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  • James Houser

September 3, 1650 - Oliver Cromwell & the Battle of Dunbar

Updated: Jun 13, 2021

September 3, 1650. Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army have their backs to a wall, trapped by a Scottish army in the Lowlands near Edinburgh. What follows will be a surprise triumph, Cromwell’s most famous victory, which will cement his position as virtual dictator of England for the next decade. In history’s last showdown between England and Scotland, the English Civil War has entered its final phase.

So there was this thing called the English Civil War. For the sake of my sanity and yours, I am not going to explain the whole English Civil War today. There are literally hundreds of books out there about it, go check out Michael Braddick’s “God’s Fury, England’s Fire” for an excellent start. So I’m going to hit the fast forward button, give you one paragraph to bring you up to speed, and move on with our story. Ready, go.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642 out of a dispute between King Charles I and the English Parliament. Throughout the course of the war, Parliament’s armies kept getting beaten by Royalist cavalry, so they built a new professional fighting force called the “New Model Army,” led by Thomas Fairfax and Oliver Cromwell. Parliament also allied with the Presbyterian Scots, who had also rebelled against King Charles but had their own agenda. Fairfax and Cromwell defeated King Charles at the decisive battle of Naseby in 1645, and the Scots managed to capture the King in 1646. They turned him over to Parliament in exchange for a large sum of money which they used to pay their own troops. There, I just blazed through like material for ten posts in a paragraph. Now for the story.

One important thing to remember in this time period is that the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were, at this point in history, still two separate entities – just with the same king. Way back in 1603, when Elizabeth I died childless, her closest living relative James VI of Scotland (of the Stuart Dynasty) also became James I of England. James I produced two notable contributions to history: the King James Bible, which he personally translated, and his son Charles I, who is about to lose his head. Scotland still retained all its laws, traditions, and separate political structure when James became the ruler of both kingdoms, so the King of England and Scotland was constantly shuttling back and forth between London and Edinburgh to govern both realms. It was not until the Act of Union in 1707 that Scotland and England united their kingdoms into, well, the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

This is important for two reasons. First, the Scots were basically their own agents with their own agenda in the English Civil Wars, and even if they shared a King with the English that did not mean they answered to the English Parliament. There was also a religious factor at play. The Royalist faction were all committed High Church Anglicans and the Scots had their own Presbyterian Church of Scotland. Parliament had been a mixture of both groups as well, but Cromwell and the leadership of the New Model Army were Puritans, which were quickly becoming feared and distrusted by the Scots due to their ascendancy. So even though the Civil War should have been over, the growing fissure between the English Parliament and the Scots – who had allied against Charles – would keep it going.

The second reason was that the Scots had different ideas of kingship than the English. They saw the relationship as something of a “first among equals” deal than the English idea of constitutional monarchy, but that meant they definitely viewed the kings – especially the Stuart Kings – as one of their own. The Scots had gone to war to gain recognition for the Presbyterian Church after King Charles had tried to force Anglicanism on the realm, but they didn’t want to see him overthrown or dead. This would very shortly become their chief bone of contention with the English.

By 1647, the post-victory tensions were blowing up. Parliament had created the New Model Army in order to win the Civil War, and now the Civil War was over so the Army should go away thank you very much. But the Army was still owed several months pay, and under its leader Cromwell refused an order to disband in March 1647. Soon Parliament realized they had created a monster. Cromwell seized control of London and took King Charles into the Army’s custody. The New Model Army was now firmly in the driver’s seat, and the Scots predictably hit the roof.

King Charles had been secretly negotiating with the Scots this whole time, and in November 1647 escaped to link up with his new allies, agreeing to recognize the Church of Scotland in exchange for military support to regain his throne in London. The Scots, who had been fighting alongside Cromwell against Charles only three years earlier, now allied with Charles against Cromwell, fearful of the growing power of the great Puritan and his powerful New Model Army.

This initiated what was called the Second English Civil War, when basically everyone turned against the New Model Army – and the New Model Army beat them all. In early 1648, the Scots invaded northern England, the Royalists flocked to join them, and Cromwell raced north to intercept them. Smashing the Scots at Preston on August 19, Cromwell then learned that Parliament was trying to negotiate with King Charles. After playing whack-a-mole with more rebellions in Wales and southern England, Cromwell led the New Model Army into London again and overawed Parliament, kicking out anyone in the House of Commons who opposed the new regime. The Parliament that was left – the “Rump Parliament” – put King Charles on trial. On January 30, 1649 for the first time in English history (possibly European history), a monarch was tried, found guilty, sentenced to death, and beheaded.

