1645-6: Final Campaigns of the First Civil War
During the final months of 1645, General Fairfax and the New Model Army advanced slowly into the south-west of England. The Prince of Wales, Captain-General of the West, had withdrawn to Exeter after Lord Goring's defeat at Langport in July. As Fairfax began his advance into Devon in October 1645, the Prince moved further west to Truro in the loyal county of Cornwall where the Prince's Council struggled to hold the demoralised western army together. In early November, Lord Goring himself abandoned the Prince and fled to France.
In mid-October, Fairfax advanced to Tiverton and quickly overran the town. The Royalist garrison of 250 men took refuge in the castle. Parliamentarian siege guns proceeded to bombard the castle until, on 20 October, a lucky shot broke the chains holding up the drawbridge and the garrison promptly surrendered. With forces blockading the Royalist stronghold of Exeter, Fairfax's army quartered around Tiverton and Crediton. Lieutenant-General Cromwell arrived from his campaign in southern England on 24 October to bring the New Model Army back up to full strength.
After the departure of Lord Goring in November 1645, Prince Charles appointed Lord Wentworth commander of the western Royalist army. While the Prince remained near the Cornish border, Wentworth quartered his cavalry for the winter around Bovey Tracey, 14 miles south-west of Exeter. The Royalists built earthworks to protect their encampment on Bovey Heath, to the south of the town.
Early in January 1646, the Parliamentarians began the final campaign against the western Royalists. On the afternoon of 9 January, Lieutenant-General Cromwell led a surprise raid on Wentworth's camp. The Parliamentarians entered Bovey Tracey from the north. Encountering no opposition they swept through the town, capturing a party of off-duty officers and troopers taking their ease. As dusk fell, Cromwell attacked the main camp. The unprepared Royalists put up a token resistance but their defensive embankments did not cover the approach from the town and they were quickly overwhelmed. A large number were killed or taken prisoner, the rest retreated to Tavistock.
The routing of Wentworth's cavalry left no Royalist forces in the vicinity of Exeter. Rather than close in on the city immediately, however, General Fairfax took the opportunity to advance further west towards Plymouth, which had been a Parliamentarian stronghold since the beginning of the war and was regularly under threat. When the Royalists abandoned the siege of Plymouth on 12 January, Fairfax turned back towards Exeter. On 18 January, Fairfax stormed and captured Dartmouth and its surrounding outposts. The surrender of Powderham Castle on 26 January completed the encirclement of Exeter.
After the defeat of Lord Wentworth at Bovey Tracey, the Prince of Wales appointed Lord Hopton commander of the Royalist western army and relegated Wentworth to lieutenant-general of horse. Sir Richard Grenville was appointed major-general of foot but Grenville, who had once commanded the King's entire western army, refused to acknowledge Hopton's authority. Hopton ordered Grenville's arrest for insubordination and he was imprisoned on St Michael's Mount until the end of the war.
The western army could muster only 2,000 Cornish infantry and Wentworth's 3,000 badly-disciplined cavalry. Early in February 1646, Hopton advanced into north Devon in an attempt to draw the New Model Army away from the siege of Exeter. He occupied Torrington on 10 February and took up a defensive position, constructing a circuit of earthworks around the town and barricading the approach roads. General Fairfax learned of the manoeuvre and marched with 10,000 men towards Torrington, leaving Sir Hardress Waller to cover the siege of Exeter.
The Parliamentarians approached Torrington from the east during the evening of 16 February 1646. A body of Royalist dragoons posted at Stevenstone Park was driven back by Fairfax's advance guard and there was fighting to the east of Torrington as Royalist horse and foot came up to support the dragoons' withdrawal. With heavy rain falling and darkness coming on, Fairfax decided to wait until the next morning to reconnoitre the Royalist defences before attacking. However, when Lieutenant-General Cromwell came to inspect the Parliamentarian outposts, he heard noises from the town which suggested that the Royalists were attempting to move out. Cromwell sent a patrol of dragoons forward to test the defences. They came under fire from the Royalist barricades and a general firefight developed as more troops were ordered forward in support. Fairfax decided to launch an immediate assault without waiting for daylight.
The fight at the barricades lasted for two hours at push of pike and with butt-ends of muskets. At last, the Cornish infantry were overwhelmed and retreated into Torrington, pursued by the Roundheads. Royalist cavalry commanded by Major-General John Digby counter-attacked and bitter fighting continued in the streets of Torrington. As the battle proceeded, a stray spark ignited the Royalists' powder magazine stored in Torrington church. Eighty barrels of gunpowder exploded, blowing the roof off the church and killing many Royalist soldiers and Parliamentarian prisoners in and around the church. Falling debris narrowly missed General Fairfax himself. The explosion effectively ended the battle. In the resulting confusion, Lord Hopton and the remnants of the Royalist western army withdrew from Torrington and escaped into Cornwall.
