Saltash in the Civil War

Saltash and the Civil War

Compared with its present population of over 16000, the market town and borough of Saltash was a much smaller place in the 17th century.

Writing shortly after the year 1600, Richard Carew of Antony, in his Survey of Cornwall, said that Saltash, ‘seated on the declining of a steep hill, consisteth of three streets which every shower washeth clean,’ and that it contained between eighty and 100 households.

Saltash to be a town of considerable importance in Cornwall. It was governed by a mayor and ten burgesses, and that its inhabitants included a number of prosperous merchants who possessed seven or eight ships at Saltash to carry on their trade. At the commencement of the Civil War the population of the borough and parish together was little more than a thousand. Saltash, in fact, was then one of the most important and ancient boroughs of the county. With a charter older than that of their larger neighbour across the Tamar.

Of more practical importance were the valuable harbour rights. Moreover, the mayor and council of Saltash were quite prepared to challenge Plymouth on matters relating to their respective maritime rights and obligations.

While a town the size of Saltash could play only a minor role in the great affairs of the nation, its electors sent a number of able men to the House of Commons. On the Royalist side there was Sir Edward Hyde, later Earl of Clarendon. With their large estate at Shillingham nearby, the Bullers regarded Saltash as a family borough. Sir Richard Buller and his eldest son Francis, both prominent leaders of the Parliamentary party in Cornwall, sat for Saltash prior to the Civil War. During the Long Parlia­ment the borough was represented by another of Sir Richard’s sons, George Buller.

There is little information concerning Saltash and its inhabitants at the outset of the Civil War. Serious military operations in Cornwall commenced with the arrival of Sir Ralph Hopton in command of a considerable body of Royalist horse late in September 1642. By this time Sir Richard Buller, who had recently arrived from London, had established his headquarters at Saltash and was attempting to raise troops for Parliament. He issued a proclamation on 27 September announcing that 400 or 500 Cavaliers had come into Cornwall ‘in a hostile and war-like manner,’ and summoning the trained bands or county militia to meet at Bodmin the following day. Hopton, however, seized Bodmin first and Buller was compelled to withdraw to Launceston.

For a brief interval both Saltash and Launceston remained in the hands of Parliament. The garrison at Saltash consisted of some 200 Scots who had recently arrived on a ship from Ireland that had been driven by storm into the harbour, and they were commanded by a Scottish officer, Lord Ruthin. Their position in the town was in serious danger, however, be­cause Hopton was rapidly gaining control over most of the military forces in Cornwall, and the inhabitants of Saltash were probably anxious to avoid a futile attempt to hold it against a Royalist attack. On 2 October 1642 Henry Wills, a member of the Parliamentary committee in Saltash, com­mented that the mayor was having difficulty in securing assistance from the citizens in his efforts to defend the town. A few days later Hopton captured Launceston and then led his troops down the Tamar to seize Saltash. In both instances the Roundheads abandoned the town without resistance and retreated across the river to Plymouth.

Cornwall was now left wholly under Royalist control, and for several weeks thereafter the opposing forces on either side of the Tamar built up their strength in preparation for further military operations. Before the end of the month Sir Richard Buller died, and on 30 November we find Courteney informing his deceased friend’s son, Colonel Francis Buller, of his unsuccessful attempt to arrange the funeral. It appears that the Royalist commander at Saltash refused to allow Sir Richard’s body to be brought from Plymouth to St. Stephens Church near Saltash without express permission from Sir Ralph Hopton who commanded the king’s forces in Cornwall.

By the time he had written this letter Hopton had launched an invasion into Devon. Behind him he left Mount Edgcumbe, Millbrook and Saltash, as well as the fords and other passes over the Tamar well-guarded. Henceforth Saltash was to play an important role in the contest between the opposing armies for the control of Cornwall and the possession of Plymouth. Rising on a steep bank from the edge of the Tamar, the town occupied a strategic position for the defence of the lower passage into Cornwall. The presence of Royalist troops in Saltash was also essential to maintain an effective blockade of the Parliamentary stronghold, Plymouth. If, on the other hand, Roundhead troops from Plymouth could seize and hold Saltash, they would have an excellent base on the eastern edge of Cornwall from which to carry out raids deep inside the county.

