The Battle of Torrington took place in 1646 during the English Civil War. It is sometimes called ‘the forgotten battle’ as it is seldom referred to in accounts of that period but it was, in fact, the decisive battle of the final campaign of the West, which ruined the cause of King Charles I.
At that time Torrington was in Royalist hands under Ralph, Lord Hopton, Commander in Chief of what remained of the King’s Army in the West. Word of what was happening in North Devon reached the Parliamentarian General, Sir Thomas Fairfax, at Exeter who learnt that some of the King’s horse from Oxford had penetrated westward and Royalist horse in North Devon was attempting to push eastward to join them in order to relieve Exeter and attempt to recapture the West. With North Devon securely in Royalist hands, they could hope to bring in additional aid from Wales or Ireland. Fairfax, therefore, decided to abandon the siege of Exeter and to advance in person with a force of some 10,000 horse and foot hoping this time to destroy completely the Royalist armies.
Fairfax and his army marched towards Torrington and, fighting off a series of skirmishes by the Royalists to try and impede their advance, took over Stevenstone House in the late afternoon of 15th February. The Royalist soldiers were ordered back nearer to the town.
Fairfax intended to do no more that night than hold the positions already gained so stationed his men in readiness for an assault in the morning. At around midnight a noise rather like a tattoo was heard in the town and it was supposed that the enemy were retreating. As a kind of experiment, a small party of dragoons was ordered to approach slowly the first barricade and fire over it. There was an immediate response from the Royalist soldiers on the other side and thus it was that battle commenced. Regiments of foot and horse were ordered to the front and managed to break through the barricades into the town. There was fierce fighting in the narrow streets and townspeople watched, terrified, from upper windows. The Royalists fought bravely but were no match for the energy and discipline of the Parliamentarians. Hopton’s horse was shot and he himself was wounded and, eventually, he and his men were forced to retreat.
The Parliamentarians drove their prisoners into the church not knowing the Royalists were using it as a powder magazine, having stored about 80 barrels of gunpowder in there. Somehow, these barrels were ignited and blew up with a mighty explosion which killed 200 prisoners, guards and citizens and destroyed part of the church and many houses. Fairfax had a lucky escape when he narrowly missed being struck by falling pieces of lead.
The streets of Torrington were littered with dying men from both sides and abandoned weapons. When the powder store went up there had been a deafening roar which caused the ground to tremble and echoed around the hills and valleys before subsiding in a long-drawn-out rumble. With the noise of the explosion ringing in their ears, the retreating Royalists fled down Mill Street and over the bridge at Taddiport as they made for the Cornish border. The defeat at Torrington had spelled the end of Royalist hopes in the West Country.