The Battle of Dunbar
September 3, 1650
by Steve Beck
The nine tumultuous years of the English Civil War, actually three separate
wars, resulted from a range of factors, economic, constitutional and religious,
all inextricably interwoven. At a time when religious differences were more
often debated with cannon balls than words, radical leaders with strong held
beliefs thought nothing of deciding the issues in battle.
Charles I, attempting to rule as an absolute monarch, quickly came into
conflict with the English Parliament, suspicious of his "Popery" and desire for
absolute rule. Likewise, the Scots resented his attempts at reforming their
Presbyterian system of religion, formulating the "National Covenant" in 1638 to
resist his efforts. The English Parliament and the Scots, therefore, combined
to defeat Charles in the first of the English Civil Wars. An attempt by Charles
to regain power was crushed by Parliamentarian forces at Preston in August 1648
and he was put on trial for treason.
A simmering resentment had long been developing between the two allies,
however. Parliament, in order to gain Scottish support, had promised to
implement the Presbyterian church system in England. After Charles' defeat,
they had been slow and lackluster in their efforts at implementation. Moreover,
the promised payments for keeping the Scottish army in the field had not been
forthcoming and the Scots were worried by the religious and social radicalism
displayed by Parliament's "New Model Army." The Puritans, in power in England,
wished religious tolerance for all Protestants whereas the Kirk Party, the
radical religious group in power in Scotland desired to convert England to
Presbyterianism. Any deviation from their official church line was considered
heresy. The English, for their part, were aggrieved that apart from the Battle
of Marsdon Moor, the Scots has contributed little to the war effort.
Matters came to a head on the 30th January 1649 with the execution of Charles I
for "High treason and other high crimes." Subsequently, the monarchy and the
House of Lords was abolished and it became a treasonable offense for any
Englishman to proclaim Charles' son, Charles Stuart, The Prince of Wales, to be
king. While England became a republic, Charles had also been king of Scotland
and they had no plans to follow England's lead. Counter revolutionary feelings
grew and the Kirk Party saw inviting the Prince of Wales, currently exiled in
Holland, to become King of Scotland as a way of securing their position. In
return, the new king would have to support the "Covenant" and agree to enforce
it in all of his domains. With the defeat of the Marquis of Montrose by the
Scots, the last royalist commander in the field, he had no choice but to submit
and was crowned Charles II on 5th February 1649.
His real ambition, however, was to regain the English throne with the help of
the Scots. Having done so, he would repudiate his pledge on the grounds that it
was made under duress. Both the Scots and the English, realizing this, began to
gather their forces.
Infantry was organized into regiments, theoretically comprising two-thirds
musketeers and one-third pikemen although this varied according to
Pikemen were chosen from the physically larger and stronger recruits, as they
were required to wield the heavy and cumbersome pike. Their weapons consisted
of the 12-18 foot long pike, essentially a long pole with an iron point. The
difference in lengths was due to the practice of pikemen cutting down the
lengths during a campaign to make them more manageable, a practice discouraged
by their officers. More than one battle was lost due to the pikes of one side
being shorter than the others! Many also wore a sword although this was seldom
used in favor of the pike. Sergeants were armed with halberds, a shorter pike
with an axe head near the point. Defensively they wore an armored corselet
(front and breast plate) although by this time, they had often been discarded
to allow freer movement and a combe cap, an iron helmet ridged along the top.
Musketeers provided the infantry with its firepower, armed with matchlock
muskets. A muzzle loading weapon, to be loaded, gunpowder was poured down the
barrel and a bullet dropped after it. Wadding was then rammed down the barrel
to keep it all in place. The weapon was then primed by filling the flash pan
with finer gunpowder and a short length of lighted match was inserted to ignite
the powder when the trigger was pulled. An experienced musketeer may be able to
fire two to three rounds a minute and hit a target at 60 yards if he was lucky.
It was an unreliable weapon at best but in high winds and rain, it was almost
impossible to use effectively. Many also carried swords although in close
combat, the butt end of a musket was found to be more effective. Wearing no
defensive armor they carried a bandoleer holding a number of powder containers,
a priming flask and a bullet pouch slung over their shoulders and a length of
cord used as a match hung from their belts. Headwear was mainly broad brimmed
felt hats often displaying plumes. They fought in ranks three to six deep so
that one could fire while the others reloaded. In front of the regiment, there
would be a "forlorn hope", a loose line of musketeers acting as skirmishers.
