Sketch of the outworks of Bristol in 1644
For the Royalists the primary objectives were Bristol and Gloucester. Maurice was already moving forward with the Western Army to seize Bath, and Rupert very quickly got a substantial part of the Oxford Army moving in the same direction. On the 15th the three infantry brigades quartered at Culham, two cavalry brigades under Sir Arthur Aston and Charles Gerard, and nine companies of dragoons led by Colonel Washington were ordered to a concentration area at Fyfield. Two demi-cannon accompanied the Oxford contingent of this force, and on the 17th they were followed by the train proper. This included another six guns, two culverins, two 12-pounders, two 6-pounders, and a mortar. In addition to large quantities of artillery and entrenching stores the train also carried no fewer than eighteen barrels of coarse-grained powder for the guns and forty-two barrels of finer powder for musketeers.
Bristol had originally been sited on a strong position on what was effectively an island between the Frome and the Avon, but latterly its suburbs had spilled out beyond these natural boundaries. More seriously it was overlooked on the west and north by a range of hills along which it was necessary to extend the line of defences, not for the direct protection of the city but in order to deny the heights to any attacker. Essentially the defensive line was little more than a low earthen rampart and ditch linking a series of self-contained strongpoints. Afterwards de Gomme reckoned the walls to be no more than five or six feet high and the ditch sometimes shallower, except at the forts where it was generally eight or nine feet deep. Moreover, although the governor, Colonel Nathaniel Fiennes, had no fewer than ninety-seven guns and a mortar piece scattered along the line, he only had some 1,500 foot and 300 horse besides an unknown number of armed citizens to cover the five-mile circuit.
On the 23rd Prince Rupert conducted his reconnaissance and then summoned the city next day while his troops were moving into position. Fiennes very properly refused to surrender, and a Council of War agreed to storm the city at daybreak on the 26th. Although Maurice and the Western officers were in favour of digging in and conducting a proper siege, this was undoubtedly the correct decision. Except in their own sector, on the south bank of the Avon, the ground was generally too hard for digging, and while Fiennes might have been able to sit out a siege, he had far too few men to resist a general assault. Recognising this Rupert planned to increase his difficulties by directing each of the six infantry brigades to attack independently at a number of points scattered all the way round the perimeter.
The operation was to be synchronised by the firing of the two demi-cannon, but in the event the Western Army decided unilaterally to go in early under cover of darkness. At about 3am Maurice’s three brigades commanded by Basset, Slanning and Buck, moved forward and attacked on a fairly narrow front on either side of the city’s Temple Gate. Unfortunately, the comparative softness of the ground had allowed Fiennes to dig the ditch out to a good depth, and although the storming columns were well provided with carts and fascines, they were unable to bridge it and effect a lodgement on the walls. After only half an hour they were beaten back with heavy losses, particularly among the officers – two of the three brigade commanders being killed and the third, Bassett, wounded.
Elsewhere, Rupert’s army also found it tough going at first. Lord Grandison’s brigade launched an unsuccessful attack on the Stokes Croft gate on the north side, but after failing to blow it in with a petard, they then moved uphill to attack the Prior’s Hill Fort instead. Their intention may have been to assist Colonel John Belasyse, who was attacking the Colston’s Mount Fort in the adjacent sector, but in the event both forts proved too strong. Lord Grandison was fatally wounded and, notwithstanding Rupert’s personal encouragement, Belasyse’s men could not get over the ditch. In the end, however, Rupert’s calculation that an all-out assault would overstretch the garrison was proved correct.
Colonel Henry Wentworth had been tasked with putting in an attack on the Windmill Hill Fort on the western sector with his own brigade and Washington’s Dragoons. In the event his men were funnelled in some disorder into a re-entrant lying between that work and the adjacent Brandon Hill Fort. There they quite fortuitously found themselves in dead ground and grenaded their way over the curtain. At this point they should have been counter-attacked by Fiennes’ cavalry reserve, but there was a fatal delay and the Royalists were given time to throw down part of the earthen rampart and begin passing troops through. By the time Fiennes’ cavalry finally moved, some 300 Royalist infantry were in and the attack broke up when several Royalist officers ran at the horses brandishing fire-pikes. By about 4am Wentworth’s men had pushed on to take a barn or strongpoint, known as the Essex Work, and there he very prudently called a halt until Belasyse’s brigade and Aston’s cavalry came through the breach to reinforce him. Although the outer perimeter had been pierced, Fiennes still held the older mediaeval one, and it took two more hours of often vicious street fighting before the arrival of Grandison’s brigade finally enabled the Royalists to break through the Frome Gate and into the city proper.
Fiennes marched out next day to face a Parliamentarian court-martial which very nearly placed him in front of a firing squad, and Sir Ralph Hopton was appointed governor in his place. Costly though it had been, the capture of Bristol was of crucial importance, for quite apart from the threat which it had posed to the King’s Road, it gave the Cavaliers a major port, the nucleus of a small fleet and manufactories which would eventually be capable of turning out 300 muskets a week. From now on the Cavalier regiments would no longer be short of firearms, and by the war’s end many of them would have abandoned pikes entirely.
