Wars of Three Kingdoms > First English Civil War
BATTLE OF HOPTON HEATH (1643)
After the outbreak of the Civil War, the Royalists withdrew loyal supporters from across the Midlands region in order to create a mobile field army. However, this left the wider area vulnerable and in March 1643 a Parliamentary army moved to capture Stafford. A Royalist force was dispatched to stop them and defeated the Parliamentarians at the Battle of Hopton Heath (1643).
Skip to >
In August 1642 Charles I had raised his standard at Nottingham and then moved west into the Welsh Marches to recruit a field army. He gathered his forces at Shrewsbury but the mobilisation had drawn many of his supporters across the Midland region out of their respective areas. Parliament seized on the void this created and quickly took control of Derby and Nottingham. The former was occupied by Sir John Gell of Hopton and he used it as a base to expel the Royalists from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire.
However, the Midlands was simply too important to allow Parliament to dominate it. The lines of communication that ran through it, including access to Yorkshire and Scotland, plus the proximity to the Royalist capital at Oxford meant the King had to secure it. Accordingly Henry Hastings, one of the Midland magnates who had joined the King, was sent back to organise resistance. He established a substantial force at Ashby de la Zouch Castle whilst Sir John Digby was sent to seize Newark. Parliamentary forces, under Lord Gray, besieged Ashby in January 1643 but withdrew when a Royalist relief force was dispatched.
Parliament's next action was to send a new force into the Midlands under Lord Brooke. He advanced into Staffordshire in late February and headed for Lichfield which he duly besieged. The Royalist garrison was commanded by Philip Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield who put up determined resistance. Lord Brooke himself was killed by a sniper on 2 March 1643 and the command of the Parliamentary force passed to Sir John Gell.
On 6 March 1643 Lichfield fell and Gell planned an attack on Royalist held Stafford. However, to do so he needed more men and therefore planned to merge with another Parliamentary force under William Brereton. Hopton Heath, some two miles north-east of Stafford, was chosen as the rendezvous point. Unwilling to see the West Midlands fall under Parliamentary control, the King dispatched a large cavalry force under Spencer Compton, Earl of Northampton to join Hastings. The two Royalist armies rendezvoused at Tamworth and on 18 March 1643 marched into Stafford. The next morning Gell arrived on Hopton Heath. The news of the Parliamentary manoeuvres reached Hastings mid-morning and he led his mounted forces out of Stafford to intercept the Parliamentarians. Meanwhile Brereton's Parliamentary force approached Hopton Heath from the north-west.
The primary sources are in conflict over which of the two armies were larger although both were probably similarly matched. The Royalist army was under the command of Henry Hastings but the bulk of the forces present were cavalry led by Spencer Compton, Earl of Northampton. The remainder were dragoons. By contrast the Parliamentary force was under John Gell and consisted of around 500 infantry and 300 dragoons. In addition Brereton's force added 400 cavalry and a further 200 infantry although the latter were trailing behind and were not available at the start of the battle.
The battle was fought on the afternoon of 19 March 1643. The terrain of the Heath itself was grassland but there were a number of fields, enclosed by hedges, on both the east and west of the site associated with the nearby villages of Hopton, Salt and Weston. There was also an enclosed deer park, Ingenstre, to the east.
- Stage 1: Deployment
The Parliamentarians deployed their main force along a ridge running between Heathyards farm and Salt Heath. The main infantry force was within the boundary of a rabbit warren, the earthworks of which provided some protection against a hostile cavalry charge. However, in order to occupy the totality of the ridge, the Parliamentary line was extended and the troops thinly spread. Gell placed his guns in front of the army, possibly in the enclosure that is now occupied by the site of Heathyards farm, and put his dragoons on his left flank within the enclosures around Ingestre Deer Park. Further dragoons were deployed to the right in Hayfield close which put them in a position to fire across the battlefield. A small reserve was kept in the rear. Around 2pm Brereton's force, which was comprised of cavalry, arrived from the north-west and joined the right flank of the Parliamentary army. The Royalists arrived around 3pm and deployed in battle formation to the south of the Parliamentarians.
- Stage 2: Initial Action
Hastings sent his own dragoons forward to tackle their opponents who were in the enclosures on either side of the battlefield. The Parliamentarian dragoons were pushed back with those on the left abandoning supporting artillery. Concurrently the two forces exchanged artillery fire with the Royalists seemingly getting the better of the contest with one of the pieces, a 29-pounder known as 'Roaring Meg', allegedly inflicting significant casualties amongst the Parliamentary forces.
- Stage 3: Northampton Attacks
The Earl of Northampton, the Royalist cavalry commander, now charged the Parliamentary lines. His forces overwhelmed the opposition, under Brereton, and attacked the Parliamentary centre. However, the latter held aided by their strong defensive position within the rabbit warren. Northampton regrouped his men and charged the Parliamentary infantry once more but again Gell's men held. Northampton's own horse stumbled in a rabbit hole throwing the Earl into the Parliamentary lines where he refused quarter and was killed.
