Battle of Newburn

Battle of Newburn

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Newburn
partof=Bishops Wars

date=August 28, 1640
place=Newburn, Northumberland, England
result=Scottish victory
commander1=Alexander Leslie
commander2=Lord Conway
casualties1=12 killed
casualties2=60 killed

The Battle of Newburn was fought on 28 August 1640 during the Second Bishops' War between a Scottish Covenanter army led by General Alexander Leslie and English royalist forces commanded by Edward, Lord Conway. Conway, heavily outnumbered, was defeated, and the Scots went on to occupy the port of Newcastle, obtaining a stranglehold on London's coal supply. Charles I had no choice but to agree to a truce, under which the Scottish army in northern England would be paid daily expenses, pending a final treaty of peace. To raise the necessary funds Charles had to call the Long Parliament, thus setting in motion a process that would lead to the outbreak of the English Civil War two years later.

Purge of the bishops

In attempting to force the Scots to accept a new Prayer Book in 1637, Charles sparked a crisis that led to the compilation and subscription of the National Covenant in early 1638, a document which rejected all innovations in worship that had not been subject to the approval of both the Scottish Parliament and the General Assembly of the church. In November of the same year a General Assembly in Glasgow not only rejected the Prayer Book, but also expelled the bishops from the church, as suspect agents of the crown. Charles' refusal to accept this led to the outbreak of the First Bishops' War in 1639.

This war saw much posturing but little real action. In the end the two sides, reluctant to push the issue, concluded hostilities in the Pacification of Berwick, an agreement without an agreement, that was at best a breathing space. The Scots agreed that the Glasgow Assembly had been 'illegal'; Charles agreed that a new Assembly, together with a Parliament, should meet in Edinburgh in the summer of 1640. As none of the issues that had led to the signing of the National Covenant had been settled, it was obvious to all that the Edinburgh Assembly would simply confirm the decisions taken at Glasgow. This was to lead directly to the outbreak of the Second Bishops' War. To raise the necessary funds Charles summoned a new Parliament to Westminster, the first to meet for eleven years, hoping to use English patriotism as a counter to the rebel Scots. But the Short Parliament was more interested in raising various grievances long suppressed and was quickly dismissed, leaving the king worse off than before.


Suffering from a serious shortage of cash the king's preparations for war were not going well. Apart from the garrisons at Berwick-upon-Tweed and Carlisle, the only English troops close to the border were some advance cavalry and infantry units at Newcastle, who arrived there from late April 1640 onwards with Edward, Lord Conway. Conway was to write of his men in a spirit of black humour;

"I am teaching cart-horses to manage and making men that are fit for Bedlam and Bridewell to keep the ten commandments; so that General Lesley and I keep two schools, he has scholars that profess to serve God, and he is instructing them how they may safely do injury an all impiety; mine to the utmost of their power never kept any law either of God or the King, and they are to be made fit to make others keep them."

For the Scots preparations were going well. In contrast with Charles' problems in England recruitment was good, with each parish providing the allotted quota of men and arms. While the recruits were being trained by professional officers, shiploads of arms were arriving from the Netherlands. Alexander Leslie, a veteran of the Thirty Years War, was an able organiser. The English were becoming aware of the strengths of the old commander, of whom it was written in some bitterness; "...Leslie...would be found to be one who, because he could not live well at home, took to the trade of killing men abroad, and now is returned to kill, for Christ's sake, men at home."

While morale among the Scots troops, gathering near Duns in Berwickshire, was good, their supply situation was not much better than it had been the year before. Leslie could not afford to wait on the border to see what the English were going to do, the strategy that had been pursued during the First Bishops' War, when Charles had been personally present. Apart from Conway at Newcastle, the main royal army was as far away as Selby in Yorkshire, and the king, showing no sense of urgency, had not even left London. Exposure and hunger would eventually drive most of the Covenanter army home if nothing was done.

Rather than risk disintegration of the army it was decided to launch a pre-emptive strike into northern England, with the aim of taking Newcastle, where the coal of Northumberland and Durham was shipped to London, providing the main source of the capital's fuel supply. There was much in favour of this. Charles' difficulties with the Short Parliament showed how divided England was. The main English army was too far to the south to intercept a drive through the north-east. Conway's forces were not sufficient to both garrison Newcastle and take to the field. Most important of all, there was now no danger of having to face the king in battle.

