Siege of Devizes 1643

The Western Campaign of 1643 map and background to the Siege of Devizes in 1643
Western Campaign 1643

Siege of Devizes 1643 – The Civil War in the Balance

The Siege of Devizes in 1643 is rarely remembered today. It is overshadowed by the decisive royalist victory at Roundway Down. However, had the King’s Western Army foot failed to hold Devizes, there would have been no Roundway Down. The West Country might have remained under parliamentary control and the English Civil War might have taken a very different course.

This page aims to provide historical notes to accompany The Keys of Hell and Death, a novel by Charles Cordell. The notes are listed in order roughly matching the text. They cover the Siege of Devizes in 1643. This website also includes notes on the battles of Lansdown Hill, Roundway Down and the Storming of Bristol. 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 and Maps.

The King’s Western Army

In early 1643, the King’s Western Army fought its way from Cornwall to Bath. This website includes notes that explain the latter part of that advance. These include an article on the Battle of Lansdown Hill, fought outside Bath on 5 July 1643. It was an extraordinary, brutal battle.

The core of the King’s Western Army consisted of five Cornish foot regiments. They were described by 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 West Country foot regiments and a mixed bag of horse.

The Parliamentary Western Association Army

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

The Battle of Chippenham – 8 July 1643

Although victorious, the King’s Western Army lacked ammunition after the brutal Battle of Lansdown Hill. The situation was made worse the next morning when captured powder was lost in an explosion that badly burned Sir Ralph Hopton.

Unable to follow up their success, the Western Army continued its march towards Oxford. However, they were pursued and caught at Chippenham by Sir William Waller and the Western Association army on Saturday 8 July 1643.

The Western Army turned back over Chippenham Bridge to face its pursuers. The two armies faced each other through the night and next morning, in the fields to the west of the town. The result was a standoff broken by skirmishing.

The Fight at Rowde Ford – 9 July 1643

On the afternoon of Sunday 9 July 1643, the Western Army withdrew back through Chippenham and continued its march. However, they lacked enough good cavalry to counter Waller’s horsemen on the open Wiltshire downs. The Western Army was forced to turn off the Great Road towards London and head south for Devizes.

Waller and his parliamentary horse caught the straggling Western Army again at the village of Rowde. A rear-guard defended the ford long enough for the rest of Hopton’s foot to drag itself into Devizes. But it could go no further.

Devizes in 1643

Devizes was not well suited or prepared to withstand a siege. The Western Army foot set about digging out the old town ditch and barricading the streets to form a perimeter. This ran in an arc along what are now Commercial Road and Southbroom Road. 

Beyond the town ditch outworks were manned and defended. Almost certainly, St James’s Church across the Green was one of these. Lacking powder to use them, the Western Army pulled its cannon inside the old castle for safe keeping.

The town was not a rich one. Its economy was based on weaving. Many of the inhabitants were poor cottage weavers who existed on the edge of poverty. Most were kept in debt to richer clothiers and market-spinners. The latter sold wool and yarn at inflated prices, buying back the cloth at reduced rates.

Prince Maurice’s Breakout – 10 July 1643

Critically, Devizes lacked fodder to feed the Western Army’s horses. The decision was taken that Prince Maurice would break out with 300 cavaliers and attempt to reach Oxford and reinforcements. 

Departing at midnight on Monday 10 July 1643, Prince Maurice and the Western Army horse reached Marlborough by morning. During the same night, a relief column with ammunition from Oxford was ambushed by Waller’s horse.

The Prince did not stop at Marlborough. With an escort he made the extraordinary ride across the downs to Oxford. He then returned with reinforcements on Thursday 13 July 1643. A more detailed account of this action can be found with the notes on the Battle of Roundway Down.

Bed Cords and Bombardment – 11 July 1643

On Tuesday 11 July 1643, Waller brought his army down from Roundway Down and deployed them to the east of Devizes and at Potterne. He set up an artillery battery on Coatefield Hill and began a bombardment.

Within Devizes, only two barrels of powder remained. Sir Ralph Hopton, still blinded and confined to a chair after the explosion at Lansdown Hill, remained in command. Stalling for time, he asked for a truce and time to consider negotiations.

