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The Battle of Bothwell Bridge


Continuing our series on 17th Century Scottish Church History…


The leaders of the Presbyterians knew that the momentum gained at Drumclog must not be lost.  They travelled to Glasgow, where the town garrison barricaded the streets to keep them out, and at least seven of the Covenanters were killed in the attempt to enter the town.  Retreating from Glasgow, they marched across country, making encampment here and there, until news reached them that the troops who had previously repulsed them had been ordered to abandon the town and join other royalists encamped outside the town.  The Covenanters returned, stationing themselves in and around the town, and reading out a declaration at the tolbooth.  They marched to Hamilton, where they organised a conventicle, (the conventicle took place on what is now Hamilton racecourse) and over five thousand people attended. The dragoons were forced to watch helplessly as the meetings took place.

However, all was not at peace in the camp of the Covenanters.  While the King’s army spent the three weeks between Dunclog and Bothwell training and re-equipping, the Covenanters showed their military ineptitude by indulging in a series of petty arguments.  Men who should have been united under one common banner were instead at each other’s throats, to the extent that some members of the Covenanting army would not so much as hold a conversation with others in the same force.  These arguments took place over the following issues:

1 .A council of the Covenanter force decided that the army should be composed only of those whose hearts were right before God, and on whose conscience was no sin.  One of their number, a certain Thomas Weir, was found to have been a trooper under Dalziel at Rullion Green.  He refused to repent, saying that what had happened thirteen years ago should not be held against him, but when others argued that he should be removed, he left, taking a number of troops with him.  This caused confusion in the ranks.

2. They marched back and forth to Glasgow, (reading out the declaration at the Tolbooth, mentioned above), and gathering whatever arms and support they could.

There was a dispute about whether the Covenanters should accept the position of Charles as king.

3.  John Welsh arrived with one hundred and forty horsemen and three hundred men on foot, and this immediately caused problems.   Sir Robert Hamilton was an unyielding opponent of the indulgence, and he refused to hold any conversation with an indulged minister.  Furthermore, he also shunned those who, while not accepting the indulgence themselves, were prepared to tolerate those of their weaker brethren who had done so.  To him, indulged ministers were traitors, and those who would eat and drink with traitors could never expect the blessing of God on their labours.  Others, such as Hackston, Hall, Cleland and Douglas agreed with Hamilton’s harsh opinion, while good, faithful men like Welsh, who had never taken any part in the indulged Kirk, could not find it in his heart to excommunicate those who were not so brave as himself.  He did not accept that the error of the indulged minister was unpardonable. This caused a mighty schism, with Hamilton and his party wanting to send away Welsh and his men.   Discussions and debates with a view to drawing up proposals acceptable to all were protracted, and wasted a number of days.  Every newly arrived group was questioned as to whether they were of the party of rigour, or the party of comprehension.  No middle ground was allowed for in this argument.  The acrimony was such that a number of Covenanters actually threatened others with their swords.  Many became disillusioned during this period, and men who had once been willing combatants began to make their way home.

4. On 14th June, a Saturday, the council decreed that Welsh and Hume should preach on the sins of the indulgence at the Sunday morning service.  Welsh and the other preachers argued that no man would tell him on what to preach, and that he reserved the right to choose his own sermon subjects.

5. Further wrangling over minor issues was so disruptive that Hamilton, Hackston and others left the ranks three times before they were persuaded to return.

To quote Edwin N Moore, “There are really two battles of Bothwell Bridge: one between the Covenanters and the king’s troops, the other within their own ranks.  The Covenanters lost both battles.” (Moore, “Our Covenant Heritage” Christian Focus, Pg73)

In the pursuit of these sectional interests, the Covenanting army overlooked the basic preparations that any army must make when going into a battle.  They forgot to prepare a plan of logistics, or to arrange for supplies and provisions.  They actually forgot to arrange for an adequate supply of ammunition, and this was their downfall as the battle progressed. (I cannot help but see a parallel with modern Evangelical Christianity in this situation.  Like our Covenanting forefathers, we are still in a battle for truth, albeit that the enemy is much more subtle.  Yet born again, evangelical believers still squabble among themselves about minor issues, when if they were united they could have a huge impact on the forces of ecumenism, Romanism and the Charismatic movement.)

On Sunday 22nd June, the King’s forces attacked at Bothwell Bridge, just a mile or so north of Hamilton.  This time the young Duke of Monmouth, King Charles’ son, was in charge of the government troopers, leading a professional and well-armed force.  The Covenanters had not expected an attack to be launched on a Sunday, and they were taken completely by surprise.  They sent an envoy to Monmouth, petitioning him to cease his march upon them, and to grant their just request of freedom of religion and a free parliament.  The Duke, of course had no right to grant these requests, and he complained that their petition (The petition presented to Monmouth was actually the same petition, which previously had been on display at Glasgow tollbooth.  Smellie, Men of the Covenant, Pg 308) should have been worded in somewhat humbler terms, but he promised to present their case to the King, if first, of course, they would lay down their arms.  When Sir Robert Hamilton heard this he retorted, “And hang next!”

Only thirty minutes had been given for the Covenanters to surrender, and at the end of that time (Some argue that in fact Monmouth did not wait the full thirty minutes.  This is actually quite irrelevant, as the Covenanters had no intention whatsoever of laying down their arms and marching to Edinburgh as prisoners.  (cf. Dane Love in “Scottish Covenanter Stories” Pg 70)) Monmouth commenced the battle by firing cannon at the Covenanters.

