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Mike Duncan (00:01):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Episode 11 – The Crowning Mercy After Charles I was executed, his eldest son, who I’m now just going to start calling Charles II, spent the next year trying to figure out what to do next.
There was no question that he was going to make some sort of play to reclaim his father’s throne, but he wasn’t sure exactly how he was going to pull it off. But by May 1650, Charles had settled on an alliance with the Covenanter Scots as the surest path to royal restoration. But by settling on this path, he necessarily closed off his other options, leaving potential allies hanging out to dry. Before we dive into the Third Civil War, which isn’t really a third civil war since it will be fought almost entirely between the Scots on the one hand and the English on the other, I do want to briefly run down who got hosed by the Treaty of Breda.
So first is our old friend the Marquis of Montrose. That’s right, the Marquis of Montrose is back. After being defeated at Philippa, the adventurous Montrose had attempted to re-rally a royalist uprising in the Highlands, but when no one joined up, he sailed for the continent where he bummed around for a couple of years, being hailed in the various European courts as a heroic defender of monarchy in Britain. After the execution of King Charles I, Montrose immediately offered his services to Charles II. Charles was delighted to have Montrose’s support, named him Captain-General for forces in Scotland, and sent him around Europe to raise money and guns for the inevitable invasion of England.
But of course, at the same time, Charles is also negotiating with the Covenanters, who had re-established control over Scotland after the implosion of Hamilton’s Engager Party. There was, perhaps, no one on earth the Covenanters hated more than the Marquis of Montrose, and that probably even included Oliver Cromwell at this point. So as talks progressed, one of the Covenanter demands was that Charles completely disavow Montrose, but when negotiations started to hit a wall, Charles ordered Montrose to raise a mercenary army and go seize Scotland by force, an order almost certainly designed to put pressure on the Covenanters more than anything else.
So in mid-April 1650, Montrose landed in Scotland with about 1200 mercenary troops, mostly Germans and Danes. Now whether or not Montrose’s arrival triggered the successful conclusion to the deal between the Covenanters and Charles, or whether it was just a coincidence, the upshot was that the Treaty of Breda was signed, and it included the clause requiring Charles to disavow Montrose. Though in late April, Charles sent a letter up to Scotland telling the Marquis to disarm, but apparently the letter never arrived. On April 27th, Montrose was surprised at Carvizdale and defeated by a Covenanter force that had been sent to hunt him down. Montrose himself escaped, but he was betrayed a few days later after taking refuge with a lord he thought he could trust.
Now a prisoner, Montrose was paraded through the streets of Edinburgh in chains. The death sentence that had dogged him since the campaigns of 1644-1645 was confirmed, and on May 21, 1650, the Marquis of Montrose, defiant to the last, was hung, drawn, and quartered. His head was posted on a spike at the gates of Edinburgh, while Stirling, Glasgow, Perth, and Aberdeen each received one of his severed limbs to be fixed upon their gates, because, like I say, the Covenanters really, really didn’t like the Marquis of Montrose. The other group of potential allies totally hosed by the Treaty of Breda were the Royalists in Ireland.
Though Cromwell had pretty well stomped the Irish under his heavy boot, his departure had given them a bit of breathing room. The Marquis of Ormond, keeping alive the royalist flame, opened a channel to the disaffected clerical party and pointed out that hey, you can either fight with me and maybe get something, or you can sit on the sidelines and watch as the new model army gives you nothing. But just as he was maybe getting somewhere, the terms of the Treaty of Breda were made public, and along with the disavowal of Montrose, Charles II also had to disavow his Catholic Irish supporters, taking the legs out from under Ormond, leaving him with no higher authority to give his army legitimacy. The few remaining English royalist commanders hung around until December, but their cause died with the Treaty of Breda.
While we’re here, I’d also like to offer a small correction clarification. When I was describing the Siege of Drogheda, I talked about the Irish garrison commander and the Irish troops, when in fact the commander was English, as were many of the troops. So yes, this is all very confusing, but thanks to listener Paul for reminding me of this further confusing wrinkle. So with Montrose betrayed and the Irish abandoned, Charles II was pinning all his hopes on the Scottish Covenanters, and in early June he sailed for Scotland to begin what would hopefully be the first step on his road back to the throne of England.
