Tuesday, 8 April 2014


The Battle of Newburn

Newburn, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, August 1640

As Roger Le Strange watched the sea of blue hats of the ranked masses of Scottish Covenanters across the Tyne valley his heart shuddered in his chest. They outnumbered the King’s army and were better prepared, more experienced.
‘’Sblood, we’ll be slaughtered!’ someone along the line swore and Roger glanced towards him. No-one smiled. They sat on their restless horses grim-faced, staring at imminent death, mechanically struggling to keep them in the rank.
Roger’s gloved hand shook as it held the rein. No wonder his horse sidestepped.
‘You know what Leslie intends to do, don’t you?’ His father’s deep voice beside him caused him to turn his head sharply to look at him. As ever, Sir Hamon was cool, matter-of-fact even. His grey eyes briefly held the ghost of a smile and he calmed Roger.
He took a steadying breath. ‘He wants to take Newcastle.’ The Scottish target, the town of Newcastle, with its fortifications was no more than five miles to the east but here at Newburn with its ford was the crossing point over the Tyne.
‘Indeed.’ Sir Hamon squinted in the bright August sun at the opposite bank. ‘They’ve got artillery in the tower.’
Roger’s eyes followed his gaze to the top of the square church tower where shadowy dots moved about behind the battlements. He could not see the guns, but he knew they were there ready to rain death on the King’s men. ‘I see them,’ he said. ‘How in the name of all that is sacred did they get them up there?’
‘A lot of heave-ho-ing I shouldn’t wonder!’ Sir Hamon turned his attention to the King’s army, the infantry, the pikemen, the gunners massed on the slopes below them. ‘Damn shambles!’ he grumbled. He referred to the troops Viscount Conway had mustered for the king, a ramshackle army of raw and largely untrained recruits, ordinary men who had marched from the south of the country to arrive exhausted and demoralised  in the borderlands. Many of them had no heart for the fight. They were there because of loyalty to their ‘lords of the manor’ who had been summoned to the King’s army. An undisciplined and unwilling rabble, Roger thought. They had no idea of the cause of the argument, no grasp of the politics, no pay and no reason to fight.
Sweat trickled down Roger’s back and stood out on his clean-shaven lip. He wore a thick, padded gambeson beneath his coat so that the armour did not chafe through to his skin.
They had lapsed into silence, father and son. Tension swaddled the waiting troops. Beyond their own artillery the grassy bank shimmered in the heat. On the opposite bank the Scots lined up their men behind the guns. On the King’s side too, men were lined up in ranks. They moved around as though they were out for a Sunday stroll, shuffling in the heat, weighed down with glinting armour, those that had it, forming into ragged lines, while the officers rode up and down bellowing orders. The King should have had a retained army, trained, ready. But with Parliament withholding payment, he simply could not afford it. As it was, he could not pay the troops now. The lords had to see to it.
‘What’s this?’ Sir Hamon moved away a little and stood up in the stirrups to get a better look. Roger followed his example. A rider, no three riders, came out from the Scottish ranks, splashing across the river Tyne at the Newburn Ford and galloped into the English camp.
Sir Hamon immediately dismounted, handing the reins to his son and marched to Viscount Conway’s tent. As a mere younger son, Roger was not privy to the conversations of his commanders, whereas Sir Hamon was. But as Lord Conway emerged from his tent to meet the riders, he jumped down from his horse, handed the reins of both horses to their groom who had magically appeared from behind him and followed at a run behind his father and found himself at the rear of Lord Conway’s men. He was considered a tall man, but their hats obscured his vision, so that he moved more to the side to see what was happening.
The messengers dressed in tartan skirts and sashes and blue coats did not dismount, but one of them sporting an impressive red beard walked his fine chestnut mare forward. Even then he stayed mounted, staring haughtily down on the English Lord. The Scottish heathens lacked common manners!
‘General Leslie sends his compliments to Lord Conway,’ he bellowed in a thick lilting Scottish brogue so that Roger had to concentrate hard in order to understand him.
Viscount Conway, an elegant man, with long flowing light brown hair and an immaculate moustache and small beard, graciously inclined his head in stark contrast to the uncouth Scottish messenger who continued:
‘We, the Covenanters do not wish to fight the English but General Leslie requests free passage so that we may petition the King.’ He leaned forward and held out a scroll of paper so that Lord Conway could reach it.
Breaking the seal, Lord Conway took a minute to read while the messengers waited and everyone else held their breath.
