Wars of Three Kingdoms  >  Third Civil War

BATTLE OF DUNBAR (1650)

After the execution of his father, Scotland declared Charles II as King of Great Britain prompting an English invasion under the command of Oliver Cromwell. A large Scottish army engaged him at the Battle of Dunbar (1650) but, despite being significantly outnumbered, Cromwell’s army won a decisive victory.

Historical Background

 

During his reign Charles I had a difficult relationship with Scotland. His preference for 'high church' had seen him attempt to reform the Scottish church away from Presbyterian lines in the 1630s. This had ultimately led to the foundation of the National Covenant and the subsequent Bishops Wars in 1639 and 1640. These tensions were a key factor when Scotland agreed the Solemn League and Covenant with the English Parliament in August 1643 which led to them joining forces against the King. The Scots invaded Northern England early the following year and worked closely with Parliamentary forces to engineer the collapse of the Royalist effort in the north ultimately achieving a decisive victory at the Battle of Marston Moor (1644).

 

The Royalists were unable to repair the damage in the north and, the following year, were decisively defeated in the south at Naseby (1645). Thereafter they were unable to muster a field army to counter Parliament. With the war lost, and in an attempt to divide his allies, Charles I surrendered to Scottish forces who were besieging Newark. In exchange for £100,000 they handed him over to the English Parliament in January 1647 which, after two years of failed negotiation and the Second English Civil War, tried and executed him. Beheaded at the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace in London on 30 January 1649, the act was done without any further consultation with Scotland.

 

The execution of Charles I sent shock-waves throughout Scotland. The Stewart dynasty (known as Stuart in England) had ruled since 1371 and his execution left a void. Whilst England became a republic, Scotland proclaimed the exiled Charles II as King - nominally of all Great Britain - and commenced negotiations with the new monarch. Support was not immediately forthcoming however as the Scots insisted on extensive concessions from Charles in relation to the safeguarding of the National Covenant and its introduction in England. Eventually agreement was struck and Charles landed back in Scotland on 23 June 1650.

 

English reaction was swift. In July 1650, anticipating that the new Scottish King would be a source of trouble, English forces invaded Scotland via the eastern coastal route. The 16,000 strong English force was led by Oliver Cromwell and was closely supported by the Navy. In response David Leslie - a veteran who had commanded a key cavalry charge at Marston Moor (1644) and had defeated the indefatigable James Graham, Marquis of Montrose at Philiphaugh (1645) - was tasked with raising a Scottish army to counter.

 

 

Prelude

 

Throughout July 1650 Cromwell attempted to bring Leslie to battle in the Lothians. The Scottish commander however was well aware of the deficiencies of his own force and that Cromwell's men were veterans. Instead he simply sought to frustrate Cromwell's actions - in particular when the English attempted to take control of Queensferry, Leslie positioned his army on an unassailable position on Corstorphine Hill. Thereafter he simply hampered Cromwell's supply lines and by late August Cromwell had been forced to withdraw to his main supply base at Dunbar. Leslie now moved his forces to intercept and occupied Doon Hill, located to the south of the port, which dominated the coastal road south to Berwick-upon-Tweed. With his land means of escape blocked Cromwell had two choices; evacuation by sea, accepting that a significant rearguard would need to be abandoned to the Scots, or fight a significantly larger force. Cromwell chose to attack.

 

 

Numbers

 

Estimates of the size of the Parliamentary forces places it around 13,000 to 15,000 strong. It consisted of a roughly equal split between infantry and cavalry plus a small number of Dragoons (mounted soldiers that dismounted and fought as infantry once in position).

 

The Scottish army, under David Leslie, was significantly larger than the English - almost certainly double the size. However, whilst there were some experienced commanders within its ranks, it had a large number of raw recruits. Furthermore recruitment and retention in the Scottish force was first and foremost subject to religious qualifications. Those who didn't hold the ideals of the National Covenant were purged from the army denying much talent to the Scots.

