The Impact of the Royalist Western Army in the First English Civil War – Dissertation Summary

This is a blog post by Mike Overthrow, a year 3 student, about his dissertation topic: To what extent did the Success and Failures of the Royalist Western Army impact on the outcome of the English Civil War 1642-1646?

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Ralph Hopton, 1st Baron Hopton, and his father, Robert Hopton.

My dissertation covered the successes and failures of the Royalist Western army during the First English Civil War 1642-1646 and these successes and failures impacted on the final outcome of the war. Throughout the war the Royalist forces operating in the South-West made increasingly significant contributions to the Royalist war effort. These contributions as well as the victories won by the Western army have largely been eclipsed by the Marston Moor campaign in 1644 and the Naseby campaign in 1645.

My dissertation was split into three chapters each covering a specific aspect of the performance of the Western army. Chapter one covered what has become known as the ‘Royalist high tide’ covering the failure of the Royalists to raise Somerset and the arrival of Sir Ralph Hopton in Cornwall. Subsequently the chapter addressed the victories won by the Cornish army raised by Hopton culminating in the capture of Bristol and the South-West. The second chapter covers the consolidation of Royalist control over the South-West, in particular the creation of an effective and highly efficient logistics system, as well as detailing the contribution of the Western army to the Royalist victories in the 1644 Lostiwithiel campaign and subsequently the Second battle of Newbury. The final chapter covers the collapse of the Royalist cause in the South-West addressing the breakdown in the Royalist command structure as well as the defeats suffered by the Western army at the battles of Langport in 1645 and Torrington in 1646.

One notable aspect that I explored was how the performance of the Royalist commanders in the 1642/1643 Cornish campaigns contrasted with their performance in the 1643 campaign. My research revealed that the overall performance of the Royalist Western army declined after the Marquis of Hertford re-assumed command in June 1643. This is shown by comparing the battle of Stratton, where Sir Ralph Hopton was in sole command, with the battle of Lansdown where Hertford had a re-assumed command. In both instances the Royalists found themselves facing a Parliamentary army that had been strategically located on the high ground. At Stratton the Royalist army won a crushing victory while suffering minimal casualties. However at Lansdown the battle was ultimately inconclusive and the Royalists suffered heavy casualties. The key difference between the battles was the interference of Hertford in the Royalist command structure reducing two professional soldiers, Prince Maurice and Sir Ralph Hopton, to subordinate positions. The result of this disjointed command structure was that not only did the Royalists suffer heavy casualties but they also failed to take advantage of their victories. Two examples of this are the battle of Lansdown and the Storming of Bristol. My visit to the Lansdown battlefield revealed the existence of severe drop to the rear of the Parliamentarian position, had the Royalist attack been more coordinated the advancing infantry may have been able to force the Parliamentarians over the edge and dispersed Waller’s army.

The capture of Bristol in July 1643 gave the Royalists access not only to a major port but also to Bristol’s manufacturing sector. Throughout the rest of the war Bristol would serve as a hub both the Royalist administration and also for supplies and equipment either imported from abroad or produced locally. However the decision by Charles I to continue to use Oxford as his wartime capital resulted in Royalist supply lines being unnecessarily long as well as tying down vast numbers of troops in order to protect Oxford from the Parliamentarian field armies operating in the Thames Valley. The loss of a number of key Royalist leaders in the 1643 campaign also had long term effects on the effectiveness of the Western army. The loss of Sir Bevil Grenville at Lansdown and Sir Nicholas Slanning and John Trevanion at Bristol has been seen both by contemporary Royalists and modern historians as damaging the fighting effectiveness of the Cornish infantry.

The second chapter looked at the establishment of an effective logistics system in South-West during 1643 and 1644 as well as the rise of professional soldiers to senior commands in the Royalist army. The capture of a number of key South-Western ports in 1643, including Dartmouth, Weymouth and Bristol, allowed the Western Royalists to import arms and munitions from the continent with which to equip their troops. After its capture Exeter would go onto act as logistical hub for commanders operating in the South-West. The imports brought into these ports and distributed through Exeter allowed the Western army to be largely self-sufficient throughout the war, unlike the Oxford field army which relied on arms convoys from the northern ports to keep it supplied. The 1644 campaigning season also saw the rise of professional soldiers to senior commands within the Royalist armies operating in the South-West. Prince Maurice continued to command the Western army increasing its effectiveness as a fighting force as well as undergoing a period of reforming and rearming both the army and the infrastructure of the South-West. Sir Richard Grenville, recently returned from Ireland, was given command of the Cornish troops besieging Plymouth and led them with distinction throughout the Lostwithiel campaign. Within the Oxford army the vastly experienced Lord Hopton replaced Lord Percy as General of the Ordnance while Lord George Goring replaced Lord Wilmot as Lieutenant-General of Horse.

The final part of the second chapter looked at how the Royalist high command failed to take full advantage of their victory in the Lostwithiel campaign. Following the surrender of the Parliamentary infantry and baggage train Charles I chose to strip them of their arms and then release them. This allowed a significant portion of these troops to be re-equipped in time for the Second battle of Newbury. In addition to the Parliamentarian cavalry who escaped by breaking through the Royalist lines these troops provided Parliament with a numerical advantage.

Chapter three looked at the collapse of the Royalist cause in the South-West exploring the battles of Langport and Torrington as well as looking into the failure of the Royalist commanders to cooperate. In particular the failure to coordinate efforts to capture Taunton denied the Royalists at Naseby access to the 3,000 horse and 4,000 foot of the veteran Western army that were besieging the town. Following the Royalist defeat at Naseby; blunders by the Royalist commanders in the West led to their defeat at the battle of Langport which effectively brought to an end the plan to use the Western army as the core of a new field army. This plan was finally put to an end with the Royalist defeat at Torrington in 1646. The chapter goes onto reveal how the failure of Royalist commanders to cooperate in the South-West, particularly Lord Goring and Sir Richard Grenville as well as the Prince of Wales and his council of advisers, brought about a catastrophic series of events that ensured the total defeat of the Royalist cause in England.

Written by Mike Overthrow – Edited by Julian Wojtowicz