It would be the first step, but rather than a short road of providential triumphs, it turned out to be a long road of providential hardships because, spoiler alert, Charles’ adventures with the Scots are not going to turn out well at all. Back in London, Cromwell’s return from Ireland was greeted with enthusiastic public celebrations and private congratulations. He was at that moment probably the most powerful man in England, though that was not necessarily saying much, and he was by no means the puppet master his enemies throughout history have often painted him to be.
Indeed, on June the 12th, in preparation for parrying yet another thrust from the Scots, the Rump parliament named Sir Thomas Fairfax commander of the Northern Defenses, with Cromwell once again back in his familiar number two position. But as I noted last week, Fairfax was by now looking for an exit, and he found that exit just a week later. Because on June the 20th, the Rump decided that the best way to defend England would be to launch a preemptive invasion of Scotland.
Fairfax wanted no part of this invasion, and on June the 22nd he resigned his commission. Everyone, including Oliver Cromwell, tried to talk him out of it, but Fairfax had made up his mind, this is where he was getting off the ride. Sir Thomas Fairfax had taken over command of Parliament’s forces somewhere near the nadir of their fortunes, and expertly steered them back to victory. He was loved by his men, he was respected by his enemies.
He was long portrayed as Cromwell’s dupe, but those characterizations have given way to a portrait of a man who served the cause he believed in with dignity and vigor, and was his own man to the last. He was generous, capable, and modest. He’s one of the very few men in the violent and treacherous decades of the 1640s and 1650s to emerge with his reputation fully intact, and now he’s going home to Yorkshire to tend to his garden.
Though the retirement of Fairfax was obviously not a welcome development for the Rump Parliament, Oliver Cromwell was clearly a worthy successor, and may have even been a better choice to lead this particular campaign since he was totally on board with invading Scotland, where Fairfax was totally not. On June 28th, Cromwell was promoted to Lord General, and he started marching north with 16,000 men, equally split between infantry and cavalry. Meanwhile, Charles had arrived in Scotland on June 23rd, and immediately got into a small tiff with the Covenanters over his entourage, most of whom were unreconstructed English royalists who had no truck with Scottish Presbyterianism whatsoever.
But not wanting to alienate the Scots right out of the chute, Charles dismissed anyone they objected to, and then he signed the solemn League and Covenant, which he himself almost certainly did not believe in or support in any way. Mollified, the Covenanter government voted him an army 36,000 strong. Now, as with Hamilton’s grand plan to raise 30,000, the Covenanter army is never going to approach 36,000, but at least this time the Scottish Church is on board, so they got a heck of a lot closer than Hamilton ever did.
The two men put in charge of this new Covenanter army were Old Lord Leaven, he of the Bishop’s Wars and the First Civil War. But Old Lord Leaven was getting, well, old. So actual command was put into the hands of David Leslie.
David Leslie has actually been around for a while now, I just haven’t singled him out by name because lord knows we’ve got enough names floating around. He had served as Cromwell’s co-commander of the left wing at Marston Moor, and actually led one of the critical charges there after Cromwell was briefly wounded. He was also the man who led the army that finally defeated the Marquess of Montrose at Philippa in September 1645. He stayed out of the Second Civil War because he wanted no part of Hamilton or the engagement, but now that the Covenanters were back in charge, Leslie re-emerged as the most capable general in the Scottish ranks.
By the time Cromwell crossed into Scotland in late July 1650, Leslie had about 16,000 men under his command, and he elected to fortify a line between Edinburgh and Leith, and then strip everything south of that line to deprive the invading English of provisions, forcing Cromwell to rely on a much disrupted supply line by way of sea. Even when he did get resupplied, there was not much to receive into inventory, because Parliament still had to account for its operations in Ireland, and make sure that England itself was locked down against the kinds of uprisings that had defined the Second Civil War. So the entire time they campaigned in Scotland, Cromwell and his men were dangerously under-provisioned.