To be effective, pikemen and musketeers needed to work together. An infantry
regiment attacking another would steadily advance. The "forlorn hopes" would
trade a few rounds before retiring to the flanks as the main bodies clashed.
Drawing up, the musketeers would fire a few volleys before the pikemen would
lower their pikes and charge forward for "the push of the pike". Musketeers
would reverse their muskets and join the fray, clubbing down the enemy. If both
sides held, they may draw back a few paces, trade more musket fire before
repeating the process until one side broke.
An infantry regiment faced with cavalry would form a square with pikemen in the
center facing outwards with lowered pikes to keep the cavalry at a distance.
Musketeers would crouch two deep, below the pikes to fire on the enemy.
By the mid 17th Century, heavily armored cavalry of many different types was a
thing of the past. Cavalry was made up of two main classes, harquebusiers and
The most numerous type was the harquebusier. Originally foot soldiers armed
with crossbows, as time passed, they were given firearms and mounted to become
light cavalry. They were armed with a harquebus (carbine), a sword and a pair
of pistols. Some Scottish cavalry were armed with lances. Defensively, they
wore a light open-faced helmet and a cuirass (breast plates protecting their
front and back). Underneath this was worn a heavy buff coat of leather for
added protection. In the latter stages of the civil wars, the cuirass was often
discarded as the buff coat was found to allow much freer movement and still
provide enough protection to turn a sword blow.
Battle tactics varied according to the commander but generally they advanced
three deep at a fast trot, holding their fire until at close quarters before
falling on the enemy with their swords. The first line of Scottish cavalry was
often lancers, who using long spears, could charge with devastating effect.
The second type of cavalry were dragoons, essentially mounted infantry. Armed
with a short firelock musket that could be fired from horseback and a sword,
they had the mobility of cavalry but fought on foot. In action, it was expected
that every tenth dragoon would stay behind the battle to hold the horses of the
others. They wore no defensive armor and were dressed similar to musketeers.
Due to their versatility, the tasks of a dragoon were wide and varied. They
could be used in advance of an army to secure passes and bridges or to hold
defensible positions when in retreat. In enclosed country, they fought hedge to
hedge as skirmishers whereas in open country they may even be used as normal
The English Army
The command of the English invasion army was initially given to England's
military commander-in-chief, Lord General Thomas Fairfax. Uneasy with the
preemptive nature of the campaign against their former allies, Fairfax declined
the position so Parliament appointed their Lieutenant General of Cavalry,
Oliver Cromwell in his place.
Cromwell, born of minor nobility, had served in Parliament before the civil
wars. With no formal military training, he quickly established a formidable
reputation as an aggressive master tactician, commanding the "Ironsides", a
cavalry regiment noted for its discipline and tenacity. His second in command
was Lt. General Fleetwood, who owed his appointment more to seniority than any
real military ability. Thoughout the campaign, his roll was carried out by more
able officers. Cromwell was, however, well supported by Major General John
Lambert as his cavalry commander and Colonel George Monck commanding the
During the Civil War, Fairfax and Cromwell had molded the Parliamentarian army
from a poorly trained and equipped militia into a well drilled and disciplined
fighting force. It was comprised of veteran soldiers commanded by experienced
and able officers with an excellent esprit-de-corps. At this time, the "New
Model Army" was probably the finest fighting force in all of Europe.
Not all of the "New Model Army" could be sent to Scotland. Some regiments were
needed to police England and Ireland against potential royalist uprisings. A
force of eight regiments of horse, the 1st, 3rd, 8th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 15th,
and 16th and nine regiments of infantry, the 1st, 4th, 6th, 6/12th, 10th, 13th,
14th, 15th, 17th together with two companies of dragoons were assembled.
Altogether the army was made up of around 5,000 cavalry and 11,800 infantry.
