The Battle of Roundway Down
13th July 1643

engagement at Lansdown, near Bath, triumphant Parliamentary troops pursued a dispirited Royalist army towards Devizes.

The English Civil War had been raging for a year, and nothing decisive had happened yet.

The Parliamentary side was commanded by Sir William Waller (the previous year he had earned the nickname "William the Conqueror" after a series of brilliant successes). The Royalists were led by Sir Ralph Hopton.

The two opposing generals had been firm friends since they had served together in Prague in 1618. They had been there as part of a small English detachment, sent to protect the (English) Princess Elizabeth. She had married Frederick, Elector of the Palatinate and (later) of Bohemia.

From C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War
"There was one other influence to be reckoned with in the household of the Elector Palatinate, his [English] wife Elizabeth. This princess combined bouyant health and high spirits with character, intelligence and beauty. Her loveliness was that of colour and imagination, and her begrimed and faded portraits can do no more than indicate a forgotten glory. The splendour of auburn hair, the subtlety of flushed cheek and swift gesture, the expressive changes of the shrewd, observant eyes and witty mouth, mirrors of that 'wild humour' which scandalised and bewitched her contemporaries - these are lost forever. Her letters give us fragmentary flashes of the brave, frivolous soul, fragments too of the harder substance beneath, a courage matched by resolution in which obstinacy and pride played their part.

"A contract which had been arranged for the most prosaic reasons had quickened into a marriage of love. Elizabeth despised her husband's language and never learnt it, quarrelled with his family and made chaos of his houshold affairs, but with the Elector himself she lived in a perpetual honeymoon."

The timing of the marriage was a little unfortunate, since the Thirty Years' War was just about to start, indirectly precipitated by Frederick's recent accession to the Electorship of Bohemia (in the modern Czech Republic).

The issue was this - the Hapsburgs of Austria had come to expect the title of Holy Roman Emperor (who was neither holy, nor Roman, nor Emperor), but relied on an election by the seven Electors of Germany. Previously, the Catholic forces had held a 4:3 majority, but Frederick's profession of the Protestant faith screwed up the Hapsburg's arithmetic. So they gathered an army - the Catholic League - to "adjust" the numbers again.

When the Catholic League over-ran Prague, Hopton carried the pregnant Queen of Bohemia on the back of his horse for forty miles to safety.

In due course, Elizabeth gave birth to Prince Maurice.

(Back to Roundway Down)
Waller caught Hopton on the outskirts of Devizes, but most of the Royalists managed to make it to defensible positions within the town. In keeping the leisurely warfare of the time, Waller withdrew to Roundway Hill to re-group, making ready to finish the job.

Hopton arranged to send a group of horsemen to Oxford for help. This troop was led by Prince Maurice, whom Hopton had carried on his horse, inside the Queen of Bohemia, all those years before. (Romantic, isn't it?)

Waller sent word to his superiors to intercept the re-enforcements, and set about whittling away at the Devizes defenses.

But Prince Maurice had worked wonders. Thirty-six hours later, Waller was amazed to find two thousand men streaming towards his rear, over Morgan's Hill (today adorned with a radio mast).

The Parliamentarian formation was wheeled round to face the newcomers, but it faced annihilation, trapped between the two forces of King's Men. As it happened, the defenders of Devizes refused to quit their ramparts, fearing some trick, but in a wheeling, surging battle, in the green hollow of Roundway Down, the advantage went steadily against Waller, who ended up on top of Roundway Hill with the remnants of his infantry, trying to hold on until his cavalry could come to his rescue.

Then he spotted the Devizes contingent, emerging from their safety to finish off the rout. Waller gave the order to retreat, but this orderly withdrawal soon turned into headlong flight. Many were cut down in the open, many more at the foot of the hill (where the A361 now runs) - later known as Bloody Ditch. The Cavaliers claimed 600 dead and 800 prisoners taken - probably an exaggeration, but still a bloody day.

"Such," wrote Waller in his memoirs, "was my dismal defeat att Roundway Down."

Oddly, none of the histories I consulted about the battle mentioned the glorious view, the dramatic backdrop for Waller's dismal defeat. Of course, soldiers about to meet their maker might have little time to gaze upon the pretty Vale of Pewsey.

There may be a slightly more poetic explanation - maybe the Vale of Pewsey was less remarkable in 1643, most of England being unspoilt and verdant, and artists like Constable and Turner hadn't begun to celebrate the English countryside.

Pewsey Pewsey Moonrakers Moonrakers
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