The 17th century: Topsham and the Civil War
With both Royalist and Parliamentarian strongholds in Devon, cities were besieged and many battles fought. It is proposed to re-enact the battle which raged through Topsham both as an entertainment and to emphasise the part played by the Westcountry in the civil war.
Date: 17th and 18th June
Time: 10.00am and 4.00pm on Saturday and Sunday
Venue: Darts Farm, Darts Shopping Village, Topsham
Participants: The English Civil War Society (ECWS). Approximately 300+ members to set up camp nearby
Description: Re-enactment of Civil War 1643. In 1643 Exeter was besieged for months by Royalists and eventually surrendered by September that year. Events throughout this period culminate in July 1643 with a heavy Royalist presence on Topsham Barre and attack by Parliamentarian fleet led by the Earl of Warwick. Fierce maritime and land battle raged from the mouth of the River Exe all the way up to Topsham and the surrounding area. This battle was quite significant and became a turning point of the Royalists campaign for siege and eventual surrender of Exeter from Parliamentarian control.
The Battle at Darts Farm will re-enact the land aspect with 300+ Soldiers representing Royalist and Parliamentarian, together with authentic Pike weapon manoeuvres, artillery bombardment and Royalist Cavalry charging amidst the raging battle.
A 'living history' display of life during this period will be set up by ECWS for the general public to view throughout the weekend
The ECWS will carry out further accurate research of historical records. All evidence to be researched from Primary and Secondary Sources (Bellum Civile, Lord Hopton's Narrative of his campaign in the West. Devon & Exeter in the Civil War by Andriette. Exeter and Devon Records of this period.
Guests: Royalist representative and local prominent politician.
More information will be added later this month!
For more information and further pictures of these fantastic re-enactments and displays check out the official ECWS website.
Topsham in the English Civil War
Written by Martin Phillips for The English Civil War Society
In the seventeenth century international trade was growing with the new colonies in the Americas, which resulted in the expansion of many ports in the south and west of England. One such town to benefit from this expansion was Topsham, which over the years grew into a thriving and important port, often referred to as the "sea town of Exeter". Even the ocean going ships of the period were very small by today's standards, and had changed little over the preceding years; a good idea of their size can be gained by looking at the reproduction "Golden Hind" moored in Brixham. Topsham's fortunes were therefore closely entwined with those of Exeter's, which was the largest and most important city south of Bristol.
When the dispute between King Charles and Parliament flared into open warfare in August 1642, many of the Exeter Chamber (council) wished for the city to be kept out of the hostilities, and even for a while advocated an armed neutrality, but the more political of the members finally seized power and proclaimed the city for Parliament. Aside from having to deal with more Puritanically inclined authorities in the city, life in Topsham for the first few months of the war seems to have carried on much as normal, but this was to change at the end of the year.
In Cornwall Sir Ralph Hopton had been busy raising an army to challenge the Parliamentarian forces, and following several skirmishes had begun a loose siege on Plymouth which was strongly in favour of Parliament's cause. Naturally the Devonians that were anti - Royalist played on the fact that they had been invaded by "foreigners" (many of whom actually didn't speak English!), and attempted to raise the County by newsletters and pamphlets, some of which were outrageously inaccurate. It was reported that Hopton's Army arrived before Exeter on the 18th November and summoned the city to surrender, and was subsequently attacked the next day by the city's defenders and driven off with some 2000 casualties. The report in that pamphlet has even found its way into some prestigious history books, but is a total falsehood ...... that day the Royalists were entering Tavistock having just withdrawn from around Plymouth!
The Royalists however did have designs on Exeter, and having received several reports on the supposed weakness of the garrison, resolved to try and take the city. Assembling the Cornish Army at Totnes, Hopton's men marched around the southern edge of Dartmoor, arriving at the River Exe at Christmas. Colonel William Ruthin of the Plymouth garrison had shadowed Hopton's men for much of the march with a large party of cavalry and dragoons, and he received a hero's welcome from the city when his men arrived to bolster the garrison (his trumpeter being awarded œ1 - a month's wages - just for announcing his arrival!).
