Battle of Modbury
21st Feburary 1643
Name: Battle of Modbury
Date: 21 February 1643
War Period: The Civil Wars
Start Time and Duration: 1pm, approximately 14 hours
Outcome: Parliamentarian victory
Armies and Losses: Royalist army of 1,500 men, perhaps 1,200 infantry with 5 piece of ordnance with the rest cavalry and dragoons; Parliamentarian army of 8,000 mainly new levied troops, mostly clubmen with some militia, from Kingsbridge and 1,400-1,500 soldiers from Plymouth made up of 800-900 infantry, 400 cavalry and some volunteers.
Location: securely located in the hedged fields to the east, southeast, and west of the town with fighting in the town as well.
Map Details: Grid reference SX 66397 51364 (266397 , 051364); OS Landranger map: OS Explorer map: OL20; OS Landranger map: 202
A hard fight in the enclosed fields around Modbury and within the town itself which resulted in an eventual parliamentarian victory, though this did little to alter the course of the war in the south-west.
The Devon parliamentarians had struggled to contain Cornish royalist incursions into the county during the opening months of the Civil War, but in early January 1643 Parliament’s position within the county was strengthened with the arrival of the earl of Stamford with 4,500 men.
The local parliamentarian commander, Colonel William Ruthven, was unwilling to wait for Stamford’s reinforcements to become available and so advanced into Cornwall with local forces but was defeated by the King’s general in the West, Sir Ralph Hopton, at Braddock Down on 19 January. Hopton then advanced again, clearing Saltash of parliamentarians before loosely besieging Plymouth. In response the parliamentarians in north Devon began raising forces, which the royalist then tried to disrupt by force but came off worse in an engagement at Chagford on the northern edge of Dartmoor on 8 February. Meanwhile other Devon militia men and volunteers made their way to Kingsbridge where, by 20 February, 8,000 men had gathered. Here, following a Council of War, the parliamentarians resolved to attack Modbury, which had been occupied by the royalists to dominate the rich South Ham district. At Plymouth, the earl of Stamford separately ordered Sir John Merrick’s infantry regiment, along with 400 cavalry and some dragoons to march on Modbury in support of the Kingsbridge force.
On 21 February 1643 the parliamentarians at Kingsbridge advanced toward Modbury using what is now the A379. On the approach to Modbury the Barnstable and Bideford militia men formed the advance guard. The Plymouth force is likely to have followed what is now the A379 out of Plymouth via Plymstock as this was the road shown on John Ogilby’s 1675 map for the route between Plymouth and Dartmouth. This would imply these troops approached Modbury directly from the west.
The royalists had warning of the attack and sent musketeers to line the hedgerows around the town, probably focusing their deployment to cover the approaches to Modbury from Kingsbridge and Plymouth. The Kingsbridge force’s advance on Modbury appears to have been the first to be engaged by the royalists on the east or south-east side of the town. It seems likely that initial fighting outside the town also occurred to the west, though there are no accounts that state this.
By evening on 21 February 1643, after around three to four hours of fighting, the royalists had been forced back into the town and then, according to one account, to their works. Several hours of overnight fighting then ensued until either the royalists ran short of ammunition and/or parliamentarian assaults became too much. The royalist escaped the town, according to tradition, via Runaway Lane, with many discarding their weapons when the parliamentarians began a pursuit.
The battle had little impact on the course of the war in the south-west, though Hopton was forced to withdraw his men from around Plymouth. It was followed by a short cessation of hostilities whilst both armies re-grouped and local peace initiatives commenced. But these were stymied by a deputation from Westminster and the two sides commenced hostilities again in late April. It was not until his comprehensive victory over the earl of Stamford at Stratton in mid-May 1643 that Hopton was able to join-up with royalist reinforcements under the marquis of Herford and the King’s nephew, Prince Maurice, to dominate the south-west.
Modbury today is still surrounded by enclosed fields and whilst slightly larger than it was in the 17th century, its Civil War footprint can still be understood. There are plaques recording the tradition of the royalist flight along Runaway Lane and at Traine Terrace at the end of Galpin Street relating to the 1643 battle.