Storming of Bristol 1643

The Storming of Bristol 1643 map
Storming of Bristol 1643

Storming of Bristol 1643 – an English Civil War Urban Battle

The Storming of Bristol in 1643 was a key moment in the English Civil War. It saw the King seize England’s second city and port. It all but cleared the West Country of Parliamentary forces. Only Gloucester still stood defiant. And it opened a harbour for the King’s forces in Ireland to land in England.

However, the taking of Bristol came at a terrible cost. The King’s Western Army had fought its way from Cornwall to Bath to join him. Its Cornish foot regiments hurled themselves at the city walls, only to be cut down on Bristol Temple Meads. The King’s Oxford Army also suffered badly in its assault. An opportunity to seize London was potentially lost.

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 Storming of Bristol in 1643. This website also includes notes on the battles of Lansdown Hill and Roundway Down, as well as articles on The General Crisis of the 17th Century and the causes of conflict in the British Civil Wars.

Bristol in 1643

Bristol was the second city of England. More importantly, it was also England’s second greatest port, surpassed only by London. Historically, Bristol’s royal charters confined its merchants to the Iberian trade with Spain and Portugal. The more lucrative Levantine trade routes to the eastern Mediterranean were jealously guarded by London.

However, the idea of ‘Bristol’s Hope’ drove its merchant venturers to pioneer Atlantic trade. They traded with Morocco, colonised Newfoundland and supplied the plantations of Virginia and the West Indies. Initially based on cod and wool, this saw the beginnings of a triangular trans-Atlantic trade that led to the ‘Widening Gate of Capitalism’.

Most importantly, Bristol in 1643 was a port for Ireland. The King had an army in Ireland – his English Army for Ireland. It had been raised and sent to Ireland in 1641 to fight the Catholic Confederate rebels. The King worked to bring about piece in his troubled kingdom of Ireland and bring his army back. If he could, it might tip the balance of forces and the English Civil War in his favour. But he needed a port for this. Bristol and Chester were key.

‘The Bloody and Abominable Plot’ – 7 March 1643

Parliament took control of Bristol early in the war. However, the city still contained many royalists, as well as those who tried to remain neutral. Two of the city’s merchants plotted to handover the city to the King in early 1643.

On the night of 7 March 1643, Prince Rupert waited outside the city, at Cotham, for the gates to be thrown open. Inside the town walls, 23 armed plotters gathered in the house of Robert Yeamans. They waited to overpower the Guard House across Wine Street (at what is now 10 Wine Street). Another 60 conspirators waited in the house of George Boucher on Christmas Street. 

With the help of a bribed captain, three lieutenants and a number of soldiers from the garrison, Frome Gate was to be taken. St John’s Gate was to be blocked with chains. The bells of St John’s and St Michael’s would then ring out in signal to Prince Rupert to enter and seize the city.

However, the plotters were betrayed by ‘a maid’. A few of the plotters escaped from Boucher’s house across the River Frome. However, Yeamans, Boucher and about 60 conspirators were arrested. Many were allowed to ransom themselves. But Yeamans and Boucher were forced to endure an apparently harsh imprisonment and interrogation.

Execution of Yeamans and Boucher – 30 May 1643

However, on 30 May 1643, Yeamans and Boucher were hanged. They were hanged on Wine Street, in front of Yeamans’ house. Major Langrish taunted them and their last devotions were disturbed. Colonel Clifton struck Yeamans’ brother-in-law for “staying the oscillation of the body of the victim as he was swung off the ladder.” 

Yeamans left a pregnant widow and eight children. Mistress Boucher was left to care for seven children. A lithograph by JS Prout gives us a picture of the Boucher house on Christmas Street. It shows a once fine colonnaded front as a dilapidated school.

Perhaps most striking are the words of Mistress Dorothy Hazard. This lady has long been seen as a Puritan heroin of Bristol. She played an extraordinary role in its defence and was the founder of the Broadmead Baptist Church. But she said, “it is a pity but that their children’s brains should be dashed out against the stones, that no more of their race might remain on the face of the earth.”