After it had been in Scotland for about a week, the English army advanced to the fortified line and started blasting away at Leith, and though they had some small success around the edges, for the most part the attack failed, and as Cromwell withdrew, his men were constantly harassed by Scottish cavalry. It wasn’t exactly a super great start to the war for the English, but over on the Scottish side, while their military strength continued to be augmented by fresh and enthusiastic recruits, political divides began to open up, because of course they did. I think that they are just doing it now on purpose to make trying to tell a coherent historical narrative impossible.
See, within the Covenanter movement, there was a moderate, let’s call them secular faction, led by among others the Earl of Argyle, and a hardcore, let’s call them religious faction, led by the Presbyterian ministry. The ministry was a deeply embedded and very influential part of the Scottish army, so when Charles paid a visit to the camp after the initial engagements and was greeted by some pretty enthusiastic cheering, the ministers and their allies got worried that the Scottish troops might forget what they were fighting for. Because in their eyes, none of this was about putting Charles back on the throne, that was just a means to an end. An end which remained, as always, the triumph of Presbyterianism.
But the cheers for Charles signaled that some in the army thought it was the other way around, that supporting Presbyterianism was the means to the end of restoring the monarchy. So in early August, the ministers laid heavy pressure on Charles to leave the camp, which he did, and then carried out a little purge of their own to clear out men who might only be in this for base secular reasons.
Pretty soon, 80 officers and 4,000 men had been dismissed from the army, which isn’t the hottest idea going when, you know, you’re trying to repel a foreign invasion led by one of the foremost generals of his day. Nor is it a good idea if you’re trying to keep the hopefully future King of England on your side. Because you can imagine how Charles II felt when he heard that 4,000 troops had just been sent home because they were a little too committed to putting him back on the throne. While the religious hardliners were purging the army, they were simultaneously urging David Leslie to bring Cromwell to a decisive battle.
Now, in their defense, this wasn’t quite as crazy as it sounds, because the Scottish army had been taking on a steady stream of recruits that saw their numbers rise to 22,000 even after the purge. Meanwhile, the English army was being hit by disease and malnutrition to the point where they only had about 11,000 effective fighting men. Sensing that time was against him, Cromwell kept trying to lure Leslie into battle, and the ministers kept pressuring Leslie to accept the challenge, but Leslie clearly saw the same thing that Cromwell did. All the Scots had to do was sit on their hands until winter, and Cromwell would have to withdraw.
By September the 1st, Cromwell had retreated to the port of Dunbar to maintain access to the supplies he so desperately needed, even as those supplies continued to be inadequate. With an overwhelming numerical advantage and pressure from the ministers mounting, Leslie decided that if a battle was going to be fought, now was the time to do it. On September the 2nd, he moved down and surrounded Dunbar. Cromwell then dispatched a letter to Arthur Haslerig back in England outlining what to do to fend off a Scottish invasion if he was defeated, which it kind of looked like was about to happen.
Cromwell then put 500 of his sickest men on a boat, which Leslie took to mean that the English infantry was being evacuated. So the Scots lined up a solid wall south of Dunbar blocking the road to Berwick to stop Cromwell and the English cavalry when they inevitably tried to make a break for it. And that is almost what happened. As evening fell on September the 2nd, Cromwell held a mounted council of war, and almost all of his senior officers recommended what Leslie had guessed the game plan already was – withdrawing the infantry by sea, and then have the cavalry cut through the Scottish lines and race back to England where they could all regroup.
But this is not what Cromwell wanted to hear. And it wasn’t until the council got around to John Lambert – remember him, the guy who was critical to the Preston campaign? Well, John Lambert told Cromwell what he did want to hear. He said, no, let’s fight it out, and not only that, let’s attack first. Lambert had scouted the Scottish line, and he believed he had discovered a fatal weakness.