By December 25th the Royalists were in control of Alphington, Ide and Powderham, and had seen a supply ship moored at Topsham Quay. Captain Nott with around twenty musketeers rowed across the river and captured the vessel, only to be overpowered themselves by the crew that night and for the ship to escape down river at dawn! On the 26th December Hopton sent a letter into Exeter demanding the city to surrender, but on receiving a terse refusal tried another approach. Two Cornish regiments (Sir Bevill Grenvile's and William Godolphin's) were dispatched over the Exe to secure Topsham, throwing the small garrison out in confusion which then fled back to Exeter in panic. This small action caused terror in some parts of Exeter, and there were reports of people fleeing the city frightened by the barbarian hordes!
On December 28th the Parliamentarians made their move, and sallied out of the city with a strong force to try and retake Topsham. Fierce fighting took place in and around the houses on the edge of the town, and although the assault was not entirely successful, due to a total lack of reinforcements or supplies, the Royalists were forced to withdraw back over the Exe. December 30th saw the Royalists attack Exeter from a completely different direction, but this assault ground to a halt against a fortified position at Cowley Bridge north of the city.
With the weather turning to near blizzard conditions, and their ammunition and supplies critically low, Hopton's men finally gave up and marched away via Crediton on 1st January 1643. Although they had successfully defended the city, albeit against only around 3500 men, the Parliamentarians were severely shaken by their experience and started a vast repair and building programme to supplement the city's mediaeval defences. For some reason, although it was vital to the city's survival, Topsham was not included in these works
Soon after the departure of Sir Ralph Hopton's men back to Cornwall, more Parliamentarian reinforcements arrived in Exeter, led by the Earl of Bedford. A peace of sorts descended on the area for the next few months, although the local farmers were upset at having to send quantities of supplies into the city to feed the oversized garrison. This problem was reduced in the middle of May when Bedford's forces marched out to confront Hopton, but trepidation returned when the news of Bedford's comprehensive defeat at the Battle of Stratton (16th May near Bude) reached the city. The efforts at improving Exeter's defences accelerated, with large earthworks (the best defence against seventeenth century weaponry) being thrown up all round the walls. The Royalist threat did not immediately materialize because Hopton's army by-passed the city on its march to join Prince Maurice (younger brother of the more famous Prince Rupert) at Chard, but by the start of June a well balanced force commanded by Sir John Berkeley arrived in the area.
On 10th June the Royalists launched their first attacks on the defended outposts of Exeter, and within four days most of the suburbs had been cleared. Prior to these advances the Parliamentarians had made what turned out to be a crucial decision to their own detriment: worried about the problems of feeding the inhabitants, Bedford's cavalry brigade had been sent from the city to ease the pressures on the food supply. While that problem was solved, it left the city with little means of striking swiftly at the besiegers, so severely hampering their chances of conducting any counter attacks.
By the 17th June all the area surrounding Exeter was firmly in Royalist hands, with outposts set up at Cowley Bridge, Heavitree and Topsham. Appreciating the importance of it's port, the Exeter garrison launched a sally with the majority of its remaining cavalry against Topsham on 18th June with disastrous results. As the Parliamentarian cavalry charged into the town, the Royalist musketeers held their fire with strict discipline until the horse were well into the main street, where they proceeded to decimate the troopers with a concentrated cross-fire. With a fair proportion of their comrades dead or injured, many of the others surrendered while others fled the area. Few managed to return to Exeter, thus ending the Parliamentarian cavalry threat.
The Royalists captured the suburb of St. Thomas on July 6th, finally surrounding the city, and also started installing garrisons into Powderham, Exmouth and the point at Dawlish Warren. They were rightly concerned that the Parliamentarian fleet, commanded by the Earl of Warwick, would attempt to relieve the city by sea. Topsham would obviously be the key to any kind of maritime strategy, so consequently a half - moon earthwork was erected next to the Strand to provide an artillery position to cover the river.
