It was the siege of Lyme (now Lyme Regis) by a Royalist army under Prince Maurice that caused the Earl of Essex to set off to the south-west, haying left Waller to engage the king’s forces near Oxford.
After Waller’s defeat at Cropredy Bridge in the Oxford. area, Essex was urgently summoned to re-join the Parliamentarian army campaigning around Oxford. It was now too late as the king took the initiative and turned towards the west in rapid pursuit of Essex. Maurice had failed to capture Lyme and withdrew from the town as Essex approached. Essex had hoped to recruit men for his army in the south-west, having been led to believe by Lord Robartes that large numbers of local men would join his ranks. Essex had been gravely misled. The king’s march to the south-west was so fast that by 26 July 1644, the Royalist army was approaching Exeter. The king joined forces with Prince Maurice and now had an army of 16,000 men under his command. Essex had a mere 10,000 men having failed to recruit soldiers from the local inhabitants. Essex was now hemmed in with the Royalist army in the Launceston area posing a serious threat.
Essex marched to Bodmin at the end of July with the aim of re-provisioning his army. At the beginning of August, the Royalist army was at Liskeard, some twenty miles away. Essex marched south-east, to Lostwithiel where the king approached from the east and Sir Richard Grenville from the north. The king, acting via an intermediary, Lord Beauchamp, hoped to join Essex in a campaign against the Scots. Essex how-ever wished to remain loyal to the Parliamentary cause and rejected the king’s proposal. There was also dissension in the Royalist ranks as Lord Wilmot, the king’s cavalry commander, approached Essex with a view to inciting armed rebellion against the leadership of both Royalist and Parliamentary sides. There were many officers on both sides who wished to see an end to the conflict. Wilmot was arrested and replaced as cavalry commander by Lord Goring. Charles once again approached Essex to propose peace terms, which were rejected.
With the failure of the peace negotiations the king prepared to trap the Earl of Essex. On 11th August, Grenville took Bodmin, thus securing the Royalist position at the northern end of the battlefield. The following day Grenville, with 2,400 men captured Respryn Bridge, thus controlling both sides of the River Fowey. He occupied Lanhydrock House, further strengthening the Royalist position to the north. The position of the Earl of Essex was aggravated by the capture by Royalist cavalry of a ford at Penpoll Creek and of the fort of Polruan. Although the loss of Polruan fort was serious for Essex, the Parliamentarians held the town of Fowey on the opposite bank of the. river. At sea the Parliamentarian navy controlled the coast and an evacuation by sea was still feasible.
The deployment of the Parliamentarian army at Lostwithiel and the surrounding area was basically sound – although there were some inherent weaknesses in the defences. Colonel John Weare’s Devonshire regiment garrisoned Restormel Castle to the north of Lostwithiel. The castle was defended by a light artillery piece sited above the chapel, with a field of fire over the surrounding valley. Defensive positions were set up on high ground around the town, including a position at Beacon Hill to the east of Lostwithiel.
In the early morning of 21st August, the Royalist army advanced. Grenville took Restormel Castle which fell after a token resistance by the defending Parliamentarian troops. This was the only military action ever to have taken place at Restormel. The commander of the defenders, Colonel Weare, blamed the debacle on lack of reinforcements. The loss of Beacon Hill to the Royalists put the Parliamentarian positions in the town in grave peril. The king’s army built an earthen redoubt on the hill and sited an artillery battery there. The Royalist guns bombarded the Parliamentarian positions in the town some four hundred feet below. Essex’s gunners, firing demi-culverins, returned fire but were disadvantaged in having to fire upwards at extreme range.
The king suspected that Essex would move south to Fowey and the Royalists planned an advance. The advance was cancelled when the Royalists realised that their adversaries were still well established in Lostwithiel. The Royalist army was well provisioned, but Essex’s men were short of food. 10,000 men under the command of very able officers nevertheless posed a formidable opposing force to the Royalist army.
The Royalist army comprised some 17,000 men but military operations were hampered by poor communications. On 30th August, the king gained invaluable information from two deserters from the Parliamentarian army that the enemy cavalry was to attempt a breakout while the infantry and artillery were to proceed south-wards to the toast. The king swiftly prepared to block the planned escape. Despatches were sent to his commanders and the entire army was ordered to stand to. A force of fifty musketeers was posted at a house on the Lostwithiel to Liskeard road with the purpose of intercepting the Royalist cavalry. In conditions of poor visibility, the Parliamentarian horsemen passed the enemy musketeers without being engaged.
It was not until dawn that the Royalist cavalry commanded by Cleveland were able to pursue the fleeing enemy horsemen. The logistical requirements of the Royalist army required men who should have been ready for action to be away from their posts foraging for food. Cleveland lost precious time in marshalling his men for the pursuit. It was now too late. Balfour’s horsemen reached Saltash and crossed the Tamar to safety in Plymouth.
It was now the turn of the foot soldiers to attempt an evacuation of the town. The very conditions that had enabled the cavalry to escape now hampered the passage of the infantry and artillery. Heavy cannon, bogged down in the mud, had to be abandoned. Essex’s own account of the appalling conditions gives an insight into the difficulties faced by his men on that fateful day: The ways were so extreme foul with excessive rain, and the harness for the draught horses so rotten as that in the marching off we lost three demi-culverins and a brass piece, and yet the Major-General fought in the rear all day, he being loth to lose these pieces, thirty horses were put to each of them, but could not move them, the night was foul and the soldiers so tired that they were hardly to be kept to their colours.
Major General Skippon fought a desperate rear-guard action from a hill south of Lostwithiel, gaining valuable time for the retreating infantry. By 1st September, Essex had set up defensive positions in the 2nd century B.C. hillfort of Castle Dore with two regiments between the fort and the River Fowey to prevent Royalist forces blocking his escape route to the river. Initially all went well. Lord Goring was unable to breach the Parliamentarian defences, but eventually one of the two regiments east of Castle Dore broke in confusion. Royalist cavalry prevented Essex from reaching the Fowey and the Parliamentarian position was now untenable.
Essex sought to avoid the ignominy of capture by escaping in a fishing boat leaving Skippon to negotiate surrender terms. Skippon was determined to attempt a breakout but his officers realised that the position was hopeless. The foot soldiers were exhausted and could not achieve the rapid escape accomplished by Balfour’s horsemen. The war council decided to surrender.
The Parliamentarian prisoners of war were ill-treated by their jeering captors; their treatment by the Cornish peasants was even harsher. The foot soldiers and artillerymen surrendered their arms – 42 artillery pieces and 5,000 small arms together with a large quantity of powder. The Royalists had barely enough provisions for their own men and could not possibly feed 6,000 prisoners. The Parliamentarians were released and although disarmed were subsequently to form the nucleus of Cromwell’s New Model army.
The Lostwithiel action was a resounding victory for the Royalists, and to some extent compensated for their military reverses elsewhere in the country.