Royalist victories but Cornish disaster: July 1643

In the war of the five nations in the 1640s we last saw the Cornish army triumphant at the Battle of Stamford Hill at Stratton. Filled with enthusiasm, the army of 3,000 foot soldiers and 800 horsemen, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, advanced across the Tamar. They made contact with the Royalist army of Prince Maurice at Chard in early June, adding another 1,000 troops but a greater number – 1,500 – of cavalry.

By early July, the Royalist army had reached Bath, where it confronted Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarian force. The Parliamentarians established themselves at Lansdown, a high plateau north of the city and dug in. Though outnumbered by the Royalists, they held the commanding position, defended by earthworks and cannon.

A contemporary illustration of the battle

On July 5th the two armies were glowering at each other across an intervening valley. Waller rather impetuously decided to send half his cavalry to attack. They were repulsed by the Cornish army, which then began to advance cautiously across the lower ground towards the Parliamentarian positions on the hill. ‘Believing no man their equal’, the Cornish force, led by Bevil Grenville, repeated the feat of Stratton, fighting their way up the hill in the face of considerable resistance. Around 200 foot soldiers were killed and another 300 wounded before they finally gained the crest.

The memorial to Bevil Grenville at Lansdown

Once there they held, with pikemen fighting off five separate charges of Parliamentarian cavalry determined to dislodge them. Finally, Waller’s army abandoned the field to the Royalists. However, in the Parliamentarian counter-attacks, Bevil Grenville was mortally wounded. While technically a victory, the losses sustained by the Cornish army, the death of their inspired leader and an unfortunate accident the following day when an ammunition cart blew up, blinding Hopton, made this victory a hollow one.

Pursuing the Royalists to Devizes in Wiltshire, Waller and his Parliamentarians were eventually soundly beaten at Roundway Down just outside the town on July 13th. The Royalist cavalry won the day, with the Cornish, penned up in Devizes, only involved later, when the Parliamentarians were already routed.

The Cornish army then advanced to Bristol, where they joined a far bigger force led by Prince Rupert. Well outnumbering the city’s defenders, the Royalist leaders debated whether to invest it and starve it into submission or storm the city walls. The decision was made not to wait. This reckless choice has been blamed on the impatience of Prince Rupert. However, the Cornish foot soldiers were equally eager to attack, pre-empting the assault on July 26th by going into action before the signal came.

Exposed to heavy gunfire from the defenders, they were unable to cross the ditch and reach the walls at Temple Gate to the south of Bristol. Terrible losses ensued during the three hours during which repeated futile assaults were made. Another 300 Cornish soldiers were killed, including two of their leaders, Sir Nicholas Slanning and Colonel John Trevanion.

While Bristol eventually fell to the Royalists that same day, for the Cornish enough was enough. Having sustained major losses at Lansdown and Bristol the Cornish became mutinous and refused to advance further east. They were detached and sent back west to deal with the isolated Parliamentarian towns holding out in Devon and Dorset. Effectively, this was the end of the Cornish army as a coherent fighting unit.

Gone the four wheels of Charles’ wain,
Grenville, Godolphin, Trevanion, Slanning slain’

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