By Harry Mottram. If the Duke of Wellington described the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 as a ‘near run thing’ then Sir William Waller could certainly refer to the Battle of Lansdown in the same terms.
Historians are divided in announcing who won the battle in 1643 so perhaps it is best to describe it as a score draw.
Essentially the army of Lord Hopton who represented King Charles I for the crown held the ground at the end of the battle while the army of Parliament and Waller left the field to regroup in Bath when the guns fell silent.
However such were the losses inflicted on the Royalist forces that day that they effectively retreated to Devizes and Oxford to recover.
It was thus a rare non-victory victory for the forces of Parliament in the area as Bristol and much of the South West were in Royalist hands. It would be two years before Parliament’s armies eventually took control and finally defeated the cavalier armies. The background to the battle was the outbreak of hostilities between the King and Parliament. Charles I believed he was the ruler due to God’s Will known as the divine right. Previously the Kings and Queens of this country enjoyed this idea that they ruled with the backing of the Almighty – until of course they were overthrown by rival claimants who said they were the chosen ones.
However by the 17th century there was a growing middle class of merchants, doctors, lawyers and skilled workers. The country as a result began to break down into towns and cities who supported Parliament and demanded more democracy and religious freedom for the non-conformists, Puritans and Protestants.
While in the countryside where the landed gentry supported the King there was more support for the Crown. At the time the King was married to the Catholic Queen Henrietta Maria. Parliament’s supporters feared her influence would push England and Wales back to Catholicism and potentially foreign influence from Rome.
War broke out in 1642 after the King failed to arrest members of parliament leading to MPs taking control of London and the King leaving for Oxford to set up a rival capital.
A number of battles took place that year as the two sides tried to gain the upper hand resulting in Parliament holding most of the south and south east along with London and most larger cities and towns while the King held the north, Wales and the Southwest.
The Battle of Lansdown was the high watermark of the King’s attempt to win the war as after that his forces faced a losing war of attrition as parliament’s more well funded New Model Army gained the ascendency with victory two years later.
Sir William Waller held Bath for Parliament while all around the King’s forces were gaining ground in the west where they enjoyed stronger support.
Lord Hopton had his eyes on taking the city which then was far smaller than the one we see today and little larger than its medieval size with much of the buildings confined inside the city walls.
Waller took his forces out of the city and rebuffed the initial advances to the east while Hopton’s army were forced around to the north. To block their advance Waller dug in his army on Lansdown Hill above the city .
The Royalist army had around 6,500 troops including 2,000 cavalry and 16 cannons while Waller had fewer troops with 2,500 cavalry who proved valuable. There had been initial skirmishes to the east of the city as Hopton attempted to gain advantage with the hope of taking the city. The Royalist official commander was Prince Maurice who was in charge of the bulk of the cavalry but Hopton generally directed operations in the field. Despite taking Bradford on Avon Hopton was forced to fall back to Marshfield as the skirmishes continued.
Hopton’s troops attacked from the direction of Cold Ashton and in an action that continued from dawn to dusk his army drove back that of Parliament forcing them to take cover behind a wall. However much of the Royalist cavalry left the field of battle convinced they had lost during the push to Parliament’s lines.
Hopton’s Cornish pikemen proved decisive in forcing back the defending Parliament troops who had dug in on the hill while Waller used his fewer troops to good effect as the battle raged around nearby woods, lanes and hedges. It seemed that victory was close as the Royalists pushed up the hill but in the confusion the remains of their cavalry panicked and retreated with Hopton’s right hand man Sir Bevil Grenville slain.
Finally as night fell Waller’s troops fell back into Bath expecting an attack the following day. It was not to be as although Hopton’s forces secured Lansdown Hill they were in no fit state to assault Bath. There was then another blow to the Royalists when the bulk of their ammunition blew up – temporarily blinding Hopton, killing several soldiers and destroying most of their gun powder. At this point despite taking the field Hopton thought it best to retreat to Wiltshire to recover. Despite the small armies involved the numbers killed ran into several hundred with far more dying from wounds in the days to follow. Yes a close run thing for Bath but the city was held and Parliament eventually achieved victory.
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