Battle of Dunbar

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History on 3rd September


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Battle of Dunbar

Dunbar, Edinburgh and the Lothians The 3rd of September 1650 AD

Once the Royalists were defeated, the Covenanters had little reason to stay onside with the Roundheads. After all, the Anglicised liturgy that King Charles I was going to foist on the Scots was certainly not going to materialise now that he had been executed, and that threat was one of the few catalysts for the Scots joining the war in 1644. Indeed, with Oliver Cromwell , and his colleague Sir Thomas Fairfax, basking in some sort of self-appointed deification after their handiwork in battle, the company may have been a bit overbearing. For example, the Covenanters, in the main, opposed the execution of Charles I – that was Cromwell’s idea, but he truly was a radical.
Cromwell’s opinion of his victory could not have been higher; he believed it was sent by God. And with divine endorsement of his work, he didn’t feel the need to hold back. As such, he visited all manner of horrors upon the Catholic population of Ireland, and effectively aligned himself against anyone who deviated from his staunchly Presbyterian model of humanity. Meanwhile, the Scottish Covenanters, who of course helped him achieve those ‘divine’ objectives of the war, were in discussion with King Charles II , the young son of Charles I, who was cooling his heels in exile in the Hague. What they were talking about would lead to the Battle Of Dunbar.
Ultimately, Scotland was prepared to declare Charles II king, on the condition that he adhered to the Solemn Oath And Covenant. Now both he, and the Covenanters would have found this somewhat distasteful, but politically it made sense; for the Scots would have a king, and Charles fancied ruling. Of course, this was seen as an act of aggression by Cromwell. He’d just declared England a Commonwealth, and before any of this chicanery could take place, he rallied 16,000 Roundheads and marched indignantly towards Edinburgh .
Not all the Parliamentarians shared Cromwell’s hawkishness; Fairfax resigned rather than invade Scotland. Cromwell crossed the borders in July, 1650. Waiting for him at Edinburgh would be a man who had been a staunch ally throughout the first wave of the civil war , David Leslie.
Leslie had fought against the Royalists, and now, just a few years later, he would find himself preparing against Cromwell’s advances. Adopting a scorched earth policy, and launching ad hoc guerilla raids, Leslie made sure the Roundheads’ progress was as stilted and uncomfortable as possible. Hungry and tired from a lack of resources, and disease spreading from the wounds inflicted by the Scots’ nocturnal sorties, Crom-well’s men were in poor shape by the time they reached Edinburgh.


Cromwell’s resolve held. He offered the Scots a chance to surrender, declaring that his war was with the king, and not the Scottish people. No matter; the Scots did not yield, and Edinburgh’s fortified bosom had kept him at arm’s length. By the beginning of September, Cromwell withdrew to the port of Dunbar; it was there he received supplies – badly needed for his hungry and festering troops. It was where Leslie erred in thinking that Cromwell was making a retreat.
Leslie’s intrigue caused him to deploy a vast army in excess of 20,000 on the hills overlooking Dunbar. The Scots numerical advantage was not so impressive when it was considered that many of their number were inexperienced, poorly equipped, and crucially, had surrendered the element of surprise. Cromwell had no difficulty in seeing the opportunity.
On the eve of battle, he ordered his men to flank the Scots, waiting until dawn to launch his attack. The Scots’ resistance owed more to their number, but it was fading as Cromwell divided the Scottish ranks and presided over the sort of routing that would have made Edward I ‘Hammer Of The Scots’ wince. 3,000 Scottish soldiers were killed and 10,000 taken prisoner. The prisoners were marched relentlessly through day and night towards Durham with no food. Many died on the march, and once imprisoned in Durham Cathedral , the death toll reached the thousands. The lucky ones were sent to labour camps in the Caribbean. No-one was in any doubt as to Cromwell’s ruthlessness now.

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