Roundhead forces under Lord Ruthin and Henry Grey, Earl of Stamford, were about to invade Cornwall. They first planted cannon on the Devon side of the Tamar, and placed three ships in the estuary which bombarded Saltash with such intensity that an attack across the river was considered imminent.

Sir William Courteney, the Royalist officer who commanded troops in the vicinity of the town, despatched an appeal for assistance to Sir Ralph Hopton at Launceston. With Colonel John Trevanion’s regiment and a company commanded by Captain William Arundell, Hopton set out immediately and arrived at Saltash the same night. However, the sudden­ness and difficulty of the march as well as the ‘mutinous disposition’ of Colonel Trevanion’s troops prevented nearly half of them from reaching Saltash until the following morning. Hopton then proceeded to place the men in proper order for the defence of the town and set them to work constructing fortifications to ward off the expected attack. These measures took good effect, for Hopton stated that although the enemy hammered Saltash with at least eighty pieces of ordnance for an entire week and tried to land troops, ‘they were always repulsed by those in the town.’ So strong were its defences that even the cannon fire appears to have done little damage.

Reinforcements from Somerset, Dorset and other eastern counties, however, soon came to augment the Parliamentary troops already in Devon, and on 13 January part of these forces advanced over the Tamar at New Bridge after a short fight with the Royalist detachment which held the crossing. New Bridge lies only seven miles north of Saltash and, on hear­ing of the Roundhead entry into Cornwall at this point, Hopton made ready to receive another attack on the town, now from the land side. He ordered Major Walter Slingsby, who held the Royalist positions in and around Millbrook four miles south of Saltash, ‘to draw over secretly in the night twelve score choice musketeers’ and place them in ambush on the north side of the town so that they could fall on the rear of the enemy if they approached the town.

The same evening Hopton received a joint letter from the members of his council of war at Launceston strongly advising him not to attempt further defence of Saltash, because the Roundhead forces which had just entered Cornwall were unexpectedly large. After consulting the officers under his immediate command, he decided to abandon the town and to retreat, first to Liskeard and then to Lostwithiel. Roundhead forces com­manded by Lord Ruthin at once crossed the Tamar and captured Saltash.

The capture of Saltash proved to be only momentary successes for the Parliamentary cause in Cornwall. On Thursday 1 January 1643 at Braddock Down Hopton and his army scored the first of their remarkable victories in the west: driving the Roundheads in total rout from the field, and killing or capturing over 140 men. Lord Ruthin, who led the defeated forces, retreated in haste with the rest of his troops to Saltash. Hopton was resting his men at Liskeard for two days. Ruthin rallied his dispirited troops and set them to work fortifying Saltash. He himself went over by boat and brought back artillery and ammunition from Plymouth. He also had a ship of 400 tons with sixteen pieces of ordnance stationed in the river above Saltash to help repel a Royalist assault on the town. When Hopton arrived before Saltash on Sunday 22 January, therefore, he was faced by a well defended position. On the high ground before the town gates the garrison had raised an impressive fortification in which four cannon were lodged.

Ruthin believed that through these measures and with the assistance of Plymouth nearby, he could defend Saltash success­fully. Hopton lost no time in commencing operations against the town. The Royalist attack began about four o’clock in the after­noon with the soldiers ‘adventuring very bravely upon the mouth of the cannon.’ For three hours the Roundheads fought back courageously, but when their powder ran short Hopton’s men broke into the town and drove them down the steep slope to the river side. There they tried desperately to board boats in the harbour and make their escape to Plymouth. In the process one of the vessels sank or capsized, and many of those aboard were drowned. About 140 prisoners were taken together with all the ordnance in the town. In addition, one of Hopton’s officers, Sir Nicholas Slanning, captured the enemy ship that had helped to defend Saltash, possibly with the connivance of her master. Later information revealed that his principal officers had crossed the river safely to Plymouth. Within a short time after the recapture of Saltash Royalist military ascendency established once more throughout Cornwall. A Royalist pamphleteer could then declare truthfully: ‘ . . . now Cornwall hath cleared itself of the militia forces of Parliament and strongly fortified all its frontier towns.’

