Dec. 13, 2022

The Battle of Alton

The Battle of Alton

December 13th, 1643. The tide of the English Civil War turns against King Charles I at the Battle of Alton.


Cold Open

It’s January 4th, 1642, in London, England.

King Charles I rides in a coach headed for the House of Commons, the lower house of Parliament. Surrounding his carriage are four hundred guards, an unusually large procession fit for the King’s unusual errand. Today, he intends to arrest five members of Parliament for treason.

Soon, the King and his escorts arrive at the House of Commons. And when the carriage doors open, Charles steps out and heads for the entrance, followed by a large number of his guards.

Inside, Charles orders his men to wait in the lobby. Then, he strides confidently for the chamber.

A hush falls over Parliament as Charles appears in the doorway…

The king takes off his hat and walks to the front of the chamber, nodding at the members as he passes. When he reaches the head of the room… Charles clears his throat, then states he’s come to arrest five members of the house for plotting against the monarchy. Charles then calls out the names of the accused, ordering them to come forward.

Murmurs ripple through the chamber, but no one complies with the King’s request. In a booming voice, Charles demands to know if the men he seeks are present. But as he scans the room, he doesn’t see his targets. In a spiteful tone, he remarks that his birds have flown away. Then, Charles turns to leave.

As the king strides toward the exit, his mind races. These five officials must have been warned that he was coming to arrest them. Charles grits his teeth as he steps out of the chamber… slamming the door behind him. By apprehending the traitors, Charles hoped to cow his many foes in Parliament. Now, he looks like a weak and foolish King, outsmarted by his enemies.

By 1642, Charles I has been in power for nearly two decades. So far, his reign has been defined by ongoing power struggle with the British Parliament. As King, Charles feels he has absolute authority ordained by God. But many in Parliament disagree, and they’ve often blocked Charles’ plans.

In recent months, tensions between the King and Parliament have come to a head. Charles became convinced that Parliament was trying to take powers away from him and turn public opinion against the monarchy. So, he decided to end their dissent once and for all by personally arresting his five most ardent opponents in Parliament.

But Charles’s bold gesture will have the opposite effect. After his arrest attempt fails, opposition toward his rule will only increase. Many in London will become hostile to the King, deeming him a tyrant. And fearing for his safety, Charles will flee north and start to raise an army. In London, Parliament will do the same.

Soon, the country will descend into civil war. And, eventually, the tide will turn against the king, spelling disaster for the future of the monarchy, after a devastating defeat at the Battle of Alton on December 13th, 1643.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is December 13th, 1643: The Battle of Alton.

Act One

It’s July 13th, 1643, early in the morning in Southern England.

46-year-old Sir Ralph Hopton paces through the streets of Devizes, a small market town. He’s in charge of a few hundred soldiers loyal to King Charles, and today, they are preparing to defend Devizes from an enemy attack.

After the King’s failed attempt to arrest members of Parliament in the House of Commons over a year ago, England has been at war with itself. On one side are the Parliamentarians, on the other side are the Royalists, loyal to the King.

The King is still popular in many rural areas in England. But Parliament controls London, a center of wealth in England. So if King Charles wants to regain control of the entire country, he must take London by force.

The King appointed Sir Ralph Hopton to lead the push for London. But a much larger force of Parliamentarians led by Sir William Waller has stopped his progress here in Devizes. Now, Sir Hopton must defend the town against their attack.

Sir Hopton strides behind a group of soldiers erecting makeshift barriers from tree trunks and carts. He yells out orders, directing and encouraging his men. And in between his commands, Sir Hopton scans the horizon.

A few days ago, a group of men left on horseback to bring reinforcements for the Royalists under siege. Sir Hopton hopes they will return soon. But so far, there’s no sign of a friendly army riding in to rescue him and his men.

So with a sigh, Sir Hopton turns his gaze back to the fortifications his soldiers have built. As he inspects their work, a messenger runs up and tells him that the enemy is preparing to strike once again. Sir Hopton nods, and raises his voice, shouting at his men to make ready.