The Earl of Warwick duly arrived with a small fleet off the Exe estuary on the 8th July 1643, and started a campaign to break through in force to the beleaguered city. Parties of soldiers and seamen were landed at Exmouth and managed to dislodge the Royalists from the town. Slowly Warwick's strategy for picking off the small garrisons worked, and the Parliamentarian raiding parties cleared out Dawlish Warren, Starcross and Powderham in turn. By the 18th July he had anchored off Topsham where he hoped to land his main party of 800 soldiers along with any seamen that he could spare. Unfortunately his plans were going astray: the Royalists had moved a large portion of their army to Topsham to counter this threat, and the hoped for sally by the garrison of Exeter to take the Royalists in the flank did not happen. Stamford, denuded of cavalry had no wish to expose his vastly outnumbered infantry to attack so far from the city walls. With several boats having been deliberately sunk in the channel, Warwick was unable to bring his larger vessels along side in Topsham, and at the mercy of the wind and tides they became prime targets for the Royalist artillery in the town. Warwick attempted to land a large force of seamen on the Strand, but continually raked with musket fire the boats were forced to withdraw. Several other attempts to land soldiers and seamen around the town were beaten off before they could gain a real foothold. The attack became a total disaster when one ship sank under the artillery bombardment, and a second that had run aground was fired to stop it falling into Royalist hands. Warwick's grand plan had failed, primarily due to a lack of help from the city's garrison, and that reason can be attributed to their lack of cavalry.
With Warwick retreating back to his main fleet lying at Lyme, the Royalists were free to turn their attention back to Exeter. A relief column from Plymouth led by Sir Alexander Carew was scattered by the Royalist cavalry ending all hope from the outside, so the defenders tried to force the besiegers to retire themselves. On 31st July over 1000 members of the garrison attacked the Royalist held suburb of St. Thomas, burning several buildings and forcing the besiegers out, but the success of this action was short lived, and the noose slowly tightened.
On 27th August Prince Maurice arrived with a further 3000 infantry and 500 cavalry of the Royalist Western Army. By 3rd September 1643 the plan of attack was finalised, and led by Colonels James Chudleigh and Joseph Bampfield, they assaulted the outer fortification close by South Gate. Over-running the defenders, they turned the artillery on the city walls and gate, causing much damage in a short time. The resolve of Stamford broke, and he swiftly parleyed for a negotiated surrender of the city. Two days later the Roundhead garrison of Exeter marched out, leaving the city in Royalist hands for the next two and a half years under the governorship of Sir John Berkeley.
With allowances for a small garrison, peace returned to Topsham during the time of Royalist control of Exeter, and in some ways the town flourished. A large percentage of the Royalist's supplies came into the country by sea, and Topsham was used as much as conditions allowed. War clouds only appeared on the horizon once again when the New Model Army marched into Devon in pursuit of the Prince of Wales and Lord Hopton following the defeat of the King's main field army at the battle of Naseby in 1645.
Sir Thomas Fairfax's men reached Silverton on the 26th October 1645, and an advance guard ousted the small Royalist garrison from Topsham on the following day. Sir John Berkeley was popular (certainly as far as any military governor can be!) with the inhabitants of Exeter, and he had even kept Lord Goring's notoriously ill-disciplined troopers out of the city. When left to his own devices however, he was ruthless in demolishing whole areas of the suburbs to leave his artillery a clear field of fire.
Fairfax held a council of war at Topsham on the 29th October, and all manner of schemes were considered to take Exeter, but their over-riding problem was a spreading sickness amongst their soldiery (it has been suggested that it was a mild form of influenza). Consequently it was decided to build a defence line that stretched along the river Clyst as far north as Broadclyst, and from there to Stoke Canon and the Culm at Thorverton Bridge. Fairfax himself set up his headquarters at Ottery St. Mary. Exeter was still being supplied from the sea by small craft, and for a while the city still had good communications with the rest of the Royalist forces overland to the west.