- Stage 4: Byron Attacks
The Royalists withdrew and regrouped once more ready for another attack. With Northampton dead, Sir Thomas Byron took command of the cavalry and charged the Parliamentary lines. Again the Royalists routed the opposing cavalry but were still unable to break the main body of troops within the rabbit warren. Byron was badly wounded during the action.
- Stage 5: Stalemate
Concurrent with the final Royalist attack, Brereton's own infantry force, around 200-strong, started to arrive on the battlefield. With this Gell had sufficient manpower to leave the rabbit warren and push back the attackers. His force successfully re-captured some of their artillery and, as dusk fell, the battle descended into stalemate. After dark the Parliamentarians withdrew leaving the field to the Royalists. They had suffered around 500 casualties, the high number being due to the dispersed nature of their troops. The Royalists had suffered around 50 killed or wounded.
The battle eliminated the immediate Parliamentary threat to Stafford. This was particularly important as Queen Henerietta Maria had landed in Bridlington in Yorkshire in late February laden with money and munitions. Securing Stafford ensured she was able to pass through the town on her journey to Oxford with these vital assets. However the Royalists had suffered the loss of one of their key commanders, the Earl of Northampton (whose body was held to ransom by Gell who demanded the return of his captured artillery - a price never paid). Furthermore, the Parliamentary army was still intact and had control of nearby Lichfield requiring further Royalist resources to be re-directed into the area.
Adamson, J (2007). The Noble Revolt. Orion, London.
Barrett, C.R.B (1896). Battles and Battlefields in England. London.
Bennett, M (1990). A Travellers Guide to Battlefields of the English Civil War. Webb and Bower Ltd, Exeter.
Beresford, M.W and St Joseph, J.K.S (1979). Medieval England - An Aerial Study. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Burne, A.H (1959). Great Civil War. London.
Cyprien, M and Fairbairn, N (1983). A Traveller's Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Evans Brothers Ltd, London.
Dodds, G.L (1996). Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Arms & Armour, London.
Douglas, D.C, Coward, B and Gaunt, P (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 5B (1603-1660). Routledge, London.
English Heritage (1995). Battlefield Report: Hopton Heath (1643). Swindon.
Gardiner, S.R (1889). History of the Great Civil War. London.
Green, H (1973). Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland. Constable, London.
Guest, K (1996). British battles: the front lines of history in colour. Harper Collins, London.
Hunt, T (2003). The English Civil War at First Hand. Orion Books, London.
Husbands, E (1643). A true Relation of the great and glorious victory, through God's Providence, obtained by Sir William Waller, Sir Arthur Haslerig, and others. London.
Kinross, J (1979). The Battlefields of Britain. London.
Lancaster, J.H.D (2010). Hopton Heath: Battlefield visit notes and observations. CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk.
Ordnance Survey (2015). Hopton, Staffordshire. 1:1250. Southampton.
Roberts, K (2005). Cromwell's War Machine: The New Model Army 1645-60. Pen and Sword, Barnsley
Royle, T (2004). Civil War: The Wars of Three Kingdoms 1638-1660. Abacus, London
Smurthwaite, D (1993). The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Michael Joseph, London.
Woolrych, A (2002). Britain in Revolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Yates, W (1769). Map of Staffordshire.
Young, P (1954). The Battle of Hopton Heath, 19th March, 1643. Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research.
The battlefield is partly developed with a major Ministry of Defence establishment, 'Stafford Site 6', located on the site where the Royalists deployed. The rest of the battlefield is farmland but is significantly different from the terrain in 1643 when thick hedges and walled enclosures flanked the Parliamentary position whilst a rabbit warren in the centre would have meant a pot-holed ground difficult for cavalry to advance over (at speed). There is no access to the central battlefield but public roads and rights of way allow the visitor to walk the circumference of the battlefield. Care must be taken though as the traffic on the A518 and Within Lane is very fast moving.
Battlefield Monument. The monument is found in the corner of the perimeter of the Ministry of Defence depot. It is located in the general area where the Royalists deployed prior to attacking the Parliamentary position.
Battlefield. The battlefield as viewed from the Royalist starting position. Heathyards Farm can be seen in the centre. Brereton's forces would have been on the far left.
Heathyards Farm. The centre of the battlefield is inaccessible as it is occupied by Heathyards Farm. At the time of the battle this was part of the Heath but a small enclosure existed in the vicinity of the buildings seen today. This was probably where the main Parliamentary artillery was located.
Terrain. This photograph is taken from the right flank of the Royalist starting position. The Parliamentarians occupied the ridge in front of the (modern) treeline in the distance.
MOD Stafford. Much of the battlefield, is buried under MOD Stafford Site 6, a military depot.
The battlefield monument is found off Within Lane in the corner of the perimeter of the Ministry of Defence Stafford Site 6. The monument is directly adjacent to a public right of way albeit it is behind the wire of the military establishment. There is no car parking in the immediate vicinity but there is a substantial lay-by on the A518 from which visitors can take a circular walk around the circumference of the battlefield. From the lay-by proceed south along the A518, head along Within Lane until you see the monument sign-posted and then use the right of way to intersect with Brick Kiln Lane. This leads back to the A518 and the car park. The A518 has substantial grass verges but Within Lane requires visitors to walk on the road and accordingly extreme care must be taken.