 

By contrast the English force was comprised of veterans drawn from the New Model Army - soldiers who spent years fighting in the Civil Wars. Under the overall command of Oliver Cromwell, an experienced General, each of the key fighting components was led by proven commanders. General Monck led the infantry. John Lambert and Charles Fleetwood led the cavalry. Although a significant portion of the 16,000 troops which Cromwell had initially invaded with had been lost to sickness, he still had a substantial force.

The Battle

 

On 2 September 1650 the Scots had occupied Doon Hill, the high ground to the south of Dunbar and from there Leslie could see the English deploy out of the town. He suspected Cromwell had decided on battle the next day and accordingly re-deployed his forces.

 

- Stage 1: Scots Reposition

Leslie moved his army down from Doon Hill to occupy the southern banks of the Brox Burn, a narrow waterway that divided the battlefield and would defuse any frontal attack made against them. The Scots then settled down for a cold, uncomfortable night in the rain with their poorly equipped and largely inexperienced new recruits doubtless feeling it more than their veteran English counterparts.

 

- Stage 2: English Attack

Whilst the new Scottish position occupied an extended frontage just over 1.5 miles long, it was still a formidable challenge for the English. The narrow waterway of the Brox Burn was augmented by steep banks on either side making it a significant obstacle for an attacking army. However, the ground between the road and the sea was much flatter. Cromwell saw his chance and launched an assault at first light on 3 September 1650. Dragoons (mounted infantry) were deployed along the length of the Scottish line to cause a distraction but the main thrust of the English attack was made against the road bridge over the Brox Burn commencing with cavalry assault led by Lambert and Fleetwood supported by artillery. The Scots were caught completely by surprise and were further hampered by the wet weather which meant many had damp powder; few managed to make effective use of their firearms.

 

- Stage 3: English Bridgehead

Despite their wet powder, the Scottish line held firm and Lambert and Fleetwood did little more than establish a small bridgehead. General Monck advanced into this space with the main body of English infantry and slowly got increasing numbers of soldiers across the bridge. To mitigate against the deteriorating situation, Leslie deployed his cavalry in support. Concurrently with all this, Cromwell forded Brox Burn upstream with a Regiment of cavalry and an infantry detachment.

 

- Stage 4: Scottish Cavalry Defeated

Now across the Brox Burn and on the right flank of the Scots, Cromwell himself led several charges against the Scottish cavalry which eventually broke. In their retreat they collided with the infantry line that was increasingly hard pressed trying to hold off the combined forces of Monck, Lambert and Fleetwood.

 

- Stage 5: Scottish Right Disintegrates

With the cavalry defeated and that portion of the line overwhelmed by the concentrated attack by the English, the eastern part of the Scottish force disintegrated.

 

- Stage 6: Scottish Rout

The Scots now found the terrain, which had been so perfect against a frontal attack from the north, worked against them. The English struck from the east and the narrow ridge prevented the Scots from re-aligning their battle line to the threat. Escape to the north was difficult due to the steep scarp down to the Brox Burn whilst to the south was a further slope. They had no choice but to fight on a narrow frontage eliminating the advantage of their superior numbers. The entire Scottish line collapsed with as many as 3,000 Scots killed and a further 10,000 taken prisoner.

 

Aftermath

 

The battle was an overwhelming victory for the English and for Cromwell cemented his position as a astute military commander as well as ensuring his continued rise to political power. For Charles II the defeat lost him control of Edinburgh and the lowlands, both of which were duly occupied by Cromwell, but it did rally broader Scottish support to his cause. Furthermore it freed him of some of the onerous obligations imposed upon him by the Covenanters.

 

Despite the defeat at Dunbar, Charles II was crowned King at Scone on 1 January 1651 prompting Cromwell to push further into Scotland. Charles responded by marching a 16,000 strong force into England where he raised the Royal banner - it was with a daring strategy but England was tired of war and little support was forthcoming. Pursued by Cromwell he was defeated at the Battle of Worcester (1651) after which he fled abroad. Scotland was subjected to military occupation with some ugly incidents - the storming and massacre at Dundee in September 1651 being a prime example. The last Royalist garrison in Scotland - Dunnottar Castle - surrendered on 25 February 1652. There would be no further military action on the mainland before the Restoration in 1660.