One of the infantry regiments had been left leaderless when its commander,
Colonel Bright, resigned due to a disagreement with his General. In an
interesting exercise in army democracy, Cromwell, instead of simply appointing
a new commander, consulted with the regiment. Cromwell's choice, Colonel Monck,
was rejected and Lambert was given the command in addition to his cavalry
regiment. To ease Monck's hurt pride, a new regiment was formed from the
garrisons of Newcastle and Berwick and assembled at Coldstream - the regiment
was to become the famous Coldstream Guards.
Accompanying the army was an artillery train of 50 pieces and a fleet of 140
supply ships. By transporting supplies by sea, Cromwell planned to avoid
relying on vulnerable overland supply lines and the need to disperse his army
to forage for food.
The Scottish Army
At this time, the Scots had only a small standing army of around 6,000 regulars
due to sickness and desertions. This was quickly raised to over 25,000 by the
mobilization of the militia who were formed into new regiments. With some
military training, they were poorly equipped and extremely poorly commanded in
comparison to the English. While the English were able to absorb new recruits
into existing regiments with strong morale, the Scots were forced to form whole
new ones. Many were understrengh at Dunbar, their army made up of around 40
depleted regiments cobbled together to form an army.
During the campaign, the Scots proceeded to shoot themselves in the foot.
Charles II, by refusing to publicly condemn his mother for her "Popery" and
father for "bad counsel" had infuriated the Kirk Party. They responded by
dismissing 80 veteran cavalier officers and 3,000 men not seen as enthusiastic
enough in their support for the Covenant. One experienced Scottish colonel
lamented that their army had been left with officers who were "nothing but
useless clerks and ministers sons, who had never seen a sword, much less used
one." The loss of this number of veteran troops was to have dire consequences
later in the campaign.
While inferior to the English army, they were well commanded by David Leslie,
the 1st Lord of Newark. A professional soldier, he had fought with the Swedish
army during the 30 Years War and had led the successful Scottish cavalry attack
at the Battle of Marsdon Moor and recently destroyed Montrose's army. His
uncle, Alexander Leslie, another able soldier with experience in the 30 years
War, advised him.
Realizing the superiority of the English army, Leslie sought to avoid open
battle but rather wage a war of attrition using what he termed his two favorite
allies, hunger and disease. By drawing up in a defensive line of fortifications
between the coastal town of Leith and Edinburgh and destroying all food
supplies to the south, he hoped to defeat the English through starvation rather
than battle. While the English became frustrated, not being able to meet him in
open battle, Leslie would harass them using guerrilla tactics to further weaken
Crossing the border unopposed on the 22nd July, Cromwell was met with a
deserted countryside, stripped of all sources of food between the river Tweed
and Edinburgh. Behind this scorched land, his foe, Leslie, had entrenched his
army in a line of fortifications. The Scots, in their own backyard, subjected
the English to guerrilla attacks at every opportunity, hitting without warning
before melting back into the heather. Unable to draw the Scots into open
battle, English morale began to sag.
Having sent Lambert ahead with 1,400 cavalry to secure Musselborough,
Cromwell's forces finally drew up on the outskirts of Leith on the 29th. He
then proceeded to bombard the town with the support of four men-of-war but the
attack was prevented from being driven home by heavy rain. After standing in
battle order all night, and having eaten nothing but bread and water for the
past six days, they withdrew to Musselburgh.
The Scots followed and overpowered the small English rearguard of 200 from the
11th Horse. A counter attack by the 1st horse drove them back before the Scots
attacked again. The Scots were eventually driven off after a fierce battle when
Whalley, commanding the rest of the 11th horse and Lambert leading the 13th
joined the fray. During the battle, Lambert was wounded three times and briefly
captured before being rescued by elements of the 1st horse.
Having eventually regained Musselburgh, the English were again harassed, this
time by a force of 800 cavalry commanded by Major General Montgomery that
raided the town at around 3 o'clock in the morning. After initially driving in
the English pickets, they were beaten off with heavy losses. Englishmen serving
in the Scots army aided the surprise of the attack, their voices being mistaken
for a returning patrol.
With Musselburgh considered too exposed, Cromwell fell back on Dunbar to
re-supply. There he began a psychological war in order to win the hearts and
minds of the Scottish people, branding their alliance with Charles II as "a
covenant made with Death and Hell."
