In the civil wars of the 1640s the battle of Lostwithiel was a Parliamentary disaster and the last major Royalist victory of the wars. More a series of skirmishes than an all-out set-piece battle, an out-numbered Parliamentary army found itself trapped between Lostwithiel and Fowey. It was forced to surrender on September 2nd, 1644. How had this happened?
During July the Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Essex, had headed west to lift the siege of Lyme in Dorset and then Plymouth. By the 23rd of July he had reached Tavistock. On hearing of this, Sir Richard Grenville, the brother of Bevil Grenville, the Royalist hero of 1643, abandoned the siege of Plymouth and moved back into Cornwall.
To the dismay of Parliament in London, after a brief and bloody clash with some of Grenville’s cavalry at Horsebridge on the Tamar, Essex took his force of 10,000 men across the river. This was unwise as on July 26th the King had brought an army west to join the Royalists already at Exeter. This combined army was almost twice as large as Essex’s force and was in hot pursuit.
By the 28th of July Essex had reached Bodmin. On the news of the Royalist advance into Cornwall behind him, in early August he moved his army to Lostwithiel. Although the Parliamentarian Lord Robartes played a part in persuading Essex to enter Cornwall, hoping local support would emerge, this proved over-optimistic. Essex wrote that ‘the country [was] rising unanimously against us, with the exception of a few gentlemen’. Denied intelligence and supplies by the local population Essex resorted to taking food from them by force, thus further infuriating them.
In any case the area in which they were able to do this was gradually shrinking as the Royalist armies united on the 11th August. By now the King was at Boconnoc, east of Lostwithiel. On the 12th Grenville occupied Robartes’ house at Lanhydrock and couple of days later the Royalists advanced down the eastern bank of the River Fowey, capturing Polruan across the river from Fowey, which denied Essex the use of the harbour at Fowey.
Essex’s last hope of relief by land vanished on the 21st of August when a column was defeated in Somerset. On the same day the Royalist armies tightened the noose, seizing the high ground north east of Lostwithiel and Restormel Castle to its north. Once a force of cavalry had ridden west to St Blazey and Par on the 23rd, Essex’s army was surrounded and penned into a small area. On the 30th he admitted the situation was hopeless. His 2,000 cavalry were ordered to break out and ride east. This they successfully did overnight and reached Plymouth on the 1st of September, pursued by Royalist cavalry.
Meanwhile, what was left of the Parliamentarian infantry – around 6-7,000 men – retreated south in heavy rain after wreaking much destruction on the Duchy Palace at Lostwithiel and attempting but failing to blow up the town’s church. They made a last stand on the high ground at Castle Dore (see photo above this blog). But, during the night of 31st August/1st September they broke and were in danger of being outflanked. Essex panicked and fled by fishing boat, leaving his officers to negotiate a surrender on the 2nd September. The Parliamentary foot soldiers were allowed to leave, while their officers could even keep their weapons. However, during a three day, wet and foodless march to Okehampton in Devon they suffered from the hands of an enraged Cornish population, particularly at Lostwihtiel. There, the townsfolk took their revenge by stripping Parliamentarian soldiers of clothes and possessions and attacking their female camp followers. Around 6,000 men left but only a thousand reached the safety of Poole in Dorset.