Friday, March 27, 2020

The Battle of Cheriton, 29th March, 1644

By Mark Turnbull

On 29th March 2020, the English Civil War Society was to have marched to the commemorative stone at the site of the 1644 Battle of Cheriton. In light of recent events this has unfortunately had to be cancelled. Being the day of the battle’s anniversary, a short memorial service would have marked this turning-point encounter between the forces of King Charles I and those of Parliament. Symbolising the national divide, the commanders of each side had been the best of peacetime friends; the parliamentarian Sir William Waller had not long written a famous letter to his royalist counterpart, Sir Ralph Hopton in which he referred to ‘this war without an enemy’. Cheriton was one of many front lines that criss-crossed the kingdom, splitting families, friends and neighbours, all of whom became entrenched in their allegiance to one side or the other. It also highlighted a stark need for change in the high command of both sides.

English Civil War Society Infantry

376 years ago, near fifteen thousand soldiers converged upon sleepy Cheriton. That morning it dawned on Hopton that the parliamentarians had crept closer during the night and were seeping towards Cheriton Wood. Anxious not to be outflanked, Hopton pulled back his lines and occupied a ridge overlooking a valley which was divided by four narrow lanes. When the old pals chose a battle cry, their minds must have been in tune, for both commanders landed on the same one; ‘God with us!’, though the parliamentarians quickly changed theirs to, ‘Jesus with us!’. As a result, the Battle of Cheriton opened with confusion, but prior to this, there had been confusion of a very different nature in Parliament’s ranks.

The parliamentarian Captain Robert Harley recorded the reaction of a London regiment who had ran, “to see what manner of things cows were. Some of them would say they had all of them horns and would do great mischief with them. Then comes the wisest of them crying, ‘speak softly!’” Although the cows initially distracted his troops, Waller’s focus had never wavered from Cheriton Wood, recognising it as a key defensive position. He poured one thousand musketeers, comprised mainly of the White Regiment of the London Trained Bands, into the task of securing it, only for Hopton to send an equal number to dislodge them. Divided into four battalions, the counter-attacking royalists prevailed after a vicious firefight.

Although Hopton oversaw royalist operations with his experienced military eye, he was subject to the direction of a backseat driver. Patrick Ruthven, Earl of Forth and Brentford, was the King’s Captain-General. A hard-drinking Scotsman approaching seventy years of age, with selective hearing loss in councils, applied the brakes to the royalist onslaught and instructed Hopton to adopt a defensive stance. For reasons unknown, Colonel Henry Bard disregarded orders and spearheaded a lone attack with his regiment right to the hedges of Cheriton Lane. Exposed, and well ahead of the royalist lines, he had become a focal point for the parliamentarians who piled in for the kill.

English Civil War Society Swordsman and Horse

In Hopton’s own words, “the engagement was, by forwardness of some particular officers, without order.”

The parliamentarians agreed. One of their officers, Sir Walter Slingsby reported that Bard had led, “his regiment further than he had orders for.” A large understatement!

Sir Arthur Haselrig’s parliamentarian cavalry swept down on Bard’s men. By that point Lord Forth had realised Bard’s destruction would leave a gaping hole in the royalist right wing which could be infiltrated. Therefore, he sent in the cavalry.

English Civil War Society Cavalry

The parliamentarian Sir Walter Slingsby picked up the thread of what occurred next. “The [royalist] horse was repulsed with loss. They immediately tried the second charge … and were again repulsed, and so again a third time, the [parliamentarian] foot keeping their ground in a close body, not firing til within two pikes’ length, and then three ranks at a time after turning up the butt end of their muskets, charging their pikes and standing close…”

The royalist cavalry found the terrain rough going for a gruelling four hours. The hedges and lanes prevented them attacking en-masse, and the parliamentarians were able to pick off each piecemeal detachment before they could establish themselves. Royalist officers went down like nine-pins; Major-General Sir John Smith (a hero of the Battle of Edgehill) and Lieutenant-General Lord John Stuart (a distant cousin of King Charles) were both killed in action. Although the royalist infantry seemed to be holding their own, it was clear that the cavalry was foundering. Lord Forth decided to withdraw the artillery to safety, followed shortly after by the infantry, who were pulled back to Titchborne Down. Hopton held the lanes with three hundred horsemen to cover the retreat to Alresford, and the stronghold of Basing House.

The desperate royalists set fire to Alresford in a bid to hamper their pursuers, though the wind turned and the parliamentarians used the smoke cover to their advantage, reporting that, “very many Irish men were slain here.” Cheriton was a victory for Parliament, yet it offered opportunities to both sides and also demonstrated the stark need for change in their high commands.

After the battle Parliament jubilantly called for a co-ordinated attack upon the royalist HQ of Oxford. By praising Waller they sparked the jealousy of their Lord General, the Earl of Essex, who subsequently refused to co-operate. Lord Manchester stated that his army was pre-occupied with the war in eastern England and Waller was soon weakened when his Londoners returned to the confines of their city. This lack of cohesion and rivalry gave the King a chance to take stock.

But all was not rosy for the royalists. A detachment had been blocking parliamentarian supplies from getting to Gloucester and following Cheriton they were recalled. Lord Forth’s grip on the military tiller was also loosening, and by the end of the year he was replaced by the fiery Prince Rupert. Sir Edward Walker, King Charles’s Secretary at War, observed that the aftermath of Cheriton, “necessitated His Majesty to alter the scheme of his affairs and in the place of an offensive, to make a defensive war.” Cheriton had played a part in the tactics of the civil war’s end game, as well as shaping the new order which would oversee it.

English Civil War Society Pikemen

Recently Richard Vobes created a documentary video for his website, The Bald Explorer, in which he walks the terrain of Cheriton and interviews historian Julian Humphrys. The link to the video is:

[All photos copyright of the author, taken at an English Civil War Society event in 2019]

Mark Turnbull is the author of civil war novel, Allegiance of Blood. Since the age of ten he’s been fascinated with the war and has written other articles which can be found on his website

1 comment:

  1. Very Interesting article, thank you. We reviewed this novel on Discovering Diamonds: "Highly recommended for anyone interested in the English Civil War, and for those who enjoy behind-the-scenes and beyond-the-battlefield war stories." Having read it myself I agree with our reviewer!


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