From the path that runs along the top of Castle Hill on the south-western edge of the town
one can see the picturesque River Torridge valley far below.
Great Torrington is one of the most finely sited towns in Devon, on the top of a cliff
rising steeply from the meadows of the Torridge. Indeed, the best things about the town are
the distant views of it from the adjacent hills, and the exceedingly beautiful views from
it, especially of the deep wooded valleys of the Torridge and its tributaries... [Hoskins]
Torrington's medieval castle was built in the early 13th century in a dominating position
on top of this hill. The original castle keep is no longer standing; indeed it is so flat
that a bowling green occupies the site today.
1646 and all that
Great Torrington was the setting in 1646 for one of the last major set-piece battles of
the first of the two English Civil Wars, and its outcome led to the collapse of the Royalist
cause in the West of England.
By late summer 1645 the supporters of the monarch were rapidly losing their stranglehold on
the West Country with the steady westward advance of Fairfax and Cromwell's recently formed
New Model Army. By the middle of October they had reached East Devon, and Tiverton Castle
fell without much resistance on October 19th. The next major target was the Royalist
stronghold of Exeter which was being blockaded by Fairfax's men when news spread that the
enemy had taken up a defensive position under the command of Lord Hopton in Great
Torrington to the north. Fairfax decided on an immediate challenge, leaving Sir Hardress
Waller to continue the siege of Exeter.
The Parliamentarians under Thomas Fairfax entered Torrington from the east on the rainy
night of February 16th where they encountered stiff opposition form Lord Hopton's
Royalist forces. It is estimated that more than 15,000 men on foot and on horseback took
part in the fierce fighting that ensued. The Royalists were heavily outnumbered as
Fairfax's army was ten thousand strong. Not realising that the Royalists had used the
church to store their powder magazine, Fairfax ordered that some two hundred prisoners be
held in the building. In the heat of the battle a stray spark ignited the powder, causing
eighty barrels of gunpowder to explode, blowing the roof off the church and killing the
hapless prisoners and many Parliamentarian soldiers in the vicinity. A web of
incandescent lead narrowly missed General Fairfax who was some distance away in Market
Contemporary accounts suggest that the explosion may have been started deliberately: a
parliamentary report on the night's events even went as far as to claim that one of the
prisoners was found with a lighted match in his hand after the explosion, confessing
before he died that he had been offered a reward of £30 by Lord Hopton for this act
of desperation. Wardman sees the hand of Cromwell's propaganda machine at work here,
preferring the accidental conflagration explanation [Wardman]
In the mayhem and panic following the devastating explosions, Lord Hopton and what remained
of his army withdrew from Torrington and fled westward into Cornwall where they remained
until March 14th when Hopton surrendered to Fairfax who allowed him sanctuary in exile on
condition he disbanded the western army.
The parish church so violently destroyed in the Battle of Torrington was substantially
rebuilt in 1651 and restored again in 1864, after which it bore no resemblance to the
17th century building.
The tower of the contemporary Parish Church of St Michael and All Angels is shown
alongside. A large cobbled mound outside the church door is said to contain the remains of
the prisoners buried after the explosion in a mass grave.
Each February a torch-lit procession is held to commemorate Fairfax's victory, with many
participants attired in the costume of the day. This annual event is just one of the many
ways the town celebrates its historic association with England's bloody Civil War: there is
the permanent Torrington
exhibition with outdoor demonstrations of 17th century weaponry and armour,
the Torrington Cavaliers
who dress and act out the parts of imaginary characters
from that period, frequent Sealed Knot re-enactment events, and a Civil War Heritage Trail.
It is my personal impression that the Torrington folk revelling in the town's past do so in
a most genuine, good-natured way; sure it may attract more visitors to the area, but it
doesn't come across as tacky commercial exploitation.
torrington town centre
The imposing Town Hall dominates the market square at the centre of the town. Its
impressive arched openings lead into a partly cobbled undercroft below a large assembly
room. Records of the early civic history were lost when the building was badly damaged by
a fire in 1724. Rebuilding work began in 1761, but it wasn't until 1861 that the present
structure was completed. The earliest surviving room is the oak panelled Council Chamber
at the rear, dating from the 17th century.
The assembly room houses the Torrington Heritage Museum which includes a number of fine
portraits in oil, many of which are of members of the once powerful Rolle family who
dominated the Devon county representation in parliament in the 17th and 18th century,
albeit without achieving much honour. Of nearly every Rolle MP it was said disparagingly:
He belonged to a well-known Devon family; while in Parliament he made no speeches, held no
office, and achieved no distincion of any sort; but whenever he is known to have recorded a
vote, it was given against the government then in office. [Alexander]
A charitable trust, The Great Torrington Buildings Preservation Trust, has been launched to
oversee the refurbishment of the Town Hall. After failing to obtain lottery funding for
this project, it was decided to auction the most valuable painting in the collection at
Christie's in December 2007. This was the portrait of John Rolle Walter by the Italian
master Pompeo Girolamo Batoni which was to go under the hammer at a guide price of
£300,000 - £500,000.
The picture was pulled from the auction at the last minute to give the Royal Albert
Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, Exeter the chance to raise the £300,000 purchase
price. The painting is one of the finest examples of Batoni's work and would be an
important addition to their already fine collection. A public appeal
is being launched on
behalf of the museum by the Olympia International Art & Antiques Fair and The Art Fund.
Seen across the High Street through the Town Hall's arches is the 16th century coaching
house The Black Horse Inn where it is said Lord Hopton established his
headquarters before meeting his nemesis in the Battle of Torrington. Hopton abandoned the
Inn once hostilities were underway, allowing General Fairfax to set up his quarters there
until the building was badly damaged by the church explosion:
some of the lead fell into the generals lodging, which was about halfe musquet shot from
the church. [Wardman]
Great Torrington along with other rural communities in North Devon entered a period of
economic decline in the immediate post-war years at the expense of the nearby coastal towns
of Barnstaple and Bideford. It suffered further pain in 1993 with the closure of the Dairy
Crest Creamery, which resulted in significant local unemployment. Since then there have
been a number of regeneration projects including the refurbishment in 1999 of the covered
pannier market that was first opened in 1842.
by W G Hoskins, p503, reprinted by Phillimore, ©Susan Hewitt,
The Forgotten Battle Torrington 1646 by John Wardman, p133-136, Fire & Steel 350, 1996.
J J Alexander, Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol 49, p368, 1917. [return]
From a letter dated 3 days after the battle quoted in Wardman's Forgotten Battle of
, p138. [return]
The portrait of Lord Hopton is reproduced from Owen Crossby's English Civil