The King’s Oxford & Western Armies

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 articles on the Battle of Lansdown Hill, the Siege of Devizes and the Battle of Roundway Down in early July 1643. After their victory at Roundway Down, the Western Army occupied and rested in Bath.

For the first time in the Civil War, the King had the advantage. He had three armies gathered in the south of England, the main Oxford Army, the Queen’s northern army and the Western Army. He was also reinforced with continental munitions carried south with the Queen. A council of war decided to take Bristol and clear the West Country, before attempting to take London.

On 24 July, both the King’s Oxford and Western armies arrived outside Bristol. Prince Rupert and the Oxford Army occupied Westbury, Clifton, Durdham Down and Cotham in a show of force. The Western Army occupied Bedminster and the hights between it and the Bath Road (A4). The city was summoned, but refused to surrender.

Parliamentary Defences of Bristol

We know a good deal about the parliamentary defences of Bristol in 1643. We have the reports of Bernard de Gomme and Captain Samuel Fawcett, the King’s engineer and fireworker. We also have The Prosecution, Arraignment, Trial, and Condemnation of Nathaniel Fiennes, late Colonel and Governor of the City and Castle of Bristol. Together, they provide a good picture of the defensive works and the garrison in July 1643.

De Gomme’s account of the fortifications faced by the Oxford Army, around the north-western suburbs can still be traced on the ground. It is worth repeating, with modern locations added in square brackets.

“The City of Bristol stands in a hole: & upon the northside towards Durdham Down, be 3 eminent knolls or rocky hills, now crowned with so many forts. Next the river on the Southern skirt of Brandon hill is the Water fort, & on the knap of the hill more Northward, is Brandon fort itself, some 18-foot square, & as many high; its graff or mote but shallow & narrow, by reason of the rockiness of the ground. This is the highest of the fort hills. 

From whence the line or curtain runs Eastward, down the hill at the bottom of which stands the barn & spur [at the junction of Upper Byron Place and Triangle Street], where we first entered which is since called Washingtons Breach. Thence trends the Line still eastward, up St. Michael’s hill on the knoll of which stands the Windmill fort [later the Royal Fort] (though not fully so lofty as Brandon hill), yet with 420 paces by a Line of it. 

At the bottom of this, & upon the highway’s side, stands Alderman Jones house [now the School of Anatomy], with a Battery crosse the way [now Colston Fort on Henrietta Street], which the line crooks a little northward to fetch in. Up the hill, again, more Easterly, & within musket shot, there is another redoubt some 18-foot square [on the Back of Kingsdown Parade], against which Col. Belasyse’s Battery played [from Cotham Hill].

Within less than musket shot of this, is Prior’s hill fort: foursquare [now St Matthew & St Nathanael’s Church], each side 24 of my paces. And hence trends the line Southerly [along St Mathew’s Avenue], towards the town where in the bottom of the hill in the meadow called Stokes Croft, upon Gloucester highway, & within little more than half musket shot of Priors fort, there is a great spur work in the line, & a strong high traverse, or fore work, watching & shutting up the highway [A38], with a strong port of timber barres on the East side of it [probably at Hillgrove Street]. 

And these be the main works we had to attack on our side: having in all 5 cavaliers or batteries: in the middle of every two of which, be also little ravelins or tenailles, thrusting out sharp angles, to flanker & scour along the curtain. … 

The graff or ditch, commonly, 2 yards broad, but somewhere a foot or two, more. The depth scarce considerable; as being hardly 5-foot, usually; & in many rocky places not so deep. The ditches about the redoubts, ordinarily, about 8 or 9 foot deep, & and so much over. 

And thus was the city fortified on our North side, but the Southside where Prince Maurice fell on, though it hath not such forts, yet is the line there something stronger; besides that, it is fenced with the river. The whole circumvallation, is full 5 miles. The ground in most parts is rocky, that it being at a Council of War debated, whither to fall on by approaches, or by storm: the former way (though safer) was rejected, for that the stoniness admits nor mines nor sapping. 

