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Exeter during the Civil War

Page updated 22 April 2009

1642 - The First Siege of Exeter
1643 - The Second Siege of Exeter
1644 - A Princess is Born
1645 - War Weariness
The Third Siege of Exeter
1646 - The War of Attrition
Final Surrender

Musketry at Poltimore House
5 MB WMV video - May 2007

Puritan Exeter

The years of religious disturbance that started with Henry VIII's Reformation, continued on and off through the rest of the sixteenth century to the early seventeenth century, with Puritanism developing as a foil to the re-establishing of the Catholic faith in England.


In Exeter, many merchants had puritan sympathies, and it was one such, Ignatius Jurdain who became Mayor of the city in 1617. As Mayor, Jurdain could preside as a Justice of the Peace, and as such, pass judgement on those who broke the increasingly puritan rules. He harshly sentenced those who failed to observe the sabbath, or gambled or played games, those who got drunk, those who had loose morals and those who swore. After his year in office, he became an alderman, allowing him the privilege to continue as a JP, and along with other like minded members of the Chamber, influenced Exeter to became a puritan controlled city.

Jurdain died in 1640, leaving an Exeter where perhaps eighteen of the twenty-four members of the Chamber had puritan sympathies; the population were more divided, with an at times, vociferous Royalist faction. It is possble to trace the areas of the city that were pro Royalist, with Cathedral Yard and its clergy, St Stephens, St Martins and All Hallows, Goldsmith Street having a good majority for the King. Conversely, St Petrocks, St Kerrian and St Mary Arches were dominated by puritans, these being parishes with a strong merchant class.

Thus, in 1642 when the split between the Puritan dominated Parliament and the Popishishly inclined King Charles led to civil war across England, the city at first tried to take a neutral line, so as not to be involved in hostilities. It was only after the failure of the Earl of Bath's visit to rally support for his monarch, in August 1642, that the Chamber dare start preparing for a siege by the King's forces, and to raise money for the Parliamentary cause.

The First Siege of Exeter


In August 1642, Royalists including Robert Walker, John Colleton, Nicholas Spicer and Hugh Crocker from within the Chamber withdrew from civic life. Many gentry with Royalist sympathies followed the Earl of Bath and the Chamber resolved to allow no more Royalist supporters to enter the city. Orders were given by the now Puritan dominated Chamber to strengthen the city's defences, just in case.

On 2nd November, Captain Alexander Pym arrived with a troop of cavalry from Somerset; they were initially refused entry by the Royalist gatekeeper, but when the Chamber heard of Pym's presence, they overturned his decision and agreed to allow the troops into the city - from that point, Exeter was for Parliament. In December, a Royalist army of Cornishmen under Sir Ralph Hopton approached the city, so Colonel William Ruthen marched Parliamentary reinforcements from Plymouth to reinforce Exeter, just before Hopton's Cornishmen occupied Alphington and Ide followed by Topsham. Hopton's force had cannon at their disposal that had been captured from Halton Castle.


Hopton issued a demand from the defenders to surrender, but the city sent a force out to Cowley where a small, but fierce, skirmish forced the Royalists to fall back along snow filled lanes to Crediton. The winter weather halted hostilities and Hopton withdrew back to Cornwall. On the 6th January 1643, the Earl of Stamford arrived with Parliamentary reinforcements for the city's garrison and was made Governor of Exeter.

C 17th map Exeter in the 17th Century

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The Second Siege of Exeter

In April, the Earl of Stamford marched his Parliamentary forces to Cornwall to face Hopton's army; the battle of Stratton didn't go well for Parliament and their forces were routed, leaving the remnants to limp back to Exeter, with the King's army in hot pursuit.

By June, Exeter was again surrounded by the King's army, this time commanded by Sir John Berkeley, forcing the Parliamentary defenders to spend £2,000 to strengthen their garrison.