Then he pursed his lips. ‘Tell the General that I cannot accede to his wishes,’ he said and turned his back on the messenger to return to his tent, contemptuously dismissing him.
The Scotsman’s eyes flashed in anger and all of Conway’s men reached for the swords on their hips, but although the man grumbled something incomprehensible he turned his horse’s head and spurred the animal into a gallop down the slope towards the Tyne, his companions following behind.
Conway stopped at the tent entrance and turned to Colonel Lunsford in command of the artillery. ‘Make ready the guns.’
Sir Hamon left Conway’s men and Roger joined him as they returned to the cavalry. Sir Hamon shot him a censuring look, but chose not to mention Roger’s impertinence. The drummers began to beat the advance and Roger felt that swoop in his belly of fear and excitement.
‘This is it,’ Sir Hamon said to Roger. ‘Remember what I taught you. No heroics. Do not risk your life. Make your sword thrusts true.’
He walked quickly, but Roger kept pace. ‘I will watch your back, sir.’
He stopped and looked at his son, tenderness in his eyes. ‘If I do not come home, look after your lady mother,’ he said.
Roger nodded and swallowed.
Shouts behind them warned them as the first cannon fired. Turning around, Roger’s heart swooped as he saw the Scottish cavalry advancing towards the ford. A plume of spray in the Tyne showed where a cannonball from the Royalist’s side hit the water, the aim too short, but the English adjusted their aim and continued to fire on the Cavalry with the boom of cannon, spewing smoke and the shuddering of the hot August air. The smell of burning gunpowder wafted towards them and all at once Roger and Sir Hamon ran for their horses.
Scottish horses collapsed beneath their riders, mown down by the barrage of fire from the Royalists, then the Scots retreated. However the small victory was short lived. From their vantage points on the slightly higher ground, the Scots retaliated by pounding the English guns.
By now Roger and Sir Hamon had reached their positions and took possession of their mounts, Roger leaping into the saddle, Sir Hamon hopping up stiffly from the stirrup.
The bombardment was relentless and the gunners turned and fled. ‘Look at them!’ Roger cried in disgust. ‘They run from the Scots!’
Frowning at the retreating figures of English artillery running from the enemy, Sir Hamon merely said: ‘Raw recruits. Even Colonel Lunsford cannot keep them.’ From this higher point they could see the Scots pouring across the dark river at the ford, could see the whole battle being played out beneath them.
Frustration made Roger grind his teeth. ‘We need to give fire!’ But there was no-one left to give fire, they had fled.
‘Here they come!’
The cry from along the ranks made Roger draw breath. Beneath him his horse fidgeted and nodded his head. With an effort Roger held him, patted and stroked the animal’s neck with a black gloved hand and spoke to him in low tones, but his eyes were on the oncoming Scottish hordes.
‘Hold you hard there, boy.’ Sir Hamon’s voice was low. Roger took a steadying breath. All along the cavalry line the king’s men drew their swords with the ring of metal, holding them upright in their hands, ready for the order.
They waited as the Scottish cavalry charged down the hill.
‘We should go,’ Sir Hamon muttered. ‘He’s leaving it too late.’
Then as the Scots crossed the river, the order came from Henry Wilmot, in command of the cavalry. ‘Charge!’
Digging his heels into his horse’s flanks, with his father at his side, Roger leaned forward in the saddle as his bay stallion sprang into action like a suddenly released spring, hurtling headlong down the grassy slope, hooves thundering over the uneven turf.. Roger kept pace with everyone else, his sword held out in front of him. No man wanted to be the one out in front when they met with the enemy, but neither did he want to be the last man.
The Scottish musketeers had already taken up their positions.
Suddenly confronted with two ranks of black muzzles, the first of the cavalry came to a sudden halt in front of Roger and his father. Quickly they pulled up on the reins as the upper rank of Scottish muskets belched smoke and popped. A whisper of hot air next to Roger’s ear, felt rather than heard, was too close for comfort.
In the confusion, men and horses were hit.
It was too much for the inexperienced English. They too broke ranks and began to retreat to get out of the murderous, death-dealing fire. Sizing up the situation, Roger grabbed the reins on Sir Hamon’s mount and pulled him round.

‘Let’s get out of here,’ he bellowed.

FOR THE KING Roger L'Estrange and the Siege of King's Lynn, an English Civil War novel will be published in the autumn.

Evelyn Tidman is the author of GENTLEMAN OF FORTUNE The Adventures of Bartholomew Roberts, Pirate and ONE SMALL CANDLE The Story of William Bradford and the Pilgrim Fathers available from Amazon