The Battle of Bothwell Bridge, 22 June 1679

In the last post we looked at the Battle of Drumclog where on 1st June 1679, a small government force under Bonnie Dundee’s command was attacked and routed by a larger, irregular force of Covenanters.

Emboldened by this outstanding success the Covenanters moved to capitalise on it. While in Edinburgh, the Privy Council initiated counter measures designed to quell the rebellion before it got completely out of hand. All of this would lead to a second and decisive military encounter some three weeks later and 20 odd miles further north on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge.

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

Battle of Bothwell Bridge monument

In the immediate aftermath of his defeat at Drumclog, Dundee had written a full report to his commander, the Earl of Linlithgow, Major General of his Majesty’s forces in Scotland expressing his opinion that “This may be counted the beginning of the rebellion”. And so it would seem to be the case with the sudden appearance of covenanting sympathies in many hitherto seemingly law-abiding citizens.

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse's commander

3rd Earl of Linlithgow, Claverhouse’s commander

While many of those to the fore of the Covenanting force could be deemed to be determined, ruthless and experienced, none of them were generals. And the military command initially fell upon Robert Hamilton who, as was so often the case in these troubled times, would feature in a prominent role on both pro and anti Stuart divide, having fought for the Stuarts in the defeats at Cromwell’s hands at Dunbar (1650) and Worcester (1651) and would eventually flee to Holland in the aftermath of the failure of the Monmouth Rising (1685) the purpose of which was to remove James VII and II from the throne.

As soon as they had abandoned their pursuit of Dundee’s defeated force after Drumclog, the Covenant Army resolved, under Hamilton’s leadership, to “continue and abide together in arms”. They understood well that it was only a matter of time before the Government would move against them, in force. On the afternoon of their victory they marched the fifteen miles to Hamilton (the village not the man) where they camped. Glasgow, where Dundee and his remaining troops stood to arms with the Government garrison under the command of Lord George Ross of Hawkhead, was only 10 miles distant.

In the wee, small hours of the following morning the post boy galloped through the dark, Edinburgh streets bearing Ross’ despatch to Linlithgow announcing the defeat at Drumclog and his intention to barricade the streets of Glasgow in the face of the advancing covenanting host. Within an hour the Privy Council were gathered and plans laid to assemble the scattered Government troops from Fife and Dumfries for the Earl of Linlithgow to lead westwards against the rebels on 4th June.

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

17th century Glasgow, where the Covenanting rebels attacked Claverhouse and Ross

At sunrise on 2nd June the rebel force approached Glasgow and at 11 am made a rash and ill-judged assault on the barricades at the bottom of High Street and the Gallowgate. The troops of Ross and Claverhouse fired on them from behind these and within a short time their assailants withdrew leaving many wounded lying in the street and at least seven dead. They rallied a mile to the east of the town where the setback of their repulse now gave rise to the splits and schisms long-threatened in a mob where each man and woman considered themselves to be a party of one.

If they possessed ‘leaders of integrity and followers with a singleness of purpose’ then this army of Covenanters might have been forged into a force as strong as any led by Cromwell. However, with fully two thirds of them deemed by themselves to be preachers, with the vanity and unwillingness to subvert to the greater good often prevalent in the species, it was a hopeless cause. Even with strong leadership it would have been an almost impossible task but the leadership of this rebel force was inept to a degree rarely seen before or since in our little corner part of the world.

The total number of different shades of religious opinion amongst them would have been impossible to determine but in broad terms they were split into two factions. These being the Moderates (which was purely a relevant term) led by John Welsh of Irongray, a great grandson of John Knox. And the Honest Party, led by the previously mentioned Robert Hamilton, who had no moderation in anything. And a considerable surprise it would have been, no doubt, for the redoubtable Mr Welsh to find himself for once outstripped in his fanaticism.

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

John Welsh, leader of one of the Covenant factions at Bothwell Bridge

Having checked the forward movement of the rebels Linlithgow now amended his initial plan of concentrating his forces in Glasgow and decided instead to carry out this concentration of his forces at Stirling. A strange choice explained only by timidity on his part and one which left both Glasgow and Edinburgh vulnerable to subsequent advance by the still intact rebel force. And if they were to repeat their manouevre of the Pentland Rising of 1666 then there might yet be an undesired outcome to this revolt.

Thus Ross and Dundee were ordered to withdraw from Glasgow towards Stirling, doing so on 3rd June while Linlithgow advanced from Edinburgh. Their forces joined at Bonnybridge on the 5th. This combined force now numbered 1800 men; horse, dragoons (mounted infantry) and foot. A despatch was then received from the magistrates of Glasgow reporting that the Covenanters, now some 7000 strong, were camped in the vicinity of Bothwell Bridge, near Hamilton.

