Tuesday, 19 May 2009

The Battle of Roundway Down, July 1643

Site of the first engagement at Roundway down

View from Roundway Down into the gruesome and aptly named 'Bloody Ditch'

Following the stand-off at Lansdowne Hill near the town of Chippenham a few days earlier, Sir William Waller, commander of the Parliamentarian army was eager to engage the Royalists at the soonest opportunity. He deciding to lay siege to the town of Devizes, where he had learned the Royalist, Lord Ralph Hopton (who had been injured during the Landsdowne encounter) had taken refuge. Waller, seizing the opportunity to have another pop at Hopton, gave the order to advanced on Devizes, unfortunately for Waller, Hopton had already sent word detailing his predicament. When Waller reached Devizes, he was horrified to find the superior forces of the Royalists cavalry and foot soldiers, commanded by Sir John Byron and Lord Wilmot waiting for him. A fierce battle ensued at Roundway Down, one mile north of Devizes, on the 13th July 1643.

As the battle raged, Waller could only watch in horror and disbelief as his men where cut down. Finally, in a desperate bid to escape the carnage, the Roundheads fled to nearby Roundway Hill where they found themselves cornered by the Royalists' Cavalry. A deep and dramatic escarpment fell away to their rear (the foot of which is now aptly named ’Bloody Ditch’) which would claim many lives that day and not just those of the Parliamentarians' but also those of the Royalist Cavalry, who, having been given the order to charge, inadvertently followed the fleeing Parliamentarians' over the abyss to their deaths, men and horses breaking their necks in the steep fall.

Well over 4000 men engaged in battle on that day and in excess of 600 or so of those perished at Bloody Ditch. Some were buried nearby at Rowde and Devizes on the 14th July. Some have been discovered in shallow graves on Roundway Down. These individuals had been stripped, their skeletal remains showing evidence of sabre and bullet wounds. The whereabouts of the remaining soldiers is a bit of a mystery but many scholars speculate, because of the logistics in moving so many men and horses, that a decision would most likely have been made to bury some of the dead where they fell at Bloody Ditch.

What had begun as a favourable strong hold for Sir William Waller’s Parliamentarians' ended in a crushing defeat, a defeat that would go down in history as one of the most decisive Royalist victories of the English Civil War.

The bodies of the fallen Parliamentarians' were stripped and pillaged by the Royalists, some personal items however are still being recovered to this day. Artillery artefacts, often unearthed by local farmers, have included canon balls and discharged carbine shot.

Standing atop Roundway hill, and looking down into Bloody Ditch still sends icy crystals down my spine. It can be a desolate and windswept place at the best of times, often shrouded in mist. So it is not surprising to learn that it has a very haunted history. Reports still abound of ghostly musket and canon fire echoing across the down. Sounds of horses in distress and the terrified screams and shouts of long dead soldiers are still common to this day. Though spectral horses have been seen plunging to their deaths over the escarpment there have been few sightings of actual soldiers. The Down is well known for its eerie mists that drift along the valley floor and the top of the escarpment. It is from these mists that the majority of ghostly encounters are often witnessed.

Roundway down and Bloody Ditch are now a nature reserves where many species of wild flowers and insects are plentiful. If you’re lucky you may just spot deer or two which roam freely on the Down.

How to get there:

From Devizes on the A361, turn into Folly Road by the Travelodge Hotel. Follow the road out of Devizes into Roundway village, from there follow the road up hill till you reach a fork, take the right fork where you will see a chalk white horse carved into the hillside on your right. Follow this road till it forks again, take the left fork. At the top of the hill follow the gravel track for about a ¼ mile till you reach a car park, you are now on Roundway Down. Access to Bloody Ditch and Roundway Hill, are through the gate just off the car park to the left, marked ‘Nature Reserve‘.


Avix said...

I know (partially) how the guys felt in battle: I've taken part in an English Civil War re-enactment in Naseby - one of, if not THE, biggest battles of the war.

The event was huge with thousands of re-enactors taking part! Very, very hard work in the woollen kit in the midst of a heatwave!

The battle sites are amazing; to just stand there and gaze out over the land that thousands faound over. Awe inspiring.

Willow said...

Hi Avix.

You guys do a great service with your re-enactments, it really brings home to the public what it's all about, keep up the good work

Avix said...


While some re-enactors have fake wounds applied, I added several real ones on my last muster - huge graze across my forehead and face after falling flat on my face on the rutted ground and smashed my thumb up in hand-to-hand combat!!

There's nothing like making it authentic!

Willow said...


I hope you are insured, seems to me like a dangerous past time.

Unknown said...

My partner, niece and myself decided to try to conduct evp sessions and also use a box that selects words from the dictionary. My partner, who has some psychic abilities and myself sat overlooking the far end of the top of the down overlooking the precarious and chilling drop. He kept looking behind us to the right and said he could hear the sound coming. My neice at one point walked ahead of us whilst holding the dictionary box and we were amazed at what came up.... "tumbled". There is definitely some kind of energy there, but further investigation will be done come summer!

Willow said...

I await your findings come the summer investigation Bj Allen

Gerald said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Willow said...

Thank you for your comment Gerald.

I sometimes wonder if a world without conflict will ever become a reality. I think it will only be so when man no longer walks the planet.