A few days after the battle of Torrington, Fairfax resumed his relentless advance into the west, occupying Launceston in Cornwall on 25 February. Early in March 1646, the Prince of Wales and his chief advisers escaped from Falmouth and sailed for the Isles of Scilly, pursued by Parliamentarian warships. Lord Hopton surrendered to Fairfax at Truro on 14 March 1646, agreeing to disband the western army and to go into exile.
By the spring of 1646, the Royalist cause was desperate. Only a few isolated garrisons held out against Parliament and all but the most stubborn were finally laying down their arms. Colonel John Birch captured Hereford in mid-December 1645, Chester fell to Sir William Brereton in February 1646 and Lichfield early in March. While the New Model Army steadily conquered the west, Lord Leven and the Covenanters laid siege to the stronghold of Newark.
The last Royalist army to take the field was a force of 3,000 troops raised by Lord Astley from Wales and the Midlands: the 700 horse were mostly survivors of veteran cavalier regiments, the foot were experienced troops released from local garrisons or from those which had surrendered. In mid-March 1646, Astley marched from Bridgnorth to Worcester, intending to join forces with the King and 1,500 horse stationed at Oxford. Colonel Thomas Morgan and Colonel John Birch joined forces at Gloucester on 15 March and marched with 2,300 Parliamentarians to block Astley's advance. Meanwhile, Sir William Brereton was cautiously approaching from Lichfield to join Morgan and Birch with a further 1,000 horse from Cheshire and the Midlands.
Avoiding the enemy garrison at Evesham, Astley outmanoeuvred his pursuers and crossed the River Avon by setting up a bridge of boats near Bidford. He marched into the Cotswolds where his progress was delayed by Parliamentarian skirmishers, though Morgan was reluctant to commit to a full-scale attack until Brereton's forces came up. Having marched his troops 25 miles without resting, Astley halted at the village of Donnington, about two miles from Stow-on-the-Wold, during the evening of 20 March. During the night, Brereton's cavalry finally joined up with Morgan. Realising that he could not avoid battle, Astley drew up his army on a steep hillside to the north of Stow. The Parliamentarians formed up facing them.
The final battle of the First Civil War began at dawn on 21 March 1646. The two armies were conventionally deployed with foot in the centre and horse on the flanks, the Parliamentarians outnumbering the Royalists. Lord Astley commanded the Royalist centre, with Sir Charles Lucas on the right flank and Sir William Vaughan on the left. Sir William Brereton commanded the Parliamentarian right flank, with Colonel Birch in the centre and Colonel Morgan on the left. Morgan led the initial Parliamentarian attack on the left but was twice thrown back when Lucas counter-attacked. A fierce struggle developed in the centre with neither side prevailing. The battle was decided by Sir William Brereton's cavalry on the Parliamentarian right flank. Outnumbered nearly two-to-one, Vaughan's cavalry were unable to withstand Brereton's attack and were routed. Brereton then turned against the flank of Astley's infantry in the centre. When Lucas's cavalry also broke and fled, Astley withdrew his infantry into Stow-on-the-Wold where, after fighting through the streets and a gallant stand in the market square, he finally ordered his men to lay down their arms.
The defeat of the last Royalist field armies was followed by the gradual surrender of remaining garrisons around the country. After the surrender of Exeter and Barnstaple to General Fairfax in April 1646, the New Model Army marched to besiege the Royalist capital Oxford. As the Parliamentarians approached, King Charles escaped from the city disguised as a servant and made his way to Newark in Nottinghamshire, where he surrendered to the Scottish army rather than to Parliament with the intention of exploiting divisions between the Scots and the English Parliament. By order of the King, Newark surrendered on 6 May 1646. The surrender of Oxford took place on 24 June; Worcester surrendered a month later on 22 July. Other fortresses maintained a stubborn yet futile resistance throughout 1646 and beyond. The last Royalist outpost was Harlech Castle in Wales, which finally surrendered to Parliamentarian forces on 13 March 1647.
A.H. Burne & P. Young, The Great Civil War, a military history (London 1959)
S.R. Gardiner, History of the Great Civil War vol. iii (London 1889)
Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)
Stow-on-the-Wold : UK Battlefields Resource Centre