The Battle of Lansdown Hill 1643

Battle of Lansdown Hill 1643, 5 July 1643, map
Battle of Lansdown Hill 1643

The Battle of Lansdown Hill 1643 – Cornwall’s High-Water Mark

The Battle of Lansdown Hill in 1643 was the royalist Western Army’s crowning victory. It saw the King’s Cornish foot scale the escarpment of Lansdown and beat the parliamentary Western Association army from its prepared defences. Bath lay open.

But the taking of Lansdown Hill was a brutal struggle. Victory came at a shocking cost. The need to take the hights is questionable and, although a success, failed to achieve its aim. Ultimately, Lansdown Hill represented the high-water mark of the King’s Cornish foot.

The King’s Western Army had fought its way from Cornwall to Bath. But the Western Association army threatened their onward march across the open Wiltshire downs to Oxford. The Cornish foot regiments turned back to throw off their tormentors. They scaled the hights, cleared the defences and hung on against fierce counter-attacks.

However, the King’s Western Army failed to break their opponents. The Western Association Army remained a threat to their march. The way to Oxford and the King was not opened.

This page aims to provide historical notes to accompany The Keys of Hell and Death, a historical novel by Charles Cordell. The notes are listed in order roughly matching the text. They cover the Battle of Lansdown Hill in 1643. This website also includes pages on the Battle of Roundway Down and the Storming of Bristol in 1643. Articles on The General Crisis of the 17th Century and the causes of conflict in the British Civil Wars can also be found at English Civil War Notes & Maps.

The English Civil War in July 1643 – the King in Ascendancy

In July 1643, the royalist cause was in the ascendancy. The King’s Northern Army had taken control of Northumberland, Durham, Cumbria and much of Lancashire. In Yorkshire, only Hull stood defiant.

The Queen was marching south from York with own ‘Popish’ army and a convoy of munitions. The latter had been bought on the continent with money raised from the sale of crown jewels. It would be used to re-equip the King’s growing Oxford Army.

Meanwhile, the King’s Western Army had fought its way from Cornwall to Bath. If it too could reach Oxford, the King would have three armies gathered in the south of England. For the first time in the English Civil War, he would have the potential to take London.

The King’s Western Army

In early 1643, the King’s Cornish Army won a resounding victory at Stratton in North Cornwall. They fought their way up Stamford Hill to clear a larger parliamentary army from its ancient hill fort on 16 May 1643. Led by Sir Ralph Hopton, they went on to fight their way across Devon.

At Chard in Somerset, the Cornish Army was joined by Prince Maurice, the Marquis of Hertford and a force of cavalier horse and West Country foot. Combined, this force formed the King’s Western Army. Together, they fought their way from Chard to Bath.

The core of the King’s Western Army consisted of five Cornish foot regiments. They were described by Major Richard Atkyns as ‘the very best foot I ever saw for marching and fighting; but so mutinous withal, that nothing but an alarm could keep them from falling foul upon their officers.’ To them were added another four and a half new West Country foot regiments and a mixed bag of cavalier horse.

The Parliamentary Western Association Army

Sir William Waller commanded the parliamentary army of the Western Association. This consisted of a strong force of six horse regiments and dragoons. At Bath, Waller also concentrated three to four battalions of foot drawn from parliamentary garrisons, including Bristol.

The two armies were quite mismatched. Although stronger in its foot soldiers, the King’s Western Army could not match Waller’s horsemen. This was a critical factor. The way from Bath to Oxford led across the open Wiltshire downs. The King’s Western Army needed to defeat Waller’s horse if it was to reach Oxford unmolested.

Bradford-on-Avon, Monkton Farleigh and Claverton – 2-4 July 1643

The King’s Western Army reached Bradford-on-Avon on Sunday 2 July 1643. Here they crossed the River Avon to threaten Bath from the east. Waller occupied Claverton Down. During the night, he pushed a force across the ford below Claverton House to lay in ambush in the woods around Monkton Farleigh.

