Battle of Bothwell Bridge
Three weeks previous, the Scottish Covenanters’ conventicle at Loudoun Hill erupted in violence, as they repelled and routed Royalist forces under the charge of John Graham of Claverhouse. Now Bothwell Bridge would see the antipathy between Covenanter and Royalist coalesce in a pitched battle between almost 10,000 thousand men. A battle where hundreds died.
Open rebellion had been coming ever since the 1660 Restoration reversed twenty years of Presbyterian worship, and reintroduced the straight-jacketed rule of the Episcopacy. Once again, the Covenanters had been driven underground; Presbyterianism and Parliamentarianism made them enemies of an insecure Royalist government who sought to keep a firm lid on any dissent. Amassed in clandestine conventicles, the Covenanters took refuge, prayed and disseminated propaganda and tactics, while Royalist dragoons would scour the Presbyterian heartlands in pursuit.
Ayrshire , Galloway and South Lanarkshire: in these seats the Covenanter spirit was strong, and Claver-house’s brief was to disrupt the conventicles and wield a little discipline. Drumclog was an indication that the battle would not be so straightforward. Claverhouse’s men took a pounding; slain on the peat marshes that carpet the border between Ayrshire and South Lanarkshire. Hundreds more would take up arms against the government – some 4,000 men would fight for the Covenanters at Bothwell. Though their passion was laudable, their optimism was ill-founded; an impromptu battle in favourable conditions against Claverhouse’s anti-conventicle dragoons was one thing, but facing the might of the Royalist army was a critical test of their resolve.
While James Scott, Duke of Monmouth made his way to Bothwell, the Covenanter rebels were struggling with building a coherent army – rebellion opens many schisms – and as battle drew near, the Covenanters were a mass of convoluted rhetoric and disharmony that germinated in the vacuum of coherent leadership. Robert Hamilton may have triumphed at Drumclog , but with a larger army to lead, he lost his way. 5,000 government troops were heading to Bothwell, while Hamilton was trapped in a cul-de-sac of post-Reformation navel gazing. This was the hour to abandon the debate over finer points of the Covenanters’ theological stance and muster an army under one banner. Defeat was nigh on inevitable.
The government forces attacked from the north. Though outgunned, the rebels held their position at the bridge – Bothwell was not going to fall without a fight. As the hours passed, the rebels ran low on ammunition. It was time to fight or flee. Monmouth’s men advanced beyond the bridge, their number buttressed by Highland regiments. It was too much for the rebels; what cavalry they had fled, 400 were killed and over a thousand taken prisoner.
The Battle of Bothwell Bridge was decisive. The Covenanters were routed on the battlefield, and the defeated resonated through their once defiant cause. Once again, Monmouth proved his worth in battle; and Hamilton’s victory at Drumclog was no more than a false dawn for the Covenanters. Their future was to be played out against a backdrop of persecution, that persisted under King Charles II , and intensified with his successor, King James VII (II of England). Religious freedom was once again to be held on a short leash in the vice grip of a monarch.
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