Siege of Plymouth
|Siege of Plymouth|
|Part of the English Civil War|
Contemporary map of Plymouth
When the English Civil War began in August 1642 the county of Devon declared allegiance to Parliament, whereas neighbouring counties supported the king. Royalist forces soon established control over most of the county, leaving the south coast port of Plymouth (then known as Sutton) as an isolated and surrounded Parliamentarian enclave, supported by a strong dislike of King Charles' Ship Tax.
The town at that time was surrounded by a defensive wall and could be readily supplied by sea if necessary. However the Mayor and the Parliamentary garrison quickly took the precaution of recruiting the townspeople to construct a crescent of forts (Lipson, Holiwell, Maudlyn, Pennycomequick and Newworke), connected by breastworks, along a ridge of high ground to the north (inland) of the town, plus additional freestanding forts (such as Lipson Mill and Stonehouse) to guard other key access points. This work was intended to keep enemy cannonfire out of range of the town and its harbours, the other three sides of the town being protected by a natural moat of sea inlets.
As anticipated the town was soon (August 1642) attacked by Royalist forces who set up their headquarters in nearby Plymstock. The Royalists cut off the landward supply of food and materials as well as blocking the leat that supplied fresh water to the town, whose population had been swollen to 10,000 by Parliamentarian supporters from outlying areas. Diseases such as typhus were soon exacerbating the situation. However a messenger asking the town to surrender was turned away and told never to return. When the town's garrison commander, Sir Alexander Carew, was suspected of being in communication with the enemy he was swiftly arrested and sent to London. There he was found guilty of betraying the Parliamentary cause and executed by decapitation. Parliament then sent reinforcements to Plymouth by sea and every man in the town was required to swear an oath to defend the town to the last.
Although the besiegers were able to prevent ships sailing to the town's main harbour by their capture of Mount Batten, a fortified promontory overlooking the main harbour approaches, it was still possible to bring in supplies to Millbay on the other side of Plymouth Hoe, or to St Nicholas Island (now Drake's Island). The siege therefore developed into a protracted series of attacks and counter-attacks. In one skirmish a troop of Parliamentarians attacked the Royalist camp near Plympton, capturing a number of Royalist officers. On 3 December 1643 Royalists attacked the Parliamentarian outpost at Laira Point. Reinforcements arrived to beat them off but were forced to retreat to Freedom Park. There they regrouped, turned around and fell upon the attackers, forcing them into the incoming tide at Laira Creek and killing many. This incident, known as the 'Great Deliverance', has since been commemorated by a monument at Freedom Fields.
There was brief respite to the siege when Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex brought his Parliamentary army into the South West in July 1644. However, the Earl was defeated at the Battle of Lostwithiel in September 1644 and the Plymouth siege was renewed.
In January 1645, the new Royalist commander, Sir Richard Grenville, launched a major attack, capturing some of the defensive forts but was eventually beaten off. Only when Sir Thomas Fairfax marched his army into the South West in January 1646 did the Royalists finally raise the siege.