Conway's woes

At Newcastle Conway was becoming ever more anxious. By 10 August he was reporting in alarm that an invasion was imminent, and he feared Newcastle would be lost. At Selby, Sir Jacob Astley, an experienced soldier, now had about 12800 men, about half the number with which the Scots were preparing to cross the Tweed. Of this number 3000 were still without arms, and many were on the point of mutiny because of lack of pay. Few, moreover, had the will or desire for a fight. He wrote to Conway on 11 August;

"I am persuaded if Hannibal were at our gates some had rather open them up than keep him out...I think the Scots had better advance a good way into Northumberland without resistance than we send this army to encounter them without pay; for then, without all question, they will prove more ravenous upon the country than the Scots, who, for their own ends and to gain a party here, I believe will give the country the fair quarter that may be, which our men neither can nor will do."

In desperation Conway pressed the townspeople of Newcastle into building up the inadequate defences; but it was now too late. Overall command of the king's forces was now assumed by the Earl of Strafford, who refused to believe Conway's gloomy reports. Even when he received confirmation that the Scots were over the border he was not dismayed. Surely, he reasoned, no loyal subject would tolerate the presence of an ancient enemy on English soil? In this, as in so many other matters that year, he was mistaken.

Leslie's advance

On 17 August the advanced guard of the Scottish army forded the Tweed, followed three days later by Leslie with the bulk of the troops. In all some 20000 infantry and 4000 cavalry made the crossing, the largest Scots army to came this way since 1513. Leslie, it is reported by a hostile English source, addressed them as follows; "We are now with Caesar past the Rubicon and this night you lie on English soil. This is the land of promise which as yet ye see but far off. Do but follow me and I will be your Joshua."

Both before and after the invasion of England the Scots had been waging a relentless propaganda offensive, designed to win over English opinion, and stop Charles and Wentworth conjuring up the spirits of old hatred. One of the most effective pamphlets was published just after the border was crossed. Entitled "Six Considerations of the Lawfulness of our Expedition into England Minifested" its declarations of loyalty to the king were tinged with some touches of humour, perhaps unconscious. The Scots were merely coming to see Charles and warn him against the Canterburian faction of papists and prelates, who were deliberately misleading him. England was their highway; and the English were probably unaware that it was the ancient custom of the Scots to be fully armed when visiting their sovereign.

Newcastle was better defended to the north than the south of the Tyne, so Wentworth wrote to Conway ordering him to hold the passage of the river at all costs. The nearest ford upstream from the city was at the village of Newburn, four miles to the west. It was here that King David II had crossed in 1346 on his way to the Battle of Neville's Cross. If the Scots forded the Tyne Newcastle would no longer be defensible; but rather than concentrating all his forces at Newburn, Conway attempted two objectives at the same time, leaving a good part of his army in the city, while taking the remaining 3000-foot and 1500 horse to the ford.

Newburn was not a good position to have to defend. Flat meadows lay on the southern bank of the Tyne, which were overlooked by wooded slopes to the north. To improve his position Conway ordered the construction of two earthworks close to the ford, and placed 400 men and some guns in each, with the cavalry drawn up a slight distance to the east.

Leslie arrived late on the evening of 27 August, occupying Heddon Law, the height above Newburn village. To his experienced eye the advantages were immediately obvious. Under cover of darkness he moved his artillery into a commanding position in the forested area of the northern height. Newburn itself was occupied, and some of the lighter cannon placed in the steeple of the church to cover the earthworks opposite.

At dawn on 28 August the river was running too high for the Scots to attempt a crossing. For some time nothing happened, both sides simply keeping a close eye on one another. Then, in the early afternoon, a Scots officer came out of one of the village houses to water his horse in the Tyne. The provocation was too much for a watching English sniper, who promptly opened fire, wounding the officer. Scots musketeers, positioned in and around Newburn, responded, followed soon after by the artillery. Conway's own gunners responded. The Battle of Newburn had begun.