For the next year and a half Saltash remained under Royalist control. At the end of January 1643 Hopton invaded Devon and laid siege to Plymouth a second time. He suffered a sharp defeat and was compelled to retreat, he sent all his carriage and ordnance to Saltash Passage, which were then ferried over to Saltash while the main body of his army marched to their quarters in Tavistock. On 28 February a truce lasting over a month and a half was established between the opposing forces in Devon and Cornwall.

Unfortunately, both sides used the truce to build up their military strength and prepare for war. One of the accusations made by Parliament was that the Royalists were exploiting this interval of peace to ‘strengthen their party and fortify Saltash.’ In May 1643 a Roundhead observer noted that Sir Nicholas Slanning had 1000 men at Saltash, probably the largest garrison of any town in Cornwall. Hopton sent word to his commanders at Saltash and Launceston to guard the passes over the Tamar against enemy cavalry and dragoons who were trying to escape out of Cornwall. It is not clear how successfully these orders were carried out.

For over a year Cornwall remained free of danger from invasion by Parliamentary forces. During this time Saltash acted as an important base in the blockade and siege of Plymouth, which continued to hold out as an isolated Roundhead stronghold after all Parlia­mentary forces had been expelled from the rest of Devon In the spring of the following year, after Sir Richard Grenville assumed command of the Royalist forces besieging Plymouth, the troops at Saltash appear in the fighting on several occasions. The garrison there not only had the duty of assisting nearby Royalist strong-points on the Devon side of the Tamar, but also of sending aid to smaller posts guarding the lower estuary of the river when they came under attack. Garrisons, like those at Saltash which were assigned to protect the Cornish border, also had to be on the alert against raiding parties from Plymouth.

On 16 April 1644 a body of Roundhead soldiers attacked the village of St. Budeaux a couple of miles northwest of Plymouth and just across from Saltash on the opposite side of the river. There were 160 newly raised men in St. Budeaux under the com­mand of John Grenville, the fourteen year old son of Sir Bevil Grenville, who had been killed at the battle of Lansdown in July 1643. John was also the nephew of the Royalist general Sir Richard Grenville, the boy acquitted himself well. With the aid of thirty musketeers sent by the governor of Saltash, he and his men repulsed the enemy with them taking ten common soldiers as prisoners and these they made run so fast back to Plymouth, not one of Sir John’s men being killed upon the place.’

Parliamentary writers tell an entirely different story. By their account, a raiding party of 600 foot and three troops of horse led by Colonel Martin, commander of the Plymouth garrison, captured St. Budeaux Church, taking 44 prisoners, twenty horses and three barrels of powder. Those Royalists who managed to escape, fled to Saltash, but about twenty of them were drowned trying to swim across the Tamar.

In June 1644 Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, invaded Devon and the following month forced Grenville to abandon the siege of Plymouth and withdraw into Cornwall. The Parliamentary army crossed the Tamar in pursuit, and Roundhead forces under Lord Robartes of Lanhydrock, a prominent Cornish Parliamentarian, entered Saltash on 27 July while the Royalist garrison in this town fell back to join Sir Richard Grenville, who retreated to Truro and at the same time was gathering together his forces to resist Essex’s further advance. On 29 July he wrote to his nephew John Grenville: ‘We have here made a stand [at Truro] with our forces and the garrisons of Saltash and Millbrook and others considerable have come up and added to our former, and we hope well.’

Once again Saltash passed into the hands of a Roundhead garrison, but the change proved to be of short duration, for at the beginning of August Charles I entered Cornwall with a large army. Essex now found himself the quarry instead of the hunter, trapped at Lostwithiel between the king’s forces to the east and those of Grenville to the west. Plymouth, which was also threatened by the proximity of two Royalist armies, sent 100 soldiers from its garrison to reinforce the 200 men already at Saltash. At the same time, on an urgent request from the governor of Plymouth, the Lord Admiral of the Parliamentary fleet who commanded several war­ships in Plymouth Sound sent 100 of his seamen to assist in the defence of Saltash. No doubt the governor intended to use the town as an outpost on the Cornish border to alert Plymouth concerning any move by the Royalist armies in its direction, and possibly also as a base of retreat for Essex’s forces, if any succeeded in escaping the trap at Lostwithiel.

