served as a makeshift prison for captured Parliamentary soldiers and as an ammunition and supplies store.
From the church we set off down New Street and Calf Street, which forms the busy main A386 road through the town from Barnstaple to Bideford. By heading east we were moving out of the town towards the area protected by the medieval wall, its barricades and the forward defence lines occupied by the Royalists on the late afternoon of the 16th February.

Point 2 - Calf Street, Hatchmoor Road - Royalist Front-line

With the light fading as the winter afternoon drew to a close Fairfax was unsure whether to press an attack on an unknown force occupying prepared defences protected by thick hedgerow lined infantry positions. Most of his commanders advised waiting until next morning which was the plan about to be adopted until Cromwell joined the meeting fresh from his reconnaissance of the Royalist positions.

Noticing the raw recruits among the Royalist troops and suspecting Hopton's plan to withdraw under the cover of darkness he forcibly advised an immediate attack which with his colleagues falling silent became the order issued to the troops and the attack began at 6pm.

The Parliamentary line was drawn up some 500 yards from the Royalist positions across the fields straddling Hatchmoor Road. The first attack came from fifty Parliamentary dragoons attempting to move unobserved on to the flank of the Royalist lines, only to be rapidly repulsed as the Royalists reacted quickly to the move and drove them off with devastating volley fire.

Thus with all attempts at finesse being abandoned, the New Model Army advanced along the line initiating fierce fighting as the infantry battled for control of each hedge-line; with Parliamentary numbers gradually forcing the issue in their favour and the Royalist grudgingly giving ground as they fell back in the evening gloom towards the town walls.

The view along Calf Street looking west towards the church as we walk towards the town outskirts
The town proudly presents its history with pertinent reminders of great events three hundred and seventy years ago
The picture below is taken from Point 2 on the battle map plan and is about the centre of the Royalist line looking towards the north high ground from where the New Model dragoons attempted their flank attack.

The thick hedgerows are easily apparent in the open country bordering the town and today as then would present a formidable obstacle to attacking infantry advancing over the fields.

View from Point 2 looking towards the New Model lines 500 yards further on
A 'Roundhead Officer' recorded after the battle that he and his men had fought their way over thirteen hedges during this phase of the battle.

View from Point 2 looking south east with the ground dropping sharply way right of picture towards the river valley 
From the hedgerow lines we walked back along the road into town following the route of the fighting as two armies coalesced around the barricades blocking entry into the town via the medieval wall.

Point 3 - East Street - Royalist Barricades

The old town wall is no longer standing but originally followed the line of East Street that links the two blue crosses on the map above showing the positions of the barricades through it.

With the two armies now locked in deadly struggle the Royalists fell back in good order clambering over the wall and barricades using ladders and pulling them up behind them.

It was 8pm as the fighting developed on the wall and the Royalist musketeers fired their volleys at 40 yards into the ranks of the attackers, leaping down from the fire step to reload being replaced by pikemen using their 16 foot long pikes and much shorter swords to carry on fending off the attackers while they did.

Point 3 and the view north along East Street. The house at the end of the road is where one barricade was set up and the medieval wall followed the road on the right of picture.

At the southern end of East Street with the medieval wall on the left of picture and the junction with Well Street, right of picture
The main focus of the Parliamentary attack was aimed at the Well Street barricade and it was here that a breach was finally made in the defence line when a section of it collapsed and the Royalist defenders were quickly overcome.

The New Model troops quickly reformed on the other side and began a steady advance along Well Street with pikes to the fore. General Hopton was close by when the breach was made and both he and his second in command, Major Webb, had their horses hit by enemy musketry, with Webb's horse being killed on the spot and both officers forced to flee back into town as the defenders gave way.

Looking east along Well Street towards the town centre. The second barricade blocked the street about in between the light blue care (left) and the white care on road (right)
From the site of the barricade in Well Street, Tom and I followed Hopton's retreat route along it as he made his way back to his headquarters in the Black Horse.

Point 4 - Royalist Rout to the Black Horse

Again as we made our way to Point 4 at the Black Horse Inn the references to past events were well signed.

I doubt if Hopton and Webb had time for a quick half when he passed 'The Cavalier'!
On entering the town square in Torrington, the eye is immediately attracted to the old pub in one corner of it, particularly if it is lunch time and you have been wondering about outside for a couple of hours.

Purely in the interests of historical research we decided to check out the snug and refreshments as we surveyed a very important site in the tale of the Battle of Torrington.

The beautiful old 'Black Horse' pub dating back to 1681 and Hopton's HQ during the battle.
When Hopton reached the Black Horse Inn his horse reared up and died on the cobbles outside having finally succumbed to the bullet wound received in the head at the fall of the Well Street barricade.

Quickly leaving on a new horse acquired from its stables he left to rally the Royalist troops now starting to fall back in disorder through the streets with the New Model troops in pursuit.

As the Royalist defence began to collapse, the Parliamentary troops broke through to the High Street at Point 4 and the Black Horse was thoroughly ransacked by them, although they did hand over to Cromwell, Lord Hopton's pay-chest which was quickly put under guard.

The doors which both sides troops entered and left, I would imagine because
of the haste, both Prince Charles and Lord Hopton's bills were left unpaid
May be different brands available but the snug probably hasn't changed much since 1646.
With his army falling into disarray in the night time battle for the town, Tom and I followed Hopton's route to Point 5 on the map below as the Royalist general sought out his cavalry reserve on the western side of town under Sir John Digby.

