[August, 1644. The Story is told by Ralph Medhope, Captain of the Twenty-second (or Gray-coat) Troop of Horse in the Parliament Army, then serving in Cornwall.]
We were eight men in the picket. My cornet, Ned Penkevill, rode beside me; our trumpeter, Israel Hutson, a pace or two behind; with five troopers following. I could tell you their names, but there is no need, for I alone of the eight come into the story. The rest rode to their death that night, and met it in the dawn, like men.
We rode northward and inland along the downs high over the left bank of the Fowey River; with good turf and heather underfoot, and with the moon behind our right shoulders. She was the harvest moon, now in her last quarter, and from her altitude I guessed it, by west country time, to be well past four of the morning or within an hour of daybreak. But because she hung bright up here, we pricked forward warily, using every pit and hollow. We had left our breast-pieces, back-pieces, and gorgets behind us, with Penkevill’s standard, for the main troop to carry; and rode in plain gray jerkins–bareheaded too, since on mounting the rise above the valley-fog we had done off our morions (for fear of the moonlight) and hidden them in a furze-brake, where belike next summer the heather-bees found and made hives of them.
Fog, rolling up from the sea–seven or eight miles away–filled all the valley below us: and this fog was the reason of our riding. For the valley formed the neck of a trap in which the King held our general with two thousand five hundred horse, six thousand infantry, and I know not how many guns. His own artillery lined the heights under which we rode–that is, to left or east of the river; he had pushed across a couple of batteries to the opposite hills, and between them easily commanded the valley. It was just the ease of it that made him careless and gave us our chance. He had withdrawn the better part of his horse to the coast, to make a display against our scattered base; and our general, aware of this, was even meditating an assault on the heights when the sudden fog changed his plans and he resolved to march his horse, under cover of it, straight through the trap. The risk, to be sure, was nearly desperate; since, for aught he knew, the King was marching back his troops under the same cover, and to be caught in that narrow valley (which was plashy, moreover, and in places flooded) would mean the total loss of his cavalry. Yet he had spoken cheerfully when I took leave of him and rode off with my seven men–our business being to watch along the enemy’s lines for any movement, to sound a warning if necessary, and, if surprised or caught, so to behave as to lead suspicion away from the movement of the main body.
The enemy kept loose watch up here. We could see his camp-fires dotted on the ridge between us and the dark woods of Boconnock, where the owls hooted; but either we were lucky or his outposts had been carelessly set. Clearly no alarm had reached these encampments. But Heaven knew what might be happening, or preparing to happen, in the valley. There at any moment the report of a single musket might tell us that all was lost.
Penkevill–a good lad–insisted that all was well. Our men had been due to start at two o’clock, and all delay allowed for, by this time they should be past the gut of the valley, where an opposing force would certainly choose to post itself.
My answer to this was that, even allowing it, we must wait for the sound of fighting at Respryn Bridge, farther up the vale, or at one of the two fords a little below it. For there, and there only, could our men cross the river, as they must to hit off any line of escape through Liscard and into Devon. The bridge we knew to be held by a guard, and almost to a certainty the fords, though swollen by recent rains, would be watched also. It was a part of the plan to surprise and force these crossings, and no question but that–unless their guard had been strengthened–they could be forced. But as certainly the guard, however weak, would make at least some show of fight; so certainly, indeed, that the sound of firing here was to announce success and be our signal to rejoin the main body.