Crossing the Tyne

The exchange of cannon fire continued for some time before the Tyne was fordable. Considering that Leslie had forty to eighty guns of various sizes to Conway's eight, this was hardly a contest of equals. Besides, firing from low ground, the English could do little damage against the Scottish gun emplacements, which were mostly hidden from their sight. Once the water level fell, Leslie ordered across an advance party of 300 horse; but they were beaten back by a wall of ferocious fire from the enemy earthworks. Leslie then ordered a concentrated bombardment on the English emplacements. The guns in the church steeple were particularly effective. Soon that nearest to the Tyne took a direct hit, which killed several officers and men. Colonel Thomas Lansford managed to keep his frightened soldiers in place with the greatest difficulty, but was eventually forced by the concentrated fire to retreat from the forward position. Fearing that they were about to be overwhelmed by the Scottish horse, many of the panicking soldiers fled off to the east towards Stella Haugh, where Conway had placed his own cavalry.

Scots artillery fire was now concentrated on the men in the sole remaining earthwork. When another shot descended into their midst Lansford was unable to do any more. Musketeers and artillerymen both fled, abandoning their weapons in their fear. Leslie's cavalry regiments now began to cross in strength. Seeing this the English cavalry, which had hitherto remained out of the range of enemy guns, prepared to counter attack. Anticipating such a move Leslie had moved a number of his lighter guns closer to the river bank. The gunners then fired into the royal horse as they deployed on the meadows to the south. In spite of this, part of the cavalry under Commissary-General Wilmot pressed the attack, forcing the Scots to retire for a second time; but without the support of their comrades they were compelled by superior numbers to withdraw.

Leslie then ordered a general advance, with the infantry crossing in support of the forward cavalry units. Moving up the higher ground, the Scots intercepted Wilmot's disorganised regiment, which broke in confusion, the panic quickly spreading to Conway's own troopers. By now the whole of the English army, both horse and foot, was in full retreat. With his army now across, and not wishing to damage English prestige, Leslie sensibly called a halt; there would be no murderous pursuit of the routed enemy. Two days later he entered Newcastle, now abandoned by its defenders, taking possession of the most important English port after London and Bristol. The Second Bishops' War was effectively over.

Illusions of victory

In military terms the Battle of Newburn was a minor affair, little more than a large-scale skirmish. Only twelve Scots and sixty Englishmen had been killed. Politically, however, it had an impact far beyond its tactical importance. By carrying the war to England, putting an English army to flight and establishing a hold of London's coal supply, the Scots had virtually ensured the calling of a new Parliament - with profound consequences for the history of both kingdoms.

Newburn considerably increased Scottish military prestige; perhaps fatally so. Conway was outnumbered and outgunned. With such advantages in their favour it would have been a catastrophe if the Scots had lost; a miracle if the English had won. Yet it is important to realise what a huge gamble the advance on Newcastle was. The Scots army was seriously short of both money and supplies. It had, moreover, no siege equipment. Charles' main army, which had moved from Selby to York, was now in much better shape and very well provisioned; as indeed were the soldiers at Newcastle, whose abandoned stores helped save the Scots from starvation. If Newcastle had been properly fortified - as it was when the Scots next came this way - Leslie's hungry army could have been caught between the city walls and the approach of the king at the head of a relief force. But these considerations were set aside in the flush of victory, quickly followed by the collapse of the royal war effort. The best verdict on Newburn is that later provided by James Turner, who served with Leslie;

"...Generall Leslie haveing marchd into England, with a numerous armie at the Lammas before, and put my Lord Conway with some of the king's forces to a shameful retreat at Newburne, had made himself master of Neucastle, and all the Bishopricke of Durham. I found this successe had elevated the minds of my countreymen in generall to such a height of vanitie, that most of them thought, and many said, they should quicklie make a full conquest of England; but time hath shoune them since that they had made their reckoning without their host for the verie contrarie fell out."


* Donaldson, G., "Scotland from James V to James VII", 1965.
* Fissel, M. C., "The Bishops' War: Charles I's Campaigns against Scotland, 1638-1640", 1994.
* Hewison, J. K., "The Covenanters", 1913.
* Matthew, D, "Scotland Under Charles I", 1955.
* Russel, C, "The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-1642", 1991.
* Stevenson, D., "The Scottish Revolution, 1637-44", 1973.
* Turner, Sir James, "Memoirs of his own Life and Times, 1632-1670", 1829.
* Terry, C. S., "The Life and Campaigns of Alexander Leslie", 1899.
* Wedgewood, C. V., "The King's Peace, 1637-1641", 1955.
* Matthews, R., "England versus Scotland", 2003. ISBN 850529492

See also

*Wars of the Three Kingdoms

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