By Mark Turnbull
Monday 25 May 2020 09:50:00
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Historical Novelist Mark Turnbull takes us back to 1644, when the north east was torn apart by Civil War. He describes the events leading up to a major day-long engagement as opposing armies clashed in bloody conflict just to the north of Sunderland.

cannon in Barnes Park reputed lost by Scots in riverBy March 1644 the English Civil War was in full swing and the Scottish army, commanded by the Earl of Leven, had crossed the border in support of Parliament. King Charles I’s northern royalists, commanded by the Marquis of Newcastle, desperately tried to hold them back.

Leven’s Scottish force had a base in Sunderland, but the weather was also waging its own war against both armies. Snow, and then a great melt, had made roads boggy and hampered movement. By sea, the ships that were meant to keep the Scots supplied were either lost in storms or driven into royalist Tynemouth for refuge.

Using their advantage in numbers, Leven’s army attacked a fort at South Shields, despite it being defended by five cannons and covered by the fire of Tynemouth Castle, along with a frigate in the River Tyne that bristled with ten guns. His Scotsmen bravely filled in the ditch in front of the fort with straw and sticks, before scaling the walls with ladders and driving the royalists out. The Scots also raided a royalist cavalry camp at Chester-le-Street. These victories drew Lord Newcastle out of the safety of Durham in the hope of forcing the Scottish to abandon their newly prized fort. Both armies encountered one another at Boldon.

 Information board in Barnes Park relating to the cannon

View looking towards the Lizard where the Scots were camped

Sunday 24th March 1644 - The Lord’s Day. But also, a day that would make or break either Lord Newcastle or Lord Leven.

 View looking up Boldon Hill towards royalist camp At around 7000 men, the Scottish army were almost equal in size to the 6000 royalists opposing them. The forces drew up three miles apart; the Scots on Whitburn Lizard and royalists on Boldon Hill. The gap in between was flat moorland cut up by the River Don, while hedged enclosures chequered the area near the village of East Boldon. The Scots brought their artillery across the River Wear to their camp but two large cannons were lost during the attempt.

After a face-off that lasted most of the day, some Scottish dragoons rode forward, dismounted and began firing at the royalist musketeers who had nestled behind the hedges at East Boldon. Above their heads the wholly ineffective cannon shot did little other than add its whistle to the din of war.

The infantry of both sides now closed up to one another and the crackle of musket fire rang in their ears for the next 5 or 6 hours. The mouths of these muskets, with their five-foot-long barrels, spewed flash after flash of gunpowder and lead balls into the night until eleven o’clock. Finally, by that time the firing became sporadic, the yells of battle petered out and the cannons stopped, leaving only the cries of the wounded. The Scots had eventually managed to push the royalists back and Newcastle’s men retreated to their former position on the slopes of Boldon Hill (now called Down Hill). The Scots were unwilling to pursue and in the early hours of the following morning, they fell back to Whitburn Lizard.

Allegiance in BloodOn the fields around East Boldon lay 240 dead royalists, though numbers of Scottish casualties are uncertain. The terrain must have almost been ploughed by cannonballs, as the Scottish army was a whopping 37 barrels of gunpowder lighter! They also recorded that after the battle, their infantry needed another 175 pikes, presumably to replace lost or damaged ones. Pikes were wooden poles up to sixteen-foot-long, topped with metal spikes and used to bludgeon the enemy, which also proves the bloodiness of the affair.

Today, much of the battlefield is built upon, but from Boldon Hill where Newcastle’s army camped, you can appreciate the view of this major north-east battle site. There are many reminders of the encounter, some of which I have attached, yet despite all of this, it’s very much a forgotten part of an overlooked (but fascinating!) period of our history.

I hope you have enjoyed reading. For more articles about the British Civil War, you can visit my blog and website where you can also find out more about my civil war novel.

Plaque in Sunderland

Plaque in Sunderland

 Photograph from a newspaper with a local man who found a cannon ball nearby.

Photograph from a newspaper with a local man who found a cannon ball nearby.

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