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The Battle of Dunbar

September 3rd 1650. Oliver Cromwell turns a disaster into his greatest victory.

British Civil Wars > Weapons & Warfare > Battles & Sieges > The Battle of Dunbar

In 1649 Charles I was beheaded.  Parliament ruled Britain without a king. In June 1650 the king’s eldest son Charles travelled from France to Scotland. He promised to make Scottish Presbyterianism the national religion of England if the Scots made him king and gave him an army. On January 1st 1651 Charles II was crowned king. In July, Parliament sent Oliver Cromwell to invade Scotland with 15,000 New Model Army soldiers.

Crowell’s soldiers were tough, disciplined, extremely religious and very well trained. The Scottish army, led by Lord Leven (who had fought on the same side as Cromwell during the First Civil War) had up to 25,000 men, made up of people who had been forced to fight rather than volunteers.

Leven was not going to face Cromwell in a pitch battle on open ground if he could help it. He stayed in Edinburgh with his army. Cromwell marched on Edinburgh. The city was too strong to attack, and the Scots would not come out to fight him. There was heavy rain that soaked Cromwell’s soldiers. Many of his men were sick. There was little food as the Scots had destroyed the nearby fields. Cromwell was forced to retreat to the nearby Scottish seaside town of Dunbar. At this point Leven ordered his army to follow Cromwell. The Scottish army spread themselves out on Doon Hill above Dunbar and blocked the road back to England. With the roads blocked, the sea behind him and the Scots army in the hill above him, Cromwell was trapped. To fight a larger army uphill was suicide. Cromwell’s best chance of escape was rescue by the Roundhead navy.  But then, on the 3rd September, the Scots did something disastrous. Under pressure from the Scottish church to win the battle quickly, the Scots came down the hill to meet Cromwell. There was only one narrow rout down the hill, which meant the Scottish army had to form a long line as they descended. Cromwell saw his chance and attacked the right end (or flank) of the Scottish army that was coming towards him. This time it was the Scots who were trapped. In the narrow pathway down the hill, they could only move forwards or backwards. Their greater numbers were now meaningless. In two hours Cromwell’s superior infantry and Cavalry fought their way through them and destroyed them.  According to Cromwell, his men killed 3,000 Scots and took 10,000 prisoners, losing only 30 men in the fighting. Roughly 5,000 prisoners were taken to England and locked up in Durham Cathedral. Thousands died, either on the journey or as prisoners in the Cathedral. Most of the surviving prisoners were sent to America or Barbados as slaves.

Cromwell went on to capture Edinburgh.

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