The Civil War in Devon


The origins of the Civil War lay mainly in the eleven years when Charles I ruled without calling a Parlia­ment, and in the lack of political judgement which led him into a series of errors arousing increasing opposition. Puritanism was strong in Devon, partic­ularly in the ports and cloth towns, and the High Church policies of Archbishop Laud were inter­preted (if wrongly) as a move back towards Catho­licism. Bishop Hall of Exeter was twice reprimanded for lack of zeal in harassing his more Puritan clergy. Without a Parliament to grant taxes, Charles had to resort to obnoxious means of raising money, such as granting monopolies on articles of common use like salt, starch and soap, which raised far less for him than they cost consumers and caused much irri­tation. More justified, if equally resented, was Ship Money, raised (at first) on ports and maritime coun­ties such as Devon for the support of the Navy, and honestly collected and used for the purpose. The 1634 writ demanded £11,236  from the county, and most of it was, if grudgingly, paid, though Hartland produced a group of objectors. Next year, and in 1636, £9000 was demanded, and this time there was much passive resistance and goods had to be dis­trained and sold. The later extension of the tax to inland counties caused opposition elsewhere but lessened the demand on Devon: but by the time of the last collection in 1639, when the amounts re­quired were much smaller, the opposition was more organised. Of the £350 demanded from Exeter, £190 from Plymouth, £150 from Barnstaple, £120 from Totnes, £80 from Dartmouth and £40 from Bideford (giving a rough idea of their relative wealth at the time), little could be raised because distrained goods were seized back or proved impossible to sell for lack of bidders.

The Civil War in Devon
The Civil War in Devon

Charles’ culminating blunder, the attempt to force on the Calvinist Scots an Anglican Prayer Book and form of Church, caused a rebellion which he could not suppress, nor without calling Parliament could he raise forces even to prevent an invasion of England. Meanwhile there had been a series of bad harvests and a slump in the woollen industry -both affecting Devon -thus increasing popular resistance to taxes. The County gentry, who would normally have felt obliged to support the Crown against popular defiance of authority, instead showed sym­pathy with poverty and none at all with Charles’ Scottish blunder which had brought on the crisis. Hence the failure of the last Ship Money demand, resulting in the neglect of the seamen impressed from the ports, which, together with Puritan senti­ment, swung the Navy to the opposition.

At last, forced by the Scottish invasion, Parlia­ment had to be called; and it at once showed more concern to attack the King’s authority than to deal with the Scots whom it regarded as allies. Charles’ ill-considered and abortive attempt to arrest the five outstanding leaders of the Commons (including two Devon members – Pym for Tavistock and Strode for Bere Alston) ended any hope of compromise. Lon­don was no longer safe for him and the Court, and war was inevitable. When it began in August 1642, the Devon ports were unanimous for Parliament, the cathedral city of Exeter was divided, and so was the influence of the country gentry, some leading fami­lies being split in sentiment.

Since the time of the Armada, weapons and tactics had changed; and both sides had officers with recent experience of the Thirty Years War then still raging in Europe. Bow and bill had vanished, and infantry weapons were the pike and a heavier, longer-barrelled, musket with a much greater range than the arquebus (which could also be used effectively at close quarters as a club). Cavalry now charged with the sword, reserving their pistols for pursuit, and a determined attack was usually successful – though whether they could be rallied afterwards, with horses blown and men scattered, was another matter. Fortification had evolved to make the best use of guns in flanking every face of the defences, and in the Civil War it usually took the form of earthworks laid out by engineers but quickly built by conscripted unskilled labour. Attacking it usually took the form of a sudden storm – preferably by night to achieve surprise – or of blockade in the hope of depriving the defenders of food or ammunition.

In the autumn of 1642 most of the County militia was raised for Parliament, and earthwork defences were thrown up around Plymouth, Exeter, Dart­mouth and Barnstaple, with forts at Bideford and Appledore, all in Parliament’s cause. But the Royal­ists across the Tamar, under Sir Ralph Hopton and Sir Bevill Grenville, raised the Cornishmen for the King, and began raiding into Devon. Their first attempts on. Exeter in November and December were beaten off, and at the end of the year Royalist recruiting forces at Modbury and Torrington were defeated.

1643, however, saw the royal cause temporarily triumphant in the West. After a skirmish at Chag­ford, where a small Parliamentary force was sur­prised and routed, the Cornish invested Plymouth. Parliament forces mustered at Totnes, and in a hard-fought engagement at Modbury drove out the Royalists covering the siege. For two months a local truce held up operations, till in April the Parlia­mentarians denounced it and invaded Cornwall. Their attack on Launceston was repulsed, and the pursuit only checked near Okehampton; and a sec­ond Parliamentarian advance into Cornwall ended with the battle of Stratton which put Devon into Royalist hands for the next two years. This fierce fight, won by the gallantry of the Cornish pikemen against superior numbers and position, completely broke the Parliament field force in Devon and left Hopton a clear road across the county in his great campaign through southern England.

