The First English Civil War - A Short Synopsis

The First English Civil War was fought out between the 'Cavaliers' of King Charles I and the 'Roundheads' of the Parliamentary army. The war effectively started on 22nd August 1642, when the King chose not to accede to the nineteen highly-restrictive demands which John Pym, the leader of the Lower House, had successfully passed through the Commons in June, and instead raised his standard at Nottingham. This act of defiance was to precipitate a civil war which ranged throughout England and much of Lowland Scotland. The battle fought near Hopton Heath north-east of Stafford was a defensive action by the Royalist garrison of the County Town against an attacking Parliamentary force of marginally superior numbers and the result of the battle may be argued as a draw. It was, however, just a minor skirmish among the fifty-or-so actions during the period, which include such famous battleground names as Edgehill (23rd October 1642), Cheriton (29th March 1644), Marston Moor (2nd July 1644) and Naseby (14th June 1645). The First English Civil War concluded with a resounding victory going to the forces of Parliament when the last Royalist garrison, that of Oxford, finally hauled down its flag on 24th June 1646, even though King Charles had given himself up to the Scots in early May.

Prelude to the Battle Outside Stafford

The Parliamentary army had finally taken the City of Lichfield on 6th March after a short and destructive siege against the Royalist defenders who had held the buildings of the Cathedral Close and had resulted in heavy damage being caused to Saint Chad's Cathedral by Parliament's heavy artillery. After the fall of the only City in Staffordshire the Parliamentary high command sought to reduce the Royalist garrison within the County Town, and to this design part of the successful Parliamentary force, numbering about 750 men led by Sir John Gell, had been dispatched along the Trent Valley to meet up with the forces of Sir William Brereton who was marching with a similar number of men from Cheshire in the north-west, the arranged meeting site being upon Hopton Heath, some 3¼ miles to the north-east of the Royalist garrison. Upon receiving news of the fall of Lichfield, King Charles had sent Spencer Compton, Earl of Northampton to effect the recapture of the City, but on his approach, hearing of the impending action upon Stafford, the Earl decided instead to move in defence of the town.

The Opposing Forces

The Parliamentarians had three major pieces of artillery and a further five or eight smaller cannon called 'drakes'. The Royalists, however, had the most powerful weapon on the field, a 29-pounder named "Roaring Meg", which was their only piece of ordnance. Sir John Gell, the Parliamentary commander of Derbyshire, arrived at Hopton Heath on March 17th with a nominal one-thousand foot though probably less, about 300 part-armed Moorlanders, 'some horse' and the artillery which had seen use at Lichfield. The forces under Brereton from Cheshire started arriving during the course of the 18th and by the dawn of the battle the entire Parliamentarian army numbered some 1,850 men, comprised of 1,200 foot soldiers, 250 dragoons and 400 cavalry. It is reported that much of Brereton's foot did not arrive at the battlefield until the late-afternoon on the day of the battle, far too late to have been of any use. After joining forces with Colonel-General Henry Hastings at Tamworth, Northampton arrived at Stafford during the 18th of March and his army, numbering some 1,200 men, were billeted throughout the town and in its surrounding borough upon the main roads, the town itself being able to house only about half of these troops. On the morning of the battle the Royalist army comprised of 300 dragoons, 800 cavalry and only 100 foot soldiers which had been the bulk of the town's garrison.

Hopton Heath, Sunday 19th March 1643

The battle did not commence until around three in the afternoon because the Royalist forces who had been scattered throughout the town and the surrounding borough, took a long time to organise themselves once they had heard that the Parliamentary troops from Cheshire had been seen gathering with those from Lichfield upon Hopton Heath. This delay gave the Parliamentarians ample time to prepare their own positions. The forces on the Parliamentary left were protected by the stone walls of the Heathyards enclosure and by the hedges of Ingestre Park to the east and behind these breastworks Gell had placed his Dragoons armed with muskets. The Parliamentary right wing was occupied by Brereton's Dragoons who were protected by the hedges of the heathland coverts to their front. The main body of the Parliamentarians including the Moorlander pikemen lay in the centre of the field, protected to their front by ground undermined with rabbit warrens which would protect against a frontal attack by cavalry, being very hazardous to the horses who could easily break their legs by placing a hoof in a rabbit-hole. Behind the pikemen and protected by them the Parliamentarians three largest cannon were situated at the highest point on the battlefield near Heathyards and it would appear that the other, minor artillery pieces had been distributed amongst the dragoons on each flank.

The first exchanges were between the artillery on each side. According to a Royalist eyewitness "We also drew up our Cannon, which was one very good piece, and did great destruction for the first shot killed six of their men and made such a lane through them that they had little mind to close again." The same witness continues by adding that the Parliamentary cannon failed to cause such concern for the approaching Royalist army "for we were so close that their great pieces shot over us" and it is certain that the local topography of the area over which the Royalists advanced, which had forced them to approach the field from downhill, had also contributed to the main guns' ineffectiveness, they being unable to adequately depress their barrels enough to cause their shot to fall amongst the opposing troops. The smaller pieces, however, were brought to bear upon the Royalist ranks to some effect. ... The battle effectively ended following the fall of darkness, the Royalists holding the field but with their general dead, victory soon being claimed by both sides.

The Modern Topography of the Battlefield

The topology of Hopton Heath has changed considerably since the mid-17th century when it consisted in the main of gorse and grass. The introduction of hedged field enclosures on the heath between 1770 and 1788 greatly improved the available grazing by restricting soil run-off and thereby helped the topsoil to retain more nutrients. The wooded coverts on the north-western edge of the heath were planted in the early-19th century and provided shelter from cold northerly winds which again helped to improve the soil. These better conditions have led to most of the northern part of the battlefield being turned over to agriculture which has restricted access to the site. Added to this, the relatively recent building of the RAF Storage Depot upon the southern part of the battlefield now obscures much of the view.

The current house at Heathyards was built sometime before the mid-late 18th century but it is almost certain that it or a predecessor was present at the time of the battle as there would be little reason to enclose this part of the heath with a wall which featured in many of the eyewitness reports of 1643.


Online References

www.British-History.ac.uk
www.BattlefieldsTrust.com
ads.AHDS.ac.uk
www.English-Heritage.org.uk [PDF]
www.TheSealedKnot.org.uk
www.British-Civil-Wars.co.uk
www.UKNIWM.org.uk
www.DatesOfHistory.com
Gell of Hopton Hall from www.RotherhamWeb.co.uk
The Battle of Hopton Heath 'The Day that Chivalry Died' from www.Northamptons.org.uk


Bibliography

Staffordshire in the Civil War - Local History Source Book G.28 ed. by R.A. Lewis (SCCED, Stafford, 1983);
Battles in Britain 1066 - 1746 by William Seymour (Wordsworth, Herts., 1997);

Related information is available on the CCH page:
The Battle of Blore Heath


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