The Battle of Dunbar, 1650

After Cromwell's victories in Ireland during 1649-50, Charles II abandoned his plans to use Ireland as a military base to win back the throne of England. Charles turned his attention to Scotland, taking advantage of Scottish outrage at the presumption of the English Parliament in executing Charles I, who had been king of Scotland as well as England. A new round of negotiations between Charles and a delegation from the Scottish government opened in the Netherlands in March 1650 and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Breda in May and Charles' arrival in Scotland the following month.

The Commonwealth Council of State in London was alarmed when the treaty was signed and resolved to mount an immediate invasion of Scotland to forestall the possibility of a Scottish attack on England.

The Dunbar Campaign, July-August 1650

The commander of the Commonwealth army Sir Thomas Fairfax was reluctant to lead an offensive against the Scots and resigned his commission in June 1650. Oliver Cromwell was appointed commander-in-chief in his place, with Charles Fleetwood as lieutenant-general. Major-generals John Lambert and George Monck commanded the horse and foot respectively. Cromwell's army comprised seven regiments of horse, nine of foot and six companies of Colonel Okey's dragoons, numbering around 15,000 men in total. Marching north via York, Durham and Newcastle, Cromwell mustered his forces at Berwick-on-Tweed on 19 July 1650. After sending messengers into Scotland to proclaim the righteousness of the Commonwealth cause, Cromwell crossed the border on 22 July 1650. Crucially, the army was supported by a supply fleet commanded by General-at-Sea Richard Deane.

The Scottish Parliament was aware of English preparations for the invasion and, on 25 June 1650, ordered a new levy of around 10,000 foot and 3,000 horse to reinforce the Army of the Covenant. A further levy was ordered on 3 July. Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven, was again appointed commander of the Scottish army with David Leslie as lieutenant-general. Leven was regarded as Scotland's greatest soldier, but he was aged around seventy. Although he tendered his resignation as commander-in-chief on the grounds of age and infirmity, the Scottish government refused to accept it with the English invasion imminent. In practice, day-to-day control of army operations was delegated to David Leslie, while Leven retained overall strategic command. The generals were overseen by a commission representing the Kirk Party headed by Sir Archibald Johnston of Wariston. The commissioners insisted that no drill or military operations could be carried out on the Sabbath and attempted to purge the army of all Engagers and potential Royalist supporters. As the campaign developed, the commissioners also began to interfere in military decisions regarding strategy and tactics.

The Dunbar campaign 1650
The Dunbar campaign, 1650

Cromwell's First Advance

The Scottish army was still mustering when Cromwell crossed the border from Berwick on 22 July 1650. Lord Leven planned to play for time and directed the construction of an extensive line of earthworks between Edinburgh and Leith which allowed the Scottish army to take up an impregnable defensive position. Secure behind the lines, Leven trained up his raw recruits and waited for the last of the levies from the north to arrive. Like Ormond in Ireland, he planned to let sickness and hunger wear down the invaders before moving against them — and the summer of 1650 proved to be particularly cold and wet. Leven also ordered the destruction of all crops and the removal of all livestock between Edinburgh and the border so that Cromwell's army would have to get all its supplies from England.

Cromwell moved swiftly to occupy the sheltered harbour at Dunbar in order to secure a sea-route for supplies. By 29 July, the English army had advanced to within a few miles of Edinburgh. Cromwell quickly realised that the Scottish lines of defence were too strong to risk a direct assault. While English warships bombarded Leith, Cromwell deployed his troops in battle order in an attempt to draw the Scottish army out into the open. Despite the exhortations of the Covenanter committee, however, Lord Leven was determined to avoid a pitched battle and his forces stayed stubbornly dug in behind the defences. To make matters worse for the English, heavy rain began to fall on 30 July and Cromwell was obliged to fall back to Musselburgh. As the English withdrew, Scottish lancers sallied out of Edinburgh to harass the rearguard. During the fierce skirmishing, Major-General Lambert was wounded and taken prisoner. As he was being led off towards Edinburgh, Lieutenant Empson of Cromwell's regiment of horse led a charge and rescued him. During the early hours of 31 July, Colonel Montgomery led a raid on the encampment at Musselburgh and inflicted several casualties.