Within the city, is a large old castle: but weak, still: notwithstanding the enemy’s had something repaired & fortified it. A moat was begun; & some houses pulled down for it.”

Outside the old city walls, but within the suburbs also stood the Essex Work. This was constructed earlier in the war. It stood opposite the Red Lodge. Its outline is still visible today.

These defensive works were extensive. The forts were well equipped with artillery. However, Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes lacked troops to defend the line. He had his own regiment of horse and garrison (trained bands) regiment of foot. He also had under command what had been Lord St John’s Regiment (later Colonel Thomas Essex’s). By 26 July 1643, these were reinforced with the remnants of two other regiments and a force of city volunteers. The forts, redoubts and ravelins were manned, but not the wall between them.

The Bombardment – 25 July 1643

The Storming of Bristol was preceded by bombardment. The King’s Oxford Army set up batteries of guns at Clifton, opposite St Michael’s Hill and on Cotham Hill. The aim was to wear down the garrison and render ineffective their forts. However, the latter were well sited, on the rear slope of the downs, barely visible to the gunners.

The bombardment did not start until late in the day, after 3 o’clock in the afternoon. By nightfall, little had been achieved except the expense of precious ammunition. In the south, the Western Army’s battery at Pine Hill had made little impact on the outworks at St Mary’s Redcliffe and Temple Gate, or on the town walls and towers along Portwall.

During the night, the King’s gunners and fireworkers issued powder, match and small-shot. They also issued hand-grenades and fire-pikes. The latter were to lead the assault at dawn.

The Storming of Bristol – 26th July 1643

The assault on Bristol was set to start at dawn on Wednesday 26 July 1643. Two demi-cannon were to fire against Prior’s Hill Fort as the signal to storm the fortifications.

However, the Cornish foot did not wait for the signal. At 3 o’clock in the morning, before dawn, they charged across Temple Meads and threw themselves at the town walls. They crossed the meadows and town ditch under heavy fire only to find that their ladders had not followed. Unable to climb the walls, they fell back raked by fire from St Mary’s Redcliffe.

Hearing the Cornish assault across the city, Prince Rupert ordered the signal guns fired. Still in darkness, the Oxford Army rushed into action. Its tertias assaulted the forts on Brandon Hill, St Michael’s Hill (later the Royal Fort), Prior’s Hill and Stoke Croft. At each, it was thrown back.

Captain Fawcett’s petard failed to breach the gate at Stokes Croft. At Prior’s Hill, Lord Grandison was shot through the leg and Colonel Owen shot in the face. Prince Rupert’s horse was shot from under him. Casualties mounted. It looked as if the assault would fail.

Washington’s Breach

But there was a weak spot. At the bottom of the slope between Brandon Hill and St Michael’s Hill stood a barn. It formed a spur-work beside the lane to Clifton, guarded by a lieutenant and three musketeers. However, the guns in the Windmill Fort (later the Royal Fort) could not see or support it in its hollow.

In the dark, protected from Brandon Hill by the barn and spur, a party of Washington’s Dragoons fought their way over the ditch and wall at this point. They forced back the defenders with hand grenades, taking the barn and wounding the lieutenant.

A squadron of Colonel Fienne’s Horse stood ready, behind the wall, under Major Langrish. Instead of charging to recover the barn and spur, they withdrew towards College Green and the safety of the old town walls.

The wall was quickly breached with swords, halberds and hands. Lieutenant Colonel Littleton rode along the line with a fire-pike, clearing it of defenders. A counter-attack by the Governor’s own troop of horse was thrown back with musket fire and fire-pikes.

The location became known as ‘Washington’s Breach’. The name and the barn are marked on Millerd’s 1673 map of Bristol. Today, the base of what is almost certainly the barn can be seen at the junction of Upper Byron Place and Triangle Street. It is occupied by Clifton Panda takeaway.

