Monday, 14 December 2009

Dunbar, Sept 3rd, 1650.

Flag captured at battle of Dunbar.

The modern road.

'Forasmuch as I understand there are soldiers of the enemies army yet abiding in the field, who by reason of their injuries could not march from thence, this is therefore to give notice to the inhabitants that they may and have free liberty to repair to the field aforesaid and with their carts or in any other peaceable way may carry away the said soldiers to such places as they shall think fit provided they do not meddle with or take away any armour there. All officers and soldiers [of the English forces] are to take notice the same is permitted'

Oliver Cromwell, Proclamation to the people of Dunbar. Sept 3rd 1650.

Hullo ma wee blog,

Anyone who reads much of this blog will know that on a daily basis I take my wife, the lovely G, to her morning train from Dunbar to her work in Edinburgh city center. The short journey there and back takes me twice across the ground of the battle of 1650, which was fought between the Scots and the English. Again, anyone who has read much of the blog will also know that I am fascinated by history, especially Scots history and the lesser known tales missed by many mainstream history books but which resonate loud and clear and deserve {in my opinion} to be much better known. The aftermath of the battle of Dunbar is one of those tales.

As we near the junction to leave the A1 and head into Dunbar we cross the main battlefield. Sweeping away left from the coast the ground rises up gently at first then increasingly steeply to the top of the escarpment of Doon Hill where the Scots army camped, having out maneuvered and trapped the English Parliamentarian Army of Oliver Cromwell against the sea as they tried to retreat back to England. They had attempted to subdue Scotland but had failed largely due to the achievement of David Leslies leadership and were now badly affected by sickness and lack of supplies caused by the 'scorched earth' tactics of the Scots. It was a dire predicament, with no possibility of passing the Scots without a fight against superior forces in a stronger position. They were trapped and being besieged at Dunbar could also only end in defeat for Cromwell and victory for the Scots.

It was one of those pivotal moments in time when destinies and reputations on both sides can only be won or lost.

There have been two Battles of Dunbar, one in 1297 against Edward 1st, Robert the Bruces long shanked adversary, the other in 1650. The second battle is the most important, in fact its probably the most important battle fought in Britain since the Battle of Hastings in 1066, for the impact it had on the political shaping, not just of Scotland, but of the whole of Great Britain with a direct lineage right through to todays political landscape in the UK.

Battle positions 3rd Sept 1650.

As General David Leslie looked out over Dunbar on that cold wet and windy Monday of 2nd September 1650 he must have felt in his aching bones that victory was in his grasp. He was a strong, wily and highly experienced military leader, who had returned from the service of king Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, {where he had been a key part of one of the most professional, innovative and effective fighting forces of the 30 years war} to fight in the Covenanting Scottish Army beside the English Parliamentarians against the Royalists. In modern terms, he was a legend and not just a Scots or national legend. He was a legend of international status.

 He had led the Scots and fought outstandingly beside Oliver Cromwell at Marston Moor yet now found himself facing that old comrade and his desperate force, outnumbered, outmaneuvered, weakened by sickness and backs to the sea and Dunbar below Leslies position on Doon Hill. Below him a steep escarpment and the deep ravine of the Brox Burn protected his position while on his right the slope to the sea provided the ideal ground for a devastating attack on any force attempting to pass by on the road South.

The Scots had switched allegiance from Roundhead to Royalist as they believed that the King should be head of the country although strictly subject to agreement with and promise of protection to the Scottish Kirk as described in the terms of the solemn league and covenant. Their previous uneasy cooperation with the Parliamentarian Roundheads was an attempt to force Charles 1st to come to terms with this very point. Failure to do this had seen the Scots miscalculate and hand the King over to his opponents and, much to their horror, for him to lose his head and for Scotland to lose its king. They proclaimed his son as King of Scotland and provoked invasion by their former allies. Cromwells campaign had followed, as he brought his experienced and bloodied troops flushed from gory success in Ireland. Charles, his fathers son, considered the two to be different sides of the same coin.

The Scots Army of the Covenant was controlled not just by Leslie but also by the Ministers of the Covenanted Kirk, a puritanical force bent on purifying society to conform with the protestant fundamentalist strictures of the covenant, and even as Leslie was pursuing the retreating Cromwell, they were "purging" the Army of any elements which did not conform to their fervent beliefs. These 'malignants' were removed from the army despite being the highly experienced officers whom Leslie had relied on to date. This would load control in the Kirks favour and critically force Leslies hand in the coming hours. Military tactics and logic dictated siege but fanaticism dictated attack. Leslie would be persuaded to make the costliest mistake of his life and precipitate catastrophe for thousands. Against a weakened but highly organised foe in a desperate situation he would pit his inexperienced but devout Army of the Covenant.

Battle of Dunbar from the sea.

Seeing the Scots begin to come off the hill in preparation for giving battle the next day Cromwell gave the order for attack before dawn the following morning. This surprise,  the greater weight of heavy cavalry and Scots lack of preparedness allowed him to turn the flank of the Scots cavalry back upon themselves and cause chaos, rolling the Scots army back on itself.  Horses and men collided together in a frantic scramble for room to move. Soon there was a dreadful slaughter as the Scots horse escaped leaving the stunned foot soldiers at the mercy of a horde of cavalry swords. Cromwells victory was unequivocal: 3000 Scots dead and 10,000 men and boys captured:  netted it was said, like a shoal of herring. Cromwells losses were negligible, less than 50 men. Leslie escaped with remnants of his force to Stirling and lived to fight another day.

Those captives dying or seriously injured were left for the people of Dunbar and the local area to look after. The proclamation above was issued at the end of the day of battle in the town of Dunbar. The impact of this battle and its immediate aftermath lived on in the folk memory of the town for generations and even a hundred years later Cromwells name was spoken in tones of horror.