With the Roundhead threat diminished, the Royalists reduced Exeter's garrison to relieve the pressure on supplies by moving 600 infantry out to join Hopton's main field army in November 1645, although this still meant that the city was crammed with eight or nine hundred regulars and around 1500 townsmen in the Exeter Trained Bands. Berkeley still commanded the city, but was challenged in his authority when Lord Goring returned to Exeter.
The Royalist command, forever dogged by political intrigue (the Roundheads had nullified their own trouble of this type by forming the New Model Army) had to react fast, so Lord Hopton and Sir Richard Grenvile arrived and put Goring firmly in his place. With his ambitions thwarted, Goring chose one last course to further his political aims. On the 12th November 1645 he sent a letter to Fairfax and was granted an interview with the Parliamentarian commander. He suggested a separate peace in the West Country which would have put himself and Fairfax in a position to virtually rule the county, but Fairfax, loyal to his own cause, rejected Goring's proposals. Lord Goring, hated by the populace and now disgraced, rode to Dartmouth and took a ship to France and exile.
With the sickness in the Roundhead army subsiding, operations began again in December. Crediton was captured, and Fairfax launched an ambitious assault across the Exe against Powderham. The fighting centred around the church which was defended bitterly by the Roundheads. The castle had been reinforced with troops fresh from Exeter, and the fight ended in stalemate with the Roundheads quietly withdrawing as both sides exhausted themselves. Changing tactics, the Parliamentarians occupied Exminster, and then fell on the Royalist positions at St. Thomas, forcing the garrison back into the city.
Exeter's defences were too strong for the Parliamentarians to risk an assault at this stage, but as the year turned the position of the defenders was becoming critical. A relief force of Lord Wentworth's cavalry was surprised and destroyed at Bovey Tracey on January 9th 1646 by Oliver Cromwell, and Fairfax resolved to deal with the remaining Royalist forces being gathered by Lord Hopton in northern Devon. The New Model Army was increasing its strength almost daily, and with the extra resources Fairfax could act. Leaving a force under Sir Hardrass Waller to continue the siege, Fairfax advanced his army via Crediton into the Taw valley and moved against Hopton.
The Royalists had taken up positions in the town of Torrington, which has good natural defences. On the evening of 16th February 1646 Fairfax, outnumbering the defenders by three to one, launched his attack. For over two hours the battle raged in the tight streets, often from house to house, until the climactic end came with the Royalist powder store in the church exploding. The defeated Royalists streamed away from the town towards Cornwall, and the last chance for Exeter was gone. Although a few die-hards held out in Pendennis Castle until 16th August 1646, all Royalist field forces were finally surrendered by Hopton at Truro on 12th March.
While Fairfax was away, preparations for taking Exeter were continuing apace. A temporary bridge was constructed across the Exe at Topsham, and Waller continued to build up supplies ready for an attack. Daily his troops made advances through the outlying settlements and villages forcing the outnumbered Royalists to slowly give ground. Skirmishes at Mount Radford and in St. Thomas became regular occurrences, with buildings often changing hands more than once.
The final blow to the garrison of Exeter was the arrival of Fairfax at the head of his army on the road from Crediton on 31st March 1646. They drew up in formation within sight of the city walls, along with all of Waller's men in their positions, giving a full display of the New Model Army's might. Outnumbered by seven to one, it is no wonder that the Royalist's morale plummeted, and in response to a letter from Fairfax to Berkeley on 1st April, they replied on the 3rd that they would negotiate a surrender. At midday on 13th April 1646 the Royalist garrison, fully armed and with colours flying, marched out of the city. For Exeter and Topsham the war was over.
Date:Saturday 17th June
Venue: St Margaret's Church, Topsham, Exeter
Cost: Not known at present
Description: 16th century Music from England & Spain. "Counterpoint"
The 17th century: Topsham and the Civil War