Cornwall and the Civil War 1642 – 1651
The struggle between King and Parliament.
The Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century were a result of political, constitutional, religious and social changes and disagreements, which culminated in a struggle for control of the country between King and Parliament. This civil war lasted nearly nine years, beginning with King Charles ‘raising his standard at Nottingham on 22nd August 1642, and ending with the battle of Worcester on 3 September, 1651. It led to the only state execution of monarch in British history in January 1649 and the establishment of a republican government that lasted until 1660.
How Cornwall took sides
Cornwall’s MPs and major landholders were divided. Some were tied closely to the Crown through the institution of the Duchy of Cornwall, but in some quarters others had become now firmly Protestant and Anglicised – particularly in the South-East of Cornwall and both groups sought the right to raise a militia to fight for their cause. Lesser gentry and yeomen farmers – the bulk of the Cornish – were firmly behind the King. Loyalty to local gentry was not always the deciding factor in how the Cornish felt.
Loyalty to the Duchy and their own cultural and religious beliefs were the telling factors. (In the later war years there was a feeling that the Cornish may have been seeking semi-autonomy under the leadership of the Duke of Cornwall.
Lord Robartes’s tenants were firmly Royalist despite his Parliamentary views. The people of Stratton were largely Parliamentarian – in common with their near neighbours in Devon, despite the Royalist sympathies of the Grenvilles of nearby Stowe. Royalists won the argument throughout Cornwall and Parliamentary supporters turned to the largely Parliamentary Devon and especially Plymouth.
Notable Royalists included Bevil Grenville of Stowe, Jonathan Trelawney of Trelawne, John Trevanion of Caerhays, Jonathan Rashleigh of Menabilly Francis Bassett, of St Michael’s Mount,Lord Mohun of Boconnoc,John Arundel of Trerice, the Vyvyans of Trelowarren. Parliamentarians of note were Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock, John St Aubyn of Clowance, Nicholas Boscawen of Tregothnan. As elsewhere in the country some families were divided, including the Arundells the Carews and the Godolphins.
At the outbreak of the Civil War Sir Bevill Grenville had proclaimed the king’s Commission of Array at Launceston assizes, and also persuaded the grand jury of Cornwall to declare their opponents guilty of riot and unlawful assembly. In 1642 he raised an army in Cornwall to fight for the King.
Summary of military action
Though not central to the conflict, Cornwall played a significant role in the war. The main events in Cornwall were as follows:
Unsuccessful attempts to take Plymouth in 1642
Battles at Braddock Down (January 1643) and Stratton (May, 1643) , Sir Ralph Hopton securing Royalist control
Expedition of the Cornish Army in 1643 through the South West as far as Landsdown (Bath) where their charismatic leader Sir Bevill Grenville was killed
Bitter conflict in and around Lostwithiel in 1644
Surrender at Tresillian Bridge 15th March 1646. Pendennis Castle resisted until 15th August. Isolated resistance continued in West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, 1648-1651
In 1642 much of the west of England, Cornwall and Wales were Royalist strongholds, although Plymouth remained in Parliamentary hands throughout the conflict. The south and east of England were largely controlled by Parliament. The land between the two, today known as the midlands, was the most fought-over and the main battles (Edgehill, Oxford, Newbury, Marston Moor and Naseby) happened in this area.
In 1642 the Cornish-Royalist Army was formed by Ralph Hopton, 1st Baron Hopton. This army’s first invasion of Devon in November – December 1642 was a failure, but it did manage to secure the Cornish side of Plymouth Sound and this posed a serious problem for Parliamentarian forces.
Various sorties were made by the Parliamentarians into the north of the county. There were skirmishes and battles such as the little-known battle of Windmill Hill on the southern edge of Launceston.