As he spurs them to action, Sir Hopton tries not to look at the bloodstains on the ground from yesterday’s fighting. They successfully repelled the parliamentarians' attack, but it was exhausting and costly. He’s not sure how many more times his men can repeat that effort. But he has little time to dwell on that. 

Soon, the Parliamentarians begin their attack, firing heavy artillery on the town to create a gap in the Royalists’ defenses. When the cannons stop, Sir Hopton sees the enemy troops getting into formation, ready to charge in for hand-to-hand combat. He yells at his men to prepare their defense. But as he looks out at the enemy troops, Sir Hopton sees them pulling back, away from the town. Instead of rushing to attack, Sir Waller’s army of more than 2,000 men turns and marches north.

As they retreat, Sir Hopton looks around. Many of his soldiers seem confused. But Sir Hopton thinks he knows what’s happening; the Royalists’ relief force must have arrived, and the Parliamentarians are marching out to challenge them.

Quickly, Sir Hopton devises a plan to trap Sir Waller’s forces between the Royalists and their reinforcements. And soon as Sir Waller’s men engage with the relief force, Sir Hopton and his men march toward the battle, eager to be a part of the action.

But, as they get closer, it’s clear that the Parliamentarians are already losing. Their cavalry is scattered, and their infantry is being pushed back. Many of Sir Waller’s men already lay dead on the battlefield. And when the Parliamentarians see Sir Hopton’s men approaching, they call for a full retreat.

While the Parliamentarians withdraw, the Royalists turn their cannons on them. Immediately, Sir Waller’s retreat turns frantic. Men begin to break rank and run for cover in the nearby wooded hills. But the Royalists stay close on their heels, capturing and killing the fleeing soldiers.

Within an hour, the Battle of Roundway Down, as this skirmish will come to be known, draws to a close. By the end, it’s clear the Royalists have won an overwhelming victory, their first of the war. Almost all of the Parliamentarian forces in the western area of England were at the battle. About half are killed or taken prisoner.

Afterward, the Royalists will continue their push in the southwest, taking key cities and creeping toward London. But Sir Waller and his Parliamentarian forces will recover quickly from their defeat. And soon, they will lead a surprise attack on Sir Hopton and his men, one that will help turn the tide of the war, and cause the Royalists to lose control.

Act Two

It’s the early morning of December 13th, 1643 in Alton, a small town in southern England, exactly five months after the Battle of Roundway Down.

Over the booming sound of cannons, a 48-year-old Royalist Colonel, Richard Bolle, shouts at his men to make ready and fire at the Parliamentarians laying siege to the town. His men scramble to prepare their defenses against this sudden, surprise attack.

For the past year, the Royalists have been winning the civil war. King Charles’ army controls much of northern and western England, and Sir Ralph Hopton’s forces in the south have made progress toward recapturing London. But winter is quickly approaching.

Ahead of the cold weather, Sir Hopton has split his forces between Alton and three other towns in the south where they can hunker down for the season. But, unlike Sir Hopton, the enemy isn’t waiting idly for the winter to pass.

Sir William Waller is still vengeful after his defeat at Roundway Down, and he’s raised more troops. Last night, he began an overnight march toward Alton to lead a surprise attack on the Royalists this morning.

As Colonel Bolle and his men brace themselves behind their fortifications, a wave of artillery fire rains down from above. The Royalists can see enemy musketeers surrounding the town. They take aim and fire before ducking behind cover to reload. But another wave of cannon fire blasts the town, destroying two of their barricades.

Colonel Bolle orders his men to fire once again. But as they aim their muskets, the enemy musketeers fire first. Colonel Bolle grimaces as half a dozen of his men fall to the ground. He quickly scans his surroundings for a more defensible position. To the north, the town’s church stands tall, and Colonel Bolle directs his men to fall back there. The enemy pursues close on their heels.