A running fight ensued the next day as the Cornish foot cleared the woods. Waller’s force was pushed from Monkton Farleigh Hill and pursued to Bath Easton. Meanwhile, Prince Maurice turned the foot to take the ford at Claverton. But Waller slipped away in the dark, retreating into Bath.

By the evening of Tuesday 4 July, the King’s Western Army lay scattered between Claverton and Langridge. Fearing a counterattack by Waller, they fell back to occupy quarters around Marshfield, rather than attempt to seize Lansdown Hill.

But, by early morning on Wednesday 5 July 1643, Waller had occupied Lansdown Hill. The position was fortified with breastworks of wood and earth.

The Parliamentary Position on Lansdown Hill

Hopton states that Waller occupied the eastern end of Lansdown Hill. ‘The next morning early, Sir William Waller drew out his whole Army over Lansdown to that end which looks towards Marsfield, and there upon the very point of the hill, over the high way suddenly raised breast works with faggots and earth.’

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Slingsby tells us that Waller’s main body was flanked by woods. ‘On the brow of the hill, he had raised breastworks in which his cannon and great store of small shott was placed; on either flank he was strengthened with a thick wood which stood upon the declining of the hill, in which he had put store of musketeers; on his rear he had a fair plain where stood ranged his reserves of horse and foot … thus fortified stood the fox gazing at us.’

Slingsby states that ‘some bodies of horse with musketeers he [Waller] bestowed upon some other places of the hill, where he thought there was any access.’ However, we also know that there were ‘many little pits’ on the left of the parliamentarian position. These were the Saxon quarry pits still in evidence today behind Beechwood at ST 718701. Waller’s main body, therefore, almost certainly stood between Beechwood and the earthworks at the eastern end of Lansdown. 

The monument on Lansdown Hill, to Sir Bevil Grenville, stands within one of the parliamentary breastworks. This was almost certainly a gun platform. The position commands the steep road leading up Lansdown Hill. The remains of what is likely to be a second gun platform can be seen approximately 200 yards to the east. A third probably existed beyond that.

Alarum and Skirmishing on Tog Hill and Freezing Hill

Early on the morning of Wednesday 5 July, Waller beat in the royalist horse guards on Tog Hill. Hopton’s account describes skirmishing across Tog Hill and Freezing Hill, the top of which consisted of a large cornfield. ‘This roused the Army at Marshfield and so about 8 that morning … all drew forth, and within very short time a light skirmish was engaged with dragoons in the hedges on each side.

‘But the chief Commanders of the King’s Army, considering that the continuing of that kind of fight would be to little effect, but might only waist their ammunition (whereof they had not plenty) drew off and retreated in batalio towards their quarter to Marshfield, which the other Army perceiving took the courage to send down great parties of armed horse and dragoons to charge them both in rear and flank.

‘Those that came upon the [royalist] rear used most diligence and, having left their dragoons in the end of the lane towards the [corn] field charged very gallantly, and routed two bodies of [our] horse, whereof the last was, by Prince Maurice’s command to Sir Ralph Hopton winged with Cornish musketeers, who (poor men) though the horse were routed between them kept their ground and preserved themselves till the Earl of Carnarvon’s Regiment of horse was drawn up to them.’

Carr’s Dragoons Advance

At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Waller sent forward 200 dragoons. Under Colonel James Carr, they worked their way forward along hedges on either side of Royalist position. They ‘were not discovered till they shot’.

Atkyns says ‘being within half musket shot of the hedges lined on both sides by their dragoons; several [royalist] horses were killed, and some of our men; their muskets playing very hard upon our horse, made us retreat so disorderly, that they fell foul upon our foot; and indeed there was not room enough for us to retreat in order, unless we had gone upon the very mouths of their muskets’.

