by Philip Photiou
Published August 2012
The battle which took place on the outskirts of old Plymouth on December 3 1643 came about as the result of Prince Maurice’s plan to capture Plymouth for King Charles 1. Having arrived in the area after capturing Exeter in September and Dartmouth in October, the Prince’s Royal army took up positions north of the town and threw up gun emplacements along a line directly opposite the Parliamentarian defences. These ran east to west from what today are Mount Gould Road, Freedom Fields Park, Clifton Place, North Hill, North Road East, Pennycomequick, North Road West and Eldad Hill. Lipson Creek and Stonehouse Creek separated the two armies while a huge central earthwork known as the Maudlyn Work, built on the top of North Hill, dominated the town’s outer defence line, and commanded the only place where an army could attack and keep its feet dry! Having captured Fort Stamford after a brief, but bloody siege, Prince Maurice decided to strike at the main line, but the five major forts that guarded the roads in and out of Plymouth were too strong to assault, so he planned to hit one of the lesser forts. . Two traitors Moses Collins and Henry Pike passed vital information to the Prince concerning the fortifications. It was this information which greatly aided Maurice in his choice of where to strike.
As a consequence of this act of treachery, the Royalists decided to hit the Laira Point work, a small three gun mini fort on the extreme right of the Parliamentary defences, overlooking both the River Plym and Lipson Creek.
Utilising the cold, dark, early morning hour on December 3, four hundred Royalist musketeers were guided through the shallows of Lipson Creek and across to the south bank, where they regrouped and made their way quietly up the slope toward the earthwork. Not expecting an attack on such a cold morning, the small Roundhead garrison was caught completely off guard and were easily overwhelmed, but a warning shot had been fired by one of the sentries before he was taken. The Cavaliers should now have reinforced their vanguard, marched quickly onwards and rolled up the entire Parliamentary outer line, but darkness and uncertainty caused them to delay.
Meanwhile a relief force was gathered together in Plymouth and as dawn broke over the hori-zon, this mixed force of over four hundred horse and foot made its way up Tothill Lane towards the Laira Point work. Maurice’s plan called for a second detachment to cross the creek at daylight and advance against the massive Lipson Fort. Unfortunately as this main force of approximately fifteen hundred Royalists moved up from the creek bed, the Roundheads marching up Tothill arrived and counter attacked Laira Point work. A Parliamentary cavalry attack led by the veteran Captain John Wansey was met with musket fire and soon the fighting grew in intensity as Roundhead foot joined in the assault. For a short while the issue hung in the balance, but at the critical moment two things happened Captain Wansey was killed and part of the Cavalier force moving up to assault Lipson, turned off and marched to the aid of their colleagues. Outnumbered, the Parliamentarians broke off their attack and retreated across the fields to Lipson Fort.
During the confused early morning fighting, Colonel William Gould, the Parliamentary Commander of Plymouth, gathered every available spare man from the other forts and with the town militia companies under captain Philip Francis, Christopher Martyn and Richard Evans, he marched up to reinforce Lipson.
Arriving at the fortress Gould established his field headquarters and issued orders to meet the threat. A line was formed at a right angle to the huge fort and a cannon placed in the road, with perhaps a thousand men Colonel Gould waited for the attack he knew would come. When the Cavaliers were ready they sent in a demand for surrender, Gould refused and petty skirmishing developed, though no major assault came, which greatly puzzled Colonel Gould. When the Roundhead gun began peppering away at the Cavaliers, they grew anxious. Suddenly musket fire from the Royalist left rear caused concern, and with good reason, this was the signal for a general Parliamentary advance against the enemy front. Colonel Gould had previously sent orders for a flanking party of sixty musketeers to march up Tothill, to come in on the enemy left and rear. When this detachment arrived in position and opened fire he would assault the enemy front. Now the time was ripe and William Gould raised his sword high and waved his troops forward. Hit in front and rear, the Royalists panicked and their line began to disintegrate. During the fighting, Colonel Gould’s horse was shot out from under him but he quickly found another and remounted, while his men surged into the bewildered Cavalry line, slashing and stabbing.
Unable to stem the tide, the Royalists fled directly down the slope towards Lipson Creek, pursued by the euphoric Roundheads. A belated rearguard was organized but it was too little too late and eventually it was pushed back eastwards and forced down the slope. Meanwhile the tide had turned and the creek swelled, causing a number of Cavaliers attempting to cross, to drown. Those Royalists who occupied Laira Point work gave up their temporary tenancy and joined their comrades in retreat. During the morning, several vessels anchored near Laira Point were threatened with bombardment by the Cavaliers in the fort. The captains of these ships were negotiating with Royalist officers when the retreat sounded. Once the enemy abandoned the fort these ships were moved near the head of the creek, from where they fired their guns up the valley in order to add to the panic along the creek.
With the battle over the losses were tallied up, all told twelve Roundheads were listed as killed, one hundred wounded and forty captured. The Cavaliers lost a reported three hundred killed or wounded and thirty two captured. Colonel Gould had won a considerable victory, a victory that could so easily have gone the other way. If the Royalists had the energy and tenacity of the defenders they could have gone all the way and ruptured Plymouth’s outer line. Had they succeeded, the town would have surrendered within a week. They had indeed started well, but delay and incompetence handed the initiative cover to Colonel Gould and he used it with ruthless efficiency. Many of the dead were interred in pits behind Lipson Fort, others who died later as a result of their wounds, were interred in St Andrew’s churchyard. Many years later the Sabbath Day Fight was renamed the Battle of Freedom Fields a name given to the park that now accommodates the monument dedicated to the brave men who fell on that cold December day in 1643.
Our thanks to Philip Photiou for this informative account of the battle. As I am sure a lot of you know, he has written a very well researched book entitled Plymouth’s Forgotten War. It certainly makes an interesting read.