Cromwell made up his mind, ordered Lambert to hit that spot before dawn, and then told everyone else that they were going to stay and fight it out. Both armies spent the night lined up for battle, but the Scots were of course far more relaxed. They had the numbers, they had the position, the English army was on the ropes and getting ready to run. But then, just before sunrise, Lambert charged into the hole he had detected in a shallow pass through some hills. The surprised Scots held for a moment, but then broke, leaving Lambert with a beachhead in enemy territory. Cromwell then ordered a frontal attack.
Outnumbered as they were, the new model pikemen were initially repulsed, but then they rallied and amazingly started pushing the Scots backward. As dawn broke, so too did the Scottish line, allowing the new model cavalry to come sweeping in to devastating effect. The Battle of Dunbar was probably Cromwell’s finest hour. The Scots left 3,000 dead on the field while another 10,000 were captured. Leslie and his senior command retreated to Stirling, but only 4,000 men rerallied to their banner. When the sun had gone down the night before, it looked like Cromwell was about to be crushed, probably captured, and possibly killed. As the sun rose the next morning, the Scots had been blasted to smithereens. It was not without good reason that Cromwell believed that God was literally on his side.
In the days that followed, Cromwell took Leith while Lambert captured Edinburgh, putting the Scottish government on the run to Stirling, where Leslie was trying to re-rally his forces. By the 18th, Cromwell himself was at Stirling and was preparing to besiege the city, when he thought better of it and decided to return to Edinburgh instead.
He thought better of it because, on the military hand, his army was still pretty weak, and thought better of it on the political hand because his intention was to dislodge the Covenanters from power and integrate Scotland into the English fold, and he didn’t want things to get super bitter. So he took pains while in Scotland to assure civilians that he meant them no harm and encouraged them to resume their normal economic routines.
Charles II and the Covenanters, of course, were now at each other’s throats. If there was internal squabbling while things were going well, you can imagine how much that squabbling escalated after the throat punch that was the Battle of Dunbar. Both the secular royalists – and remember that is purely a term of convenience – and the religious Presbyterians blamed the other side for the debacle.
Then, in the post-debacle regrouping, an association of western Scottish counties, where the religious Covenanters were strongest, promised to raise well above their quota of men if they were allowed to basically run their regiments independently, guaranteeing that these regiments would not be led astray by misplaced fidelity to Charles II, who they rightly suspected cared very little about the solemn League and Covenant. Now holed up in Perth, Charles, of course, decided the blame for Dunbar lay with the ministers for pushing Leslie to attack when he didn’t want to, so he started making preparations to raise an army of Highlanders to fight for him.
The Earl of Argyle managed to talk him out of this, but news of the plot leaked, even as the plot itself was being aborted, and Charles felt compelled to flee Perth for safer territory. But following the old family tradition inherited from his father, Charles II left Perth without any clear idea where he was going, and he was picked up a week later by Covenanter cavalry and redeposited at Perth.
The religious faction was now convinced more than ever that Charles was not to be trusted and really not worth fighting for, so they drew up a formal remonstrance, denouncing the alliance with this ungodly king who was trying to force himself on an unwilling England. Which is how the religious faction comes to be called the Remonstrance. You would think that with all the remonstrances that had been flying around that that name would have been taken by now, but it wasn’t. So they registered the domain, and now we call them the Remonstrance.
The immediate effect of the Remonstrance was to pretty much divorce the Scottish lords from the Scottish church, which, yeah, is not super good for national unity when you’re facing down an occupying foreign army. But the good news for Charles and the lords was that though the ministers had long served as the conscience of the nation, with the English occupying Scotland, men and women started looking to Charles II as the natural rallying point for a counter-attack. Which is to say that all is not lost for young Charles quite yet.
This natural turn toward monarchy left the Remonstrance isolated in the western counties, so in November Cromwell launched a two-pronged attack into the west, leading one column himself and turning the other over to the increasingly invaluable John Lambert, who on December 1 will become just the invaluable John Lambert, because that’s when the western association army, acting with bad intelligence, attacked Lambert’s column and was promptly destroyed.