Duett’s Forlorn-Hope – ‘The Boldest Thing’

Waller now pushed forward a forlorn-hope of 200 horse under Major Francis Duett (or Dowet), a Frenchman. This force included both Waller’s own regiment and Captain John Butler’s troop of armoured ‘lobsters’. They advanced a mile and a half from Lansdown Hill, onto Freezing Hill. Here they recaptured two light cannon taken at Monkton Farleigh. Atkyns described the action as ‘the boldest thing that I ever saw the enemy do’.

The parliamentary account states ‘our General Sir William Waller perceiving their Army to retreat, immediately commanded Major Dowet to take out a party of 200 horse, and seconded by 200 more, commanded by Colonel Carr, both parties advanced toward their army, and charged them so gallantly, that they put all their army to a disorderly retreat, as that their horse took the rear of their foot; but they taking hart again in a full body, with their great artillery caused our party to retire yet orderly.’

Burghill’s Advance and Arundell’s Charge

Waller now threw Colonel Robert Burghill (or Burrell) and his regiment of horse into the fight between Lansdown Hill and Freezing Hill. The parliamentary account continues. ‘Sir William perceiving [Duett retiring], sent Colonel Burghill with a party to relieve them, and carried all again, which put the enemy to second retreat.’

The royalist army was in disorder. The Marquis of Hertford’s Lifeguard of Horse was now ordered to halt the parliamentary advance. They had never charged in action before. Atkyns volunteered to charge with them, beside Lord Arundell of Trerice, their commander. Together, they pushed back Burghill and the forlorn-hope.

Mercurius Aulicus describes the general scene. ‘And there advanced a strong party of horse under the protection of their musketeers [dragoons], and some of our horse being drawn out within musket shot, retired in some disorder towards the rear of our foot whereupon Sir Bevil Grenville and Sir Nicholas Slanning’s regiments of Cornish foot advanced and bravely beat them out of the hedges, but our horse speedily rallied again and recovered their ground.’

Slanning and Grenville Clear the Hedges

Hopton takes up the story. ‘In the meantime, Sir Nicholas Slanning was commanded with two or three hundred musketeers to fall upon the reserve of dragoons behind them [between Tog Hill and the cornfield], which he performed very gallantly and beat them off; and at the same time the Earl of Caernarvon with his Regiment and the forementioned musketeers charged the enemy’s horse and totally routed them.’

Slingsby gives more. ‘The enemy’s horse being now pressed into the lane that leads over Tog Hill to Lansdown, were observed to be in some disorder by reason of the narrow and ill passage. Prince Maurice therefore takes all our horse and wings them on both sides the lane within the hedges with small shot, and so smartly fell upon them, that some ran in great disorder.

‘But it seems they had (like provident soldiers) placed their best horse in the rear who being compelled, turns about and fights desperately, and their gives our horse another foil with the death of Major Lower, Major James and many others. But our horse being still assisted by the foot, at last beat them down Tog Hill, where in the bottom they were cruelly galled by our foot.’

The royalists finally cleared the remaining parliamentary dragoons out of ‘the walls and hedges at the far end of the field’. With this, the royalist army then reoccupied the cornfield on Freezing Hill.

Caernarvon’s Pursuit

The parliamentary account describes the scene at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. ‘The fight was variously maintained for two hours. At length our foot [dragoons] growing weary, a fresh supply was sent, who being but fresh soldiers, did not make good their ground, which constrained our parties to retreat, after Colonel Burghill had received a shot through his right arm, as his sword was even at the throat of the Lord of Carnarvon. 

‘Our men fell back to their first ground [Lansdown Hill], to bring back the two hammer pieces [cannon] which were taken from us at Fourd-bridge [Monkton Farleigh], the Monday before.’

Lord Carnarvon (with his regiment of horse) pursued Burghill and the parliamentary forlorn hope almost to the top of Lansdown. They killed some and took several prisoners. Carnarvon was shot in leg and disabled. He was to be out of action for some time.

Grenville’s Assault – Cornwall’s High-Water Mark

While the royalist troops waited in the cornfield for orders, they were subjected to fire from the parliamentarian guns on Lansdown Hill. It would seem that at least some lost their patience and demanded to attack Waller’s artillery.