Fever, probably typhus was amongst the citizens as they were "... kept from taking the air without their own walls, and from being supplied from the country markets." Mercurius Aulius, a Royalist propaganda sheet produced by Sir John Berkenhead, of 1 June, 1643, reported "if the old observation be of any credit, that cats and mice doe commonly forsake a ruinous and decaying house, that Citie (Exeter) is not like to continue long in the Rebels' hands."

The landing at Topsham

A relieving Parliamentary fleet carrying 970 sailors and 200 Dorset musketeers, under the Earl of Warwick, appeared off Topsham, threatening the small town's Royalist defenders. On the 21st July, Warwick's fleet bombarded Topsham for three or so hours, and then lighters and longboats went in to land troops along the river front, but the Royalists had previouly sunk boats filled with stones to hamper their efforts. In the attempted landing, two lighters were sunk, and on the turn of the tide, three of the ships in the fleet went aground, one of which caught fire, and the other two captured, with the loss of 38 guns and 17 barrels of powder. The Earl's forces couldn't break through to relieve Exeter, so they withdrew to Poole, leaving Exeter to her fate.

The Battle of Hayes Barton

It seemed hopeless for the defenders of Exeter, but they managed one more strike before capitulation. On the 31st July, a force of 1,100 men crossed the Exe Bridge to engage and destroy the Royalists occupying St Thomas. The Royalist stronghold at the West Indies Inn was demolished and a battle at Hayes Barton, next to the modern Flowerpot Fields Estate, destroyed the ancient manor house. The Parliamentary forces lost 16 killed and 50 taken prisoner, and claimed that they had captured 80 Royalists. Recent archaeological excavations at Hayes Barton uncovered many lead bullets and a canon ball, indicating a fierce fight. The action allowed reinforcements to reach the city.

On the 27th August 1643, Prince Maurice arrived at Heavitree with a large army to supplement the forces of the besiegers. The defenders tried to strengthen the outworks, in preparation for the assault. On 3rd September an artillery barrage fired granades into the city settng fire to buildings and damaging the walls; in addition, buildings in the suburbs were also fired. There was a lull for terms of surrender to be offered, but they were refused, so a second assault quickly took the outworks, and the Mount Radford outpost. The Royalist troops turned the captured artillery back upon the defenders. The position was hopeless for the city, and a treaty was agreed on the 4th September after a 16 day siege.

The humiliated Puritan army marched out of the Westgate, across the Exe Bridge and on to Alphington, all the time, taunted by the victorious King's army. Royalist troops poured into the city, breaking into Puritan houses, looting and beating up Puritan citizens and generally disrupting the normal life of the city. Half a century of Puritan reform came to an end that day. On the 8th of September, the Mercurius Aulius printed a full account of this latest victory for the King.

The Royalist take control

The Royalists wasted no time in taking control of Exeter, and Hugh Crocker, who had withdrawn from civic affairs the year before, was made Mayor and he, along with John Colleton, Nicholas Spicer and Robert Walker, took control of the Chamber. The new rulers of the city had a different enemy to fight, when, in October, war typhus broke out again amongst the population, only to subside at the end of the year. Military control was stiffened when Sir John Berkeley was appointed governor, making Bedford House his head quarters, and the city loaned £500 to the Kings fighting fund, never to be repaid.

Troops were billeted across the city with Captain Benet's troops occupying the Ship Inn in Martins Lane. He wrote "I have quartered my men at the Ship in St Martin's Lane, an excellent place with good wine, victual and forage."


The Royalists attempted to consolidate their control of the city and the rest of Devon during 1644, when they forced citizens to swear an oath of allegiance to the King, meeting much opposition and forcing 500 Exonians into exile in Parliamentary London. Events elsewhere in England evolved with a minor clash in Nantwich and Parliament gaining its first major victory at Alresford.