An English Civil War Urban Battle

What followed was an English Civil War urban battle. Like many later urban battles, it is difficult to piece together exactly what happened. However, we do have clear reports of fighting at a number of locations. These can be found principally in Warburton’s Memoirs of Prince Rupert and in the trial of Nathaniel Fiennes. The chronology of these events is harder to piece together.

Washington’s Dragoons and Colonel Wentworth’s Tertia of Foot pressed on from the breach into the suburbs. Unexpectedly, they came across the Essex Work and a ditch across the road. This was a large fortification within the suburbs and dominating what is now Park Row. It can be seen marked on Millerd’s map, across the street from the Red Lodge. Its bulk is still there today.

The Essex Work was unoccupied. It had been abandoned. In some confusion following the breach, Nathaniel Fiennes ordered his troops to abandon the forts and line to the north of the city. They were commanded ‘upon pain of death’ to fall back to the old town, via the gate at Newgate. The message was delivered by Colonel Clifton who was responsible for the breached sector of the line.

Street Fighting around the Red Lodge

Not all of the defenders obeyed the order to retire within the medieval walls of old Bristol. Colonel Clifton failed to tell his troops on Brandon Hill and they remained in place. Others fought on in the suburbs. Prince Rupert’s memoires paint a picture of increasing casualties shot by defenders hidden within houses. Outside the Red Lodge, men fell trying to fill the ditch across the road.

The picture becomes increasingly confused. However, what is clear is that there was fighting in and around Park Row, College Green and the Great House. The latter was the house of Ferdinando Gorges, which had entertained Elizabeth I in its time. Today, the site is occupied by the Bristol Beacon (formerly Colston Hall). 

Defenders on the Bristol Quay, fired back across the Frome on the Great House and St Austin’s with cannon. The Ship Inn on Steep Street was also fought over. The Ship Inn and Steep Street have gone. The street’s path was changed and replaced by Colston Street. However, the Gryphon pub occupies almost the same corner angle at the end of Trenchard Street.

Sir Nicholas Slanning’s Charge

The Cornish foot and the King’s Western Army charged a second time. Again, they charged across the open Temple Meads, crossed the town ditch and threw themselves at the Portwall. But this time it was daylight. They were raked with fire from St Mary’s Redcliffe, the outwork at Temple Gate, the walls and towers.

Despite this withering fire, they reached the wall. This time they had ladders ready with them. But the ladders were too short to reach the top of the wall. Eventually, they were forced to fall back across the open meadows. They left behind a devastating number of dead and wounded.

Amongst the casualties lay Colonel Sir Nicholas Slanning, his thigh smashed by a case-shot. Beside him lay young Colonel Trevanion. Colonel Brutus Buck had also been killed at the head of his tertia. Colonel Basset and Bernard Astley were gravely wounded. Some seventy Cornishmen lay dead under the walls, in the ditch and on Temple Meads. As many again were wounded.

The Parliamentary Sally

At approximately 11 o’clock in the morning, the defenders made a sally out from behind the old town walls. The aim was to push back Prince Rupert’s Oxford Army from the suburbs. However, the troops committed to the sally were just one troop of horse and 200 musketeers.

They sallied out from Frome Gate, up Christmas Steps and Steep Street, supported by ‘others still shooting out at the windows’. They probably reached Lower Park Row. But it was too little, too late. Major Edward Wood took part in the sally. His account at the trial of Nathaniel Fiennes is telling.

“The sally consisted not of above 200 men, when as they might have sent out thrice as many: that the sally was made with all disadvantage up the hill, that they beat the enemy through diverse streets, and had in probability driven them out of the suburbs, 

but that the horse sent out in the sally under Captain Vaughan (who charged not, but retreated at the enemies first entrance) basely retreated upon the fall of one horse which was shot, and so both disheartened and disordered their foot, and caused their retreat.”