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Bothwell Bridge, scene of the eponymous battle

Linlithgow advanced once more, reaching Kirkintilloch at midday on 6th June. A reconnaissance party reported that the rebels had now occupied Glasgow and after due consideration and consultation with his officers, Linlithgow decided that the disparity in size of the two armies was such that he risked disaster by attacking and was duly recalled to Edinburgh by the Privy Council. Drumclog was only 5 days old and the rebellion was now entirely out of hand.

Still more of the disaffected rallied to the Covenant banner and the rebel force continued to grow in size, and to their collective misfortune, to grow also in disparity of strongly-held opinion. There now ensued fully two weeks of internecine bickering over religious intricacies. On 8th June a ‘very great convention’ was held in Rutherglen where a resolution was determined by the Honest Party to remain aloof from Welsh and his moderates. They met again the following day where both sides of the debate agreed on the necessity of issuing a unified, public declaration of their aims. Yet neither could accept the other’s drafting of this. On 10th June there was a ‘very hot disputation, particularly concerning the indulgence’ which is to say who was to be forgiven for previous political / religious transgressions and who was not. Again no resolution was determined. And so it continued. Each passing day brought further discussion and yet more disagreement as the differences between the disparate viewpoints became emphasised and that which drew them together became drowned in the din.

But now the King, his majesty Charles II, became stirred into action by the reports of rebellion from the north. He decided to appoint his illegitimate son, James, Duke of Monmouth as commander-in-chief of his forces in Scotland. Monmouth’s orders were issued on 11th June and he disembarked in Edinburgh on 19th June.

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

James, Duke of Monmouth. commander of the Government army at Bothwell Bridge

He brought only two troops of horse from England to supplement the Scottish Government’s now concentrated army which he rendezvoused with at Blackburn, West Lothian on 19th June, assuming overall command of a combined force of some 5000 men.

If this army force was small in numbers it was strong in leadership. Monmouth had extensive campaigning experience in Flanders. The 3 principal dragoon officers were seasoned and experienced men. Claverhouse and the Earls of Home and Airlie commanded their own separate troops and with Montrose (not The Montrose) leading the Life Guards there was no shortage of skill, experience and, crucially, military discipline.

On 20th June Monmouth was at Muirhead and on the evening of 21 June he was advancing on Bothwell Bridge and the larger Covenanting Army. How had things gone with them in the meantime? Not well. The advance of the Government Army had merely accentuated the acute divisions in their camp. On 16th, 17th and 18th, camped on Shawhead Moor, their leadership, such as it was, continued to meet in acrimonious debate. Hamilton’s Moderates had proposed a Day of Humiliation which Welsh’s Honest men had protested. With the whole gathering deep in confusion they had recrossed Bothwell Bridge on 18th June and encamped on Hamilton Moor.

The wrangling continued through the 19th, and on 20th June they were joined by reinforcements from Galloway. These were favourers of the Indulgence and thus natural allies of Welsh’s party. They submitted a written statement of their desires to Hamilton who promptly, and unsurprisingly, rejected it.

Late in the evening of 21 June, just hours before the battle would commence, the two factions met in their final council of war. One desired to purge the army of undesirables while the other refused to fight under the officers which had been selected prior to the arrival of the Galloway men which had given the moderates numerical superiority in the argument. After heated discussion Hamilton and his people withdrew. The Moderates sat down to frame a petition to Monmouth but once again agreement over the content proved impossible. And in a few short hours this host of pious men, leaderless, unprepared and distracted would blunder into battle.

The surviving comments from among their number cast illumination on their situation;……..”We were not concerned with an enemy as if there were none within 100 miles of us”………………..”There were none went through the army to see if we wanted powder or ball”……”A little before day we saw the enemy kindling their matches a great way off”…………
At about 3 am in the morning of 22 June the advance guard of Monmouth’s army closed on one end of the bridge. The rebels formed into two bodies with one holding their end of the bridge and the other drawn up a mile or so to the rear, while the single piece of cannon they possessed was dragged down to command the approach to the bridge. This piece and its gunner would be the star of the show for the discomfited rebels.

An exchange of pistol fire began across the water as Monmouth came to the front line. The two rebel factions, faced now with the imminent destruction of their host, had managed to thrash together a parley with which they could both live and now this representation was made to Monmouth, who could do little but entertain it. So hostilities ceased temporarily.

Their submission though was merely a list of their grievances and a request that they might meet with Monmouth to discuss the matters. The erstwhile Duke sent back that he could not enter into any discussions with rebels until they lay down their arms. He did not bother to await their reply before recommencing preparations for his assault and ordered the deployment of his own cannon to command the bridge. A second parley was sent out from the Covenant lines desiring to be told the nature of any terms that he might have brought from England. Monmouth sent them packing and duly ordered his cannon to open fire.

And this provided the first surprise of the day as the lone Covenant gun,
manned by a stalwart who’s name posterity has not preserved but was their one true hero if the day, drove the government artillerymen from their pieces. However, after their initial discomfiture they returned to their pieces and under the cover of their fire a storming party of dragoons led by the splendidly named Major Theophilus Oglethorpe, stormed and forced the bridge.