Maurice and Caernarvon exploited the victory by leading the rather battered Western Army off on a great sweep through Dorset and Devon which successively captured Dorchester, Weymouth and Portland almost without a fight. Exeter surrendered after a siege on 4 September, and Dartmouth fell on 6 October. By the end of the year Plymouth and Lyme would be the only garrisons of any importance still holding out for Parliament, and Royalist blockade runners would be bringing large quantities of arms and ammunition into the western ports.
For his part, Rupert was to move north and lay siege to Gloucester, but first a certain reorganisation was necessary. Only two of the brigades which had stormed Bristol were available for this service: Grandison’s, now known as the Lord General’s, and Wentworth’s. Belasyse’s old brigade was broken up, part being left in garrison at Bristol while the remainder marched in a new one commanded by Sir Ralph Dutton. Some four or five miles north of Cirencester he met with the King and Patrick Ruthven, bringing another infantry brigade and fifty barrels of powder. Yet more troops were summoned from garrisons all along the King’s Road and on 10 August the Royalist army appeared before Gloucester.
The governor, Colonel Edward Massey, had only some 1,300 foot14 and 200 horse, but the perimeter which he had to defend was considerably shorter than Fiennes’ position at Bristol. Left to himself Rupert might have tried an escalade, but the King and Ruthven opted for a regular siege – given the abysmal performance of the Bristol veterans at Newbury six weeks later they may well have been right. Unfortunately, despite the steady arrival of reinforcements, all that the Royalists managed to achieve was an unsustainable expenditure of ammunition.
Meanwhile, on 4 August Essex had received explicit orders to relieve Gloucester. His own typhus-ravaged forces were quite inadequate for the task; he had only 5,000 foot in twelve regiments and about 3,000 horse, but five regiments were promised from the London Trained Bands besides another three regular units. On 29 August long-awaited supplies of fresh clothing began to be issued to his ragged regiments, and the following day the reinforcements arrived in the concentration area at Brackley Heath just outside Aylesbury. The move could be delayed no longer so on 1 September the army moved to Bicester and then on the 2nd to Hook Norton.
Throughout the siege, Wilmot had been keeping Essex’s forces under observation and, noting the concentration and unmistakable preparations for a move, he sent off a warning. This in turn led to a hasty order for the Oxford magazines to prepare a train of ten field guns to supplement the existing siege train. The order was sent off on the 2nd but it was not until the 5th that the train left Oxford, probably in order to avoid running into Essex. In the meantime Rupert took out all the cavalry and 1,000 commanded musketeers led by Lieutenant Colonel George Lisle. On the 4th he ran into Essex at Stow on the Wold, and there fought a series of delaying actions in order to cover the rest of the Royalist army as it cleared the siege lines. This was successfully accomplished and next morning they drew off to a concentration area at Painswick.
Alerted to this fact by the smoke rising from their burning huts, Essex proceeded cautiously and only entered Gloucester on the 8th. Although the garrison, down to their last three barrels of powder, were heartily glad to see him, he was now faced with the problem of returning safely to the Thames valley. There was no thought of actively seeking out and engaging the King’s forces – quite the reverse. On the 10th he feinted northwards to Tewksbury and the Royalists obligingly moved up from Sudely to Pershore, still as they thought blocking the direct route to London. Then, on the night of the 14th, Essex slipped out of Tewksbury and headed south to Cirencester, where he had the great good fortune to surprise two Royalist cavalry regiments and forty wagon-loads of food and other supplies.
It was some hours before the main Royalist army was alerted to this move and set off in pursuit amidst a shower of recriminations. By the 16th Rupert was at Farringdon with 3,000 horse, and on the 17th Essex lay at Swindon while the King was some ten miles behind at Alvescote. In the prevailing wet and muddy conditions this should have been as good as a whole day’s advantage, but on the 18th Rupert’s cavalry caught Essex’s men strung out across Aldbourne Chase. Whether he could have made more of the opportunity than he did is open to question, but at least he managed to hustle Essex southwards, forcing him to cross the Kennet at Hungerford and make for Newbury.
Nevertheless, the Parliamentarians woke next morning only nine miles short of their objective, while the Royalist army still lay sixteen miles away at Wantage. Even allowing for the appalling state of the roads, they should have reached Newbury well ahead of the Cavaliers, but perhaps because they thought themselves safe on the south bank of the river they moved too slowly. Essex’s quartermasters had no sooner ridden into the town on the afternoon of the 19th than they were kicked out again by Rupert’s cavalry. By a tremendous effort the King’s army had succeeded in winning the race.
A more resolute commander might have pushed on to dispute possession of the town, but Essex called a halt on Enborne Heath, two miles to the west and made no attempt to interfere with the Royalist concentration just to the south of it.