Battle of Braddock Down
At the start of 1643, the Royalist position in Cornwall was threatened by the advance from Devon of two parliamentary armies under the Henry Grey, 1st Earl of Stamford and Colonel Ruthin. Sir Ralph Hopton, commanding the Cornish Royalists, whose most charismatic leader was Sir Bevill Grenville of Stowe, decided to strike at Ruthin before he could join forces with Stamford. Hopton found the Parliamentarians deployed on Braddock Down, near Boconnoc, midway between Lostwithiel and Liskeard on 19 January 1643.
Hopton launched his troops in a furious charge which swept all before it. Ruthin’s men fired barely a single volley at the advancing Royalists. Between 1,250 and 1,500 Parliamentarians were captured, together with their baggage train and ammunition, and as many as 200 were killed.
Cornwall was once more firmly in the hands of the Royalists, and Hopton marched into Devon and resumed the siege of Plymouth with his forces occupying surrounding towns to seal off the city by land. The Battle of Braddock Down had rejuvenated the Cornish Army and confirmed their faith in Hopton’s leadership.
The battlefield landscape remains to this day, dominated by the opposing slopes of Braddock Down. Although it was later drained and divided into smaller fields, it is still easy to imagine the grassy downland over which the battle was fought.
The Battle of Stratton
Later in the year Parliamentarians led by The Earl of Stamford moved into North Cornwall and took up a strong defensive position at Stratton. On 16 May the Battle of Stratton took place and Grenville’s local knowledge of the terrain enabled Hopton to mount a surprise dawn attack on Stamford’s position. After a struggle, the Royalists succeeded in defeating the Parliamentarians, leaving 300 dead on the field, and taking 1700 prisoners, among whom were Major-General Chudleigh and thirty other officers. This battle is remembered annually in Stratton: a monument has been built there, on private land.
Campaigns outside the county
The victories for Hopton with the Cornish army provided the impetus for campaigns in Devon and Somerset.
Taunton and Bridgwater were taken by the Cornish army, but Sir Bevil Grenville was killed at the Battle of Lansdown in Somerset and Hopton was seriously wounded.
Hopton had marched against Sir William Waller’s army which occupied a commanding position on the top of Lansdown Hill. Grenville’s Cornish infantry stood firm even when the Royalist cavalry was routed in the early stages of the battle, then Grenville led a counter-attack against the Parliamentarian position at the top of the hill.
The Cornishmen succeeded in gaining the hilltop and forcing the Parliamentarians to withdraw, but Grenville was killed in the assault. His Cornish soldiers refused to fight under any other leader and returned home, carrying the body of Sir Bevil. It was buried in a tomb in Kilkhampton Church.
Bristol fell to Hopton’s Royalist troops, followed by Exeter. On December 13, the Royalists began a heavy bombardment of the northern defences of Plymouth but with little effect. Sir Richard Grenville, 1st Baronet, having previously declared for Parliament, invited his troops to follow him into the King’s service and parliament proclaimed him a traitor.
Siege of Plymouth
Sir Richard Grenville arrived in Plymouth in March 1644 to maintain a blockade, but it resulted in a stalemate as the inhabitants obtained enough provisions to survive. Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in command of the Parliamentary army of 8000 men and forced Grenville to retreat to Cornwall across the River Tamar. King Charles marched west in pursuit of the Parliamentarian army.
Second Battle of Lostwithiel, 1644
Essex had been misled into believing that he could expect substantial support from the people of Cornwall. When he had reached Bodmin on 28 July, he found that there was no chance of supplies or recruits, and he also learned that the Royalist army was at Launceston, close to his rear, blocking his line of retreat.
He withdrew to Lostwithiel, covering the port of Fowey, hoping for support or evacuation by the Parliamentarian fleet. Essex had previously arranged to rendezvous at Fowey with the Parliamentarian fleet under the Earl of Warwick, but no ships appeared, Warwick being unable to leave Portsmouth because of westerly winds.