The position at Musselburgh proved untenable because the rough weather prevented supplies from being landed there. The weather and shortage of provisions was already producing a high rate of sickness among the English troops. On 6 August, Cromwell withdrew his army to Dunbar.

Cromwell's Second Advance

Cromwell was reluctant to fight the Covenanters, with whom he shared similar religious convictions. Early in August 1650, he appealed directly to the Scottish clergy, asking them to consider whether Charles Stuart was a fitting king for a godly people. There were signs of doubt among the Covenanter leaders and army officers. The Kirk urged Charles to sign a declaration disavowing his parents' religion and affirming his own fidelity to the Covenant, which he refused to do. Covenanter leaders became alarmed at Charles' apparent popularity among the Scottish troops when he toured the army lines around Edinburgh and insisted that he withdraw across the Firth of Forth to Dunfermline.

While the debate over Charles' personal integrity continued, Cromwell resolved to make a second attempt to bring Lord Leven to battle and advanced from Dunbar on 11 August. Cromwell planned to skirt around Edinburgh to the south and to re-establish contact with the English supply fleet at Queensferry west of Edinburgh. This manoeuvre would allow the English to operate on both sides of the Firth of Forth and would also cut Leven's lines of communication to Stirling and western Scotland, thus forcing the Scots out into the open.

On 13 August, the English army occupied the Braid Hills to the south of Edinburgh. Having established his encampment, Cromwell attempted to open negotiations for a peaceful settlement with Scottish officers who mistrusted Charles. On 16 August, however, Charles signed the Kirk's declaration of fidelity to the Covenant, which was accepted by the clergy. Several devout Scottish officers still doubted Charles' sincerity, but none were prepared to change sides. With no hope of a peaceful settlement and supplies running low, Cromwell withdrew to Musselburgh.

During the second half of August, the Scottish and English armies manoeuvred around Edinburgh. Leven blocked the route to Queensferry by sending forces to occupy Corstorphine Hill. Cromwell advanced to storm and capture Red Hall, a fortified manor house commanding the crossing of the Water of Leith on 24 August and reached the village of Gogar a few miles west of Edinburgh four days later. However, Leven continued to maintain a strong defensive position and the English were unable to break through to Queensferry. With sickness rife in his army, Cromwell once again ordered a withdrawal to Musselburgh on 28 August.

With the English in retreat, the Scots went on the offensive. Lord Leven stayed behind in Edinburgh while Lieutenant-General Leslie advanced with the Army of the Covenant to shadow Cromwell's movements and to watch for an advantageous opportunity to attack. While the Scottish cavalry harassed the English rearguard, an infantry brigade worked around to block the road from Dunbar to Berwick, thus cutting off Cromwell's escape route by land and guarding against the possibility of reinforcements arriving from England.

The Battle of Dunbar, 3 September 1650

On 1 September 1650, Leslie took up a commanding position on Doon Hill on the edge of the Lammermuir Hills overlooking the English encampment at Dunbar. Trapped between the sea on one side, the Covenanters' impregnable position on the other, and with the road back to England blockaded, it seemed that Cromwell had no option but to attempt to evacuate his troops by sea.

Battle of Dunbar mapOn the morning of 2 September, however, the Covenanters played into Cromwell's hands by marching down from the commanding heights of Doon Hill. The decision to come down from the hill to attack the English army on level ground has traditionally been ascribed to the godly committee that accompanied the army, and is widely condemned as a tactical blunder. However, the strength of the Scottish position precluded any possibility that Cromwell would attack up the steep slopes of Doon Hill. Lacking heavy artillery, the Scots could do nothing to hinder the English army. Furthermore, the bad weather was worsening and the Scottish army had no shelter from the wind and rain on the exposed hilltop.

During the morning and afternoon of 2 September, the Covenanter army moved down from the hill and drew up in an arc aligned with the course of a stream called the Broxburn, with the coast on the right flank. On the left of the Scottish position, the Broxburn passed through a deep ravine; on the right, towards the coast, the ground levelled out and the stream was crossed by the road from Dunbar to Berwick.

