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The Siege of Newcastle 1644

The Covenanter siege of Newcastle during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms

Crossing the Tweed in January 1644, the Army of the Solemn League and Covenant, led by Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven advanced rapidly into England in support of the English Parliament and only narrowly missed capturing the fortified town of Newcastle in a coup de main. William Cavendish, Marquis of Newcastle and James King, Marquis of Eythin had gathered a sizeable force to garrison the place and had rapidly added outworks to bolster the defences before the Scots arrived.

The first that Leven knew of Newcastle’s presence in the town with such a formidable garrison was when the town mayor responded to Argyll’s invitation to surrender with the remark that: “His Majesties General at this time being in the town we conceive all the power of government to be in him”.

Newcastle set fire to the suburbs in the north and south-east to deprive the Scots using them for shelter and by sinking ships in the Tyne he prevented the Parliamentary navy from offering support or bringing supplies, though there is little evidence Parliament assisted or supplied the Scots Army.

Unable to respond till he had his big guns in place Leven threw a line of circumvallation around the place and built a  bridge of boats across the Tyne to close off the gap. Leven, under orders to clear the north of England of Royalists, however, deemed this duty not best achieved by cooping up the Scots field army around  Newcastle. Leaving an investment force of six regiments of foot and some cavalry under General Lumsdale, Leven rapidly moved west along the banks of the Tyne before fording the Tyne uncontested and then rapidly marched on towards Sunderland and its port which the Scots successfully stormed on the 28th of February.

Wrong footed Newcastle warned the King that the Scots with impunity were: “Raising the whole country of Northumberland, which is now totally lost and all turned to the Scots”. Realising that his only hope was to bring the Scots to battle under favourable conditions, he set off after Levens field army leaving seventeen hundred defenders to man the defences against Lumsdales troops. Newcastle closely shadowed Leven’s forces.

Leven, with promised English Parliamentarian supplies not arriving, was understandably concerned to guard his supply lines to the newly captured port of Sunderland whereby supplies from Scotland could be landed. Newcastle on the other hand only offered battle under the most favourable of conditions. The Scots however generally kept the upper hand rebutting an English Royalist cavalry attempt on Corbridge on the 19th of February, stalling Newcastle himself at Humbledon Hill on the 7/8th of March, successfully storming the Royalist fort at South Shields on the 20th of March and tumbling Newcastle’s forces off the field in the encounter at Hilton-Boldon near Sunderland on the 25th of March.

Beaten at Hilton and fearing for York following Parliamentarian success at Selby, Newcastle rapidly broke off contact from the Scots and raced south. Leven pulled in outlying units – including most probably at this time Lumsdale’s forces left around the town of Newcastle and rapidly set off in hot pursuit of Newcastle’s army. 

Newcastle paused briefly at Durham to write to Prince Rupert, sufficient for the Scots vanguard to catch up with him. Newcastle’s appeal, hyperbole aside, is tinged with panic:

“In the first place I congratulate your huge and great victories, which indeed is fit for none but Your Highness…only this I must assure Your Highness that the Scots are as big again in foot as I am, and their horse, I doubt, much better than ours are, so that if Your Highness doth not please to come hither, and that very soon too, the great game of your Uncles will be endangered if not lost: and with Your Highness being near, certainly won: so I doubt not but that your Highness will come, and that very soon.
Your Highness’ most passionate creature.
W. Newcastle”

In time, Leven joined forces with Sir Thomas Fairfax and the “Army of Two Kingdoms destroyed Rupert and “his most passionate creatures” Royalist forces on Marston Moor on the 2nd of July. This action shattered Royalist hopes for the north of England. At Marston Moor, the Scots forces played a decisive role not credited of them by parliamentary propagandists and the English histories based on memoirs of Oliver Cromwell.

By 27th of July, Scots forces under James Livingston, Earl of Callendar were back in the environs of the town of Newcastle, capturing Hartlepool and Gateshead while waiting for Leven to come up with the main field force. The siege itself settled down with Leven’s arrival at Elswick on 15th August. With him, Leven brought the Scots artillery and it was to play its part decisively in the assault. Six batteries were set up, named after various officers. The most powerful was the General of Artillery’s which contained 24 and 18 lbrs. Cassilis, Gasks and Sinclairs had a mix of 24, 12 and 3 lbrs. Lieutenant-General William Baillie had 24 and 3 lbrs while Loudoun’s had a brace of 18 lbrs.

