The photo above doesn’t look like much does it? It just looks like a field, a little brown from the summer heat with a wood in the background against a clear, bright blue sky. But what if I were to tell you that these fields once saw thousands of men fighting and killing each other, that it was the site of a battle of the English Civil War that not many people know about, but a battle that turned the tide of the war? The fields shown above are just a small part of a huge area known to be the site of the Battle of Cheriton which took part on 29th March 1644 – Cheriton has long fascinated me, since (for my sins) I took part in a reenactment of the battle in Cheriton Wood. I fought on the side of the Royalists, and we got a thrashing but it was good fun. But as we were on our way back to the pub for a few well deserved pints I began thinking about the battle a bit more; what had it really been like? Obviously it wouldn’t have been fun like today had been with pretending to fall down dead from a musket shot so what would it have been like in the Woods? How did Parliament come to win the battle? And it woke something up in me that kept eating away at me until I completed a rather large piece of work on the site, argued with historians over the battlefield location and spent many an hour traipsing around the battlefield taking in the landscape. It didn’t take long while I was wandering these fields for my imagination to take over.
It is of course, important to place this battle in the context of the English Civil War. The war itself lasted from 1642-1646, with a second civil war igniting in 1648, and as mentioned in my previous post on Charles I the war started because of many causes including Parliament disliking Charles’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings, religious differences and Charles’ need for money to fight various wars. All of this created friction and on 22nd August 1642 the War officially began when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham. The Battle of Cheriton itself happened half way through the original 4 year period of fighting, on 29th March 1644 in fields to the east of the small village of Cheriton (or Cherrytown as it was known in contemporary records) with both armies represented by their respective generals: for the Parliamentarians there was Sir William Waller and for the Royalists Sir Ralph Hopton. These men were close friends and had previously served together in Bohemia perfectly embodying how the Civil War separated friends and even family. Yet even throughout the war, and fighting each other the two men still wrote letters of friendship to each other:, often urging each other to change sides:
To my Noble frend Sir Ralph Hopton at Wells: The experience I have had of your worth, and the happinesse I have enjoyed in your frendship are woundinge considerations when I look upon this present distance betweene us…Wee are both upon the stage and must act those parts that are assigned us in this Tragedy: Lett us do it in a way of honor and without personal animosities, whatsoever the issue be, I shall never willingly relinquish the dear title of your most affectionated friend and faithful servant…William Waller
Sir William Waller by Cornelius Johnson
Sir Ralph Hopton by an Unknown Artist
Why Cheriton though, and why did the battle happen right there? Charles wanted the Parliamentarians out of their stronghold in Southern England and so Hopton’s troops marched from Winchester on 27th March 1644 leaving the town completely undefended, and at the same time Waller was ordered to stop Hopton from taking the south. Thus Parliament sent supplies and ammunition to East Meon in Hampshire where an army of 10,000 men were mustered. This army made their way towards Alresford but the Royalist army of 6000 men held it. Waller’s army withdrew east to Cheriton and Hopton’s troops began to form up on Gander Down, 3 miles east of Winchester. The 28th saw small skirmishes between both sides, but the main event was yet to begin.
The Battle of Cheriton began at 8am on the morning of 29th March, and the battle is often split up into three phases. The first of which is more commonly known as “The Battle for Bramdean Heath”, beginning when the Parliamentarians saw the advantage of Cheriton Wood which lay to the left of the Royalist position. Orders were issued for its occupation and the previous night Waller had created a rather clever ruse to convince the Royalists that Parliament were retreating. The noise worked! And Hopton was advised of this and sent a troop of 1000 horse to follow them. In fact, Parliamentarian troops had occupied the wood with 1000 musketeers and 300 horse. However the royalists soon gained the Wood and there was immense confusion in the confined space thanks to both sides using the same battle cry of “God With Us!”. Hopton eventually sent 1300 Parliamentarian troops running from the wood. This was the first victory of the Royalists during the day but it soon went downhill. After Hopton ordered his troops to move forward and take up position within an area of the field known as The Arena things started to go wrong for the Royalists – Hopton tried conferring with his generals over tactics but they had taken their own initiative, engaging the enemy on their own and Colonel Bard took it upon himself to have his troops take over Hinton Ampner and set fire to hedges as they went. This proved fatal, particularly as Arthur Hesselridge lead his troop of Lobsters (horsemen in big lobster like armour) and slaughtered Bard’s men. Later the Royalists tried to charge the Parliamentarian army with their troops of Horse later in the day but it proved too difficult thanks to the very narrow lanes surrounding the fields and in fact the failure of these charges was blamed on the fact that the horses could only move down the lanes in single file!
The final phase is known as Alresford Fight and was when the Royalists retreated back towards Basing House. This phase saw Parliament pushing forward in a pincer like movement, pushing the retreating Royalists from hedgerow to hedgerow. This seems to have been fought ferociously by Hopton’s troops, allowing for a swift retreat to Basing.
What about losses? Indeed, this battle was a Royalist defeat that really began to turn the tide towards a Parliamentarian victory in the war. It was said in contemporary documents that Parliament lost less than 60 men whereas Royalist losses were said to be much more, perhaps not unexpected as they were defeated, and they lost a few Commanders and members of the nobility including Lord John Stuart, King Charles I’s third cousin. But why did the Royalists lose this battle? Whilst there are many reasons it seems as if many, many mistakes were made. But for myself, the biggest reason seems to have been the sheer lack of communication between the Royalist commanders although another reason may well have been the landscape of the battlefield – the lanes are incredibly narrow, hence the Cavalry charges failing and Parliament were able to get the upper hand thanks to the mistakes made by the Royalists.
The battlefield at Cheriton has to be one of my favourite places in the world and during my time at University I took it upon myself to study the landscape of it in depth. My aim was to find the location of the battlefield through landscape archaeology as there are two possible sites in the area; the traditional site (being the one spoken about above) and a site proposed by military historian John Adair which, whilst very similar, places the main bulk of the battle slightly further south. After speaking with Adair (and still being very in awe of this wonderful man!) and playing around with technical maps I discovered that Adair’s site was actually in the middle of a river valley which at the time would have been quite full of water! So in my opinion, and I hope backed up by my work on the battle site, it seems that the traditional site is much more likely (and not only that but previous archaeological work on the area of retreat rather backs it up too!). However Adair’s book is still my absolute bible on this wonderful place and always will be – I’m forever looking things up in it and it’s getting rather battered these days. To me, there is nothing better than wandering around those fields and gazing over the quiet fields which on one day in history were full of men fighting for what they believed in. It is a very eerie place, yet exceptionally beautiful at the same time, and I urge anyone with an interest in the English Civil War to take a walk around the public footpaths of the battlefield and follow the battlefield trail.
Adair, J, 1973, Cheriton 1644: The Campaign and the Battle, Kineton: Roundwood Press
Maclachlan, T, 2000, The Civil War in Hampshire, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books
Sawyer, R, 2002, Civil War in Winchester, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books