While the truce held, Hopton ordered the requisitioning of every bed cord in Devizes to be collected and boiled with resin to make match cord. At the same time, the lead roof of St John’s Church was stripped to make shot.

Lieutenant Colonel Walter Slingsby’s Account

The next morning [Tuesday 11 July 1643] Waller draws his whole force close to the town and beleaguers us round, lying in many places within carabine shot; raised a battery upon a hill near the town, and then incessantly day and night pours great and small shot into us. There was no better works then hedges, yet had we so barricaded the avenues that their horse could not charge in upon us, neither durst their foot attempt us, we being almost twice their number, and better foot. 

Our match failed us and we were forced to use all the bed-cord in the town, which being prepared with rossell served well. The Lord Crawford was coming with ammunition to us, but was beaten by the way; upon which Waller gives notice of that mischance and offers us conditions, but not granting them so honourable as we demanded the treaty was quickly dissolved.’

Waller’s Assault and St James’s Church Struck – 12 July 1643

On the morning of Wednesday 12 July 1643, Waller ended talks and began an assault. This was preceded by a bombardment from Coatefield Hill. His foot battalions attacked and overran the royalist outworks, from the east. 

Almost certainly, this is when the tower of St James’s Church was punctured by cannon fire. The two holes are still clearly visible today. The two 2½ lb cannon balls that struck the church are now in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

The Civil War in the West Hanging in the Balance – Morris Lane

Waller’s assault breached the town perimeter and penetrated as far as Morris Lane. It is likely that his troops made their breach in the area of Hare and Hounds Street. This was a weak point. Housing here had been allowed encroach upon the Green, spilling over the town ditch.

There are suggestions that some of Waller’s men made it as far as Long Street. A house that stood at the entrance to St John’s Churchyard was destroyed during the Civil War. Bullet marks also appear on the chancel wall of St John’s. These could only have been made at close range by musket shot or case-shot. However, it is possible these were the result of action in 1645.

Either way, the defence of Devizes must have hung in the balance. If Waller’s Western Army had succeeded in taking the town, Hopton would have had no option but to surrender. Prince Maurice’s ride to relieve Devizes would have been too late. There would have been no royalist victory at Roundway Down. The West would almost certainly have remained under parliamentary control.

As it was, after several hours of fierce hand-to-hand combat, the Western Army foot regained their precarious perimeter. Some of Waller’s officers blamed their defeat on the weather. The day and night was ‘extremely wet’.

Ceasefire and Funeral Procession for Sir Bevil Grenville

Again, Sir Ralph Hopton managed to negotiate a ceasefire. This time, he used the opportunity and perhaps the excuse of sending out the funeral procession for Sir Bevil Grenville. 

Sir Bevil had been mortally wounded leading the Cornish foot at Lansdown Hill. The practice of large ‘walking funerals’ remained common in Cornwall well into the 19th Century. This procession was probably led by Anthony Payne, Sir Bevil’s steward and ensign. They carried his body back to Kilkhampton in Cornwall, where Sir Bevil is buried.

For whatever reason, Sir William Waller did not resume his assault on Devizes. This may have been due to the weather. He may equally have believed he had time to wear down the Western Army’s resistance. Either way, it would seem the remaining day and night were relatively quiet.

The Battle of Roundway Down – 13 July 1643

Next morning, Thursday 13 July 1643, Prince Maurice and Henry Wilmot’s relief force neared Roundway Down. They fired two cannon to warn Hopton of their approach. 

Warned of their approach, Waller abandoned the siege and marched north to intercept them. He reached Roundway Down first, marching without sounding drum or trumpet.

What followed was the Battle of Roundway Down. It is generally accepted as the most decisive royalist victory of the English Civil War. It was to radically change the situation in the West and perhaps the course of the war. Notes on the battle follow at the Battle of Roundway Down.

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.

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 Notes and Maps.

If you want more, why not join us in the Divided Kingdom Readers’ Club. You will receive a monthly email from me including more notes from my research. If you think this is for you, please do join the Clubmen.

Alternatively, return to the site Home Page for information about Charles Cordell, latest posts and links to books.