Battle of Sourton Down
The Battle of Sourton Down was a successful Parliamentarian ambush at Sourton Down, near Okehampton, in South West England, on 25 April 1643, during the First English Civil War. The ambush took place after a failed Parliamentarian attack on Royalists-held Launceston. After the Parliamentarians had retreated to Okehampton, Sir Ralph Hopton led a Royalist army towards Okehampton, planning to attack the town at dawn. When the Parliamentarian commander, Major-General James Chudleigh, found out, he had a dilemma; he was outnumbered, but did not want to leave his artillery for the enemy to capture. He opted to counterattack, and ambushed the 3,600-strong Royalist force on Sourton Down, laying in wait with just 108 of his own cavalry.
The ambush caught the marching army completely by surprise, and a large part of their force was immediately routed. Chudleigh called for reinforcements from his infantry in Okehampton, but they were spotted on the march there, and scattered under fire from the Royalist artillery. The Parliamentarians, still outnumbered despite their successes, chose to retreat; the Royalists, who were in complete disarray, and still did not know the size of the force they had faced, did likewise.
The defeat was humiliating for Hopton. Along with the weapons and equipment abandoned by his forces and captured by the Parliamentarians, there was a letter to Hopton from the King, ordering him to march his forces to Somerset to meet up with a larger Royalist army from Oxford.
In March 1643, the First English Civil War had been ongoing for seven months, since King Charles I had raised his royal standard in Nottingham and declared the Earl of Essex, and by extension Parliament, traitors. That action had been the culmination of religious, fiscal and legislative tensions going back over fifty years.
State of the war in the West Country
When the war started, Cornwall was generally more supportive of the Royalist cause, while Devon and Somerset were sympathetic towards Parliament, though significant opposition existed in both areas. In July 1642, Sir Ralph Hopton and the Marquess of Hertford left the King in York to raise a Royalist army in the south-west. They initially established their headquarters at Wells in Somerset, which Hopton represented as a Member of the Long Parliament, but were driven out by local Parliamentarians in early August, and subsequently retreated to Sherborne Castle and then Minehead. There Hopton and Hertford split up; Hertford took the army's infantry to Wales, while Hopton sailed with their dragoons to west Cornwall. There, Hopton successfully recruited a Cornish Royalist army, which led the local Parliamentarians to withdraw from Cornwall. Although Hopton fancied himself as the commander of the Cornish forces, the King divided the command: Hopton commanded the horse; William Ashburnham the foot; and Sir John Berkeley was named commissary general. In reality, the power was shared even further, with the Cornish troops generally more willing to be commanded by fellow Cornishmen, and so Sir Bevil Grenville, Sir Nicholas Slanning and John Trevanion also had prominent roles.
The Parliamentarians responded to the growing army in Cornwall by raising their own local army in Devon, initially under the command of the Earl of Pembroke. James Chudleigh was sent from London with orders to raise and command "1000 dragoons to be levied in Somerset, Devon, and Cornwall", and reinforced the garrison at Barnstaple in north Devon in December 1642. The Earl of Stamford was given command of Parliament's army in the West Country in January 1643, and he appointed Chudleigh as his deputy soon after.
In January 1643, at the Battle of Braddock Down, near Bodmin in Cornwall, Hopton had removed the last Parliamentarian foothold in Cornwall. Hopton wanted to press on and take Plymouth, but the city was a difficult target, as it could be easily reinforced by sea, and Hopton's Cornish forces refused to cross the River Tamar, which formed the boundary of Cornwall. A number of skirmishes took place between the two sides; the Parliamentarians secured a victory in Modbury, but suffered from desertions. A truce was agreed in March, which continued through into April, part of which required Hopton to remove his army from Devon and encamp within Cornwall. At the end of the truce, the Parliamentarians, commanded by Chudleigh, attacked Launceston, but were repelled and retreated back to Okehampton. The Royalists made no real initial attempt to pursue Chudleigh's force, instead dealing with disorder amongst their Cornish soldiers.
The Parliamentarians had mustered over 5,000 men at Okehampton during the truce, but after the loss at Launceston the army split up, and Chudleigh retained just over 1,000 infantrymen and three or four troops of dragoons. Reports of Parliamentarian disarray reached the Royalists; Hopton recorded that "there came a friend from Okehampton who assured that the enemy at Okehampton was in very great disquiet and fear." Hopton, along with his fellow commanders, decided to try and take advantage of the disarray by camping on Sourton Down overnight, ready to launch an attack on Okehampton at dawn. They marched in a column with 3,000 infantry, 300 cavalry, 300 dragoons and 4 guns. The force was split around the artillery; 150 dragoons led, acting as scouts, followed by 150 cavalry and then half the foot soldiers. Behind the artillery was the other half of the infantry, backed up by the remainder of the dragoons and cavalry.