The destruction of the Remonstrance army left the English stronger than ever, but it also allowed the reconvened Scottish parliament, now dominated by Argyll, to open up recruitment to all those men that the Remonstrance had deemed insufficiently committed to the covenant, so mostly old royalists and ex-engagers, who thus far had been told to stay home, even though they were spoiling for a fight. The Scottish parliament called for 25 new regiments, with no attention to be paid to political leanings.
With the secularish Scots ascendant, Charles II was finally crowned King of Scotland on January 1, 1651, with the crown being placed on his head by the Earl of Argyll, who was no doubt looking forward to the day when his literal role as kingmaker would be amply rewarded, but this is pretty much the apex of Argyll’s influence over his new king.
Down in Edinburgh, the end of winter couldn’t come fast enough for Cromwell, and in February he launched a probably ill-advised operation to seize control of the Fife, the fertile peninsula that sits on the other side of the Firth of Forth, but rough weather forced the English army to break off the attempt, and Cromwell himself got really super sick, like I think I might be dying sick.
But with the Lord General temporarily incapacitated, Charles and the Scots were unable to take the initiative, because they continued to be plagued by internal divisions which are too subtle and convoluted to get into here, but the upshot was that it was not until mid-May that Charles and the Scots were once again ready to fight, and of course by then Cromwell was feeling much better, thank you. In late June, 1651, Cromwell ordered a detachment of men to shuttle across the Firth of Forth to reattempt the capture of the Fife, while he himself marched on Stirling to distract the main Scottish army still led by David Leslie.
By mid-July, Cromwell’s maneuvering had drawn Leslie down to Kilcyth, and it was only then that the Scottish general realized that he was not dealing with the whole English army, if you catch my drift. He rushed 4,000 men over to the Fife, but there they met the English forces now led by John Lambert, and were promptly whipped in 15 minutes, because the indispensable John Lambert is kind of morphing into the indestructible John Lambert. But when news of this victory reached Cromwell, he did a curious thing. Rather than attacking Leslie, who was now less 4,000 troops, he decided to make for Perth and capture what had become the temporary Covenanter capital.
But by marching on Perth, Cromwell left the road to England wide open. So wide open that no one doubts it was absolutely meant to invite Charles and Leslie to invade England. Hell, even Charles and Leslie knew they were being invited to invade England, because that was exactly what Cromwell wanted them to do. But with the English army slowly achieving a stranglehold on Scotland, Charles and Leslie ultimately decided that they had no choice but to roll the dice and take the bait. Hargile thought it was a crazy idea, and playing right into Cromwell’s hands, and of course he was right, and he refused to take part, which is how he went from kingmaker to outcast in just about six months.
On July 31, Charles and Leslie started marching south with about 12,000 troops. As with Hamilton’s invasion, their hope was that as they passed through northern England, they would be able to pick up supporters and beef up their army, but as also with Hamilton, their hopes were misplaced. Most of the royalist inclined lords were mostly convinced Charles was running a fool’s errand and didn’t want to hop on the bandwagon just as it was flying off a cliff, while the commoners continued to hate the Scots for all the plundering that they had subjected them to over the last few years. This is why the Third Civil War isn’t really a civil war per se, because Charles’ army remained almost entirely Scottish.
A few days after Charles took the bait, Cromwell put his grand plans into motion. First he ordered two cavalry armies, about 4,000 men each, to follow the Scots south and make their lives miserable, but not bring them to battle. One of these armies was of course led by John Lambert. The other was led by a guy named Thomas Harrison, who will become important next week when we get into the dissolution of the Rump Parliament.
Then Cromwell himself followed at the head of about 10,000 infantry, leaving a final 5,000 behind in Scotland to garrison the country under the command of George Monk, who we first met way, way back during the Bishop’s Wars. Remember he was the guy who managed to withdraw the artillery at the Battle of Newburn? He’s starting to loom large in our story now, but we’re going to deal with him in more detail later.
