The English Civil War was a conflict that divided a nation, tore families and communities apart and resulted in the death of an estimated 200,000 people making it the bloodiest war ever fought on British soil. On the 16th May 1643 about half a mile from the town of Stratton one of the most important battles of the Civil War in Cornwall took place.
The Battle of Stratton was a remarkable victory for the Royalists, and for the Cornish, who miraculously won despite being outnumbered and desperately short of food and ammunition. And tucked away in fields, hidden behind high hedges, is a forgotten memorial to that important military triumph of nearly 400 years ago.
“Cornwall, which is Little Wales beyond England, proved themselves True Brittaines, when no English county stood entirely for his Majestie.”Mercurius Aulicus, the Royalist Journal, est: 1643
A bit of Background
During the civil war between the Royalists (the Cavaliers) and the Parliamentarian forces (the Roundheads), which ultimately culminated in Charles I losing his head, Cornwall was (mostly) a staunch supporter of the King. The majority of the great Cornish families fought on the Royalists side and the general population followed their lead.
“The Cornish Army was headed by Sir Ralph Hopton, who had been sent recruiting in the West by the King, but its true leaders were Grenville, Godolphin, Slanning and Trevanion, who became famous as the Four Wheels of Charles’ Wain. Tenants and neighbours flocked after them. They beat off invaders from their home fields; they passed victorious through Puritan Devon to the hills of Bath.”Arthur Mee, The King’s England – Cornwall, 1937
The main players in the battle at Stratton (also known as the Battle of Stamford Hill) were Sir Ralph Hopton, a Somerset man, Sir Bevil Grenville of Stowe and Kilkhampton, Sir Nicolas Slanning, an MP for Penryn and once governor of Pendennis castle, William Godolphin, of Godolphin House and MP for Helston, Warwick Lord Mohun of Oakhampton and Boconnoc, Francis Basset of Redruth, Sir John Berkeley of Stratton, Colonel John Trevanion and Colonel John Digby. Their force consisted of 2400 foot soldiers, 500 horse and eight cannons and very little ammunition.
In command on the Parliamentarian side were Henry Grey, Earl of Stamford and Major-General James Chudleigh, with them 5400 foot, 200 horse, 13 guns and plenty of powder. And of course both sides felt that they had right and God on their side.
“To the Puritans freedom was dearer than life, to the Royalists loyalty to the Crown was part of their duty to Heaven.”Arthur Mee, The King’s England – Cornwall, 1937
In April 1643 Chudleigh is said to have intercepted correspondence sent to Hopton ordering his forces to join with the Royalist army in Somerset. It was decided that the Cornish army should be destroyed before this could happen. Stamford drew troops from garrisons across Devon and Somerset, gathering the largest army he could muster, and moved into Cornwall. He also sent much of his cavalry to attack the Royalist garrison at Bodmin in order to prevent them joining the fight.
The invasion force, which outnumbered the Cornish 2:1, arrived outside Stratton on 15th May and chose some high ground nearby to throw up their defences, possibly utilising some much older earthworks already on the hill.
Meanwhile Hopton was well aware of the impending doom and was hurrying his troops to meet the enemy, giving them very little rest or sleep.
The whole army, officers and men, were in deplorable want of sleep and food . . . and they were but ill furnished with the barest store of all military equipments.”Rev. j. J. Daniell, A compendium of the History of Cornwall, 1880
The Cornish were very low on supplies, including ammunition, having already exhausted the store of gunpowder that had been left in Pendennis castle and due to a delay in the arrival of a supply that had been sent for from France. It was decided that the best course of action was to take the enemy by surprise. Hopton had already received intelligence that most of Stamford’s cavalry had left so he resolved to seize the moment. The Royalists attacked Stamford Hill at 5am on 16th May.
They surrounded the hill, Hopton and Lord Mohun leading the assault from the south, with other columns led by Berkeley and Grenville, and Slanning and Trevanion, and Basset and Godolphin. Digby protected the rear with 300 horse.
“Each soldier on the King’s side fighting as if the victory depended on him alone . . . The odds were desperate in the extreme but the gallant men not only held their ground but began to press upwards on every side.”Rev. j. J. Daniell, A compendium of the History of Cornwall, 1880
The fighting went on for 9 hours with the Royalists making little headway. By 3pm they only had three or four barrels of gunpowder left, there was a desperate need to end the stalemate. Hopton decided on a last ditch, head-on approach. He gave the order to “Out swords and pikes” and they charged up the hill from every side and hand to hand fought their way to meet at the top.