"All the Trees in Northenhay and Southenhay Elms (of above one hundred Years growth) were felled and destroyed. The City was twice this Year besieged by the King's Forces : First, by my Lord Hopton about Christmas, who having only viewed the same, presently drew off his Army and marched into Cornwall. Secondly, by Prince Maurice, who laid close Siege there unto, and 3 Septembris following got the possession thereof, being surrendred to him on." Samuel Izacke

Contributed by Art Crocker, Kansas I am a direct descendant of Sir Hugh Crocker, Royalist Mayor of Exeter. Hugh would be my 10th great-grandfather. Hugh Crocker was married to Elizabeth Colleton, the sister to John Colleton, and daughter of Peter Colleton. I descend through Hugh's son Thomas Crocker who was born in 1633. Thomas and his brothers, Francis Crooker, and William Crooker, migrated to Massachusetts Colony about 1645. It is the belief of some researchers that this was to protect the boys from Cromwell's forces. Francis Crooker remained at Marshfield, Massachusetts. William Crooker migrated to Oyster Bay, New York and it has been reported that he died at sea while traveling to England to settle his father's estate. Thomas migrated to New London, Connecticut.

I ... believe that John Colleton went to Barbados where he engaged in plantation development and commerce. In 1663, King Charles II granted the Carolina Charter , whereby he rewarded some of the Royalist. Charles II had Sir John Colleton take planters and slaves from Barbados to the Carolinas. Sir John Colleton is known by some as the Father of Slavery to the North American Continent. Sir John Colleton's son, Peter Colleton (governor of Barbados 1673/4) operated as a financier between the colonies and England and was instrumental in organizing and financing the Hudson Bay Company.

....Various works refer to Hugh Crocker as merchant of Exeter as they likewise refer to John Colleton as merchant of Exeter. Some genealogist have reported that Hugh Crocker owned 15 sailing ship....

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A Princess is Born
The King was based in Oxford during April, and on the 17th, the heavily pregnant Queen Henrietta, left her husband for the last time and journeyed to Exeter, arriving on the 1st May, with a view to continuing to France, once she had given birth. On 16th June, the Queen gave birth to Henrietta Anne in Bedford House, the only royal birth to ever occur in the city.

Almost immediately, word was received that the Earl of Essex's forces were moving towards the west. In addition Cromwell had positioned a Parliamentary fleet off Torbay to prevent the Queen's escape, so on 30th June, the Queen left Exeter and fled to Cornwall and eventual exile in France, leaving her new born baby, Princess Henrietta, to be cared for by her governess, Lady Dalkeith.

The King arrived in Exeter, to take on Essex, and saw his baby daughter for the first and only time on 26 July 1644. Essex's Parliamentary force bypassed Exeter and continued down to Cornwall. The King decided to chase after him and on the 1st September 1644, he scored a decisive victory over Essex at Lostwithiel, forcing the Earl to escape by fishing boat, leaving his disarmed men to make their own way home. On his way back to Oxford, the King called into the city for six days on 18th September. Nicholas Spicer was declared Mayor for the next year.

Towards the end of 1644, with victories for both sides, and hardship pressing the majority of the population war weariness was spreading across the nation.

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War Weariness


By April 1645, the citizens and Chamber were being increasingly squeezed for funds for the Royalist garrison in the city, then on 14th June, Parliament, using the recently formed, New Model Army scored a decisive victory over King Charles' Army at Naseby, leaving the King holding only the south west.

Due to the debacle at Lostwithiel under Essex, General Fairfax was given control of the Parliamentary Army, and charged with defeating the last stronghold in England of the King. Exeter awaited the approach of Fairfax's New Model Army with trepidation, or hope, depending upon where an individuals sympathies lay. The New Model Army relieved the siege at Taunton on 4th July, routed a Royalist army under Lord Goring at Langport on the 10th and forced Bridgewater to surrender. It would not be long before Exeter had to face this force. During July and August the city's defenders secured extra gunpowder and stores, organised the St John's military hospital and strengthened the defences around the city wall.