On hearing that the Scots were running short of food in their positions,
Cromwell left Dunbar with the aim of outflanking the Scots and cutting their
lines of communication with Stirling. By the 13th, he had taken Braid Hill, due
south of Edinburgh. He then wasted two days communicating with Leslie before
returning to Dunbar to re-supply.
He was back at Braid Hill by the 18th, only to discover that in the meantime,
the wily Leslie had occupied Corsorphine Hill, placed a strong detachment in a
house called Redhall and had deployed his main army for battle blocking the way
to Stirling. Storming Redhall on the 26th, it was taken but the position on
Corstorphine was considered too strong to assault. Edging to the west, to
advance on Leslie's western flank, they were matched by the Scots meeting at
Gogar. Both armies deployed for battle but the Scots had formed their lines
behind a bog making an English attack impossible. After a brief artillery
skirmish, the English once more withdrew exhausted to Dunbar.
On this occasion, the Scots closely shadowed them, and only a severe
thunderstorm prevented a severe mauling. The campaign had taken its toll on the
English army. Leslie's two allies, disease and hunger, together with the cold
and wet of the late Scottish summer had played their part well. Of the 16,000
English who had begun the campaign, only 11,000 were considered fit for duty
and of these, all were exhausted and hungry. Cromwell, having been well and
truly out generalled, turned his thoughts from victory towards how to get home.
September 1st saw the Scot army, twice the size of that of the English, made up
of 6,000 cavalry and 16,000 infantry, draw up on Doon Hill overlooking Dunbar.
That evening detachments were placed blocking the road to Berwick, known as the
Cockburnspath, as the English worked frantically to fortify the town against
the coming attack. With the only road to England blocked, Cromwell had two
options, fight with his back to the sea against overwhelming odds or attempt to
escape by sea.
As those too sick to fight were loaded onto ships, Leslie took this to mean the
English were preparing to evacuate. This firm belief is confirmed by a
conversation with a captured English veteran who was led before him. "How will
you fight, when you have shipped off half your men, and all your great guns?"
The veteran replied that if Leslie attacked, he would "find both men and great
guns too!" Assuming that the English would evacuate their infantry by sea and
let the cavalry attempt to break out along the Cockburnspath, Leslie positioned
forces to block the way.
September 2nd dawned dark and stormy. The wind had been so severe the previous
night that the English had been unable to pitch their tents, forcing them to
sleep in the open. Exposed atop Doon Hill, the Scots had it even worse as the
wind blew in unhindered from the North Sea. While impregnable to attack, the
Scot position was out of artillery range of the English and difficult to
re-supply. If they were to attack, they would have to move.
Cromwell was in a quandary. He knew that the Scottish position was impregnable,
that he could not safely evacuate by land or sea and as time passed, his men
grew weaker. "Our lying here daily consumeth our men, who fall sick beyond
imagination." If a solution was to be found, it must come soon.
In the end, it was the Scots who provided the answer. Leslie was content to sit
and wait while the English grew weaker and so gain victory without firing a
shot. The Kirk ministers attached to his army, however, saw themselves as far
superior at military strategy than the man who had used his allies, hunger and
disease to bring the English to their knees, and ordered that they attack. To
do so, they would have to reform at the base of Doon Hill in preparation for
crossing Spott Burn.
Leslie's plan was one of envelopment. His infantry was placed at the center
with cavalry on either flank, two thirds on the right blocking the road to
England and one-third to the left. The infantry was to engage the English
center while the cavalry would move around the flanks to surround the English.
While a sound plan, its flaw was that it assumed that Cromwell would be content
to sit and wait for the attack. Moreover, the movements were made in daylight
allowing Cromwell full view of what was planned.
Cromwell couldn't believe his luck. Watching the Scottish preparations with
Lambert and Monck from Broxmouth House, he quickly formulated a daring plan.
While the Scottish position was ideal from which to launch an attack, it was
poorly suited to meeting one. Their line was a great arch, close to two miles
in length with little room to maneuver between Doon Hill and Spott Burn. If the
English attacked on a flank, the Scots would not be able to reform in time to
meet the threat.
