On 14 February 1646 Parliamentary commander Lord Thomas Fairfax advanced about ten miles to Chimleigh, ‘the weather wet, and the way very dirty’, where he received news that the Royalists were still at Torrington. The Parliamentarians rendezvoused next morning, intending to have resumed their advance, but it became obvious that they were so much hindered by bad weather and broken-down bridges that Fairfax abandoned the march for the day after a brief attempt and returned to Chimleigh with his main body. He sent a party consisting of his own Regiment of Foot and 200 horse under Captain Berry in the direction of Ash Reirney ‘to amuse the enemy’. At Burrington, Berry’s horse fell in with a party of about 100 cavalry, mainly from Lord Goring’s Lifeguard, led by Lieutenant-Colonel James Dundas of Cleveland’s Regiment, whom Baron Ralph Hopton, the Royalist commander had sent out to scout. The Royalists had the worst of the skirmish and Dundas was mortally wounded and captured.
Hopton was already aware of Fairfax’s advance, albeit by accident, thanks to a report from a young lieutenant of horse and eight of his troopers who had stumbled across the enemy during an unauthorised plundering expedition. The Royalist commander came to the conclusion that to abandon Torrington and retreat into Cornwall would at best only delay the final result: instead, it would be better to make a stand and give battle ‘where I had some sort of cover for my foot, and opportunity to make good use of my horse.’
Torrington had a population of about 2,270 people. In 1579 the antiquarian John Leland had written: ‘Torrington is a great large town and standeth on the brow of a hill and hath three fair streets in it.’ These thoroughfares — Mill Street, Well Street and South Street — contained about 300 houses. The hill on which the town stood commanded two bridges crossing the River Torridge, carrying the roads leading to Cornwall. The remains of a castle that also overlooked the river were no longer of military significance. Torrington was a market town, with gardens and small enclosed fields on its outskirts and common land to the north and moors beyond.
It remains slightly unclear how many troops Hopton had with him. Clarendon estimated his strength at 6,800 men, but Hopton himself said that he had 3,300 horse and fewer than 2,000 foot. In any case, his men were of distinctly poorer quality than their opponents, and Hopton knew that his only hope lay in standing on the defensive.
Attempting to hearten his men with reports that the King was marching to their support at the head of a victorious army, Hopton erected barricades of earth and felled trees at the entrances to the town. He manned these with his foot, backed with 200 horse divided into parties of 40, within the town, whilst the remainder of the cavalry, under Major-General Webbe, were kept in reserve on the common to the north of the town. Hopton also established an outpost of about 200 dragoons at Stevenstone House, about a mile to the east of the town.
Hopton’s aim was to stand at Torrington long enough to force the enemy to withdraw through shortages of supplies, for, as Fairfax admitted in his despatch, ‘if they could with all their force make good the Town, and put us to lie in the field, there being no villages near it that could shelter the Army, the wet weather continuing would have forced us to draw back and make our firearms little useful.’
A further problem for the Parliamentarians was that their supply line was much longer than that of their opponents, and subject to disruption by raiding Royalist cavalry and the garrison of Barnstaple. If Fairfax were forced to withdraw, lack of supplies would also probably compel him to abandon the siege of Exeter. Both sides were playing for high stakes.
However, in the morning of 16 February the weather seemed to be clearing and Sir Thomas resolved to gamble on the improvement lasting long enough for him to deal with Hopton. ‘The drums beat by four of the clock in the morning’ and the army was on the march by seven, now being about three miles from Torrington.
Fairfax’s men trudged through the narrow lanes, led by a forlorn hope of horse under Major Stephens and Captain Molyneux. As they approached Stevenstone House the Royalist dragoons stationed there withdrew, losing a number of men in skirmishing in the lanes leading to Torrington. Some firing continued in the hedgerows for about two hours, the skirmishers ‘exchanging coarse language and bullets now and then’.
By about 5 p.m. the bulk of Fairfax’s men were drawn up ‘in battalia’ in Stevenstone Park, with the forlorn hope about half way between them and Torrington. The half dozen or so hedged enclosures which separated them from the town were manned by Royalist foot, with one field separating the opposing sides. As darkness fell, it was uncertain whether battle would be joined that day.
Fairfax planned to wait for daylight, ordering the 1,000 musketeers, 500 horse and fifty dragoons of the forlorn hope ‘to stand and make good that ground until the next morning’, but at about 8 p.m. it was reported that the Royalist foot were falling back into the town; an hour later, as Fairfax and Cromwell rode up to inspect their sentries, the sound of beating drums was heard within the town. Believing that this might signal the beginning of a Royalist withdrawal, Cromwell ordered the dragoons to ‘steal up to the barricades to see what they were a-doing’. However, as Wogan’s men approached the enemy defences, Hopton’s musketeers, still in place, ‘gave them such a volley, that they soon repented of their rashness.’ Seeing their comrades under fire, ‘our forlorn hope of foot… thought themselves bound in honour (for all the Lieutenant-General could say to the contrary) to help the dragoons . . .’ Hopton had his troops in position, and ‘it displeased me not at all that the enemy gave on, which he did that Monday night about 7 of the clock; about which time I with some of the General Officers of the horse got on horseback and placed the several parties of horse as before mentioned…’
It seems that the Parliamentarian Forlorn Hope had the worst of the first encounter and were beginning to give ground when Fairfax decided to launch a full-scale assault: ‘being thus far engaged, the general . . . seeing the general resolution of the Soldiery, held fit, that the whole Regiments in order, after them should fall on, and so both sides were engaged, in the dark, for some two hours, till we beat them from the Hedges, and within the Barricades.’