While the Scottish army re-deployed, Cromwell brought the English army forward from Dunbar to form a battle-line on the northern side of the Broxburn. Skirmishing broke out during the late afternoon of 2 September when an advance guard of lancers moved forward to cover the cumbersome manoeuvring as the Scots moved into their new positions. By nightfall, the Berwick road was successfully blocked. Cromwell was left with a choice between evacuating his army by sea or forcing a way through the Scottish blockade to escape by land. However, while observing the new Scottish position, Cromwell and Lambert both identified a tactical flaw in the deployment. The Scottish line was awkwardly positioned between the Broxburn and the slopes of Doon Hill, leaving the centre and left flank with little room for manoeuvre. At a council of war that night, the English officers agreed to mount an all-out assault on the Scottish right flank early the next morning, with the objective of turning the flank and disrupting the whole position by driving the Scots into the constricted centre.


During the night, while the Scots rested uncomfortably in rain-soaked fields, Cromwell used the darkness and heavy rain to cover the redeployment of his army. The battle line along the Broxburn was abandoned and the English army stacked up, one brigade behind another, across the Berwick road. Around 7,500 infantry and 3,500 cavalry were fit to fight on the morning of 3 September.

The leading brigade was commanded by Major-General Lambert. It comprised the cavalry regiments of Lambert, Fleetwood and Whalley. Behind Lambert's brigade, Colonel Robert Lilburne commanded a second cavalry brigade made up of Lilburne's, Hacker's and Twistleton's regiments. The two cavalry brigades probably comprised 1,500 men each. The English vanguard was completed by an infantry brigade of around 2,000 men under the command of Colonel George Monck, comprising the regiments of Monck, Malverer and Fenwick. The vanguard was under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Fleetwood. It was supported by two more infantry brigades of around 2,500 men each. Colonel Pride's brigade comprised his own regiment and the foot regiments of Cromwell (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Goffe) and Lambert. Colonel Overton's brigade comprised the regiments of Coxe, Daniel and Charles Fairfax. Cromwell's own regiment of horse acted as a reserve, brigaded with two companies of John Okey's dragoons. The remainder of Okey's dragoons mounted guard along the edge of the Broxburn to cover the English artillery, which was deployed on rising ground to overlook the Scottish left wing.

The disposition of the Scottish army is not exactly known. Most of the cavalry were stationed on the right wing between the Berwick road and the coast, facing the English vanguard. Major-General Robert Montgomery should have commanded the first line, but may not have been present during the battle. Colonel Archibald Strachan commanded the second line. In total, the right wing of cavalry numbered around 2,500 troopers. A single brigade was stationed on the left wing, probably commanded by Colonel William Stewart. Between the wings of cavalry, there were five brigades of infantry. Sir James Lumsden's brigade was on the extreme right nearest the Berwick road, with Major-General Holbourne's brigade on the extreme left. Between them were stationed the brigades of Sir James Campbell of Lawers, Major-General Pitscottie and Colonel John Innes.

The battle

The battle of Dunbar began at about four o'clock in the morning of 3 September 1650, when the English vanguard, under the overall command of Lieutenant-General Fleetwood, moved forward to secure the crossings of the Broxburn on the Scottish right flank. The Scottish piquets were driven back but raised the alarm. As Monck's infantry brigade advanced to support Fleetwood's horse, a fierce firefight and artillery exchange broke out. The heavy rain had eased off and the clouds were breaking up, so for a time the fighting continued by moonlight. After nearly an hour, both sides stopped firing and waited for first light, which came at about 5.30 a.m.

Many of the senior Scottish officers had left their units during the night to seek shelter from the foul weather. The Scots had not fully regrouped by the time the English attack was resumed at first light. The attack was spearheaded by Major-General Lambert's cavalry regiment which advanced swiftly across the Broxburn and routed the first line of Montgomery's lancers on the Scottish right flank. However, while Lambert's troopers were regrouping, Colonel Strachan rallied the Scottish second line and led a counter-attack that drove Lambert back across the Broxburn.

Meanwhile, Monck led the vanguard of infantry across the Broxburn to attack Sir James Lumsden's brigade on the extreme right of the Scottish infantry line. Lumsden's brigade mustered around 2,000 men, but it was made up almost entirely of raw recruits. Furthermore, it is possible that Lumsden's inexperienced musketeers had shot off all their ammunition during the pre-dawn firefight. The brigade collapsed almost immediately under the impact of Monck's attack. Lumsden himself was wounded and taken prisoner. The momentum of Monck's advance was halted, however, when Sir James Campbell of Lawers' brigade turned to face the attack. Lawers' brigade stood firm and Monck was thrown back.