After his defeat at Langport, Lord Goring, moved the remnants of his force to North Devon, and then on to Exeter, intending to billet them in the city and around East Devon. They had a reputation for ill discipline, especially his cavalry, who would take what they wanted, and beat up anyone who tried to stop them. The Military Governor of the city, Sir John Berkeley resisted Goring's initial attempts to enter the city with his army, and after negotiations, the troops were allowed into the city under duress, but the cavalry was locked out. As commander of the main army, Goring tried to wrest the Governorship from Berkeley, but was resisted. At this time the future Charles II, the Prince of Wales arrived from Launceston, and at a Council of War, persuaded Goring to move his troops out of the city and into East Devon. News arrived that Bristol had fallen to Parliament, so the Prince of Wales beat a hasty retreat back to Launceston.

By October, Goring was still pressuring Berkeley to hand over the Governorship of Exeter and allow his army back in the city. However, when the New Model Army under Fairfax occupied Axminster, Goring attempted to break out and head for Oxford, encountering resistance and falling back to Poltimore and then Exeter, with his hated cavalry occupying St Thomas. On 20th October a brigade of Fairfax's forces occupied Stoke Canon and set up camp on Stoke Hill. Goring made a strategic retreat with his forces to Okehampton, relieving the Exeter garrison of his ill disciplined band of marauders.

"The King in Person coming to this City (being in pursuit of the Earl of Essex General of the Parliament's Forces, and his Accomplices, who were marched into Cornwall with an Army) lodged here in Bedford house two days and having defeatd his Enemies, returned hither again, and was pleased to bestow the Dignity of Knighthood on the Mayor; Prince Charles attended his Father in all this March, and lodged here in the Dean's House. The Queen likewise resorted hither for safety; Bedford house was prepared in readiness for her Reception, where during her abode, 16. Junii, Her Majesty was delivered of a young Princess, who was baptized in the Cathedral Church here, by Dr. Burnell Chancellour and a Canon Residentiary of the said Church on Sunday, 3 Julii.....
Samuel Izacke - Izacke has his chronology mixed up in the above extract.

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The Third Siege Begins

Winter was approaching, hindering the besiegers of Exeter from rapid movement. An attempt to occupy Alphington from their forward position in Newton St Cyres was thwarted by heavy rain and narrow lanes, so Fairfax moved his army around the north and east of Exeter to occupy Topsham. The Royalist defenders demolished 80 houses in the suburbs of the city, to give an open field of fire, and Fairfax consolidated a line of forces along the River Clyst. The long months of warfare and approaching winter brought a sickness to the New Model Army, and many soldiers were laid low by what was called, the 'new disease'. Military matters receded for both sides, with Fairfax occupying Ottery St Mary as his headquarters.

Lord Goring returned from Okehampton on 6th November, along the now unguarded Crediton road, and only the mediation of Lord Hopton prevented him from usurping Sir John Berkeley. Goring then tried to make a separate peace with Fairfax, but was turned down, so after a few days he left Exeter and went into exile in France. On the 8th December, Fairfax started to squeeze the city by moving his forces back into Crediton.

A Powderham skirmish

The western side of Exeter and the Exe estuary were still held by the Royalists, who had a large force in Powderham Castle. On 14th December 1645, a Parliamentary force under Captain Dean of 200 foot and dragoons crossed the river in rowing boats from Nutwell, but finding the castle more heavily defended than they expected, they fell back to Powderham Church, were they were resupplied from across the river. After the Powderham Castle garrison was reinforced by 500 Royalists from Exeter, they attacked Captain Dean's force which was barricaded in the church; for three hours a particularly nasty battle raged, with grenades thrown against the building, and lead balls streaking back and forth.

Only the advance of a Parliamentary force from Crediton, under Hardress Waller, into Exminster, relieved the pressure on the church, and forced the Royalist besiegers back into their castle stronghold, leaving the snow covered church yard splattered with blood. The next day the freezing temperatures in the unheated church proved too much for the small force and Captain Dean and his men rowed silently back across the river to Nutwell.

