The Capture of Torrington, 1646

Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1878, Vol X, pp. 399-402.


Paul Q. Karkeek.

Prepared by Michael Steer

A potted history of this campaign can be found at the British Civil Wars (BCW) Project website. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

In a paper entitled "The History of Great Torrington," by the Rev. F. T. Colby, B.D., F.S.A. {Trans. Devon. Ass., vol. vii.), the following statement occurs: "The next day a terrible occurrence took place. A number of prisoners were confined in the church, where was the magazine with about eighty barrels of powder. These, whether by accident or design, were set on fire, blew up the church, and a great part of the houses of the town," &c. The writer of the paper was in error as to the day on which this catastrophe happened. In "Fairfax in the West" (Trans. Devon. Assoc., vol. viii.) allusion is made to the explosion; and, quoting from Fairfax's letter,(1) I describe the event as taking place even during the retreat of the Royalists, and the entry of the Parliamentarian ; that is to say, during the fight. Rushworth's Collections has no letter but that of Fairfax from Torrington; but in the Sixth Report of the Historical Manuscripts Commission, p. 100, is given a letter from Rushworth himself, describing the combat, and the unfortunate incident of the blowing up of the church; and this account confirms the view expressed by me in "Fairfax in the West," that it was during the capture of the town, and not on the next day, that the explosion took place. In the other respects this letter of Rushworth's is very interesting.

"Feb. 17. Letter from J[ohn] R[ush worth], at Torrington, to [the Speaker of the House of Commons]. On Saturday, the 14th, we marched from Crediton to Chimligh (Chumleigh), ten miles; the day very rainy, and the ways deep. On Sunday we marched two miles, when we had intelligence that Lord Hopton was at Torrington; and hearing that there was a troop of horse at Burrington, the General sent a party against them, who routed them, and brought Lieutenant- Colonel Dundas the prisoner, mortally wounded, to King's Ash (Ashreigny). This is the Dundashe who ran to the enemy when the Earl of Essex's forces lay about Thame. Another party of horse, sent out at the same time, also routed some of the enemy, and shot Major Brettee, who, being well mounted, escaped. Meantime a broken bridge had been made up, and three regiments of horse, and three of foot marched some four miles towards the enemy; the rest returned to Chimligh with orders to march by break of day. We hoped that the enemy, after the alarums we had given them, would have taken their resolution before morning, whether to go east or west, which we were very desirous of knowing. February the 16th the General, with his forces, joining those that had gone on to Ring's Ash, drew up his army in battalia on the moor, within five miles of Torrington, and then advanced towards the town. After some skirmishing a party was sent against Squire Roll's house, which the enemy quitted without resistance. After some further skirmishing between the forlorn hopes on each side, the enemy drew out their foot into the closes, about a quarter of a mile from the town; our forlorn hope then lined the hedges, and so the men faced one another within half musket-shot for about two hours, exchanging coarse language, and bullets now and then. When all the horse and foot had come up they were drawn out in Mr. Roll's Park, and supports immediately sent to second the forlorn hope. It was now growing dark, and after a council of war the General and others rode up to the forlorn hope to see the posture of the forces, and find out whether the reports of the flight of the enemy were true. Six dragooners were ordered to creep under a hedge near to the barricadoes to see if the enemy would answer. The fire was returned by a very sharp volley, upon which the forlorn hope, seeing the dragooners engaged, also gave fire. The enemy replied all along their line, and our reserves coming up to support the forlorn, the whole army advanced, and so, about eight at night, the battle was begun about six fields from the town. We beat them from hedge to hedge into their barricadoes, which our men carried after about an hour's fighting, after several repulses, and so forced the enemy into the town; whereupon the horse were set in, and charged the enemy in the streets, and after hard lighting drove them out of the barricadoes at the further side of the town. Many prisoners were taken and put into the church ; but many more threw away their arms and escaped in the darkness. No sooner were we possessed of the town than the enemy's magazine, about eighty barrels of powder, which were in the church, blew up ; whether fired by accident or on purpose we cannot yet learn. Many of the prisoners were killed, many houses defaced, and the whole town shaken. Some of our men in the churchyard were killed, and two great pieces of lead fell within half a horse's length of the General. One whole barrel of powder was blown out into the street without taking fire. The enemy seeing the explosion, made another charge under John Digby, brother to* Lord Digby, but were repulsed by our musketeers; and our horse, instantly advancing, began the pursuit at eleven at night, and I hope will give a good account of the business. Thus hath it pleased God to rout Lord Hopton's forces, foot and horse. We trust soon to follow them, and reduce the remnant. We hear that they were from two thousand five hundred to three thousand men. They fought valiantly, and defended their barricadoes at push of pike, and with the butt end of their muskets, till our men got over a hedge and flanked them, which forced them to give way. The old Cornish foot, and Greenvile's and Goring's old soldiers, English and Irish, were engaged, but are now scattered. The hedges in these parts are so thick that each hedge was a bulwark for the enemy. There are many wounded, but few slain on our side ; of the enemy many. You shall have further particulars hereafter. Let the glory be given to God.

"Torrington, Feb. 17, 5 in ye morning. We hear some of the horse are going towards Barnstaple. Colonel Cook is that way ; but Colonel Whaley should quarter nearer Newbur}'', to follow any that may come from Oxford, and not divert our horse, that are on so probable a design to settle the West of England."

Whitley. The letter from Prince Maurice, authorising Sir Edward Fortescue to repair and fortify the old Bulwark, afterwards called Fort Charles, at the mouth of Kingsbridge river, is dated from Whitley, Dec. 9th, 1643. It has been suggested that this Whitley is the farm bearing that name near Kingsbridge.

I amREoyalist army during the siege of Plymouth was stationed at Widey, about a mile and a half from Whitlegh. A very considerable post, however, was at St Budeaux; and Whitlegh must have been a very convenient rendezvous for the officers of both divisions. Prince Maurice was presiding over the siege, and during the early part of Dec, 1643, there was plenty to do, so that it is not at all likely he would have been so far from Plymouth as Kingsbridge. The probability then seems to be in favour of Whitlegh, or East Whitley, being the Whitley from which the letter was dated.

(*)    Sprigge.