As the Scottish artillery rumbled down the hill to take up position, Cromwell
called his council of war. A number of English officers pressed that they
should evacuate the infantry by sea and let the cavalry break out along the
Cockburnspath to England. While the baggage and artillery would be abandoned
and losses would be high, at least some would escape. As it was, it was too
late to embark the infantry and there were too few ships. Cromwell laid out the
Before the Scots army lay Spott Burn, steep sided and swollen by rain. While
fordable, it presented a formidable obstacle. The Scot left, wedged between it
and Doon Hill had no room to move and assist the rest of the army if needed.
The English artillery could pin them down while the rest of the army attacked
the Scottish right. As the stream approached the ocean, its banks grew flatter
and there was room for troops to maneuver. This was where Cromwell saw the
Scots as most vulnerable. Lt. General Fleetwood and Lambert commanding six
regiments of horse and Colonel Monck, commanding three and a half regiments of
foot were to attack this flank. The remainder of the infantry was formed into
two brigades under Colonels Pride and Overton. Pride's regiment and two
regiments of horse commanded by Cromwell himself were to be held in reserve
while Overton's regiment and the dragoons were kept in place to support the
artillery. By concentrating the attack on the flank, the whole Scottish army,
unable to maneuver, could be rolled up. Lambert spoke warmly of the plan and it
was enthusiastically adopted. The officers asked that Lambert be given the
honor of leading the assault to which Cromwell agreed.
Knowing that Leslie didn't expect to be attacked, Cromwell moved his army
during the night to allow a surprise attack at dawn. With the noise of their
movements screened by wind and hail, Cromwell rode from regiment to regiment,
carefully positioning each. So great was his concentration that biting his lip
until blood ran down his chin, he didn't seem to notice. Twice during the
night, the alarm was raised in the Scot camp but they were ordered to stand
down. As dawn approached, everything was ready but Lambert was nowhere to be
found. Busy positioning the artillery, he eventually gained his position at
around five to six o'clock as the Scots began to rise.
Despite standing in battle order throughout the night, many Scottish officers,
political appointees unused to the rigors of a military campaign, had retired
behind the lines to stay in tents and nearby farmhouses. Their soldiers, left
without any officers, set about finding whatever shelter was to be had from the
weather. Many covered themselves with corn storks to keep off the rain while
horses were allowed to forage. At around two o'clock, the order was given
allowing the musketeers to extinguish their matches and stand down.
With a mighty cry of "The Lord of Hosts," the English cavalry fell on the
Scottish right wing. Although taken completely by surprise, the Scots
outnumbered the English by around 4,000-5,000 to 2,700. As they crashed into
the sleeping camp, the Scots scrambled to gain their positions, fighting
desperately. Lambert's cavalry ploughed on until halted by a fierce downhill
charge by Colonel Strachan's cavalry, many of whom carried lances.
Monck moved his infantry up on Lambert's right and attacked the Scot's
infantry. A desperate battle ensued as both sides traded musket fire and moved
in for "the push of the pike." The Scots, fighting downhill, had the advantage
halting the attack which then seesawed with charges and countercharges.
Cromwell, unlike his adversary Leslie, had maintained the ability to maneuver
his forces. Seeing that committing his reserves could swing the battle, he
moved his regiment of horse and Pride's infantry between Broxmouth House and
the sea to come up on the extreme right of the Scottish line. Moving Monck's
forces to the left to gain a clear run at the Scot infantry, he burst through
the gap between Lambert and Monck followed by Pride's infantry. As Lambert and
Monck rallied their forces once more, Cromwell swung into the flanks of the
Scottish cavalry. At this point, the sun burst through the clouds and Cromwell
exclaimed, "Now let God arise, and His enemies shall be scattered!" Faced by
the entire English army on its front and flank, the Scottish right collapsed,
its survivors fleeing down the Cockburnspath.
The ungainly Scot line, with no room to maneuver, was met by an English
onslaught on its unprotected flank. Many Scots simply panicked and fled or
surrendered where they stood as the English cavalry swept from one end of the
line to the other. The Scot cavalry on their left flank fled the battle they
had never even joined. Two regiments of foot bravely stood their ground until
overwhelmed and were cut to pieces. By seven o'clock, as the sun burned away
the last of the morning mist, Leslie's army had ceased to exist.