Oglethorp's dragoons storm the bridge

Oglethorp’s dragoons storm the bridge

Under instruction not to advance any further than the other end of said bridge, they became carried away by the heat of the moment and advanced up the hill towards the main body of the enemy. Who, perceiving their small numbers, moved down the hill and drove them into the houses at that end of the bridge.

In response 300 foot, under the command of Lord Livingstone’s son, were sent across the bridge and they, in turn, drove the Covenanters back on their main body. Monmouth himself now came forward over the bridge with his own troop and together with those already over, formed up to face the rebels ‘but two carabines shot apart’.

A haphazard and leaderless effort, but an effort nonetheless, was made by the rebels in an attempt to rescue the day. An assault was made on a body of Atholl Highlanders on Monmouth’s right, as the commander sought to form his second line. A brief cannonade forced them back in confusion with the Covenanting horse among them driven headlong from the field. Seconds later the foot joined the stampede and the rout began.

Oglethorp and Claverhouse were ordered to pursue with Monmouth following with the foot. At about ten o’clock that morning a messenger was despatched to Edinburgh bearing news of the victory.

And so the rule of law was once again imposed in all areas of the nation. The defeat at Drumclog could now be placed in proper perspective as a one-off thrown up by the particular circumstances of the day. And appropriate, measured action could now be taken against those who had initiated rebellion against King and lawful Government.

The bubble which had been blown at Rutherglen two months previously had now burst spectacularly with the rout at Bothwell. Monmouth was able to lead his men through the country across which the rebels had so recently roamed at will and confirmed the conclusion that all signs of rebellion were extinguished. On June 25th the local militia were dismissed, their function fulfilled. And on the 26th Monmouth returned to Edinburgh for the grateful thanks of the Privy Council, receiving the Freedom of the City in a large gold box. By 29th June he was on his way back to London.

Controversy, inevitably abounds as we look back on the whole episode, particularly in relation to two of the day’s participants; the Duke of Monmouth, commander-in-chief of the Government force and a lowly commander of horse troops, John Graham of Claverhouse.

Within 6 years Monmouth was dead: tried and executed for treason following his defeat at the Battle of Sedgemoor as he attempted to overthrow his uncle, King James VII and II, and seize the British throne for himself. From this vantage point many re-assess his behaviour at, and after Bothwell Bridge and seek to find indications, through his clemency towards the rebels, of his future treasonous actions.

As far as Claverhouse is concerned there has been as much opprobrium heaped upon him by future historians over his actions at Bothwell Bridge as there is at any other occasion in his career. The attempt to redress which is the driving force for this blog.

Much of this abuse is due to Sir Walter Scott’s depiction of the events of Bothwell Bridge in his novel,Old Mortality, which was published in 1816, nearly 140 years after the events took place. Scott gives Claverhouse a degree of prominence which far outweighs his actual involvement on the day and  also bestows upon him an aura of rapacious cruelty and vengefulness for which there is no basis. However, to be fair to Scott, he could have had little idea of the extent to which his work would outlive and outgrow him to the degree that it has. As Charles Terry, briefly and eloquently puts it, sober history competes unequally with romance.

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott, author of Old Mortality

Scott portrays Claverhouse as a colonel at the battle, promoted to General in the aftermath, whereas he was but a plain captain of horse, on the day and for some time afterwards. He and General Tam Dalziel, who was not in fact present at the battle having refused to serve under Monmouth, are credited by Scott with the ruthless pursuit of the fleeing rebels, in flagrant disobedience of Monmouth’s orders, rapaciously slaughtering the vanquished enemy.

Doubtless the emotion generated by his defeat at Drumclog would have been strong. The extensive source material relating to the battle itself and its immediate aftermath make passing mention only of his leading the cavalry on the right once Monmouth was over the bridge and reference to the capture ‘with his own two hands’ of two Covenant battle standards. Once again tradition becomes crystallized into fact in the face of a total absence of evidence. But it was ever thus.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 thoughts on “The Battle of Bothwell Bridge, 22 June 1679

  1. […] of that year another Covenant rebellion occurred, extensively covered in a previous post on the Battle of Bothwell Bridge. During this tumult Charles determined that the best way to crush this rebellion was by sending […]

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  2. […] that the full weight of the forces of law and order were brought to bear and on 22 June at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge order was finally […]

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  3. […] commander of Angus’ Regiment, Colonel William Cleland, a veteran of Bothwell Bridge, who had considerably less military experience than General MacKay but a more realistic […]

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  4. […] of his troop of horse which had been under his command through the previous ten years; at Drumclog, Bothwell Bridge and throughout his tenure as Sheriff of Dumfries and Wigtownshre, now assembled in the early […]

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