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War in the West Country

Updated Sunday, 7th January 2001

With stalemate in Wales, the stakes were raised for the war in the West Country

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War recommenced in early 1643. While the Royalists enjoyed life in Oxford, the Parliamentary forces had organised themselves into Associations of counties. In East Anglia, the Eastern Association was established under the command of the Earl of Manchester and a rising cavalry commander called Oliver Cromwell. During this early phase of the War (1642-43), Wales was relatively quiescent.

Following the raising of the Standard, the Principality was overwhelmingly for the King and the Welsh Royalists took the opportunity to garrison the many large, well-fortified castles which dotted the Welsh countryside. With the Royalists safely ensconced in large, virtually impregnable fortifications, there was little incentive for the Parliamentarians to try to winkle them out, especially when more pressing concerns were to hand. This encouraged a war of stasis and stalemate.

The struggle for the West Country witnessed the most violent action during 1643 as Parliament's Western Association came under increasingly heavy pressure. Over the rolling fields of Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, armies led by two close friends, Sir Ralph Hopton (Royalist) and Sir William Waller (Parliamentary) fought for control of this vital terrain. They had fought together for the Protestant cause in Europe during the Thirty Years Way, but their religious differences now tore them apart.

Site of The Battle of Lansdown Creative commons image Icon bartmaguire under CC-BY-NC-SA licence under Creative-Commons license
Marker on the site of the Battle Of Lansdown

Across the West Country, amazing acts of bravery punctured the conflict. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Battle of Lansdown which saw the Cornish militia, armed with pikes, charge uphill against overwhelming Roundhead forces time and again. The losses were staggering but the Cornish militia won the day for the Royalists - a victory which was hopelessly squandered. But the Cavaliers pressed on and in the Battle of Roundway Down, they went on to destroy Waller's forces in the West. Waller and the remnants of his shattered force retreated back to Gloucester.

The ever-watchful Prince Rupert immediately saw his opportunity. In July 1643 he headed West from Oxford to seize England's second city, Bristol. With its rich population of merchants and tradesmen, its trading links to Ireland and the Americas, and its vital strategic position, Bristol was a wealthy prize.

Rupert positioned himself to the north of the town and fixed his battery of cannons at Clifton Church. When the Governor of the city refused to surrender, Rupert let rip with a day long battery. Then to the north of the city, his troops charged and, after some bloody hand to hand combat, the cavalry ground their way through the city's outer defences but were held back by the River Frome.

Meanwhile on Bristol's southern side, the masochistic Cornish pikemen were once again suffering huge losses against well-defended city walls. Again and again, they advanced against overwhelming Roundhead forces.

But the successful cavalry on the north managed to cross the Frome and beat their way into the centre. They finally got through and unleashed all hell. The town, by refusing to surrender, had in the warped logic of the day, opened itself up to brutal recrimination. As Rupert looked the other way, the victorious Cavalier troops plundered and sacked defeated Bristol. Turning on the captured Roundheads they asked: 'Where is your King Jesus now?'

The fall of Bristol was followed by the surrender of Poole, Dorchester, Portland and Weymouth to the Royalists. Only Gloucester stood out against the seemingly invincible Cavalier advance. The West had fallen to the King, and Charles hurried down to congratulate his brilliant nephew and the good citizens of Bristol. It seemed that Charles was on the way to regaining his kingdom.

 

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