Ralph Hopton was born at Witham Friary, Somerset, in the second week of March 1596, and baptized on the 13th in the parish church of Evercreech. His parents Robert and Jane had two sons and four daughters, of which Ralph was the eldest. The family was comfortably off, and while they could be described as gentry, were certainly not rich. Grammar school educated (almost certainly King's School, Bruton), he initially started a career in Law by joining the Middle Temple on 14th February 1614, also studying at Lincoln College Oxford. Very quickly it became evident that he was more interested in military affairs, and volunteered to join Sir Horace Vere's expedition fighting for the Protestant cause in the Germanic wars. It was during his time on the continent that he made his famous friendship with William Waller, and also proved his bravery when he helped Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia escape from Prague. Hopton rose through the military ranks, and during periods at home became involved in the Trained Bands, the militia of the days. He married Elizabeth Lewin, widow of Sir Justian Lewin on 18th March 1623, and was made Knight of the Bath at King Charles' coronation on 2nd February 1626 in recognition of his military service.
He settled at Evercreech Park near his parents, and served both as a J.P. and a Member of Parliament. A conscientious and thoughtful man, he could well have been described as a Puritan, and was in favour of many of the reforms that Parliament tried to impose upon the King. As the political unrest escalated, Hopton however would not be drawn past a certain point, and eventually came into conflict with the more radical elements at Westminster. He was adamant that due process of the law should be followed, and this culminated with him being imprisoned on the 4th March 1642 in the Tower of London for two weeks and named as a delinquent. It was almost certainly these acts that convinced Hopton that he had no wish to have any further involvement with the increasingly extremist elements in control of the House of Commons, and so the committed puritanical parliamentarian firmly strode into the King's camp. The final political act passed against him was the seizure of his lands (October 1643), and his family became penniless until their return by order of the House of Lords in 1672, twenty years after his death.
On the King's command Sir Ralph Hopton and other notables began recruiting in Somerset in July 1642, hoping to gather together the militia that Hopton had spent so long training. Before this task was completed his men met in conflict with Parliamentarians who had the same idea, and the first actions in the south were fought. A small skirmish at Marshall's Elm (4th August) was followed by a short siege at Sherborne (6th - 10th August) where the Royalists held out, and a larger confrontation at Babylon Hill (11th) overlooking Yeovil where Hopton and his comrades again prevailed. Although successful, it became obvious that they were severely outnumbered, so the strategic decision was taken for the infantry to sail to Wales from Minehead with Henry Lunsford, while the cavalry rode for Cornwall.
Through the remainder of 1642 Hopton spent his time coming to grips with the problems of raising an effective army in Cornwall. Together with his close colleagues Sir Bevill Grenvile, Sir Nicholas Slanning and Sir John Berkeley he forged an effective force from the hundreds of volunteers, and they fought a series of skirmishes throughout the western peninsula.
In January 1643 Lord Ruthen's Parliamentary army advanced into Cornwall, and Hopton comprehensively defeated him at Braddock Down (19th January) in his first major confrontation. The Royalists were forced out of Modbury in February (21st - 22nd), in what had become a mobile war of marching forces attacking garrisoned towns. Hopton won a notable victory at Launceston on the 23rd April, but received a setback only three days later outside Okehampton at Sourton Down. The Parliamentarian armies combined under Lord Bedford, and marched on Cornwall along the North Coast to avoid having to cross the Tamar. Hopton met Bedford and comprehensively destroyed his army at Stratton on the 16th May 1643, for which he was later created First Baron Hopton of Stratton.
Joining with Prince Maurice's forces at Chard, he fought Sir William Waller's army to a standstill at Lansdown (5th July), and then destroyed it at Roundway Down on the 13th of July. The Royalists marched on Bristol, and stormed the city successfully on 26th July 1643. Hopton was made Lieutenant Governor of Bristol, and started to raise a new army, with his own regiments of horse, foote and dragoons at its core. At the end of October this new army marched to Winchester, and over the winter had several clashes with Waller's men. Both Alton (13th December) and Arundel Castle (17th December - 6th January) caused losses to his men, and Waller ultimately won the campaign at the Battle of Cheriton on 29th March 1644. Hopton conducted a good withdrawal from Hampshire, and joined with the King's Oxford Army at Aldbourne Chase on 10th April. Commissioned 'Field Marshal General of the West ' – he was then sent back to Bristol on 26th May, where he set about supervising the construction of new fortifications.
When the Earl of Essex invaded the West Country in the summer of 1644, Hopton again joined forces with the King, and was present throughout the Lostwithiel campaign. He was created General of the Ordnance on 14th August, although in practice his battlefield command was a tactical detachment of cavalry. Marching with the Royal Army out of Cornwall, Hopton fought at the Second Battle of Newbury (27th October), where the vastly outnumbered Royalists ground down the Parliamentarians into a stalemate, and then withdrew intact to Oxford.
Hopton spent Christmas at Bath, and then received the Prince of Wales at Bristol on 5th March 1645 into his care to defend the western counties. Political infighting, mainly between Lord Goring and Sir Richard Grenvile weakened the Royalists' position, and when faced with the New Model Army their lack of self discipline showed in reduced effectiveness. Hopton was not involved in the defeats at Langport or Taunton, and was in Cornwall when Bristol was lost on the 10th September. With Exeter as his onlymajor garrison, Hopton prepared for his last campaign.
Sickness in the Parliamentarian forces delayed their advance, and it was at Torrington on the 10th February 1646 that Hopton fought his last major, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle. Prince Charles escaped to the Scilly Isles, and Hopton finally surrendered the remainder of his forces at Truro. Personal tragedy also struck: Elizabeth, his wife of twenty-three years died during those final devastating weeks in Cornwall. Given generous terms by Fairfax, he left England and joined with the Prince of Wales in Jersey. He spent a year updating the fortifications on the island, and then with his successor in place, joined his uncle Sir Arthur Hopton in Rouen. During his time there he helped with contributions for Sir Edward Hyde (later Earl of Clarendon) – "History of the Rebellion" and kept in touch with his old allies.
The trial of the King, which he was convinced was illegal in the eyes of the law, spurred him into action once more, and from the port of Helvoort Sluys in the Netherlands took charge of a Royalist flotilla of warships. Sailing under colours that looked like the arms of Cornwall with the motto “For Charles II" he raided effectively along the English Channel coast and swiftly built a robust reputation. At the end of March 1649 he attacked a convoy of six merchantmen, sinking three and capturing the others.
Hopton's main aim was for the restoration of King Charles II. He advised against the Worcester campaign, from which he was absent, but continued to advise the new King on his policies. The main thrust of his argument was to stop any foolhardy actions that would alienate the young monarch from his people. In this he succeeded, thus stopping a plan to assassinate Cromwell, and therefore letting the Commonwealth drown in its own unpopularity. Hopton took up residence in Bruges but the city was not fortuitous for him. He was taken ill with malaria, and died on 8th October 1652. He was eventually returned to his final resting place at Witham in 1661 after the restoration. Having no heir, his title passed to his old comrade John Berkeley, who had gallantly defended Exeter for the Royalists.