Initially the government cannon fire was unsuccessful, as the shot went high over the heads of the Covenanters, and when the Covenanters responded with gunfire, Monmouth’s troops who had been manning the cannons simply fled.  It looked as if another Drumclog might just be possible, but Monmouth was made of stern stuff, and his battle strategy was well thought out, whereas at Drumclog, Claverhouse had ridden into the fray in an ill tempered fit of revenge.

The battle continued for three hours, with three hundred Covenanters from Galloway bravely holding the bridge. (The Covenanters had the best position.  Bothwell Bridge guarded the road to Hamilton Moor where a conventicle had been due to take place, and where the Covenanting army was now formed up.  The bridge was just twelve feet wide, and guarded in the centre with a gatehouse.  A part of the old bridge remains today, sitting parallel with the modern road bridge.) As the battle took its toll of their strength, and ammunition began to run low, they sent for reinforcements and replenishment bullets, only to be told that no more ammunition was available, and that no more troops could be spared.  The result of days spent in argument was about to be realised.  The defenders at the bridge were ordered to retreat and to rejoin the main force.  Hackston was in command at the bridge, and he began to withdraw, forming up again on the moor.  The barrier, which had kept Monmouth from a direct assault on the Covenanters, was now removed, and royalist forces began to flow steadily across the Clyde.  At that moment the fate of the Covenanters was sealed.

But now more bad news spread throughout the Covenanter camp.  News reached the men in the battle that Welsh and others had deserted the field, and while John Paton tried to find new chains of command, confusion prevailed, with horsemen surging forward, only to retire again to behind the battle-lines.  The situation was chaotic, and Monmouth pressed home the advantage.  He fired his cannon directly into the Covenanting force, killing some fifteen of the soldiers.  Panic ensued.  The Covenanters took flight and the royalists charged after them.  Although few died in the actual battle, in the ‘mopping up’ operations in the aftermath of the battle, some four hundred Covenanters were slain.

So the Covenanters lost; a result of their bad planning, their own factional attitudes, their amateur approach to warfare, and their lack of discipline on the field.  They were an amateur army, facing a highly professional fighting force, under an experienced general, who had recruited and trained soldiers to a high standard of skill and discipline, and had a well planned and well executed strategy.  It is interesting to speculate upon what might have been if the generals of the Covenanting force had been able to remain united in their cause, and act with a little more forethought.  Following Drumclog, their cause had been in good heart, and men were joining with them, for there is always an attractiveness about victory that will bring in waverers and doubters.  They should have realised that Claverhouse would not be allowed to make the same mistake twice, and that the King’s advisors would bring in more experienced officers and men.  They should have known that such a force would ultimately be unbeatable.  They should have been able to put their differences aside until after the battle.  They should have waged a guerrilla war, which although it would never have secured an outright victory over the King’s armies, would certainly have worn them down, and would eventually have wrung concessions from them.  But this they did not do, and the defeat of the Covenanters at Bothwell Bridge was the fault of no one but themselves.  “The Covenanters had predestined themselves to failure and shame.” (Smellie, A., Men of the Covenant, Banner of Truth, Pg 309)

Following Bothwell, soldiers were sent out to hunt down any who might have taken part in the battle.  Claverhouse committed many acts of cruelty at this time, robbing and pillaging at will.

Around one thousand two hundred in number had surrendered after Bothwell Bridge.  These men were marched in pairs to Edinburgh, (Every one of them would have been slaughtered if it had not been for the intervention of Monmouth, who insisted that they be taken alive.  Dalziel berated him severely for this action, even though he had himself arrived several hours too late for the battle.) where they were imprisoned in an open space, an early concentration camp, in the southwest corner of the Greyfriars Kirkyard. (What remains of the so-called  ‘Covenanter’s Prison’ can still be seen today at Greyfriars.)  Five were executed at Magus Moor, where Archbishop Sharp had been murdered, although none of the five were complicit in the murder.  This execution occurred on 10th November.

The overcrowding in the Greyfriars concentration camp was dreadful, and the authorities couldn’t cope with the situation.  They offered amnesties to the prisoners, allowing freedom for those who promised to be no more involved in covenanting activities. (The government offered an indemnity, called the Bond of Peace (The Black Bond), to any person who would agree never to take up arms again against the king, and who would swear an oath acknowledging that the battle at Bothwell Bridge was a rebellion, not a defense.) Only two hundred and fifty men refused to agree to the amnesty, (That more did not accept the Black Bond might be down to the work of John Blackader, who wrote to the prisoners, strongly urging them to remain faithful to the cause.) and these were placed on a ship to be deported to Barbados.  The ship was the Crown of London, owned by a Mr William Paterson, and it was so small that there was no room for all the Covenanters on board.  The ship sailed on 27th November, and by 10th December 1679 had reached Orkney, where it anchored for the night. (The ship had actually safely docked at the port of Deersound, Orkney, where the captain was advised to wait in port for the weather to improve.  He refused to listen to this advice and sailed again the next morning, moving out into the heavy Atlantic swell.  The ship floundered off Deerness.  The crew escaped only by cutting down a mast and using it as a bridge ashore, while prisoners who tried to do the same were forced by their captors into the raging sea.) A storm caused the anchor to drag, and the ship moved towards rocks.  The captain, reckoned to be a heartless, cruel man, ordered that the hatches be fastened, so that the Covenanters could not escape, and then gave the order for all others to abandon ship.  Forty-nine Covenanters survived, and two hundred and nine perished in the fierce seas as the ship was thrust upon the rocks.


To be continued…

From → Covenanters

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