This was one of the most decisive battles of the civil war, and it took place at Roundway Down, high above Devizes on July 13, 1643. The area is known locally as Oliver’s Castle. The two armies involved were the Parliamentarians or Roundheads, led by William Waller, who were fighting to establish Parliamentarian rule, and the Royalists or Cavaliers, led by Sir Ralph Hopton, who were fighting to maintain the supremacy of the King and the Church of England.
Hopton’s army had formerly drawn with Waller’s at Lansdowne but was seriously weakened and had regrouped at Devizes where they were besieged by Waller’s artillery. A message was sent to the king at Oxford and reinforcements were dispatched, led by Prince Maurice von Simmem, nephew to Charles I. Maurice’s arrival upon the battlefield caused Waller to retreat, whereupon, seeing their chance, Maurice and Hopton charged with partial success.
Waller’s cavalry fled but his infantry stood their ground and a fierce battle ensued. Hopton, however, a master tactician, saw his opening and rallied his troops from Devizes, taking Waller’s army totally by surprise. The Parliamentarian army melted away, losing almost 1,500 troops, with Waller and his remaining men fleeing to Gloucester.
This crushing defeat effectively ended Parliamentarian support in the west country. Devizes would certainly have been relieved to see the troops depart for the Market Place had been full of billeted soldiers, St John’s church had been used as a powder store and St James’ was pockmarked with artillery scars.
The Royalists went on to take Bristol and many other towns before they were themselves heavily defeated by Cromwell’s New Model Army in 1645.
Today, there is virtually nothing at Roundway to indicate that such a fierce battle had taken place here. It is now all farmland and encompasses a 68-acre nature reserve that is home to rare flowers, insects, and butterflies. There is just a small inscribed plaque on one of the muddy bridalways to tell the visitor what happened here over 350 years ago.
Every so often, The Sealed Knot, a charitable concern, recreates the Battle of Roundway in authentic battle dress, with horses, cannon, pikes, and muskets. This last occurred in 2005, when they performed to several thousand folk on a bright, sunny day in August. Just occasionally, a farmer will unearth an old cannonball whilst ploughing in readiness for seed planting in spring.
It is almost surreal to imagine that this tranquil haven once played host to one of the bloodiest battles of the English Civil War.