The Battle of Freedom Fields

by Old Plymouth Society
Published March 2012

What actually happened?

The Civil War was a decisive event in the history of England and in that event, Plymouth had played a most important part. In the opinion of historians like Professor Trevelyan, England, as a result of the Civil War, Western civilisation was saved. Plymouth, with Hull, and Gloucester, by their stubborn resistance, saved the cause of Parliament, and it is true to say that Plymouth not only saved England, but saved her just at the right moment. It must be remembered that the Plymouth of that day in 1643, was only a small area with a population of some 6000.

On December 3 1643, being the Sabbath Day, the enemy were guided by two Royalist sympathisers, who had escaped from the town and had fled to the besiegers lines. At Laira, on the Plym, there was a small fort and three cannon. It had a small guard, whose duty it was not so much to defend the place in the event of attack, but to give an alarm in any case of danger. The danger was greatest when the tide was out, and the place could be reached from the sands. Guided by two Royalist refugees  Henry Pike, a vintner, and Moses Collins, an attorney  a body of four hundred musketeers, under cover of the night, and taking advantage of the low tide, surprised and overcame the guard at Laira Point. Although the guard were thus taken by surprise, somehow the alarm was given to the town. That alarm largely determined the issue of the day. By daybreak 150 horses and 300 musketeers fell in to take repossession of Laira Point, which had been taken by surprise three hours before dawn. This defending force, so hastily summoned, were gathered on this side of the highest ridge of the town, out of sight of the main army of Prince Maurice, which was waiting at Compton to make the days attack as soon as it knew that their small light force had done its work properly.

The 150 horses and 300 musketeers had no reason to know that this was the day selected for the assault by the whole besieging army. While this force was hidden from Maurices army, it was unfortunately well in sight of the other section of the enemy holding their position at Mount Batten on the other side of Sutton Harbour. That section of the enemy then fired a cannon to warn the main Compton army.

Thereupon, Prince Maurice, whose full strength had been gathered during the hours of darkness, moved forward through Compton down to Lipson Valley. It must have been a wonderful sight. The great moment had come. There were 5 regiments of horse and 4 regiments of foot, under cover of their own ordnance. By that time the towns defending force, the horse and musketeers previously mentioned, were in conflict with the Royalist soldiers who had taken the Laira Point work three hours before sunrise. The arrival of the heavy besieging forces turned the scale of the first encounter on that historic day. The defenders were driven back a distance of three fields, in what must have seemed an absolute rout. The enemys horse was mingled with that of the defenders and some actually pierced the defenders lines, and rushed on towards the walls of the town, where they were killed or taken prisoner. After being driven back through these three fields the defenders stopped their rout. 

By this time fresh men had been drawn from the several outworks, and encouraged and reinforced by this support, the Roundheads held their place and kept their ground for four hours. This stand was made on a height of the hill above the Lipson work, which was the farthest of the towns forts. The point at which this decisive stand was made is the one where the monument stands today in Freedom Fields park.

The enemy sent a drummer to the Lipson work to demand its surrender and was answered with the shot of a cannon after he had been ordered to depart. Then a drake was brought up to a crossway and discharged four or five times in the midst of the enemy cavalry. In the meantime 200 musketeers belonging to the Trained Bands of the town had come to strengthen the defending force, and another 50 musketeers had been sent round under Mount Gould, or Lipson, to attack the enemy in the rear.

Then, the commander of the Roundheads, probably Colonel William Gould, gave the order for attack. The signal was the sound of a drum. For one great moment the issue stood undecided, and the enemy began to give ground. The 60 musketeers had become multiplied into hundreds by his fears and the order was given for the general retreat.

Seeing their advantage, the defending force pressed forward and pushed so close upon the retreating army that the retreat became a flight. Then the flight became a rout. Down the hill they rushed, floundering. The rearguard of the cavalry was cut off from the main body of the besiegers, as they tried to find refuge in the river, which lay at that time between Lipson and Laira Point. Into the mud the horses were driven, and their riders were all taken or drowned. Of the main besieging army, many were killed in the retreat. 

So ended the Battle of Freedom Fields, even though the defending force fought against odds of 10 to 1. The town was saved by a handful of men that had moved into the light of dawn on that day to what seemed an easy and certain conquest.

In those days a password or sign was given to the soldier before battle. The Royalist sign was The town is ours. The Roundheads sign was God with Us. It is from this that the towns motto was adopted Turris fortissima est Nomen Jehova.

The above is an excerpt of a lecture given by the Right Honourable Isaac Foot on December 3 1943 for the Plymouth Institution and Devon and Cornwall Natural History Society. 

Nicholas Slanning was probably born in 1606 to Margaret (nee Marler) and Gamaliel Slanning and inherited Maristow, Walkhampton and Bickleigh in 1612. He married Gertrude, the daughter of Sir James Bagge of Little Saltram in 1625. He attended Exeter College, Oxford and was admitted to the Inner Temple in 1628, but left the following year for the Low Counties to learn the arts of war. He was knighted on his return in 1632 and appointed to the Commission of Piracy in Devon and Cornwall, and became Vice Admiral of the Southern Shores of both counties. He was appointed Governor of Pendennis Castle in 1635.

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