Hopton's cavalry under Sir Edward Stawell had outpaced Waller's under Balfour, and reached Alresford before the parliamentary army could do so. The long awaited pitched battle seemed to be coming, but on 28 March the parliamentary commanders at Hinton Ampner were divided. Recognising that retreat, however, was as perilous as staying to fight, Waller prepared for action on the 29th. Whilst there is no doubt that Hopton wanted a battle, he was probably surprised to find Waller apparently determined also, and sent word to Lord Forth, who quit Alresford and ordered the royalist army to form up.
Waller occupied Cheriton Wood, threatening the royalist advance position held by Sir George Lisle and forcing a tactical withdrawal. The Wood, however, continued to be a major threat to Hopton's left flank, and he sent Colonel Appleyard with 1,000 musketeers to storm the place: despite fierce resistance from within the Wood, Appleyard, supported by royalist artillery to the north, stormed into the enemy positions and drove the parliamentarian commander, Leighton, to flight. This success gave the royalists control of the high ground, and put the onus upon Waller to force a battle. However, it seems that field commanders on the royalist right wing were unwilling to stand and wait, and after a little while engaged the enemy opposed to them. Henry Bard's regiment, the culprits in this, found themselves hemmed in by Hesilrige's cavalry between the two armies, and were utterly broken. The advantage had slipped again to Waller, who immediately assaulted the royalist infantry facing Balfour's cavalry. The infantry stood their ground, however, despite heavy pressure, and events elsewhere were taking shape. Lord Forth, after Hesilrige's breaking of Bard's regiment, determined to tackle him and, at about two in the afternoon, Sir Edward Stawell advanced to the attack. Despite pressing the attack home, however, Stawell was forced to withdraw without achieving anything, and was himself taken prisoner, badly wounded. Forth sent in the remainder of his cavalry to back up Stawell's men, and the battle then turned into a general conflict.
Hesilrige's heavily armoured cavalry proved too impenetrable an obstacle for the royalist horse, who tried to press home their attack for more than two hours, losing numerous senior officers in the hand-to-hand fighting. Hopton was obliged to cover the cavalry' s withdrawal, whilst parliamentarian foot fought their way onto both ends of the ridge. The royalist army fell back on Alresford and drew up to its south; then Hopton and Forth resolved to march off towards Basing House, passing through Alresford en route, a manoeuvre that was executed without hindrance from Waller. The army reached Basing on the morning of 30 March, and then proceeded to Reading, which was abandoned when Hopton and Forth returned to the main Oxford army, on direct orders from the King. Waller, meanwhile, was content to reduce Winchester on 30 March, although the royalist garrison in the castle remained obdurate. The battle of Cheriton was a muddled, indecisive affair, the primary results of which were, for the royalists, the loss of too many experienced cavalry commanders and, for the parliamentarians, the confirmation that on their day, their cavalry were the equal of the King's. If the projected royalist advance on London had, indeed, been seriously planned for and considered, it was demonstrably at an end, for Hopton's new western army had
ceased to be a distinct and viable unit, whilst Newcastle's army in the north was occupied with the Scots and facing imminent catastrophe in Yorkshire. The year 1644 had started badly for the King.
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