8. The English Civil War – The Battle of Torrington 1646

In 1642 disagreement between King Charles and many of his nobles and Parliament on religious freedom and the power of the monarchy spiralled into a civil war.

Between 1642 and 1651 the war would drag on, with battles and disruption in almost all of England, Ireland and Scotland. King Charles was tried and executed in 1649, his son and heir was exiled in 1651.

The war was particularly damaging in Devon and Cornwall; Cornwall generally held for the King and Devon supported Parliament.

North Devon was divided, Bideford and Barnstaple being pro-Parliamentarian, Torrington solely supporting the king. The Parliamentarians developed a ‘New Model Army’ of professional soldiers.

The Royalists were drawn from noble supporters of the monarchy, foreign princes and mercenaries. Great Torrington was used by the Royalist army as an outpost to monitor the Parliamentarian Garrison at Barnstaple, being a river port, so useful for supplies.

The Royalists were defeated decisively in Bovey Tracey in 1646 and a new commander Sir Ralph Hopton was appointed, the army retreating to Torrington in February 1646, refortifying the castle and adding to the defences, protecting the line of retreat back into Cornwall along the north coast.

It is though General Hopton’s army numbered 3000 cavalry and 2000 infantry.

The Parliamentary army led by General, Sir Thomas Fairfax approached from South Molton from the east, this army was 10,000 strong.

An outpost of Royalists based at Sevenstone House outside of the town alerted the Royalists and the two armies met at the barricades.

Fairfax meant to attack the town in the morning but the night before a 2 hour initial skirmish at the east barricades got out of hand and the Parliamentarians quickly pushed the Royalists back into the town and a battle of attrition soon developed; with street to street fighting.

A stray spark lit the store of eighty gunpowder barrels in St Michaels Church, which exploded, killing as many as 200 prisoners locked in the church itself and blowing off the roof, killing many townspeople and igniting a devastating fire. This event effectively ended the battle and the Royalists quickly retreated into Cornwall, abandoning Torrington.

Torrington was further raided by the massive Parliamentary army, many civilians killed or injured, or swept up in either army, houses and defences knocked down so it couldn’t be re-fortified. The manor house was heavily damaged and the church and castle largely destroyed.