Newcastle’s medieval walls were fronted by a ditch twenty-two yards wide and between six to eight feet deep. The wall itself was some twenty-five feet to the walkway and ten feet thick. Critically no berm was in place below and beyond the wall and while this assisted the defence by making the positioning of assault ladders against the wall more difficult, the berm functioned to stabilise the base of a wall from subsiding and its omission was a weakness the Scots moved immediately to capitalise on. Mines were started and artillery worked forward to battering range.

The defences had also been strengthened by temporary outworks and trenches, the most notable and severley contested was the Shieldfield Fort. Of the main gates on the town walls, Newgate and Westgate were considered the most important, Leyland described the latter as: “A mightye strong thinge”.

Leven, unsure of resupply, spared shot where possible and placed the greatest reliance on mines. These were dug under Sandgate and White Friars and several other locations difficult now to identify. Leven was not above reasonable persuasion and in a conflict in which all forces – in the early stages anyway – claimed they were fighting for the King or his best interests in one way or another, the use of propaganda pamphlets flung over the walls signed by “A well-wisher” seems more ironic today than then. Leven, however, worked on all fronts and in one particularly short but effective retaliatory bombardment following sniping at the Scots, a length of the wall was rapidly blown in around St Andrews section. The defenders suffered dreadfully while manfully trying to block this up and prevent an immediate escalade by the besiegers.

Unfortunately the Scots allies – the English Parliament – were endeavouring to play down the efficiency of the Army of the Covenant – less than 2 months after Marston Moor! – though this was merely mischief-making to enable them to stop making the agreed payments to the Scots for their service which the bankrupt English Parliament could no longer afford to make. The argument was nonsense, of course, the Covenanters had single-handedly cleared the north of England, made a major contribution in destroying the largest English Royalist field army and would take Newcastle – a town never before taken by siege – in due course. Newark by contrast suffered years-long series of sieges that various seasoned Parliamentarian forces could not bring to a satisfactory conclusion.

London – staunchly Parliamentarian – relied on Newcastle coal, and as winter threatened, the Scots were easy targets for malicious slander and were criticised for being deemed to be moving the siege forward too slowly.

The Royalists, on the other hand, claimed: “All Scots are trully evil” and propaganda pamphlets proliferated full of fictitious stories of attacks beaten back with Scots casualties of biblical proportions. Ignoring such political manoeuvring the Scots progressed their mining preparations and on the 14th of October, with two complete mines in place – two others had been detected and successfully flooded by the defenders  – Leven sent a final demand for the surrender of the town. The terms were reasonable but the obturate behaviour of the town Mayor Marley – who slipped away to escape the carnage – condemned the town and the forces on both sides to endure a storming. Knowing the end was near the defenders quit the few remaining outworks not already in Scots hands – notably the Shieldfield fort – and early on the morning of the 19th of October the Scots prepared for the final attack; the officers throwing dice on drumheads to determine the honour of who should lead which section of the attack.

The mines were duly sprung at:

  • Whitefriars and assaulted by amongst others the Clydesdale Foot and Edinburgh Foot regiments.
  • Sandgate and assaulted by the 4th Brigade comprising in part Niddries Foot, Stirlingshire Foot, Master of Cranstouns Foot and College of Justices Foot (Sinclairs) regiments.

….and breaches blown in the defences by battering ordnance at: 

  • Pilgrim Street gate, assaulted by the 3rd Brigade comprising in part the Kyle & Carrick Foot, Merse Foot, Linlithgow & Tweedale Foot and Mearns & Aberdeen Foot and the Nithsdale & Annandale Foot regiments. 
  • Closegate, assaulted by the 1st Brigade comprising the Earl of Loudoun’s Foot and Tweedale Foot regiments.  
  • Westgate  – the last and possibly most significant breach, assaulted amongst others by the Galloway Foot and (possibly) the Perthshire-Freelands Foot regiments.

As soon as the dust cleared the Scots assault troops advanced into the breeches and beyond while others scaled the walls with ladders at various parts of the defence notably at Newgate by the Angus, Strathearn, Fife and East Lothian Foot Regiments. 