That exact situation arose on the night of 30-1 August when Sir William Balfour with 2000 Parliamentary cavalry managed to slip through the Royalist lines in the darkness and head over Braddock Down towards Saltash twenty miles to the east. No organized pursuit was begun until daylight, and by the evening of the following day Balfour and his men arrived in the vicinity of Saltash. There they were met by a Royalist brigade under Sir Edward Waldegrave. Though Waldegrave immediately attacked Balfour’s horse and captured more than 100 of them in pursuit, he was not able to prevent the great majority from getting into Saltash where they were at once transported over to Plymouth. Balfour’s escape was the result of gross mismanagement on the Royalist side, and a keen awareness of this fact was conveyed by Sir Edward Waldegrave.

The escape of Balfour’s cavalry was certainly the sole bright moment for the Roundhead cause in the West but, for the small Parliamentary garrison at Saltash, the sudden appearance of nearly 2000 fleeing horsemen must have been a demoralizing experience. Colonel Anthony Rous, who com­manded the troops at Saltash, abandoned the town telling his men ‘that if they stayed there, they were to look for neither provisions nor money. 

After his victory at Lostwithiel the king made an unsuccessful attempt on Plymouth and then led his army eastward out of Devon, leaving Grenville with 500 foot and 300 horse to blockade the city. He concentrated most of his forces at Saltash and Plympton while he raised more troops in Devon and Cornwall in preparation for launching a full-scale assault on Plymouth. In the meantime Lord Robartes, the newly appointed governor of the city, worked hard to strengthen its defences and to raise the morale of the garrison and people of Plymouth.

Two events occurred at this time which must have contributed greatly to the achievement of these aims, and they probably also had significant consequences for Saltash in the immediate future. The first was the arrival in Plymouth Sound of four ships from Weymouth with 800 Kentish soldiers—‘red coats,’ Syms called them— under the command of Colonel John Birch. With these reinforcements Robartes now had the power not only to defend the city, but also to mount offensive operations against enemy strongpoints like Saltash.

On the morning of 4 October Robartes sent over a body of 700 or 800 soldiers, including some cavalry, in boats to attack Saltash. After a short fight, according to John Syms, the Roundheads captured it, he immediately wrote letters to the Committee of both Kingdoms, Parliament’s executive body, and to the speaker of the House of Lords, informing them of the capture of Saltash and adding that the town could be held provided that reinforcements and ammunition were sent quickly. Robartes’s urgency arose from his recognition of Saltash’s vulner­ability to attack. With the rest of Cornwall under Royalist control he knew that a formidable assault on the town would soon be mounted, and that it was not large enough to withstand an attack by a sizeable force for long.

Grenville had time and sufficient military strength concentrate on the recapture of Saltash. When he heard that the town had been taken by enemy troops, he assembled his forces and had arms and ammunition sent up by Sir Francis Bassett, sheriff of Cornwall. Grenville reported that he ‘beset and blockered Saltash’

John Syms stated that Grenville made his first attack on Saltash on Saturday night 5 October, and that it was successfully repelled by the Parliamentary garrison. The Royalists struck again the following day. This time they managed to gain entry into the lower part of the town at a place he was referred to as Ashtorre, an area on the north side of Saltash. The Royalists kept their foothold in the town until the following day, but during this period they were subjected to cannon fire from a ship in the river. Syms added that the defenders hurled rocks down on Grenville’s men and killed, according to report, about sixty of them. No doubt this number was considerably exaggerated, but once again, on Monday morning they were compelled to retreat. On the evening of the same day, however, Grenville launched his troops a third time with better success.

Grenville’s account of the siege of Saltash merely stated that the Round- heads resisted for three days, despite the fact that he summoned them to surrender three times, and that he had promised them no quarter unless they submitted. Finally, according to Sir Richard’s report, he ‘resolved to storm them, having 500 stout Cornish foot . . . ’ About one o’clock in the morning he ordered one regiment to assault the town on the north side and another regiment on the south. After two hours of fighting they captured Saltash, killing 400 and 500 troops and capturing 300 others.