The Civil War in Devon - Earthwork Defences
The Civil War in Devon – Earthwork Defences

Only the fortified places remained to Parliament, and except for Plymouth they also fell in a few months. The Bideford and Appledore forts surren­dered late in August, Barnstaple and Exeter in September, and Dartmouth in October. Plymouth however, was a different matter. The Navy, which at this stage was entirely for Parliament, could supply and reinforce it at will from other south-coast bases, and the line of earthwork defences north of the town held firm against repeated assaults. While Plymouth remained in Parliament’s hands the King’s cause in the West could never be secure, and troops urgently needed elsewhere had to be stationed round the town to prevent the garrison breaking out. The other ports were of little use to the Royalists, since the Navy could blockade them.

1644 saw the collapse of the royal cause in the North, after Marston Moor, but a Parliamentary invasion of the South-West ended in a minor disas­ter. The Earl of Essex, instead of aiding in a determined attack on Oxford which might have ended the war, made a separate descent on Devon and Cornwall. If his object was to capture the Queen, who had arrived in Exeter in May to bear a child, he failed when she eluded him and escaped via Falmouth to France. He pushed on, nevertheless, and crossed into Cornwall, pursued by the King, after a skirmish at Newbridge. The withdrawal of Royalist troops to escort the Queen gave the Barn­staple Parliamentarians a chance to revolt, but their attack on the Appledore fort was beaten off.

The Civil War in Devon - Siege of Plymouth
The Civil War in Devon – Siege of Plymouth

In September, Essex was cornered at Lostwithiel. He and his chief officers managed to escape by sea, but his infantry was forced to surrender, disarmed, and allowed to march off for Portsmouth. His cav­alry, helped by a wet and misty night, managed to break out in small parties, one  of which was routed at Hatherleigh Moor, and another was involved in a skirmish at Tiverton. In the same month Barnstaple again surrendered, and Ilfracombe Castle, which had beaten off an earlier attack, did likewise. A heavy assault on Plymouth, however, in the King’s pres­ence, completely failed; and the year ended with the situation in Devon the same as before, though elsewhere the royal cause was in rapid decline.

The defeat of the last considerable royal field army at Naseby in July 1645, by the much superior numbers of the New Model Army, left the Parlia­mentary generals free to mop up Royalist garrisons; but for some months they were too occupied in Somerset to deal with Devon. Not till October did Fairfax enter the county, capture Tiverton Castle, and invest Exeter. Early in 1646 he and Cromwell began clearing operations, and rapidly fought a series of minor engagements, stormed Dartmouth, and took the smaller garrisons in the east of the county. In February came the last big fight, at Torrington, which finally cancelled the effects of Stratton. Here Hopton had only a third as many infantry, though (typically of a Royalist army) nearly as many horse, as his enemy. Fairfax arrived towards nightfall, intending to wait for daylight to view the position before attacking, but battle was unin­tentionally joined when his scouting force ran into opposition and was reinforced. A confused night engagement with pikes and musket-butts developed around barricades and in the streets, until after two hours of fierce struggle the outnumbered Cornish infantry broke and the royal cavalry covered the retreat. Probably by accident, the Royalist magazine of eighty barrels of powder, stored in the church with 200 prisoners, blew up and wrecked the build­ing and much of the surrounding town. Hopton, though wounded, fought his way out with the rear­guard, and those not captured fled into Cornwall and dispersed after a delaying action at North Tamerton bridge.

Next month Hopton surrendered at Truro, and all that remained was to clear up the surviving gar­risons. In April, Ilfracombe Castle was stormed, Exeter and Barnstaple surrendered, and the King’s Standard flew only on little Fort Charles in the Salcombe estuary, until that too gave-in a few weeks later after a four-months’ blockade.

The war did much damage in Devon, though more indirectly than through actual fighting. Whichever side held power at the time demanded heavy and continual levies in cash and kind to support its troops and garrisons, and ordinary trade and manufacture inevitably suffered. The King’s lack of money obliged him to leave local forces living at ‘free quarter’ on the country, and the less disci­plined troops of both sides plundered when they had the chance.

Nor, when it was over, did things settle down. Royalist estates were confiscated, or had to be sold to meet money fines, and Anglican clergy were turned out in favour of Presbyterians or Indepen­dents. Exeter had surrendered to Fairfax on honour­able terms, but after he left these were not always observed. There were soon complaints of robbery by

the soldiery, and the undertaking to respect the city’s churches later proved a dead letter. The cathedral was divided by a brick wall to provide separate accommodation for Independents and Pres­byterians, the organ and stained glass smashed, and statuary beheaded. Its outlying buildings were all turned to secular use; and in 1657 thirteen of the city’s parish churches were plundered and put up for sale on government order. Under Puritan control the city was not a happy place: the records show people fined or put in the stocks for such crimes as ‘entertaining of company’ or knitting on Sunday, ‘for keeping company together, they being engaged to be married’, ‘for walking in the fields on the Lord’s Day’, and for allowing children and servants ‘on the Lord’s Day to exercise any sport, pleasure, or pas­time’. A cage was erected outside the cathedral ‘for the putting of such boys and others in as shall disturb the Ministers in sermon time’; and the mildest swearing brought a swinging fine, tariffed according to social status, half of which went to the informer.

The Commonwealth was frequently at war and raised far heavier taxes than Charles had ever attempted, but still failed to pay its impressed seamen regularly. Enthusiasm for it, even in Plymouth, had waned by the time of Charles II’s restoration in 1660, and Exeter celebrated with enthusiasm the end of rule by the over-godly and the military.