The Royalist defenders were quickly swept off the walls near the breaches, the survivors falling back in street to street fighting and some holed up in towers and gate structure sniping at the assault troops. One such sharpshooter killed a certain Colonel Home who was lamented as a courageous officer:

Woe to that breach beside Black Bessies Towre,
Woe to itself that bloudy butchering bower!
Where valiant Home, that stern Bellona`s blade,
And brave commander fell : For there he stay`d,
Arraigned by death.

In the town, the surviving defenders maintained a short but spirited defence but were bloodily overwhelmed with the town secured in Scots hands in less than two hours after the springing of the mines. The diary of one Scots soldier called Lithgow records the bloodshed as the Scots swept the Royalist defenders back to the Bigg Market area where the survivors final capitulation is likely to have taken place: “The thousand of musket balls flying from our faces like to the droving haylestones from septentrian blast; the clangour and carving of naked unsheathed swords; the pushing of broughing pikes crying for blood; the carcasses of foemen lying like dead dogs upon the groaning street.”

Resistance crushed the town was given over to a sacking for twenty-four hours. Mayor Marley, having threatened to use Scots prisoners as human shields, promptly quit the defence and scuttled to the castle for refuge when the mines were blown. He was taken prisoner when the castle capitulated unconditionally to the Covenanters – it remains a mystery why this creature was not put to the sword as custom permitted following an unnecessary storming.

Regimental returns report modest casualties in most regiments, the Galloway Foot appear to have taken more casualties than other regiments leading to the suggestion that the Westgate to Bigg Market route ultimately saw the heaviest fighting in the drive to clear the town of Royalists. They were however still at 569 men strength in this regiment in November without an opportunity for recruiting suggesting small loss at Newcastle, not the apocalyptic losses hyped by the Royalists.

Royalist casualties are unrecorded during the siege or in the following sacking, the garrison is, however, unheard of again after the assault and final capitulation of survivors, records of a board of parole would tend to suggest the few survivors were too few to pose a threat and were leniently set free.

Epilogue

The relief in London as coal supplies resumed was such that a day of public thanksgiving was proclaimed on November 5th. Englands Parliaments thanks, however, would not last long and the Scots Armys attentions would soon be drawn north following a string of reverses to Scots forces from Royalists insurgents in Scotland itself.

Ultimately several Scots regiments and substantial elements of the Scots horse would head back to Scotland to deal with Montrose and his Royalist coalition after his demolition of a series of Scots conscript forces. The main army remained in the north of England while Leven nurtured his supply line from Scotland – and kept control of the “tap” that controlled Londons coal. Tynemouth castle fell a matter of days after Newcastle, an event which merely served to infect the Scots army with typhus. Carlisle capitulated to David Leslie in mid-1645 and within days of Montrose’s defeat at Philiphaugh on the 13th of September the main Scots field force settled down to decide the outcome of the first civil war at Newark, where King Charles eventually surrendered to them.

Scots Foot Regiments at the siege of Newcastle:

Angus’s Foot
Aytoun’s Foot
Clydesdale Foot
College of Justice/Sinclair’s Foot
Edinburgh Foot
Fife Foot
Galloway Foot
Glencairn’s Foot
Kyle & Carrick Foot
Earl of Lanark’s Foot
Earl of Loudoun’s Foot
East Lothian Regiment
Linlithgow & Tweedale Foot
Master of Cranstoun’s Foot
Mearns & Aberdeen Foot
Merse Foot
Midlothian Foot (part)
Ministers’ Foot
Niddrie’s Foot
Nithsdale & Annandale Foot
Perthshire/Gask Foot (part)
Perthshire-Freeland’s Foot
Stirlingshire Foot
Strathearn Foot
Teviotdale Foot
Tweedale Foot
Viscount Kenmure’s Foot

Further Reading:

Edward M. Furgol, A Regimental History of the Covenanting Armies, (John Donald, 2003)

Stuart Reid, Scots Armies of the English Civil Wars, (Osprey Publishing, 1999)

Trevor Royle, Civil War: The War of the Three Kingdoms 1638-1660, (Abacus, 2005)

C. V. Wedgwood, The King’s War, 1641-1647, (Penguin Classics, 2001)

Euan Lindsay
Euan is a former soldier, a retired architect, amateur historian and re-enactor with decades of experience.

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