As August progressed, Charles and Leslie continued to march south, but like I say, they found further recruitment all but impossible. Sir Thomas Fairfax briefly came out of retirement to ensure that Yorkshire remained solidly for Parliament, and Lambert and Harrison skirmished and harassed the Scots from all sides, so it had to have been a fairly demoralized army that finally wound up in Worcester at the end of August. Worcester remained mostly friendly to the royalist cause, and Charles hoped to use it as a base to draw in recruits from Cornwall and Wales, but on the day everyone was supposed to rendezvous, only like 200 guys showed up, which I’m sure picked everyone’s spirits right up.
Meanwhile, on the other side, as September rolled around, Cromwell, Lambert, and Harrison had linked back up, and had been further augmented by local levees. In all, Cromwell now led an army 31,000 strong. The plan was to attack Worcester from both sides of the Severn River. John Lambert secured a bridge ten miles south of town on August the 28th that allowed 11,000 troops to cross over to the West Bank, then approach Worcester from the south. Cromwell himself set up his artillery east of the city, and started a bombardment the next day.
On September the 3rd, 1651, the first anniversary of the providential Battle of Dunbar, the parliamentary column approaching from the south reached the east-west running River Teem. The main force started building two pontoon bridges while a detachment was sent a little to the west as a diversion. Now I probably would not bother to point out this little detail, except that the target of that diversionary force was the Poick Bridge, which spanned the River Teem. The very same Poick Bridge where Prince Rupert won the very first skirmish of all of these wars way back in 1642. So there is some nice poetic symmetry at work here.
A detachment of Scots met the guys trying to cross the River Teem, and managed to fight hard enough that Cromwell had to personally come down with three regiments to ensure that the crossing succeeded. This totally worked and allowed the parliamentary forces to cross the river, but it also left Cromwell’s main eastern line vulnerable to attack, and Charles seized the opportunity. He personally led a charge out of Worcester that very nearly broke the parliamentary line, but just then Cromwell returned with his three regiments, and Charles was forced to retreat back into the city.
Once the king was back in Worcester, Cromwell pressed the attack, and a regiment was able to capture Fort Royal at the southeast corner of the city, which housed the bulk of the heavy guns. Cromwell turned those guns on the Scots inside and started blasting away. Chaos obviously ensued. Charles tried to rally his forces, but panic had taken over, and he was finally convinced that it was time to flee. He was one of the very few who got away. Of his army, three thousand were killed and another ten thousand captured, including nearly all of his senior officers.
Charles would stay on the run for six weeks, passing himself off as a survivor of Worcester, and moving along a sort of underground railroad of mostly Catholic families until he was five and finally able to land in a port and sail for France. Oh, and he did once totally spend a night in an oak tree to avoid detection. The Battle of Worcester marks the end of the Civil Wars. The Royalists are defeated.
The fighting that started at Poick Bridge in 1642 finally blessedly ended on almost the same spot nine years later. In a dispatch to Parliament on September the 4th, Cromwell summed up the war-weariness of his nation by calling the battle a crowning mercy. Next time, we will begin to grapple with the implications of post-monarchy Britain, as Cromwell and his associates scramble madly from one political experiment to the next, trying in vain to put their Republican Commonwealth on solid ground.
I say next time, of course, because next week is Thanksgiving here in the States, and I will be taking the week off. When we come back, though, we’ll hit the home stretch of the English Revolution, and in four or five more episodes, depending on how it all shakes out, Charles II, who is currently hiding in an oak tree somewhere, will make his triumphant return to London and finally be crowned King of England.
- Charles II of England
- Oliver Cromwell
- Thomas Fairfax
- Charles I of England
- Arthur Haselrig
- George Monck, 1st Duke of Albemarle
- Thomas Harrison (soldier)
- John Lambert (general)
- David Leslie, 1st Lord Newark
- Crowning Mercy by Bernhard Cornwell: https://amzn.to/3EU9dmQ
Charles II raised an army of Scots to help him claim the throne, but they were defeated by Oliver Cromwell at Dunbar and Worcester.
If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider buying Mike Duncan's books:
- Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution: https://amzn.to/3VNqViT
- The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic: https://amzn.to/3h26YpW
- The History of Rome: The Republic: https://amzn.to/3UAvImK
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