The Battle of Stamford Hill: May 1643

Just over 367 years ago the second major Cornish battle of the British Wars took place. After their victory at Braddock Down in January the Royalists had unsuccessfully besieged Plymouth before being driven off, while one of their leaders – Sidney Godolphin – had in the meantime been shot dead in an ambush near Chagford in Devon.

A local truce was brokered in late February and this lasted until late April. During this period both sides took the opportunity to prepare for renewed conflict. On the expiry of the truce on April 23rd a Parliamentarian force crossed the Tamar at Polson Bridge before being beaten off and retiring back into Devon. Two days later, the Cornish militia, although reluctant to advance across the Tamar, were persuaded to do so by the commander Sir Ralph Hopton. Their sally towards Okehampton ended in confused chaos. An ambush at Sourton Down caught the Cornish force by surprise and was followed by a tremendous thunderstorm. The Cornish militia fled in panic back to Launceston, leaving 60 of their number dead on the downs behind them.

Location of the clashes of 1643

Taking heart from the Royalist collapse at Sourton Down the Parliamentarian commander, the Earl of Stamford, crossed into Cornwall from Holsworthy towards Stratton on the 15th of May. He took with him an army of 5,400 infantry and 200 cavalry. Unwisely however, he had dispatched the majority of the Parliamentarian cavalry – another 1,200 horsemen – on a surprise lighting raid on Bodmin.

Stamford was opposed by a Royalist army of around 3,000 men. It was, moreover, short of food and gunpowder. Confident of success, the Parliamentarians dug in at the top of a hill north of Stratton. Undeterred and no doubt worried about his supply problems (plus the Parliamentarian cavalry to his rear) Hopton ordered an attack up the hill on the morning of 16th May.

Site of the battle

By the afternoon a series of attacks had failed and the Royalists were beginning to run short of powder. Concealing this from his men Hopton ordered a final desperate attack – spearheaded by the contingent under local man Sir Bevill Grenville. This began to make headway onto the top of the hill.  In the words of Hopton, the Parliamentarians, on seeing their ‘men recoil from less numbers, and the enemy gaining the hill … advanced with a good stand of pikes’. Sir Bevill was ‘borne to the ground’ in this counter-attack. But being ‘quickly relieved … [he] so reinforced the charge, that having killed most of the assailants and dispersed the rest, they took Major General Chudleigh (the Parliamentarian second in command) prisoner’.

Sir Bevill Grenville

In the Royalist victory 300 Parliamentarian soldiers were killed and 1,700 captured, along with 13 cannons and all the baggage, which included £5,000. Cornwall was made safe for the Crown, Sir Bevill Grenville had become the local hero, the Parliamentarians were demoralised and the road into south west England was now open.

The battle of Braddock Down

This week sees the anniversary of the first battle of the Cornish army in the seventeenth century civil wars – the battle of Braddock Down.

In the autumn of 1642 when the wars began it wasn’t at all certain who would rally Cornwall behind them. Would it be Royalists or Parliamentarians? The greater gentry in Cornwall were fairly evenly split. Eastern gentry such as the Bullers, Carews, Corytons, Eliots and Robartes made up a puritan ‘godly network’ supporting Parliament. Others, especially in the west, the Bassets, Godolphins and Vyvyans, together with Lord Mohun at Boconnoc and Bevill Grenville in the north, declared for King Charles.  In the meantime, Somerset and most of Dorset, along with Plymouth, Exeter and other Devon towns, had already sided with Parliament.

The scales were decisively tipped in Cornwall in favour of the King by the call to arms to the trained bands in October 1642. According to Mark Stoyle, a ‘vast and somewhat unruly Royalist mob’ of up to 10,000 men had volunteered to defend Cornwall against a small Parliamentarian force that had lodged itself at Launceston. Moving east, they forced the outnumbered Parliamentarians to seek the safer sanctuary of Plymouth.

By November 1642 the two forces were glaring at each other across the Tamar. The Cornish army was encouraged by their military commander, Sir Ralph Hopton, to sally towards Exeter. This they did – twice. But each time the city proved to be too well defended. After the second attempt, at the end of December, the Cornish army fell back in some disarray towards the Tamar, a serious mutiny breaking out on the way back.

While the demoralised Royalists scurried westwards, a reinforced Parliamentarian force led by Colonel Ruthin re-entered south east Cornwall, retaking Saltash and occupying Liskeard. It was on January 18th that Hopton was able to persuade his army to confront these Parliamentarians. This was made easier by the fortuitous capture of three Parliamentarian ships, driven into Falmouth by gales and carrying arms and money. Some of the latter was used to encourage the reluctant foot soldiers.

Thus fortified, Hopton’s force met the Parliamentarians a day later at Braddock Down, a few miles east of Lostwithiel. Ruthin had advanced from Liskeard, not waiting either for his handful of cannon to be brought up, nor for a second Parliamentarian force that was on its way. He was confident after the poor showing of the Cornish Royalists in Devon at the end of 1642. The two armies faced off for a couple of hours while musketeers fired the occasional round at each other. Ruthin occupied rising ground and could afford to wait. Hopton wasn’t so sure of his somewhat more unpredictable and fractious men and knew Parliamentary reinforcements were only a day or two away.

Possible site of the battle. Ruthin’s troops would have occupied the hill to the right.

The Cornish foot soldiers, mainly pikemen, were ordered to attack. Led by Bevill Grenville, they charged down a slope and up towards the Parliamentarians. The sight of an advancing horde of screaming Cornishmen apparently ‘struck a terror’ into the raw Parliamentary foot soldiers who, simultaneously assailed on their flanks by Royalist cavalry, panicked and broke. A Parliamentarian officer wrote: ‘both our horse and foot were suddenly routed, and every man divided and dispersed, ran and rode as fast as fear could carry them towards Saltash’.

Two hundred Parliamentarians had been killed for very little loss on the Royalist side. Over 1,000 prisoners were taken, as well as five guns and ammunition. Another 140 prisoners and 20 guns fell into Royalist hands when Saltash was re-taken three days later.

The morale of the Cornish army was lifted by the victory, Hopton’s reputation as a commander enhanced and Cornwall made safe for the king.