Battle of Alford
As the Wars Of The Three Kingdoms gathered pace, the Royalist forces under James Graham, the Marquis Of Montrose , were mounting a credible threat to the Covenanter forces.
The Covenanters were learning that what Montrose’s militia lacked in number was more than recouped by their steadfast resistance, anchored by the astute tactical manoeuverings of their leader, and the courage of men like Alasdair MacColla. Montrose’s men – Highlanders, Irish guards, and whoever they could rally under the Stuart standard – led a bandit existence. Their guerilla campaign rampaged around the Highlands , struck out against the Covenanter status quo in the north-east, and won spectacular victories against all odds. The Royalists’ intimate knowledge of the Scottish countryside and the dark art of warfare would afford them at a tactical advantage over government forces. Their ruthlessness would spread fear and loathing through the heart of Covenanter strongholds.
The Battle Of Alford was the first time that Montrose would engage a Covenanter army of similar size – though the Covenanters under General William Baillie would enjoy a greater cavalry. It was also the first time Montrose would defeat an experienced Covenanter general. And more importantly for the Royalist movement, it gave King Charles I some hope that Scotland was not yet lost. Their campaign in England was all but finished, falling at Langport and Naseby .
Baillie would be right to feel aggrieved after events at Alford. His cavalry should have given him the edge in, but government politics would undermine his efforts. Interference from the Committee Of Estates would see Lindsay take command of 1,000 of his men, leaving Baillie to rely on local levies. The government were ill-advised to syphon off their troops at a time when battle with Montrose’s men was imminent. Certainly, Baillie would still be confident of victory, and engaging with Montrose in open combat was still an attractive option, but a united front would have ensured victory. Just as John Hurry’s impetuous offensive at Auldearn had left triumph to chance – launching his surprise offensive on the Royalists before Baillie’s army could offer support – the government had ceded the upper-hand given to them by Baillie’s cavalry.
The Battle Of Alford was preceded by much toing and froing between the two factions. Since Montrose’s victory at Auldearn, Baillie had been closing in on his enemy. Advances were followed by retreats as the war took on a desultory, reluctant quality. For good reason: Montrose knew he was outnumbered, and Baillie knew that defeat would have been a hammer blow to his reputation.
Montrose led his men across the River Don on July 1st, resting at Asloun in preparation for combat. The following day they were deployed on the hillside – with the summit disguising their number, they lay in wait for Baillie to cross the Don. They adopted a classical formation; the massed ranks of infantry flanked on both sides by the cavalry.
Baillie’s cavalry would drive the Royalists back only for the combined weight of Royalist cavalry and infantry to break Baillie’s attack. With more depth in attack, and great purpose, the Royalists scattered Baillie’s front-line. The traditional charge of the Highlander was indomitable in the face of Baillie’s levies and reservists; their inexperience would be paid for by their lives. In a matter of hours, the battle turned into a familiar scene; Royalist forces hunting down and executing the defeated Covenanters.
Victory was not without cost: the Royalists lost Lord Gordon in the battle. His death was a matter of gravity for Montrose; losing one of his most important commanders and a source of unwavering support. Alford was a bloody affair; hundreds of Royalists perished, and by reports, up to 1,500 Covenanters died in the fighting. Though latterly, this figure has been estimated to have been half that, the route encourage King Charles I to ignore better judgement, and continue the fight.
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