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English Civil War: Battle of Alton

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Battle of Alton - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Alton was fought December 13, 1643, during the English Civil War (1642-1651).

Armies & Commanders

Parliamentarians

  • Major General Sir William Waller
  • approx. 5,000 men

    Royalists

  • Earl of Crawford
  • 900-1,100 men

  • Battle of Alton - Background:

    Following the First Battle of Newbury in September 1643, King Charles I's army retired to Oxford while the Earl of Essex's Parliamentarian forces returned to London. Assessing the situation, Charles found that he lacked the resources for an advance on London as Royalist forces in the north were besieging Hull and Sir Ralph Hopton's troops were clearing enemy outposts in the southwest. In an effort to alter the strategic outlook, the King's Council of War elected to form a new army in Cheshire, led by Lord Byron, while reinforcing Hopton's command. These moves were possible due to the signing of the Cessation of Arms which freed Royalist troops from service in Ireland. In seeing his command enlarged, Hopton received orders move through Hampshire with the intention of attacking London via Sussex and Kent.

    Battle of Alton - Parliament Responds:

    Moving east in mid-October, Hopton sought to push through Dorset and Wiltshire en route to reinforcing Winchester in Hampshire. Concerned that Hopton could unite with Charles' army at Oxford, Parliament ordered the Earl of Essex and Sir William Waller to march out and thwart the Royalists later that month. While Essex mounted a campaign to the north against Newport Pagnell, Waller, with the rank of major general, began assembling forces at Farnham Castle in November. Ultimately numbering around 5,000 men, his command consisted of his own regiment of infantry, part of the Farnham Castle garrison, some cavalry, as well as a London Brigade comprised of the Westminster Liberty Regiment (Red Regiment), the Green Auxiliaries, and the Yellow Auxiliaries. To support this force, Waller possessed ten heavy guns and a mixture of light artillery including several leather guns.

    Battle of Alton - Preliminary Moves:

    Departing Farnham, Waller advanced against the Royalist base at Basing House in early November. Deploying his artillery on the 7th, he spent three days attempting to reduce the fortress' walls but with no success. Falling back due to poor weather and low morale among the London troops, Waller made a second attempt against Basing House on November 12. This too failed and he retreated to Basingstoke. During this time, Waller learned that Hopton was concentrating his forces near Winchester. As a precaution, he elected to move his men back to Farnham Castle. This intelligence proved correct as Hopton was approaching the area with around 3,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Pushing forward, he formed his men on a heath near Farnham Castle on November 27 in the hope that Waller would engage in open battle.

    Unwilling to be drawn out, Waller remained in Farnham's defenses. Nearing the castle, Hopton's men came under fire from its guns. Realizing that the Parliamentarians would not give battle, Hopton withdrew to Odiham. With the campaign season closing, he decided to distribute his men in eastern Hampshire and western Sussex where they could enter winter quarters while still controlling the roads leading east. As units moved to garrison Alresford, Petersfield, and Alton, others succeeded in capturing Arundel on December 9. An attempt to push further east was checked at Bramber on December 12. That same day, Waller, who had been reinforced, reviewed his men and began planning a strike against the Earl of Crawford's garrison at Alton. This was partially encouraged by Crawford who had requested a "runlet of sack (wine)" from Waller in promise of exchange for an ox. As a compliment, Waller obliged and sent the wine. Much to his chagrin, no ox was forthcoming and, when pressed, Crawford sent a message to Waller challenging him to come and take it.

    Battle of Alton - Waller Strikes:

    Around midnight on December 12/13, Waller departed Farnham Castle on the road leading to Basing House. This initial route was intended as a feint to fool Royalist scouts. Turning south an hour later, the Parliamentarians advanced on Alton via back roads in an effort to avoid detection. Moving quickly, Waller's troops took advantage of a hard frost which had firmed up the region's dirt roads. Approaching from the north, the Parliamentarians captured six Royalist sentries as they neared the town. Unfortunately for Waller, one sentry was able to alert Crawford to the enemy's presence. Assessing the situation, Crawford determined that Alton's narrow streets would not permit his cavalry to operate effectively. Turning command of the town over to Colonel Richard Boles, he informed his subordinate that he was taking the cavalry to Winchester to obtain reinforcements.

    Riding out of Alton, Crawford was briefly pursued by Waller's cavalry. As the Royalist horse departed, Waller deployed part of his infantry to the north and northwest of town while pushing the London Brigade and part of the Farnham garrison troops around to the west. In Alton, Boles concentrated his infantry in the buildings around the Church of St. Lawrence. Pushing forward, the Parliamentarian troops encountered heavy fire from Boles' men. Making use of his artillery, Waller had his guns methodically reduce the buildings near the church and the infantry were able to flank the Royalists out of their positions. Falling back, Boles' men established a new line in the churchyard. Asserting more pressure, the Parliamentarians ultimately drove the enemy into the church.

    Battle of Alton - Alton Falls:

    Turning the church into a fortress, Boles had his men fire from scaffolding high in the windows and built barricade of dead horses across the center of the church. Closing on the building, Waller's men surrounded the outside and began throwing hand grenades through the windows. Anticipating an enemy assault, Boles informed his troops that he would kill the first man who asked the Parliamentarians for quarter. Storming through the church's door, Waller's men were able to overwhelm the defenders after an intense fight. As the battle swirled through the interior of the church, Boles was struck down. With his death, many of the remaining defenders quickly surrendered.

    Battle of Alton - Aftermath:

    In the Battle of Alton, Waller's army suffered only light casualties while over 800 Royalists were captured. A stunning defeat for Hopton, it saw him lose a significant percentage of his infantry. Pausing to dismantle Alton's defenses, Waller moved south with the goal of attacking Arundel. Assaulting Arundel's defenses on December 20, the Parliamentarians carried the town and laid siege to the castle. Moving to the castle's aid with 2,000 cavalry and 1,500 infantry, Hopton met Waller on December 29 at North Marden Down. Badly outnumbered, Hopton elected to retire rather than give battle. Cut off and with supplies dwindling, Arundel Castle surrendered on January 6. With the winter snows setting in, both Waller and Hopton moved into winter quarters.

    The twin defeats at Alton and Arundel badly damaged Hopton's confidence and marked the end of a year in which the Royalist cause started to wane. Despite successes in the summer, Charles' power began to erode as he was unable to destroy Essex and due to defeats elsewhere. The following years saw the cause began to fail as Royalist forces sustained devastating defeats at Marston Moor (1644), Naseby (1645), and Langport (1645). Captured in 1646, Charles was later executed by Parliament in 1649. With his death, the Royalist cause became embodied in his son, Charles II. Despite young king's efforts he was defeated at Worcester in 1651 and driven into exile.

    Selected Sources

  • British Civil Wars: War in the South, 1643
  • History of War: Battle of Alton

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