“The enemy quailed at their determination and hurriedly quit their posts. Although the Cornish army was outnumbered by two to one their outstanding courage carried the day and by 4pm the enemy was routed.”SGH, Old Cornwall, Vol VII, No 10, Spring 1972
In 1893 the Cornish & Devon Post wrote that after the battle it was reported that the river in the wooded valley below the hill was red with blood and that hundreds of years later farmers were still ploughing up cannon balls and bones in the fields around Stamford Hill.
I can’t be sure how true these statements are however as we have the official figures for the losses that day and they were relatively low. (Although it is possible that the dead were buried in the fields where they fell.)
Around 90 Cornish men were killed, while more than 300 Parliamentarians lost their lives and 1,700 more were captured, including Chudleigh. The Royalists also seized their 13 cannon and importantly the 70 barrels of gunpowder they had left, as well as provisions, tents and some £5000 which was found in the baggage.
The Earl of Stamford escaped to Exeter and blamed Chudleigh for the defeat. The version of events that he told Parliament had him being betrayed by his second in command. He said:
“he had been betrayed by James Chudleigh; and that in the heat of the battle, when the hope of the day stood fair, he [Chudleigh] had voluntarily run over to the enemy and immediately charged the Parliamentary forces, which begat in all men a general apprehension of treachery, the soldiers fearing their officers, the officers their soldiers’ revolt and thereupon the rout ensued.”F. E. halliday, A Cornish Chronicle, 1967
It’s unclear how much of this statement is true and how much of it was Stamford trying to save face.
As it was the victorious Cornish were celebrating and Sir Ralph Hopton and Sir Bevill Grenville are said to have led the prayers of thanks “for their deliverance” on the top of Stamford Hill.
The Memorial & Earthworks
Stamford Hill is crowned by a forgotten memorial to that victory. It stands inside an ancient round, possibly Iron Age, and it is thought that this prehistoric feature would have made a good defensive position for Stamford’s troops, explaining why they chose this hill.
When exactly the stone arch was built isn’t clear but it was not the first memorial on the site. Up until around 1895 a cannon on a raised stone platform, possibly a gun from the battle itself, stood on the hill but this has long since disappeared.
In August 1971 civic dignitaries and members of the Bude and Stratton Old Cornwall Society met at Stamford Hill to unveil a new plaque commemorating the battle. The inscription reads:
“Site of the Battle of Stratton, 1643. In this place ye army of rebels under ye command of the Earl of Stamford received a signal overthrow by ye valour of Sir Bevill Granville and ye Cornish Army on Tuesday ye 16th of May 1643.”
This wording was taken from the original tablet that was placed on the site, possibly with the cannon, in 1713 by George, Lord Lansdowne. For some reason this was taken down and it can now be found in the wall of the Tree Inn (see below).
“This monument was taken down before the memory of anyone now living; the tablet containing the inscription was removed to Stratton and filed on the front of the market house; when some alterations were made in that building it was again removed and placed in the front of the Tree Inn where it still remains.”Cornish & Devon Post, 21 July 1900
The new replacement plaque was attached to the much older memorial arch which stands in trees near the summit of the hill. The granite arch itself is about 12ft high and the top of the memorial is surmounted by one of the 15th century pinnacles from Poughill Church, which was knocked from its tower by lighting and added to the memorial.
The Battle of Stratton secured Cornwall for the King and allowed the Cornish forces to reach beyond the Tamar. Within weeks much of Devon was under Royalist control, but of course it was not to last. While the Royalists did go on to take Bristol the Cornish losses were so severe that there ceased to be a separate Cornish army and the men that were left were drafted into other units. Another terrible blow was the death of Sir Bevill Grenville at Lansdowne.
The tide was turning and within a few years the whole country would be a Commonwealth of the first time in its history.
Visiting the battlefield
Visiting the site of the battle is pretty straightforward, the battlefield is just outside Stratton beside the B3267 – Stamford Hill (I will mark it on my Map of Places to Discover) but parking is very limited.
There are permissive paths across the field to the woodland and also up the hill where you will find the monument and a small information board. It makes an unusual and peaceful spot to spend a few minutes reflecting on what a different scene it would have been all those years ago.
Another incredibly historic place to visit is the Tree Inn at Stratton. It was Anthony Payne‘s manor at the time of the Civil War and is said to have been used as a headquarters for the Royalists before the battle and after it was where many of the captured prisoners were held. It is now a fantastically atmospheric public house and hotel, with walls and floors that lean at exciting angles!