To prevent perhaps an attempt to escape or continue the fight, half of those those captured 'uninjured', some 5,000 prisoners, were immediately marched south to England. This removal of prisoners to a foreign soil was in contravention of the practice of the day. Normal process would have compelled Cromwell to have all combatants swear an oath not to bear arms again and simply to release them under this oath. The 5,000 injured and  who were released in this way would soon come to consider themselves fortunate in the extreme.

                                                                   The Dunbar Medal.

The 5,000 prisoners were sent by authority of Cromwell, under control of Colonel Hacker and four companies of horse, to Durham. The first leg of this 120 mile journey started before the end of the day with a 28 mile forced march without halt through the night along the great north road to Berwick on Tweed.  Even before this was reached men began to die at the roadside, initially from untreated wounds or those most exhausted by the fight and unable to survive the ordeal of a forced march. Every mile would be littered with dead, abandoned at the roadside or in hedgerows until the final destination was reached. Guards fed only themselves, ironically on food mainly pillaged from the Scots baggage train. Reports tell of guards cruelly mocking the prisoners for grubbing in the gardens of Morpeth for cabbages and roots to eat due to this deliberate policy of starvation and, on one day, 30 desperate men and boys being shot to force the remainder to march on. By the time that Durham was reached and the prisoners climbed the hill to containment in the Cathedral there were 3,900 men left. 1100 died in the course of 8 dreadful days journey.

In the time they were confined those survivors, who thought that surely the worst was behind them, would be denied adequate food, fuel and medical treatment through the depths of winter and would continue to die of wounds, starvation and cold,  stripping the cathedral bare it's said, of everything made of wood except the famous clock which had a Scots thistle decoration on its head. A sentimental sign of home in the most desperate of circumstances it still stands in Durham Cathedral. The deliberate mistreatment of these men is a largely unknown stain on the reputation of Cromwell, who had generally proven merciful in similar situations.

Those who died were taken and buried without ceremony in a running trench to the north of the cathedral. Here they lay forgotten until they were discovered and covered over again by workmen in the 1940's. They still lie there without any marker to recognise the spot or having had a Christian blessing said over them. It's a shameful slight to their memory.  Mentioned in the pamphlet covering the Cathedral history, their experience and fate is quickly skipped over in a few scant, sanitised words.

'I dare confidently say there was never the like care taken for any such numbers of prisoners that were ever in England' - Sir Arthur Heselrigge - responsible for the care of prisoners in Durham Cathedral.

When orders came to Sir Arthur Heselrigge in Newcastle to dispose of the prisoners by sending them in batches counting up to the recorded 3,900 to be transported to the Americas he found he was short of the required manpower by almost 2,000 souls. He started a flurry of correspondence aimed at deflecting responsibility, explaining he could not understand how so many had died when so much coal, wood, beef, mutton, pork, bread, ale and milk had been supplied on such a regular basis and describing what beasts the Scots were, stealing from and murdering one another for the smallest scrap of food or clothing.

Those prisoners who remained alive were transported to the Americas, some to where is now called Berwick in Maine, or forced into service in the army of the commonwealth.Heselrigge would later be found guilty of making free with confiscated church lands and spend the rest of his life in the Tower of London.

The disastrous defeat of the Scots laid the foundation for the ultimate union of the crowns.

For Cromwell and Leslie, they would be haunted by the ghosts of the 3rd of September.
Leslie would be taken captive exactly a year later, September 3rd 1651 at the battle of Worcester. Protector Cromwell would die on the 3rd September 1658.  He did what Edward I could not do. He effectively subdued a Scottish nation which had failed the last chance to secure independence. More even than long shanked Edward I perhaps, Cromwell could truly be described as the  'Hammer of the Scots.'

Charles 2nd rejoiced that one potential foe had been weakened so badly, although the Covenanters would still support his cause while exerting pressure for him to conform to Presbyterianism. Cromwell proved on that patch of land at Dunbar that he was not only able to lead an army but capable of leading a nation. He became king in all but name, even being addressed as 'Your Highness'.

The Covenanting fervour of the Scots kirk would continue for many years before it calmed to a more reasonable vision of Christianity,  but before came the persecution of the 'killing times', the hasty departure of the Catholic house of Stuart to France and the rise of the house of Hanover. It's interesting to think what might have been had Leslie defeated or killed Cromwell at Dunbar. How different history could have been but for the fanatics of the covenant forcing a mistake of such scale. History has never held Cromwell to account for his responsibility in the shameful treatment of so many men. Hated yet in much of Ireland, his reputation is generally intact on the mainland. Hardly anyone knows of those murdered Dunbar prisoners lying in unmarked graves in the grounds of Durham Cathedral. Perhaps one day there will be a service and an appropriate memorial installed for them and their story will be recognised more fully.

Even the battle stane memorial at the edge of Dunbar ignores them and states only

'Near this spot took place the brunt or essential agony of the battle of Dunbar'

see you later.........


Morning's Minion said...

I just re-read this very interesting piece of history. [The post seems to have moved around a bit and I wondered if you had edited or added to it.] The first of my clan known in America were deported there after the battle of Worcester--makes me wonder what they were doing the year before.

Alistair said...

Hullo MM,

Well spotted. I have tweaked it a bit since posting originally. One of the effects of doing these things in one really, although I did accidentally post it during compilation and had to delete it as there was only half done.

The Covenanters continued to fight with the Royalists, or more correctly for the king as they would have described it, but with very different aims - they would probably have described it as rescuing him from himself.

Your Scots lineage may indeed come from this time. You never know......


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