King Charles’s army had been reinforced as it marched, and outnumbered that of Essex by nearly two to one. The first clashes took place on 2 August, but little action took place for several days, as the King waited for all his forces to arrive and Essex waited for the fleet. On 13 August, the Royalists began to attack in earnest, occupying several outposts on the east bank of the River Fowey, making it even more difficult for help to reach Essex. A Parliamentarian attempt to send a relieving force under Lieutenant General Middleton was defeated at Bridgwater in Somerset.
On 21 August, the Royalists attacked Essex’s positions north of Lostwithiel, capturing the ruins of Restormel Castle. Royalist cavalry threatened to cut the Parliamentarians off from Fowey. Essex realised that there was no hope of relief and ordered his cavalry to break out of the encirclement. Under Sir William Balfour, they broke through the Royalist lines on the night of 31 August, eventually reaching Plymouth 30 miles to the east.
The increasingly demoralised Parliamentarian infantry fell back towards Fowey in pouring rain. They were forced to abandon several guns which became bogged down in the muddy roads. On 1 September, the pursuing Royalists captured Castle Dore, another ruined fortification which the Parliamentarians were using to anchor their lines. Essex left Sir Philip Skippon, his Sergeant Major General of Foot, in command while he himself escaped to Plymouth in a fishing boat.
On 2 September, Skippon, having been told that his infantry were unable to break out as the cavalry had done, and having been offered generous terms by the King, surrendered 6,000 infantry and all his army’s guns and train. The disarmed soldiers marched to Portsmouth in continuing bad weather, being continually robbed and threatened by local people. About 1,000 died of exposure and hunger, and 1,000 more deserted or fell sick. Charles meanwhile wheeled about and marched toward London.
This was a setback for Parliament in Cornwall, and the last major victory for the Royalists.
The new Cornish army raised in the aftermath of the 1644 Lostwithiel campaign was known as the New Cornish tertia. It contained 5-6000 man under Richard Grenville. The Royalists often referred to the Cornish as a distinct and valuable group of soldiers – ‘stout, resolute, gallant’ but also they were seen as disruptive, often skirmishing with other units on their own side – the cavalry, Frenchmen of the Queen’s Guard, Irish regiments. They tended to fight as a group under their own leaders and for themselves rather than the Royalist cause. Parliamentarians were bitter in their criticism of ‘heathen, ignorant plunderers and traditional troublemakers.’
However Grenville fell foul of the Royalist command, being seen as more concerned with trying to get a semi-autonomous Cornwall under Prince Charles and hindering the Royalist war aims. Grenville was imprisoned in Launceston and then in the more remote St Michael’s Mount.
In 1645 Sir Thomas Fairfax was appointed the Parliamentary commander of the New Model Army. The Royalist army was also reorganised with Prince Charles becoming the Commander-in-Chief. The Royalists suffered a notable defeat at Naseby in Northamptonshire, where the Royalist army was annihilated, and there were further Parliamentarian gains in the south and west of England. Prince Charles spent a great part of the autumn and winter in Cornwall, principally at Launceston and Truro.
In 1646 the Prince gave Lord Hopton command of the Royalist forces, Hopton advanced from Stratton towards Exeter, reaching Torrington but was confronted by Fairfax’s men, and fell back to Stratton. The Parliamentarians proceeded into Cornwall, reaching Launceston on February 25, and Bodmin on March 2nd. Hopton’s army was in disarray but he refused to surrender. He camped for some nights at Castle-an-Dinas while considering the possibility of surrender. News at Bodmin of an imminent Irish invasion damaged the Royalist cause locally and Fairfax sent a summons of surrender to Hopton who replied on March 8th that he was willing to negotiate terms. Fairfax agreed and on March 15th 1646 both sides met at Tresillian Bridge. Hopton agreed to move his army to St Allen as a gesture of trust and goodwill allowing Fairfax to occupy Truro.
The Prince of Wales sailed from Falmouth to the Isles of Scilly, and from there he escaped to Jersey; the garrisons at Restormel, Falmouth, Little Dennis and St Michaels Mount fell in the following months. In May Charles surrendered to the Scots who handed him over to England. Pendennis Castle, on the 17th August 1646, was the last Royalist stronghold on the English mainland to fall.