Point 5 - Hopton sends in Digby's Cavalry Reserve

It was here at the junction of Warren Lane and New Street that Hopton issued orders for Digby to manage a rearguard with his cavalry conducting charges on the pursuing Parliamentarian troops to take the pressure off his own men now desperately trying to get clear of the town under cover of darkness

It was whilst in discussion with Digby that the night was split asunder by a massive explosion in the church as the Royalist powder reserves ignited raining the town in burning debris and molten lead and taking off roofs and blowing in windows.

The Royalist cavalry were able to take advantage of the stunning affect on the attackers the explosion had and charged into town before falling back as the Parliamentary troops regained their composure.

With a little respite gained from the pursuit, Hopton and Digby covered the withdrawal of Royalist troops-in the direction of the Cornish border via the Old Bridge at Point 6 on the map above.

Point 6 - Last Stand at the Old Bridge

I have driven the roads in this area for over thirty years for work and had passed the Old Bridge at Torrington numerous times without ever realising its presence or significance.

Like the re-built church and the Black Horse pub, the Old Bridge is a veteran from the battle and it was across its arches that Hopton and Digby covered the retreat of the Royalist army making their last stand on the east bank before moving off in the darkness.

Tom stands in for Lord Hopton on the Old Bridge
The east bank where Hopton & Digby held off pursuing New Model Cavalry as the Royalist troops made their escape.
A very old bridge now in retirement next to the more modern road bridge close by
From the Old Bridge at Point 6 we then made our way along the east bank of the River Torridge to Point 7 and the bridge at Taddiport that was the main point of retreat for the Royalist troops as Digby's cavalry rearguard drew the attention of the pursuit away from them.

Point 7 - Last to Escape at Taddiport

The Torridge Inn is on the hill side road leading down from the town to the river

The bridge at Taddiport and the road leading away to Royalist Cornwall  and away from the New Model Army now in possession of Torrington

The bridge was rebuilt and widened in the Victorian era and occupies the site of the original
From Taddiport and with the afternoon fading Tom and I headed up the hill back into town building a good appetite with the steep walk.

Having walked the town we both had a really good understanding of how this battle had unfolded and where the main points of action had taken place.

The Black Horse was the highlight with the feel of the place taking the knowledgeable visitor straight back into history and that dangerous night in 1646.

There was one final place we both wanted to see and pay our respects to back at the church.

Point 1 - Last Resting Place of the Fallen

Unmarked and casually walked past by Xmas shoppers is a mound topped with cobblestones next to the church now topped off with trees lining the path.

The mound marks the main burial pit for some of the soldiers killed that night in the battle. It seemed to me rather sad that no formal memorial marked their presence or recorded their sacrafice, and it is easy to overlook the terrible price these great battles cost in mens lives easily forgotten over the centuries.

The struggle for freedom has always demanded the highest price and this anonymous mound near a Devon churchyard is a poignant reminder of that price.

Once over the River Torridge the Royalist troops headed south west back to their base at Launceston and Hopton was able to rally 5,000 of them after the battle, though much dispirited and lacking in arms and accoutrements.

After spiriting away the young Prince Charles to safety and refuge in France, Hopton would surrender his exhausted army to Fairfax in the following March after which, following a short period of imprisonment he was allowed to follow Charles into exile, dying in Brussels in 1652. 

Sources consulted for this post
Battlefield Walks Devon - Rupert Mathews


  1. Fascinating history, thanks for sharing. It is rather sad to see those men buried without so much as a commemorative tablet to mark their grave.

  2. Very nice post on this part of the ECW and great to see the countryside etc at the right time of year.

  3. Very enjoyable post! Great photos.

  4. Great pictures, seems to be a beautiful place, great looking inn and buildings...

  5. Nice post, I've got to finish off my ECW armies , there are loads of small local actions in addition to the larger ones like this and always good to walk the course to get a better understanding and it looks like a nice pub!
    Best Iain

  6. Nice report JJ.

    I didn't realise so much of the "battlefield" was still in existance. I shall look at Torrington in an new light next time I am there.


  7. Thanks for your comments chaps. I find writing these posts really helps focus the mind when walking the battle as I think you get a better grasp on time and events when you have to think about explaining it to others.

    These old battle sites are really interesting to try and visualise as the fundamental terrain such as river gorges, street plans, especially close to churches and the old centre are much as they were. You then get to understand why these armies fought on a particular part of the local terrain and the issues respective commanders likely faced. Certainly helps inform the gaming experience.


  8. First rate adventure, Jonathan! Enjoyed the battlefield walk and description greatly. Photos - excellent! Oh, and those uniform illustrations are terrific!

    1. Thanks Jonathan, glad you enjoyed the read. I was very pleased with my bargain pictures and book. They will come in handy when I come to work on the ECW collection.

  9. Beautifully done combination of graphics and text. Thank you

    1. Thank you for the comment, much appreciated

  10. I enjoyed that immensely. An excellent piece of work. In the past I have re-enacted the battle with the Sealed Knot, and can vouch for the delights of all the local hostelries (pubs).

    1. Thank you Martin. We had a fun day exploring the town and the pubs were an added bonus.

  11. thanks really interesting. as you say often we pass places of great interest without realizing their history.

    1. Thank you. Yes we are very lucky in the UK for those that are interested in that we are almost tripping over interesting places with lots of history.