As the Royalists reach the church, Colonel Bolle orders his men to use whatever they can to barricade themselves inside. Quickly, the Royalists pile the bodies of dead horses, killed by artillery, to create a barrier at the front of the church. Then, Colonel Bolle and his men take up positions inside the building, shooting through the windows at the approaching enemy.

For a good while, the Royalists hold off their attackers. But Colonel Bolle knows it’s only a matter of time before their makeshift defenses are breached. But he refuses to surrender. If he is going to lose this battle, he plans to go down fighting.

Standing in the middle of the church, Colonel Bolle draws his sword and raises it above his head. Over the sound of gunfire, he shouts that he will personally kill the first soldier that surrenders to the enemy. Then, he shouts, “For the King!” Some of his men echo the battle cry, emboldened by their officer’s example.

Soon enough though, the Parliamentarians charge around the dead horses and into the church. But the emboldened Royalists hold their lines. The entrance quickly becomes a bloody scene, as both sides swing with the blunt ends of their muskets stabbing with their swords.

Amid this frenzy, a small group of Parliamentarians rush toward Colonel Bolle. He brandishes his sword and dodges the first two strikes as they come into range. He stabs back twice in quick succession, and two of his attackers fall to the ground. But one of the remaining soldiers lands a blow on Colonel Bolle’s shoulder, sending him staggering backward. The colonel recovers his balance and retaliates with a jab, dropping yet another soldier. But two more blows send him reeling once again.

Colonel Bolle tries to keep fighting, but he’s off balance and bleeding. As he lunges forward with his sword, increasingly surrounded by Parliamentarian forces, the last thing the colonel sees is the butt of a musket coming for his head.

Colonel Bolle is killed, and the rest of the Royalists will quickly surrender. Despite their efforts, the Battle of Alton will be a decisive victory for the Parliamentarians. More than 500 Royalists will be killed or captured, and 100 of those apprehended will enlist with the Parliamentarians. This loss will represent half of Sir Hopton’s men, and the defeat will be a huge psychological blow. Soon, Sir Hopton will lose all hope of capturing London. The war will grind on for a few more years, but the Parliamentarians will maintain their upper hand, spelling fatal consequences for the reign of King Charles.

Act Three

It’s January 30th, 1649, a little over five years after the Royalists’ defeat at the Battle of Alton.

In a London courtyard, King Charles walks through a crowd of spectators toward a large, raised platform. As he scales the platform’s steps, he comes face to face with a daunting masked figure holding a large ax: It is his executioner.

After losing the war, Charles was captured by Parliament. With his fate in their hands, discussions began about what to do with the King. Many members of Parliament were willing to negotiate with Charles and permit a less powerful monarchy. But others wanted to end the monarchy altogether. The members opposed to Charles’s rule effectively seized control in a coup and formed a smaller Parliament that was fully against the King. Then, they forced Charles to appear before a high court where he was convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Now, the king’s day of reckoning has arrived.

Charles suppresses a shudder as he stands on the platform where he is to be beheaded. He turns to address the nearby crowd, insisting that he’s innocent of the charges against him. He claims to be a martyr of the people and says he knows a place is waiting for him in heaven. Then, he kneels, placing his head on the beheading block. There’s a brief pause as the executioner raises his ax. And, then, with one swift motion, the King is dead.

With the execution of King Charles and the exile of the rest of the royal family, England will be without a monarch for the first time in over seven hundred years. The monarchy will eventually be restored, but the civil conflict will have a lasting impact on the balance of power between Parliament and the monarchy. With Charles’s downfall, Parliament demonstrated that they had the power to wage war and even execute the King. Never again will Parliament be subservient to a monarch, a feat that was, in many ways, born out of their pivotal victory in the English Civil War at the Battle of Alton on December 13th, 1643.


Next onHistory Daily. December 14th, 1926: A nationwide manhunt ends when police discover crime novelist Agatha Christie living under a false name at a hotel in Harrogate, England eleven days after disappearing from her home.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Brandon Buerk.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.