In late 1648 Charles was tried before a tribunal of 135 judges who voted by one vote that he be executed. This was carried out on 30th January 1649.
Nationally, the political situation remained volatile; there were insurrections and further outbreaks of hostilities. Prince Charles tried to claim the throne with the help of the Scots, leading to war between Scotland and Cromwell’s New Model Army. The Battle of Worcester in 1651 – a Parliamentary victory – finally sent the Prince into exile.
The situation proved to be equally volatile locally during this time. Taxes were increased to fund military installations but many in Cornwall rebelled against this and took to arms. Following the killing of 70 Cornish Royalists in Penzance on May 16, 1648, the people of Mullion sent 120 men, who marched to Goonhilly Downs and then to St Keverne and Mawgan, collecting 300 more foot soldiers and 40 horsemen. There was a battle against Parliamentarian forces under the control of Sir Hardress Waller which ultimately led to the defeat of the Cornish forces near Gear Camp, a nearby earthwork of the Iron Age that overlooked the Helford River.
Against this background of instability the story on the Isles of Scilly took an unlikely twist. Parliament had appointed Colonel Buller as governor of Scilly after its surrender in September 1646. Two years later, while he was at church, his soldiers revolted and the islands were once again in Royalist hands. With Sir John Grenville as governor, privateering became piracy and passing ships were plundered, regardless of nationality. Exasperated by this the Dutch declared war on Scilly and sailed to capture the islands, arriving at the same time as a Parliamentary fleet led by Admiral Blake. Blake captured Tresco and forced the surrender of St Mary’s in May 1651. As an interesting footnote to history, no formal peace treaty was signed with the Dutch until 1986, making the war between Holland and Scilly the longest in history.
Coate, Mary (1933) Cornwall in the Great Civil War and Interregnum 1642-1660 Oxford: Clarendon Press. 2nd ed. 1963
Brown, H. Miles (1982) Battles Royal: Charles I and the Civil War in Cornwall and the West Libra Books ISBN 0950800902
Barratt, John (2005) The Civil War in the South-West Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military ISBN 9781844151462
Holmes, Richard (1989) Civil War Battles in Cornwall, 1642 to 1646 Mercia ISBN 0948087323
Duffin, Anne (1996) Faction and Faith: politics and religion of the Cornish gentry before the Civil War. University of Exeter ISBN 9780859894357
Russell, Dennis (2001) Carew: a Story of Civil War in the West Country. London: Aidan Ellis Publishing ISBN 0856282987
Peachey, Stuart (1993) Stuart Press
The Battle of Braddock Down 1643 ISBN 1858040213
The Battles of Launceston and Sourton Down ISBN 1858040191
The Battle of Stratton 1643 ISBN 1858040183
Philip Peyton “Cornwall: a History”
History of Cornwall
Bronze Age cultures began to appear in Cornwall around 2200 BC with new ideas spreading from the Continent to the existing population, but the changes were gradual not sudden and stone tools continued to be used...
New, stronger iron ploughs and axes meant that farming improved. Cornwall contains many archaeological remains from this time: small villages with field systems around them, hillforts and cliff castles that...
After the Roman withdrawal from Great Britain, Saxons and other peoples were able to conquer and settle most of the east of the island. But Cornwall remained under the rule of local Romano-British and Celtic elites...
With the arrival of the Normans to the British mainland in 1066, the River Tamar became the agreed border. There was also a general acceptance that Cornwall had a separate identity to the rest of England...
During this period English rulers sought to establish firmer control over the furthermost parts of Britain - Scotland and Ireland especially but this trend also affected Cornwall. Here the loyalty of many gentry, particularly in East Cornwall...
The Civil Wars of the mid seventeenth century were a result of political, constitutional, religious and social changes and disagreements, which culminated in a struggle for control of the country between King and Parliament...