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Battle of Dunbar (1650)
Part of Scotland in the Wars of the Three Kingdoms
Cromwell at Dunbar Andrew Carrick Gow.jpg
"Cromwell at Dunbar", by Andrew Carrick Gow
Date 3 September, 1650
Location Dunbar, Scotland
Result Decisive English Parliamentarian victory
Scottish Covenanters English Parliamentarians
David Leslie Oliver Cromwell
2,500 cavalry[1]
9,500 infantry[1]
9 guns
3,500 cavalry[2]
7,500 infantry[2]
Casualties and losses
800[3]-3,000[3] killed
6,000-[3]10,000[3] prisoners
20 killed
58 wounded

The Battle of Dunbar (3 September, 1650) was a battle of the Third English Civil War. The English Parliamentarian forces under Oliver Cromwell defeated a Scottish army commanded by David Leslie which was loyal to King Charles II of England, who had been proclaimed King in Scotland on 5 February, 1649.



Parliament had long suspected the Scots' intentions, and decided to invade Scotland. Sir Thomas Fairfax, the Army's commander, disagreed with this strategy and resigned. Oliver Cromwell was made General in his place. John Lambert was appointed Sergeant Major General and the Army's second-in-command.

As Cromwell led his army over the border at Berwick-upon-Tweed in July 1650, the Scottish general, Sir David Leslie, decided that his best strategy was to avoid a direct conflict with the enemy. Although his army comprised some 12,000[1] soldiers outnumbering the English army of 11,000[2] men and most of the Scots soldiers were well-trained, they were poorly armed compared to their English counterparts. Leslie chose therefore to shelter his troops behind strong fortifications around Edinburgh and refused to be drawn out to meet the English in battle. Furthermore, between Edinburgh and the border, Leslie adopted a scorched earth policy thus forcing Cromwell to obtain all of his supplies from England, most arriving by sea through the port at Dunbar.

Whether in a genuine attempt to avoid prolonging the conflict or whether because of the difficult circumstances he found himself in, Cromwell sought to persuade the Scots to accept the English point of view. Claiming that it was the King who was his enemy rather than the Scottish people, he wrote to his opponents on 3 August famously stating I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. This plea, however, was unsuccessful.

The battle

By early September, the English army, weakened by illness and demoralised by lack of success, began to withdraw towards its supply base at Dunbar. Leslie, believing that the English army was retreating, ordered his army to advance in pursuit. The Scots army reached Dunbar first and Leslie positioned his troops on Doon Hill[4], overlooking the town and the Berwick Road, which was Cromwell's land route back to England. However, the Scots army was funded by the Church of Scotland. Eager not to waste funds, the church officials put Leslie under great pressure to finish the battle quickly. On 2 September, 1650, Leslie brought his army down from Doon Hill and approached the town. Witnessing this manoeuvre, Cromwell quickly realised that here was an opportunity for him to turn the tables on the Scots.

That night, under cover of darkness, Cromwell secretly redeployed a large number of his troops to a position opposite the Scottish right flank. Just before dawn on 3 September, shouting their battle cry 'The Lord of Hosts!', the English launched a surprise attack. Soldiers in the centre and on the left flank caught Leslie's men unawares but were held by the greater number of Scottish opponents. On the right flank, however, the Scots soldiers were pushed back under the weight of superior English numbers until their lines started to disintegrate. Observing this disaster, the rest of the Scottish army lost heart, broke ranks and fled. In the rout that followed, the English cavalry drove the Scots army from the field in disorder.

Cromwell claimed that 3,000 Scots were killed.[3] On the other hand, Sir James Balfour, a senior officer with the Scottish army, noted in his journal that that were only "8 or 900 killed".[3] There is similar disagreement about the number of Scottish prisoners taken: Cromwell claimed that there were 10,000,[3] while the English Royalist leader, Sir Edward Walker put the number at 6,000, of which 1,000 sick and wounded men were quickly released.[3] The more conservative estimates of the Scottish casualties are borne out by the fact that, the day after the battle, Leslie retreated to Stirling with some 4,000-5,000 of his remaining troops[3].

The aftermath

Third Captain's Colour, Steward's Edinburgh Regiment (BM Harl. 1460/98), captured at Dunbar
Unidentified blue and white Scots flag, captured at Dunbar 1650 (BM Harl. 1460/5), probably belonged to Campbell of Lawer's Regiment

As a result of the destruction of the Scottish army, Cromwell was able to march unopposed to Edinburgh. He quickly captured the Scottish capital, although Edinburgh Castle held out until the end of December. The prisoners were then force-marched south towards England in order to prevent any attempt to rescue them. The conditions on the march were so appalling that many of the prisoners died of starvation, illness or exhaustion. By 11 September, when the remnants arrived at Durham Cathedral where they were to be imprisoned, only 3,000 Scottish soldiers were still alive.[5] If Sir Edward Walker's statement that 6,000 prisoners were taken and 5,000 of them were marched south[3] was correct, then 2,000 captives perished on the way to Durham.

Although Durham Cathedral offered a degree of shelter, the English failed to provide their prisoners with adequate food or fuel. For a time, the prisoners kept warm by burning all of the woodwork in the Cathedral with the notable exception of Prior Castell's Clock in the South Transept. It is thought that they left the clock alone because it carries a thistle, the emblem of Scotland, on it. The prisoners did take the opportunity to revenge themselves on the tombs of the Neville family, however, beheading their effigies and most of the statuary in the Cathedral. Lord Ralph Neville had commanded part of the English army which had defeated the Scots at the Battle of Neville's Cross in 1346 on the outskirts of Durham City.

By the end of October, cold, malnutrition and disease had resulted in the deaths of another 1,600 of the Scots soldiers. The bodies of many of those who had died were simply thrown into a mass grave in the form of a trench running northwards from the Cathedral. The location of their remains was then forgotten for almost three centuries until rediscovered by workmen in 1946. There is no permanent memorial to these soldiers and it is suggested that they had received neither Christian burial nor blessing, although their story is briefly told in the Cathedral guidebook. In 1993 the Cathedral approved in principle a request by the Scottish Covenanter's Memorials Association to erect a suitable memorial or plaque but progress seems to have stalled at this stage. A campaign properly to respect and remember the "Dunbar Martyrs" was launched at the end of 2007, aiming at least to gain a Christian blessing for the dead and an adequate memorial at the Cathedral burial site or even possible exhumation of the remains and reburial in Scotland.[6]

Of the estimated 5,000 Scottish soldiers that began the march southwards from Dunbar, over 3,500 died either on the march or during imprisonment in Durham Cathedral, more than the total number killed on the battlefield. Of the 1,400 survivors, the majority were eventually transported as slave labour to English colonies in the New World and the Caribbean.

After formally accepting the Solemn Oath and Covenant, Charles was finally crowned King in Scotland on 1 January 1651.


  1. ^ a b c Reid p.68
  2. ^ a b c Reid p.64
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Reid, Stuart (2004). Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's Most Famous Victory. Oxford: Osprey Publishing. p. 81. ISBN 1-84178-774-3.  
  4. ^ Reid p.58
  5. ^ ."Durham Cathedral History". Retrieved 2008-12-09.  
  6. ^ Dunbar Martyrs site


  • Reid, Stuart (2004). Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's Most Famous Victory. Oxford: Osprey Publishing.  
  • Faslkus, Christopher (1972). The life and times of Charles II. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.  
  • Rogers, H.C.B. (1968). Battles and Generals of the Civil Wars. London: Seeley Service & Co..  


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