Bibliography

 

Adamson, J (2007). The Noble Revolt. Orion, London.

Barrett, C.R.B (1896). Battles and Battlefields in England. London.

Battlefields Trust. Battlefields Trust: Battle of Dunbar (1650) Battlefield Report. Battlefields Trust for Historic Scotland.

Bennett, M (1990). A Travellers Guide to Battlefields of the English Civil War. Webb and Bower Ltd, Exeter.

Cyprien, M and Fairbairn, N (1983). A Traveller's Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Evans Brothers Ltd, London.

Dodds, G.L (1996). Battles in Britain 1066-1746. Arms & Armour, London.

Donaldson, G (1997). Scottish Historical Documents. Neil Wilson Publishing, Castle Douglas.

Douglas, D.C, Coward, B and Gaunt, P (ed) (1975). English Historical Documents Vol 5B (1603-1660). Routledge, London.

Forbes, G. Scottish Battles: 86 A.D. to 1746. Lang Syne, Glasgow.

Gardiner, S.R (1889). History of the Great Civil War Vol. II. London.

Green, H (1973). Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland. Constable, London.

Guest, K (1996). British battles: the front lines of history in colour. Harper Collins, London.

Kinross, J (1979). The Battlefields of Britain. London.

Lancaster, J.H.D (2014). Dunbar: Battlefield visit notes and observations. CastlesFortsBattles.co.uk.

Ordnance Survey (2015). Dunbar. 1:1250. Southampton.

Ordnance Survey (2015). East Lothian. 1:1250. Southampton.

Roberts, K (2005). Cromwell's War Machine: The New Model Army 1645-60. Pen and Sword, Barnsley

Royle, T (2004). Civil War: The Wars of Three Kingdoms 1638-1660. Abacus, London

Sadler, J (2010). Scottish Battles. Birlinn, Edinburgh.

Smurthwaite, D (1993). The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain. Michael Joseph, London.

Woolrych, A (2002). Britain in Revolution. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

 

 

What's There?

The ground over which Cromwell launched his decisive attack has been extensively quarried whilst landscaping, rail and road developments have all taken their toll on the battlefield. Nevertheless there is a small monument and the general terrain can still be appreciated.

Monument. A small monument has been erected to the battle and is located near the decisive action on the east of the battlefield.

Quarry. The eastern portion of the battlefield has been largely destroyed by quarrying. The circular ‘lake’ seen above was a open pit from where the minerals were extracted. In the seventeenth century this was the flat ground over which Cromwell made his decisive attack on the Scots’ right flank.

A1087. The modern A1087 follows the line of the original road over the Brox Burn. The main action between the Scots and the English forces under Generals Monck and Lambert, took place in the vicinity of this photograph.

Brox Burn Road Crossing. The modern road crossing over the Brox Burn is in the same place as the seventeenth century equivalent. It was here that the Lambert and Fleetwood’s cavalry stormed across to create a bridgehead for General Monck’s infantry.

Brox Burn. The Brox Burn can almost be seen under all the vegetation! It was the combination of the water and the scarp, which was more pronounced further to the west, that made it a formidable obstacle for the English.

Doon Hill. The hill dominates the surrounding area including the coast road. The Scottish forces occupied the hill but moved down to the banks of the Brox Burn intent on forcing a battle with the English.

Battlefield. Looking towards the Scottish positions. Cromwell launched his flank attack from the left of this picture.

Port of Dunbar. Following a largely unsuccessful campaign in July and August 1650, the English had fallen back to the port of Dunbar which was being used as the main supply base for the army. The battle was fought to the south of the town/port.

Cement Factory. Cromwell's flank attack hit the Scottish Left just in front of the (modern!) cement factory.

Getting There

The monument is found on the A1087 to the south-east of Dunbar. It is not sign-posted but easily found - there is a lay-by directly by the monument.

Monument

 

EH42 1RU

55.983732N 2.484495W

Viewpoint

EH42 1SL

55.981739N 2.483177W

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