Hopton’s Cornish foot were men of strong self-belief. Their discipline was not guaranteed. Even today, a sense of honour and Celtic independence can flare amongst Cornish rugby players. 

Slingsby tells us, ‘did our foot believe no men their equal, and were so apt to undertak anything that the hill upon which the rebels stood well-fortified, from whence they racked us with their cannon could not deter them, and they desired to fall on and cried “let us fetch those cannon” …

‘Order was presently given to attempt the hill with horse and foot: great parties of musketeers were sent out of either of our wings to fall into those woods which flanked the enemy, and in which they had lodged store of small shot for their defence, the horse were to pass up the highway, but were at first repulsed.

‘Sir Bevil Grenville then stood on the head of his regiment … who advanced presently putting all his shot upon his left hand within a wall, and carried with him horse on his right hand, the ground being best for horse, and he himself lead up his pikes in the middle.’

Hopton describes the feat. ‘And then the whole army in the best order they could in that broad way that leads to Lansdown, advanced towards the enemy, sending out as they went strong parties of musketeers on each hand to second one another, to endeavour under the cover of the enclosed grounds to gain the flank of the enemy on the top of the hill, which they at last did. 

‘But the pikes and the horse with the rest of the musketeers that advanced up the broad way, as the space would bear, had much to do, by reason of the disadvantage of the ground. The enemy’s foot and batteries being under cover of their breast-works, and their horse ready to charge upon the very brow of the hill.’

Little has changed in the landscape today. Grenville’s route down Freezinghill Lane and up the road to Lansdown remains the same. The bank (or wall) to the left is still there, as is the open ground to the right. It remains dominated by the breastwork at the base of the monument to Grenville.

They Stood as Upon the Eaves of a House – Hanging in Balance

Slingsby tells us the Grenville ‘gained with much gallantry the brow of the hill receiving all their small shot and cannon from their breastwork, and three charges of horse two of which he stood. But in the third fell with him many of his men.’

For a while, Grenville’s Foot stood alone, the only royalist battalion to reach the summit of Lansdown. ‘Yet had his [Grenville’s] appearing upon the ground so disordered the enemy, his own musketeers firing fast upon their horse, that they could not stay upon the ground longer. The rebel’s foot took example by their horse and quit their breastworks retiring behind a long stone wall that runs across the down. 

‘Our foot leaps into their breastworks; our horse draws up upon their ground; our two wings that were sent to fall into the two woods had done their business and were upon the hill as soon as the rest.’

Hopton’s completes the picture. ‘There was Sir Bevil Grenville slain in the head of his pikes, and Major Lower in the head of a party of horse, and Sir Nicholas Slanning’s horse killed under him with a great shot. And the body of [royalist] horse so discomforted that of 2,000 there did not stand above 600.

‘Yet at last, they recovered the hill and the enemy drew back about demi-culverin-shott, within a stone wall. But there [they] stood in reasonable good order and each party played upon the other with their ordnance. But neither advanced being both soundly battered.’

Atkyns gives a glimpse of the ferocity of the fighting. ‘For the air was so darkened by the smoke of the powder, that for a quarter of an hour together (I dare say) there was no light seen but what the fire of the volleys of shot gave. And twas the greatest storm that ever I saw.’

Waller’s Stone Wall

The stone wall still to be found some 400 yards behind the crest of Lansdown Hill is almost certainly, in part at least, the wall behind which Waller withdrew. In order to provide gaps through which their cavalry could charge any further royalist advance, the parliamentarians demolished several sections of the wall, covering these sally ports with cannon and musketeers. 

Cavalry emerging through these ports would require room in which to deploy before meeting the enemy. The present wall shows evidence of repaired breaches. There is also evidence of a prehistoric walled enclosure traversing the current route of the Bath Road on the Lansdown plateau, immediately to the south of this stone wall. Early maps refer to the enclosure as the ‘old entrenchment’ suggesting it provided part of the shelter behind which Waller withdrew.