Henry Lunsford and the Fight on Christmas Steps

Colonel Henry Lunsford was at the top of Christmas Steps. He had been shot through the arm earlier in the day, but fell at the head of his regiment, shot through the heart. Colonel Belasis was also wounded at this stage.

A party of Washington’s Dragoons and Stradling’s Welshmen pressed on, fighting their way down Christmas Steps. Lieutenants Blunt and Ward were both shot through the thigh. At the bottom of the steps, Lunsford’s lieutenant colonel, Nathaniel Moyle, was shot through the bladder, dying later.

Dorothy Hazard and Frome Gate

The Oxford Army was forced to halt at the river Frome (now covered over by Rupert Street and the A38). The bridge and Christmas Street beyond were guarded by the Frome Gate.

Inside the old town walls a group of 200 women gathered outside the Governors lodging (now the Guildhall Chambers) on Broad Street. They were led by Mistress Joan Batten and Dorothy Hazzard, the sectarian wife of the minister of St Ewen’s Church. Mistress Batten stated,

‘And that thereupon there were about 200 women of the said city, whereof this deponent was one, who went to Colonel John Fiennes, begging of him that he would be a meanes that the city and castle might not be yielded to the enemy, offering themselves to work in the fortifications in the very face of the enemy, and to go themselves and their children, into the mouth of the canon to dead and keep off the shot from the soldiers.’

In Dorothy Hazzard’s own words, they,

‘Did with Wool-sacks and earth, stop up Froom gate, to keep out the enemy from entering into the said city, being the only passage by which the enemy must enter, and when they had so done, they the said women went to the gunners (this deponent being one of them) and told them, that if they would stand out and fight, they would stand by them.’

Parley at the Red Lodge

Prince Rupert now gave orders for his troops to force their way over the ships, boats and mud of the Frome at low tide. But before this assault was launched, the Governor sent out a drummer to call for a parley. Inside the old town walls, many of the defenders had slipped away from their colours to find food, ale and rest. The Governor,

‘Going round the town with his lieutenant colonel, he spoke with great earnestness to all his officers that he could meet to get their men to their colours again; commanding them to repair to the Marsh (Queen Square), and that there should be victuals, and twelve pence a man given them, which accordingly was given to as many as came together, but couldnever get together, or to their guards, two hundred, of ten or twelve-hundred of the men that were on that side the town.’

Major Langrish and a captain were sent out as hostages. They were met by Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice ‘at a garden-house right against Essex-work’. This was the Red Lodge. Terms of surrender were agreed. The defenders were to march out via Lawford’s Gate at 9 o’clock the next morning to be escorted as far as Warminster.

Surrender and Chaos at Bristol Bridge

Instead of waiting for the appointed hour, Nathaniel Fiennes and those of the garrison remaining with their colours marched early from the Marsh (Queen Square). More importantly, their guards did not keep control of the castle or city gates.

The castle was abandoned early. The royalist prisoners held within it (many of them taken at Devizes) seized control, shutting its gates and anyone else out. Outside the castle, a crowd of angry citizens grew, demanding the return of their valuables secured within the castle by the Governor.

Unable to march through the castle to Lawford’s Gate, the Governor and garrison were forced to turn and march over Bristol Bridge. Royalist soldiers had already entered the city through its unguarded gates. In a chaotic scene, a horseman was pulled from his mount and shots fired.

Some of the Oxford Army had served at Reading and sought revenge in plundering the garrison soldiers. Worse was to come as the Governor and garrison exited Temple Gate and marched through the Western Army lines. 

Discipline amongst the Cornish Foot was problematic at the best of times. Now they fell upon the garrison soldiers with cries of ‘Where is your King Jesus?’ and ‘King Charles shall be King, for all!’

Arriving at Temple Gate, Prince Rupert and Prince Maurice used their swords to drive back their own soldiers. Even Nathaniel Fiennes spoke of Prince Rupert’s efforts to restore order. Finally, the garrison was allowed to march on to Warminster.

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.

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