If the Scots were mad before, they were furious now. After all, Charles hadn’t just been King of England – he had been King of Scotland, THEIR King, and they hadn’t even had a say in what happened to him. Things only got worse from there. Parliament officially abolished the monarchy and established a Commonwealth (essentially a republic). At its head, the Rump Parliament now claimed to rule England in place of a king. But where did that leave the Scots? Kingless and pissed off, that’s where, and nothing is scarier than a bunch of angry, leaderless Scots.

Cromwell took most of the New Model Army over to Ireland in 1649 to reassert order in the province, and by “reassert order” I mean “undertake a reign of terror and massacre that remains a sore point with the Irish to this day.” In the meantime, the Scots were preparing for a final showdown with the bloody English. The two Kingdoms had been at war many a time in their history, most memorably during the era of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce.

Though neither knew it at the time, this would be the final time that Scotland and England as full nations would go to war with each other. The final Civil War – the Third Civil War – loomed as 1650 dawned.

The centerpiece of the Scottish resurgence was Charles II, the son of Charles I who had fled to exile in the Netherlands before his dad was killed. Before bringing him back, though, they required him to accept a series of conditions known as the “Solemn League and Covenant,” – the start, in a way, of the modern British constitutional monarchy. It took young Charles a long time to accept these terms, mainly because his father had literally died rather than accept limits on his power. After Cromwell destroyed his supporters in Ireland, though, he had no choice. On May 1, 1650, the Scots declared Charles the King of both Scotland and Ireland and began raising an army to support him, and on June 23 Charles returned to Scotland.

When Cromwell got the news of Charles’ return in May 1650, he was immediately approached by Parliament to take command of the campaign against the Scots. The new Commonwealth was in grave danger from the resurgent Scots and Royalists, and had to be preserved. Cromwell accepted command, and set out for Scotland on June 28, crossing the Tweed River into the Borderlands to commence the campaign on July 22.

It’s time, then, that we finally take a look at the man who would not be king. Oliver Cromwell is one of the most divisive and controversial figures in British history. I have compared him to Andrew Jackson or even Lyndon B. Johnson as a way of describing to Americans how divided people are about his legacy. He seems to be one of those very few legitimately reluctant dictators: men who become military strongmen because the political vacuum pulls them into it, rather than because they want to be. Fiercely religious, principled, ruthless but idealistic, Cromwell commanded immense loyalty from his army after years of campaigns – which was why he would win.

The Scots had a solid cadre of military leadership, chief among them David Leslie, 1st Lord Newark. Leslie, like many of his fellow Scots, had fought as a mercenary in the Swedish army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War and gained valuable experience in war. Leslie instituted a policy of scorched earth in the Scottish borderlands, destroying all the food in Cromwell’s path while he manned a strong line of defensive earthworks in front of Edinburgh. The local populace launched guerrilla raids on Cromwell’s supply line, and this combined with the lack of local food forced Cromwell to rely on a seaborne supply chain – mainly coming through the critical port of Dunbar.

The New Model Army was soon stricken by disease, bad weather, and lack of food, and Cromwell was eager to force a battle before his army fell apart. He tried multiple times to draw Leslie’s Scots out of their defensive lines, but Leslie refused to take the bait. A few brief skirmishes followed, while Leslie continually harassed Cromwell’s camp with cavalry raids. Altogether, this was a recipe for disaster for Cromwell and his army. Unable to force a battle, the longer he waited for Leslie to come out and fight the worse his army starved and died. Leslie, for his part, was content to watch Cromwell fall apart – but he was under pressure from above.

I mentioned before that religion played a big part in the English Civil Wars, and this campaign is only one of the most obvious ways. Presbyterians in the modern age are among the most chill of Christian denominations, but their religious doctrines of predestination and the divine elect were still very strong stuff in the 1650s. The Scottish hierarchy was in large part composed of committed Presbyterians, who were all about placing their military fortunes in the hands of God when it came to it. They believed they were predestined to win, after all.