A War of Attrition


Minor skirmishing continued, but the weather was too bad for effective military operations by the New Model Army until January 1646. Word arrived for Fairfax that the enemy were advancing in the South Hams, so along with Cromwell, the main army left to confront the threat at Bovey Tracey; the Royalists were caught unawares, but the officers were allowed to escape. Fairfax followed them to Dartmouth which quickly fell on 18th January. Fairfax's forces then doubled back past Torbay, isolated Exmouth Fort on Dawlish Warren, overran the Royalist stronghold at Mamhead House and at Powderham Castle, and took and occupied Alphington on the 26th January.

Starvation measures

The inhabitants of the city suffered increased deprivation during the siege, and food was running down, as Parliamentary forces intercepted supplies heading towards the city. Fuller wrote that a flight of larks flew over the city, "which were.... as welcome as quails in the wilderness". There were so many birds that the citizens fell upon them and started selling them for twopence a dozen. "Of this miraculous event... I was not only an eye but a mouth witness."

A tornique was tightening around Exeter, with Parliament occupying St Annes Chapel at the end of a now demolished Sidwell Street. Exwick Mill, Barley House, Bowhill House and Marsh House west of the river, were all occupied, garrisoned and fortified. The Royalist defenders in St Thomas were confined to the fortification of the Bridewell, from where, on 30th January, they set fire to St Thomas Church, collapsing the tower, to prevent the New Model Army from occupying it.

Just as preparations to storm the city were almost complete, news arrived that the Prince of Wales' force under Lord Hopton, was massing in North Devon. On 10th February, Fairfax set out for North Devon to deal with the new threat, postponing his attack on Exeter. The chase continued in to Cornwall and on 15th March the Prince of Wales fled to France and his forces surrendered. By the 29th, Fairfax had arrived back at Crediton and two days later, he delivered surrender terms to Exeter's Governor, Sir John Berkeley.

General Fairfax General Fairfax commanded the Parliamentary Army. St Clements, Powderham The site of the Powderham skirmish, St Clement's Church.

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On the 3rd April, a small delegation from the Royalist defenders of Exeter, including Sir John Berkeley, and former Mayor and MP Robert Walker, rode out to Poltimore House, the home of the Parliamentary sympathiser Sir John Bampfylde, to agree surrender terms with General Fairfax. After six long days of negotiation, an agreement of surrender containing 23 clauses was reached on the 9th April.

The fortified Mount Radford and the Bridewell in St Thomas were the first to be handed over to Parliament. On the 13th April Sir John Berkeley, along with several thousand Royalist troops marched out of the city, drums beating, colours flying and with lighted match held in their hands. The troops dispersed, many back to Cornwall while the three year old Princess Henrietta, along with her entourage, was allowed to proceed to London; the Princess and her party escaped to France during the journey. At 2 pm the same day, led by Lieutenant-General Oliver Cromwell, commander of horse, the New Model Army marched into Exeter to formerly take back the city for Parliament - the Civil War was at last over for the weary citizens, and slowly, over the next years, repairs were made to the fabric of the city and Exeter headed towards a Golden Age of prosperity.

Source - Two Thousand Years in Exeter by W G Hoskins, From Deliverence to Destruction by Mark Stoyle, a Commemoration of the Signing of the Treaty of Exeter by the Poltimore Millennium Committee, the Sieges of Exeter 1642/1643 by Stuart Peachey, Devon and Exeter in the Civil War by Eugene A Andriette, Loyalty, Exeter by Sidney Heath and Locality by Mark Stoyle. © 2007 David Cornforth - not to be used without permission.

The 'lighted match held in their hands' were lengths of saltpetre soaked cord that were used as the fuse in a matchlock gun - they were lit and swung to induce them to glow. The gesture was allowed to give the losing side some dignity as they marched out of the city.

Oliver Cromwell Commander of Horse, Oliver Cromwell.

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