By chance, a Parliamentarian quartermaster spotted the enemy army and reported back to Chudleigh at around 9 pm that the enemy was within two miles (3 km) of their position. Chudleigh was incensed at the failure of their scouts, he wrote that "by the intolerable neglect of our lying deputy Scout Master, we were surprised by the whole enemy body of horse and foot." His problems were worsened by the fact that against his orders, the carriages and oxen needed to transport his artillery had been taken to Crediton, meaning that if he retreated from Okehampton, he would have the leave his big guns behind. After holding a quick meeting, Chudleigh resolved not to retreat, but instead launch a counterattack. In his later writings, Chudleigh suggested that retreat "in all probability would have been the ruin of the whole Kingdom".
Chudleigh opted to leave his main force of 1,000 foot soldiers in Okehampton, and meet the enemy with only his 108 cavalry. He led the ambush party out to Sourton Down, where he found a valley backed by hills high enough to avoid his army being silhouetted against the horizon. There, he split the party into six squadrons of eighteen, and they spread out to lay in wait in the night's darkness.
The Royalist forces approached, completely unaware of the threat of ambush. In his memoirs, Hopton recalled his belief that his army was "the handsomest body of men that had been gotten together in those parts all war", and were never "in better order, nor in better equipage." He admits that they were not paying enough attention; Hopton himself, the Lord Mohun, Berkeley and Thomas Bassett were at the head of the column "carelessly entertaining themselves" when the ambush was sprung, around 11 pm on 25 February. Captain Thomas Drake led the first squadron of cavalry to attack, causing panic in the Royalist column; the horses had charged out of the darkness, shouting and firing their carbines, which flashed in the night. The cavalrymen had been instructed to make as much noise as possible, to try and make it seem like there were more of them. Hopton's dragoons were predominantly new levies, who broke immediately; their retreat also routed the cavalry travelling behind them, and Hopton himself was carried away with his men. The attack coincided with the start of a thunderstorm, and the Cornish infantry were spooked, and amongst cries that they were fighting the Devil, they scattered, many abandoning their weapons in their haste to escape. Chudleigh's entire force of 108 cavalry had now engaged, and initially overwhelmed the Royalist artillery, until Slanning was able to counterattack and establish a defensive position amongst ancient earthworks on the moor, reinforced with sharpened wooden stakes.
Chudleigh avoided engaging the fortified position, and instead used his cavalry to harry the remaining, broken, Royalist forces to prevent them from regathering while he awaited the reinforcement of his infantry in Okehampton. As his infantry arrived, the Royalists spotted the lit matches of the approaching musketeers, and used their cannons to attack them. In the face of this artillery attack, Chudleigh's infantry broke before reaching the site of the battle, leaving Chudleigh outnumbered. He ordered his men to hang lit matches in gorse bushes to cover their retreat back to Okehampton. The Royalist leaders had not been able to gain much intelligence about the size of the enemy force they had faced due to the storm and the darkness. With that in mind, along with their losses, they opted to hold their position until daybreak. They then retreated to Bridestowe, a village about two miles (3.2 km) south-west of Sourton Down, and then later that day back to Launceston.
Do you not know, not a fortnight agoe,
How they brag'd of a Western wonder?
When a hundred and ten, slew five thousand men,
With the help of Lightning and Thunder.
There Hopton was slain, again and again,— Sir John Denham, A Western Wonder
Or else my Author did lye;
With a new Thanksgiving, for who are living,
To God, and his Servant Chudleigh.
The routed Royalists left behind a large amount of weapons, stores and gunpowder during their retreat. The defeat was particularly humiliating for Hopton: his portmanteau was among the items captured, which contained letters from the King ordering the Cornish army to join forces with the Marquess of Hertford and Prince Maurice in Somerset. Although the Parliamentarians succeeded in forcing their opponents to retreat, they inflicted relatively few fatalities; in The Civil War in the South-West, John Barratt suggests that the Royalists probably only lost between 20 and 100 men in the fighting, along with around a dozen more who were taken prisoner. At least one of those hostages, the 15-year-old Captain Christopher Wrey, escaped, and managed to round up some of the deserters during his return.
The Parliamentarians were excited at the capture of enemy plans; the Parliamentarian commander in the south-west, the Earl of Stamford, was said to have "leapt out of [his] chair for joy" despite suffering from gout. He raised a large army; pulling in troops from garrisons throughout Devon, and calling in additional reinforcements from Somerset to try and win what he believed would be "the deciding contest of the war for the West". He marched the 6,800-strong army into Cornwall, where they suffered a heavy defeat to the Royalists in the Battle of Stratton. The battle decimated the Parliamentarians' army in Devon, and secured Royalist control of Cornwall. Hopton was subsequently able to push into Somerset, establishing garrisons throughout the county, which forced the Parliamentarians to send another force, under the command of Sir William Waller, into the south-west to counter them.
The Parliamentarians emphasised their victory at Sourton Down by publishing at least three pamphlets, one of which was authorised by the House of Commons, celebrating the success, and ridiculing the Royalists' retreat. The pamphlets claimed to be accurate reports of the battle, but were propaganda which exaggerated the number of troops in the Royalist army, and the number of fatalities. One of the reports went so far as to suggest that Hopton had been killed in the battle, claiming that "he died of his wound being shot in the back in his flight." In response, the Royalist poet Sir John Denham wrote a satirical piece he titled A Western Wonder, mocking the exaggerated reports and praising the subsequent Royalist victory at Stratton.
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