Although the initial English assault had faltered, Cromwell immediately ordered Colonel Pride's infantry brigade to move up in support of Monck. Led by Cromwell's own regiment of foot under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Goffe, Pride's brigade swung to the right and manoeuvred to engage Campbell of Lawers' men at push of pike. While the infantry brigades clashed, Lambert brought up Colonel Lilburne's brigade of horse from the second line of cavalry and charged Strachan's lancers head on. Lambert's charge was supported by Cromwell's own regiment of horse, which, under the command of Major Packer, crossed the Broxburn by the seashore and moved up to attack the right flank of Strachan's cavalry. Under the pressure of a double attack from the front and flank, the right wing of Scottish cavalry broke and fled.

Rather than pursue the fleeing Scottish horse, Cromwell and Lambert regrouped the victorious English troopers, who sang the 117th Psalm while they prepared for the next stage of the battle. As Cromwell had foreseen, the Scottish position was constricted and the remaining infantry brigades were unable to manoeuvre effectively. Furthermore, the routing of the Scottish horse opened the possibility of a decisive victory over Leslie's army, rather than simply breaking the blockade of the road back to England.

The infantry brigades of Colonel Pride and Campbell of Lawers had continued their struggle at push of pike and butt-end of musket while the cavalry battle played out on the Scottish right wing. Cromwell was now in a position to use his cavalry to tip the balance in the infantry fight. Led by Major Packer, Cromwell's regiment of horse worked its way around to charge the flank and rear of Lawers' brigade. Once again, Packer's intervention proved decisive. With cavalry support on the flank, Pride's infantry surged forward and Lawers' brigade was overrun.

The destruction of Lawers' brigade signalled the collapse of the Scottish position. The regiment of Sir John Haldane of Gleneagles fought a desperate rearguard action as the centre and left wing of Leslie's army retreated across the Broxburn on the west of the battlefield and fled north. Haldane's regiment was cut to pieces; Haldane himself was killed, along with his lieutenant-colonel and major. The fleeing Scots were pursued and harried by the English cavalry all along the road back to Haddington in a long-drawn out running battle.

The battle of Dunbar lasted two hours. Cromwell claimed that 3,000 Scots were killed in the rout and another 10,000 taken prisoner, for the loss of only thirty men of the Commonwealth army. All the Scottish artillery and baggage was captured and 2,000 colours taken. Although Cromwell's estimate of the Scottish losses are probably exaggerated, it was undoubtedly a serious defeat for the Covenanters. The wounded Scottish prisoners were released, but about 5,000 were marched south to Durham. Many died from sickness and hunger either on the eight-day march or during the subsequent period of imprisonment in Durham Cathedral. The survivors were ultimately transported to New England or Barbados as indentured labourers.

Dunbar medalThe Dunbar medal depicts Oliver Cromwell with the Parliamentarian battle cry "The Lord of Hosts" on the obverse, and a representation of the House of Commons in session on the reverse.

The routing of the Covenanters at Dunbar is regarded as the greatest of Cromwell's victories. Parliament resolved that a special medal should be struck for presentation to all ranks who fought in the battle. The Dunbar medal was the first of its kind for an English army; there was not to be another until the battle of Waterloo in 1815.


Maurice Ashley, Cromwell's Generals (London 1954)

Antonia Fraser, Cromwell: our chief of men, (London 1973)

S.R. Gardiner, History of the Commonwealth and Protectorate vol. i (London 1903)

Peter Gaunt, The Cromwellian Gazetteer (Stroud 1987)

Stuart Reid, All the King's Armies: a military history of the English Civil War 1642-1651 (Staplehurst 1998)

Stuart Reid, Dunbar 1650: Cromwell's most famous victory (Osprey 2004)

William Seymour, Battles in Britain 1066-1746 (Ware 1997)

David Stevenson, Revolution & Counter-Revolution in Scotland 1644-51 (Newton Abbott 1977)



Battle of Dunbar UK Battlefields Resource Centre

Alphabetical list of Scottish officers taken prisoner at Dunbar Scottish Archive Network

The Cromwell Dunbar Medals British Numismatic Society (PDF format)