September 5th 1650: Cromwell and his Prisoners

September 5th 1650: Cromwell and his prisoners

Today is an anniversary, not of the battle at Dunbar itself, but of another event just as significant for the Scots men who were captured following the battle.  Because on this day was made the decision and the order that would settle their fate.

Several letters written by Oliver Cromwell to Sir Arthur Hesilrige, governor of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, during his stand at Dunbar and following his victory have survived, and they reveal the change of fortunes the English Parliamentary army faced.  On the eve of battle, Cromwell believed himself trapped and sent a message in desperation to Hesilrige asking for help, but realising there was no time for it to arrive.  “The enimie hath blocked up our way att the passe att Copperspith [Cockburnspath], thorough wch we canott get wthout almost a miracle,” he wrote.  “Our lyinge heare dayly consumeth our men, whoe fall sicke beyond imagination …”

Less than 24 hours later the English fortunes had transformed and on Sept 5th, 364 years ago today, Cromwell wrote triumphantly that “the Lord … may produce a peace to England, and much securitie and comfort to God’s People.”  But Cromwell’s main intent in his letter on the 5th was to create a solution to what was now his biggest problem – and his letter is worth quoting in full:

After much deliberacon we can find no way how to dispose of these prisoners that will be consisting with these two ends (to witt, the not loosing them, and the not starving them neither of which we would willingly incur) but by sending them into England, where the Councell of State may exercise their wisedome and better judgement in so dispersing and disposing of them, as that they may not suddenly return to your prejudice.  We have dispatched away near 5000 poore wretches of them, verie many of which its probable will dye of their wounds or be rendered unserviceable for time to come by reason thereof.  I have written to the Councell of State desiring them to direct how they shall be disposed of and I make no question but you will hasten the Prisoners up Southwards, and second my desires with your owne to the Councell.  I knowe you are a man of business, this not being every dayes work, will willingly be performed by you, especially considering you have the commands of your superior…
[Oliver Cromwell, Lord General, to Sir Arthur Hesilrige, Governor of Newcastle, Dunbar, 5 Sept 1650]

And so the Prisoners’ fate was set; even by the time the letter was despatched, the Prisoners had been despatched too on the infamous death march to Durham Cathedral.  And a thousand or more of them would indeed die on that journey.  Yet for all Cromwell’s efficient management of his problem by passing it on to someone else, there does seem to be touch of sympathy in his words for the Prisoners’ plight – as if though forced to carry out this action he regretted all the same its harshness and the certain consequences.  While not known in history for his sympathy towards his victims, there is all the same a surprising degree of concern from the iron general for his vanquished – especially when 5 days later, having taken Edinburgh, he wrote again to Hesilrige to say “I hope your Northerne guests are come to you by this time. I pray you wth humanitie be exercised towards them, I am persuaded it will be comely.”

Comely it was never going to be.  (JC)

~ Post written by John Cleary, 5 Sep 2014

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One Response to September 5th 1650: Cromwell and his Prisoners

  1. Margaret DeMarco says:

    I am thrilled to have discovered this blog. My ancestor was one of these Scottish prisoners. Researchers believe he may have been affiliated with Clan Donald. His name was James MacWithy, although he also used the name James MacRory, and both names have many spellings in the old records. He was an early resident of Dedham, Massachusetts, and has many descendants living today.

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