John Syms, on the other hand, said that between 400 and 500 of the Roundhead garrison were killed, drowned or captured, and that the rest escaped in boats. He added that they managed to bring away about eight guns. By his account the defenders resisted bitterly and inflicted many casualties on the enemy: ‘our men standing very courageously to it when they saw the enemy would give no quarter.’ Nevertheless, the battle must have been a terrifying experience for the Parliamentary soldiers who were driven in the darkness of night down to the river side to find passage, if they could, across to Plymouth. It must have been worst of all for the cavalry since, as one traveller later wrote, the main street was so steep that it was difficult to ascend on horseback.

According to Royalist accounts, most of the men taken prisoner were members of the ‘red regiment’—doubtless they belonged to the force of 800 Kentish ‘red coats’ who had been brought to Plymouth by Colonel Birch the previous month. If (and it is by no means an entirely safe assumption) Grenville’s word can be trusted that he had offered the defenders quarter which they then refused, he was entitled under the laws of war to execute them out of hand. At any rate, he was determined to show no mercy to the captured men. Colonel Ashburnham, a Royalist officer, informed Prince Rupert that Sir Richard had written that ‘after he hath given God thanks [for his victory] he intends to hang 300 of his prisoners.’ The king, however, sent orders for them to be spared, but this command apparently did not prevent Grenville from executing a good number of his prisoners, possibly because it did not arrive in time. Joseph Jane, a Royalist commissioner in Cornwall, wrote that Sir Richard hung many in cold blood, this may have been his reply to the punishment inflicted upon young Joseph Grenville less than two weeks earlier. They may also have reflected his anger at the obstinate resistance of the Roundhead garrison and at the resulting casualties inflicted on his troFrom the viewpoint of the Roundheads the whole attempt to seize and hold Saltash was a mistake from the very outset, because it represented a reckless dispersion of the limited forces available for the defence of Plymouth. The Earl of Essex stated that someone had just arrived with news that Saltash had fallen to the enemy and that 500 soldiers had been put to the sword there. Grenville had ex­pressed the belief that his success at Saltash would soon be followed by the capture of Plymouth. Oddly enough, however, he made no immediate attack on the city, but the probable reason was that he lacked a sufficient number of troops to undertake it. His losses at Saltash may have been a further explanation for the delay. When Grenville finally did launch two heavy assaults on Plymouth in January and February 1645, the defenders were well prepared and both were successfully repulsed.

No important incidents at Saltash are recorded for the rest of the war. The Royalists continued to hold the river line until after their defeat at Torrington On 24 February 1646 an advance guard of the Parliamentary army crossed the Tamar at Stratton and inflicted a sharp defeat on Royalist forces stationed there. The follow­ing day Fairfax moved down the river and captured Launceston. With the king’s troops in rapid retreat into Cornwall and with Roundhead horse quartered along the Tamar to prevent the escape of Royalist cavalry east­ward, on 28 February the garrison at Saltash also withdrew, leaving all their fortifications intact and three guns behind.

Towards the end of March, when Royalist resistance was ending in most of Cornwall, a body of troops under the command of Colonel Weldon, governor of Plymouth, landed near Ince Castle, residence of the Royalist officer, Sir Henry Killigrew, a short distance south of Saltash. The place was held by a small garrison which surrendered after a brief resistance. In accordance with Fairfax’s generous policy, the soldiers were allowed to go to their homes unmolested, leaving behind four guns and ninety muskets.

Following the Civil War Saltash declined rapidly in population and importance as the focus of economic activity in Cornwall shifted towards the centre and west of the county—to towns like Falmouth, St. Austell and Penzance. In 1724 Daniel Defoe visited Saltash and described it as ‘a little, poor shattered town, the first we set foot on in the county of Cornwall.’ He also remarked that it ‘seems to be the ruins of a larger place, and we saw many places, as if it were, falling down.’ Yet with some surprise, he added that the town was governed by a mayor and aldermen and had many privileges, including the right to send members to Parliament. He mentioned that it levied tolls on all vessels that used the river and possessed the sole right of oyster fishing therein. As Defoe perhaps dimly realized, Saltash had once been a town of importance in Cornwall. Certainly, by virtue of its strategic location it had played a significant role during the Civil War, both in the defence of Cornwall and in the siege of Plymouth. During a period of just over three years, Saltash had changed hands eight times, on three occasions only after bitter fighting—surely a remarkable record by any standard.