This came out notably in three ways. First, the Scottish leadership was pressing Leslie into battle, even when he thought it was a better idea to starve Cromwell out, since God would decide in their favor. Second, they refused to let the filthy Anglican Charles II accompany the army, even though his one visit to Leslie’s force was greeted with great cheering, since their Godly war would be corrupted by this dissident King. Finally, the Presbyterians enacted a purge of anyone who was not “Godly” enough to be with the Scottish army, resulting in almost 4000 soldiers leaving Leslie’s army in late August – just when he needed them most.

It all seemed worth it, though, when Cromwell finally acknowledged reality and fell back. It took the New Model Army two days to reach Dunbar, where they were ready to hole up and restore their strength, but Leslie was right behind them. As the Scots harassed the retreating English, Cromwell’s hungry and weary soldiers left abandoned equipment by the side of the road and shambled forward to the safety of Dunbar. On September 1 they arrived, and to their great surprise found that Leslie’s army had seized the key high ground of Doon Hill, blocking all the roads out of the town. The New Model Army was surrounded with its back to the sea – starving, discouraged, and shattered. Leslie had them in the bag.

The Scots were barely in better shape than the English, though, and they were in the very land that Leslie had ordered scorched. On September 2, he held a council of war to decide what to do. Most of the Scottish leaders pressed him to attack, since God was (of course) on their side and (more reasonably) the English already looked pretty beaten. Their numbers were about equal, but it really did look like Cromwell was making his last stand.

The Scots advanced late on September 2 and took up positions directly outside the town of Dunbar. Cromwell saw immediately that Leslie had abandoned the high ground for a risky attack. More importantly, though, he knew the situation was do or die. His army was trapped, and only a smashing victory could save it. Cromwell ordered a dawn attack on September 3, 1650.

Both sides had about 8,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. The main infantry weapon of the time was the matchlock musket, with a barrel 4 feet long. The matchlock relied on the glowing end of a thin “match” cord soaked in saltpetre that would ignite the weapon’s powder when the trigger was pulled. The match had to be kept burning at all times during battle, and dowsing it would mean the musket was useless until a new match could be procured. Keeping the match burning at all times, though, would quickly run out any army’s supply of matches. Only careful judgment by an army’s commander could balance the need for combat readiness versus the limits of supply.

As Cromwell’s men crept into position in the predawn hours of September 3, a big storm kicked up that engulfed the Scottish lowland moors in wind and wet. The Scots – short on supplies and seeking shelter – had to conserve their resources. The infantry commander had all his musketeers put out their matches except for two men per company; no one expected Cromwell’s battered, starving army to fight a battle anytime soon.

The battle, when it came, lasted about three hours. The New Model Army came roaring out of the night, catching many of the Scots still in their tents. An English cavalry charge overwhelmed the Scottish right wing, scattering most of the Scottish horsemen in the misty, cloudy dawn. The smoke of musket fire mixed with the pea-soup fog as the Scots ran around in panic and disorder. Soon the whole battlefield dissolved into a series of small local engagements.

Cromwell saw an opportunity through a break in the fog, and sent of the English cavalry regiments around the Scottish rear and hammering down into the desperately reforming Scottish infantry. As the English charged, they literally sang Psalm 117. Soon Scottish resistance collapsed, with the men throwing down their weapons and fleeing. Leslie soon fled the battlefield, and the New Model Army, exhausted, hungry, but triumphant, held the field at Dunbar. The battle had been won before breakfast. For the cost of less than 30 dead, Cromwell’s men inflicted 3,000 Scots dead and captured 9,000 prisoners. The English had gone from losing to winning the war in less than three hours.

Within days, Cromwell had occupied Edinburgh, and though the war lasted another year the outcome was never in doubt. Charles was sent packing once again after Cromwell’s second smashing victory at Worcester in 1651, and the English Civil Wars were – at last – over.

Not until 1653 would Cromwell truly become the military dictator of Britain, but that year would never have come if he’d lost the Battle of Dunbar. The English Civil Wars paved the way for one overriding principle: that Parliament, not the King, would be the dominant power in England. Cromwell’s ascendancy and the threat of the New Model Army, however, had another effect entirely: to make the English permanently suspicious of a standing army and the threat it posed to liberty and sovereignty.

These would be attitudes that English immigrants to America passed to their children. The United States military would be kept so weak for so many years because of the haunting, efficient, autocratic specter of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army.

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