Amid the cries of the wounded, Cromwell was overcome with laughter, described
by a puritan minister as "drunken with the Spirit and filled with holy
laughter." The English cavalry, singing Psalm 117, quickly reformed before
riding down the fleeing Scots, pursuing for up to eight miles.
The Scots were right in expecting a crushing victory that day but the outcome
was far different from what they had envisaged. Their army was decimated.
Within a single morning, they had suffered over 3,000 dead, 10,000 taken
prisoner and lost over 200 regimental colours. Many of the casualties occurred
as the English cavalry rode down those fleeing the battle. English losses, on
the other hand, were extraordinarily light; Cromwell claiming only 30 were
killed, all of whom were lost in the initial attack.
While Dunbar was commemorated as a glorious victory, the fate of the Scottish
prisoners was one of the less glorious episodes in English military history. Of
the 10,000 captured, half were released immediately due to their wounds or
sickness. Not wanting the others to join up with Leslie and rearm, the rest
were marched 118 miles south to Durham with the aim of sending them to the
American colonies as labour. Given little food or medical help, and prisoners
who tried to escape offered no quarter, only 3,000 staggered into Durham on the
10th of September. Once there, the food intended for the prisoners was stolen
and sold by their guards so that two months later, only 1,400 were still alive.
Of these, 900 were sent to the colonies and 500 indentured to fight in the
While Leslie's guerrilla and scorched earth tactics had certainly been
successful in bringing the English to their knees, they were overcome by
Cromwell's careful planning of the campaign. By organizing for his army to be
supplied by sea, the need for foraging parties was eliminated. As a result, the
army could be kept concentrated, ready for battle instead of split to look for
supplies; these small parties being easy pickings for the Scots.
The superior quality of the English troops and their officers also contributed.
Highly trained and disciplined, by the standards of the day, they were able to
overcome the setbacks of the campaign to rally and overcome a much larger and
The English victory at Dunbar is a classic example of two military doctrines,
those of surprise and the concentration of force. Through careful planning and
discipline, Cromwell moved his forces during the night to be able to burst upon
the Scots at sunrise. The first the Scots knew of an impending attack was when
the English were storming their camp! Without surprise, it is unlikely that the
attack would have succeeded.
By concentrating the attack on the Scottish right, where there was room to
maneuver, Cromwell was able to engage his whole army against a small portion of
the Scots. At the decisive moment, he was then able to throw in his reserves to
swing the battle. The Scottish line, by comparison, was long and unwieldy,
unable to meet a flank attack and bring it's greater numbers to bear.
While the Scots army was devastated, Dunbar did not mark the end of the
campaign. No longer possessing the numbers necessary to defend his
fortifications, Leslie fell back to the easily defended Stirling with 4000
survivors of the battle. Here he quickly set about strengthening its defenses,
rearming the survivors and raising fresh troops.
No longer defended, Leith and Edinburgh quickly fell although Edinburgh castle
held out until late December. The war was to continue for another year until
exactly 12 months later, on 3rd September 1651, Charles II and his Scots army
was surrounded and destroyed by Cromwell at Worchester as they made a daring
dash to take London.
Firth, C. H. Cromwell's Army: A history of the English Soldier during the Civil
Wars, the Commonwealth and the Protectorate , Melhuen & Co. Ltd.,
Fraser A. Cromwell: Our Chief of Men , Arrow Books Ltd., London, 1973.
Gentles I. The New Model Army in England, Ireland and Scotland, 1645-1653
, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1992.
Reid S. All the King's Armies: A Military History of the English Civil Wars,
1642-1651 , Spellmont Ltd., Stapehurst, 1948.
Rogers H. C. B. Battles and Generals of the Civil Wars, 1642-1651 ,
Seeley Jervic & Co. Ltd., London, 1968.
Young P., Holmes R. The English Civil War: A Military History of the Three Civil
Wars, 1642-1651, Eyre Methuen, London, 1974.
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Copyright © 2005 Steve Beck
Written by Steve Beck If
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Published online: 07/21/2005.