Slingsby, ‘The Enemy … drew his whole strength behind that wall which he lined well with musketeers, and in several places broke down breaches very broad that his horse might charge if their were occasion, which breaches were guarded by his cannon and bodies of pikes. 

‘Thus stood the two Armies taking breath looking upon each other, our cannon on both sides playing without ceasing till it was dark, legs and arms flying apace, the two armies being within musket shot. 

‘After it was dark there was great silence on both sides, at which time our right wing of shot got much nearer their army lodging themselves amongst the many little [Saxon] pits betwixt the wall and the wood from whence we galled them cruelly.’

Waller’s Final Volley and Withdrawal to Bath

Slingsby continues his account. ‘About 11 of the clock [at night] we received a very great volley of small shot but not mixed with cannon by which some of us judged that he [Waller] was retreating, and gave this at his expiring. 

‘But the general apprehension through our army was that the enemy had intention to try a push in the night for their ground, which they had so dishonourably lost. For we were then seated like a heavy stone upon the very brow of the hill, which with one lusty charge might well have been rolled to the bottom.’

Waller’s Stratagem Discovered

Hopton explains. ‘All things grew quite again. So, after an hour’s silence, the chief commanders … gave a common soldier a reward to creep softly towards the place where the enemy stood, to bring certain notice whether they were retreated or no, who found them gone.’

Slingsby adds some detail. ‘It was not long before we knew certainly that they were gone, at their departure they left all their light matches upon the wall and whole bodies of pikes standing upright in order within the wall as if men had held them. 

‘We were glad they were gone for if they had not I know who had within an hour. But indeed had our horse been as good as the enemy’s the rebels had never gone off the field un-ruined.’

Hopton Gravely Wounded

Slingsby continues his account next morning. ‘We kept the field till it was day light and then plundered it, and sent several parties of horse several ways, at whose return we were informed that the enemy was in Bath. At eight of the clock we marched off towards Marshfield.’

Hopton oversaw the move back to Marshfield. Whilst waiting beside the road, he was nearly killed when a wagon carrying both parliamentary prisoners and captured barrels of gunpowder exploded. Atkyns was close by and gives a vivid account. He blames a prisoner who was allowed to light a pipe of tobacco with a burning match.

Slingsby states. ‘Upon Tog Hill one of our ammunition waggons took fire, blew up many men and hurt many; especially my Lord Hopton. Major [Thomas] Sheldon died the next day and was much lamented. This disaster encouraged the rebels and discouraged us. Our horse were bad before but now worse. Our foot drooped for their lord whom they loved, and that they had not powder left to defend him, for as I remember we had then but nine barrels left.’

Waller Returns

As the King’s Western Army dragged itself into quarters around Marshfield, Waller re-occupied Lansdown Hill. Despite their extraordinary victory, the royalists had failed to break their opponents. The Western Association Army remained a threat to their march across the open Wiltshire downs. The way to Oxford and their King had not been opened.

What followed was the Battle of Chippenham and the Siege of Devizes. Only after the Battle of Roundway Down would the King’s Western Army be free of Waller.

More Reading

I hope you found these notes on the Storming of Bristol in 1643 useful. If you are planning to visit the locations in these notes, please do also check out the resources on the Battlefields Hub. This is a site run by the Battlefields Trust, a volunteer organisation dedicated to protecting and promoting Britain’s battlefields. Their guided battlefield walks are excellent.

You may also want to check out more of my English Civil War notes on the website. These include articles on the Battle of Edgehill, the Battle of Brentford, the Siege of Devizes and the Battle of Roundway Down and the Storming of Bristol in 1643.

You can also read about 17th Century Military Theory. This article explains the clash between Dutch and Swedish military doctrines at Edgehill in 1642. More articles on The General Crisis, the Wars of Religion and The Thirty Years War are also at English Civil War Notes and Maps.

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