Walking Roundway Down: The Archaeology of a Civil War Battlefield

on Thursday, 27 September 2018. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.

Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.

Oliver’s Castle, seen from the edge of the Bloody Ditch.

Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!

The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.

In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.

The Roundway Landscape

The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex.  The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.

The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.

Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.

The Battle of Roundway Down

The Battle took place in July 1643. The Parliamentarian Army had pursued their Royalist foes from Bath, following the Battle of Lansdown. The Royalists took refuge in Devizes Castle and a siege developed, with the Parliamentarians launching a major assault into the town. As a result of this action, scars from musket shot can be seen on the town’s medieval churches! The Royalist cavalry left the castle, evaded the Parliamentarian sentries, and rode to the King’s headquarters at Oxford where they raised a relief force. They rode straight back to Devizes, where the Parliamentarian cavalry rode to meet them on the downs, thus setting the scene for the battle.

The Battle began when the Royalist cavalry appeared on Morgan’s Hill, to the north of the town. Waller, the Parliamentary general, now had an enemy force in his rear on the hill and the garrison of the castle. The arrival of the Royalist cavalry also gave heart to the troops in the castle, who threatened to launch an attack themselves. To avoid being caught between the two, Waller deployed his cavalry to Roundway Down, planning to defeat the Royalist cavalry before turning on the Royalist infantry leaving the castle. Waller’s forces occupied the southern end of the down, with Oliver’s Castle and the steep edge of the downs to their rear. The army was deployed according to the doctrine of the time, with infantry in the centre and cavalry on either wing, some 5000 men in all. The Royalist force numbered only around 1800, but a further 3000 men within the castle, hence the need to swiftly defeat the newly arrived cavalry.

For whatever reason, the Parliamentarian heavy cavalry units failed to break the Royalist attack and were forced from the field. Once the heavy cavalry was dispersed, the full Royalist force attacked the remainder of the Parliamentarian cavalry, causing the headlong flight described by Slingsby.  Lord Byron wrote of his charge against Waller’s forces:

We were come very near to Waller’s Brigade, and the command I gave my men was, that not a man should discharge his pistol till the enemy had spent all of his shot, which was punctually observed, so that first, they gave us a volley with their carbines, then of pistols and then we fell into them, and gave them ours in the teeth.

With no cavalry to protect them, Waller’s infantry tried to march away but were harried by cannon, cavalry and the royalist infantry arriving from Devizes Castle.  Lord Byron described the endgame:

They began first gently to march off, their officers marching before them. With that I advanced towards them with those troops I had rallied and shot at them with the cannon I had formerly taken… Our horse fell in amongst them and killed 600 of them and hurt many more, and took 800 prisoners and all their colours [flags].

Waller described the day in no uncertain terms as:

My dismal defeat, the most heavy stroke of any that did befall me

His army was shattered and it would be another year before his forces were able to challenge Royal dominance in the south-west.

A selection of the lead shot (musket balls) and a possible cannon ball, found on the battlefield.

Unlike many other British battlefields, Roundway Down remains significantly similar to the battlefield of 1643, with large areas remaining relatively open. This means that the open space needed to move bodies of soldiers can be better understood, while the dominant position of the hill, overlooking Devizes, remains unchanged. Nevertheless, the battle is not well understood and has not received the intensive survey work seen at Edgehill and Naseby, where metal detector survey, coupled with geo-referenced findspots and documentary research, have revealed much about the location and progress of the battles. There have been finds made on the battlefield over the years and we were pleased to use a collection of lead shot found some years ago by one of our HER volunteers. The shot included two calibres of lead musket balls and one iron ball that may come from the light cannon brought by Royalist troops riding to the relief of their comrades in Devizes Castle. There are likely to be other remains of the action on 13th July 1643 still waiting to be found on the hills above Devizes, as well as further, older archaeological remains. It’s importance, and the relatively undeveloped nature of the battlefield mean that it is included on the Historic England Register of Historic Battlefields.

Martin Brown, Assistant County Archaeologist

Further reading:

For more information on Bed Burials:

Roundway - http://dro.dur.ac.uk/5903/1/5903.pdf
Swallowcliffe - http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/eh_monographs_2014/contents.cfm?mono=1089076
Cambridge - http://caguk.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/The-Trumpington-Bed-Burial-in-its-Wider-Context.pdf

The Battle of Roundway Down:



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