The Parliamentarian field word was initially ‘Emmanuel, God with us’, and they wore a recognition sign of a furze bough in their hats. However, after the Royalists obtained knowledge of them from some prisoners, the word was changed to ‘Truly’ and the sign to a white handkerchief around hat or arm. The latter probably caused some confusion as the Royalists were also using a white handkerchief as their sign. Their word was ‘We are with you.’
The main Royalist barricade was at the foot of Well Street, held by Cornish troops who, as the enemy approached, redoubled their rate of fire. Fierce fighting continued for over an hour, the Parliamentarians admitting that the Royalist foot ‘disputed the entrance of our forces with push of Pike and butt end of Musket for a long time’. Eventually some of the Parliamentarian infantry, commanded by Robert Hammond, managed to outflank the barricades, infiltrating the town through the backs of some houses. However the fighting went on. Fairfax admitted that
. . . our men were thrice repulsed by their Horse, and almost all driven out again, but Colonel Hammond with some other Officers and a few Soldiers made a stop at the Barricadoes [sic], and so making good their re-entrance, rallied their men and went on again. Major Stephens with their Forlorn Hope of Horse coming seasonably up to second them, the Enemys’ foot ran several ways . . . They [the Royalists] maintained the barricades, lines and hedges with as much resolution as could be expected, and had not our men gone on with extraordinary courage, they had been repulsed.
Hopton, on the other hand, condemned the performance of many of his troops:
About 8 of the clock that night, the Major General and myself in the street on horseback, and riding to visit the several posts, the enemy got entrance at the barricades at the upper end of the street where we were, and beat off the foot: and our party of horse that I had sent to support them ran away and fell down upon us, where the enemy being drawn up in a body in the street, and the Major General’s horse being killed under him, I was therefore left with only Captain Harper and one of my servants engaged, but I thank God, got off with little hurt [a pike wound in the face] besides the loss of my horse, which brought me to my lodging door and there fell down dead, Captain Harper being shot in the head but not slain.
Meanwhile the parties of Royalist horse in Torrington fled ‘and brought a confusion and disorder in the whole’, whilst the foot, especially, according to Hopton the Cornish, also made off. An exception was the Prince of Wales’ Regiment, which made a stand on the castle green and ‘defended their post even after the town was lost.’
However the fight was not yet over. Many of the Parliamentarian foot scattered through the town in search of booty, and in the meantime Hopton had got another horse and ridden off to the north end of Torrington, where the bulk of the Royalist horse were stationed, and
. . . commanded my own Lieutenant-Colonel [Edward] Bovill with about 30 horse, and Lieutenant-Colonel Marsh, with my Lord of Cleveland’s brigade, being about 5 or 600 horse, to draw up and charge into the town; my Lieutenant-Colonel to go first as the forlorn hope. At the same instant, there came to us about 300 of our musketeers that were fled out of the town, whom I commanded to join with them, but the foot presently ran away.
The Royalist counter-attack got as far as the barricades, where Hopton’s men were again held, and as confused fighting continued the combatants were deafened by a tremendous explosion. The Royalists had established their main magazine, containing about eighty barrels of powder, in Torrington Church. When they first penetrated the town, the Parliamentarians had placed about 200 Royalist prisoners in the church. Although allegations of Royalist sabotage were made later by some Parliamentarian writers, it seems more likely that some gunpowder was ignited accidentally, probably by a carelessly smoking prisoner or guard. The detonation, of which one eyewitness said ‘Hell itself could not make a more hideous sulphur’, not only killed the prisoners and their guards but also wrecked the church and neighbouring houses and showered the streets with debris. Fairfax himself narrowly escaped being hit by a large piece of lead which killed one of his orderlies.
The explosion caused general consternation, which ended the Royalist counter-attack but also assisted Hopton’s horse in withdrawing from Torrington. They were further aided by the nature of the narrow, twisting street which led down to the River Torridge and hindered any concerted pursuit by the disorganised Parliamentarians. Hopton’s cavalry, as well as large numbers of foot, succeeded in making their escape over the bridges and fords of the Torridge and retreated into Cornwall, the foot scattering over a wide area.
Torrington was a fatal blow for the Western Royalists. Although their casualties were not especially heavy — about sixty were killed in the actual fighting and another 200 in the church, with about 400 other prisoners taken — they had also lost about 1,600 weapons and most of their powder. More important was the blow to their morale. The New Model, which itself lost about 200 men, enlisted many of the Royalist prisoners in its ranks, whilst others were paroled and given 2s. apiece to return home, ‘which it is hoped will prove of as good consequence to gain more of their affections as that civil useage [sic] was at Dartmouth.’