Napoleonic, WSS & ECW wargaming, with a load of old Hooptedoodle on this & that

Monday 20 February 2017

Not Quite the Siege of Newcastle 1644 – (2) What Really Happened

…and why it won’t make a very good game without serious revision of the narrative.

First thing to know about the Siege of Newcastle is that it doesn’t get a lot of coverage. If you read Peter Young, or CV Wedgwood, or Gardiner, or just about any of the respectable general histories, then you will find either no mention at all or else a casual one-liner about the town having eventually fallen to Parliament. It goes without saying that it was a matter of the greatest importance to the people who lived there at the time, but by the time the place surrendered the war had moved on elsewhere, and the final capture was in any case a foregone conclusion.

What follows is a summary of my understanding of what happened – it will certainly reflect my own limited attention span and the fact that most of my sources are Scottish, so I would not recommend that you base your homework on it without checking further!

Alexander Leslie, Earl of Leven
When the Earl of Leven led the Scottish Covenanter army into Northumberland on the 19th January 1644, he expected to reach the Tyne by the 27th. He appears to have had no intention of undertaking any kind of formal siege – the town of Newcastle had surrendered to him without resistance in 1639, during the brief Bishops’ Wars, and there seemed every chance that the same thing would happen now. Leven’s army did not have the best of either luck or weather on their march, and did not reach Newcastle until 3rd February, by which time the principal Royalist in the Northern Counties, the Earl of Newcastle (whom I shall henceforth refer to as William Cavendish, to avoid confusion), had managed to reach the town with some 4000 troops. Leven’s request that the gates be opened to him was dismissed out of hand. Since his heavy artillery was still en route, having been sent by ship from Leith to Blyth, his bluff was called, though he probably had in the region of 17000 soldiers under arms.

William Cavendish, Earl (later Marquis) of Newcastle
Newcastle stands on the River Tyne, at a point where the river was a very serious military obstacle – from Newcastle to the sea there was no crossing point, and there were Royalist forts at the mouth of the Tyne, at Tynemouth and South Shields, which hindered naval blockade of the port. On the western side of the town the nearest ford was at Newburn, some 7 miles upstream, with another at Heddon on the Wall, maybe another 2 miles. Across the river from Newcastle was the town of Gateshead (referred to as Gatesyde in contemporary Scottish accounts), which commanded the other end of the only bridge.

View across the Tyne from Gateshead, showing the only bridge

If Leven were immediately to set up a formal siege of the town of Newcastle, he would have no control of the south bank of the Tyne, and the forts would enable an amount of maritime traffic to persist – blockade or no, boats are known to have continued to take coal from Newcastle to Hamburg, and maybe Rotterdam, and return with supplies including armaments. The wider strategic demands of the war required the Scottish army to be available further afield, and the cost and delay of a siege at this point were not appealing. Without better control of the river, a besieging army could not even seal off the town.

Leven decided to move on – he left 6 regiments of foot and some cavalry under James Lumsden to watch the town, and marched the bulk of his army to the western fords and thence south towards Sunderland (which was favourably disposed toward Parliament), which became his base of operations for a while. He captured the fort at South Shields (though it subsequently changed hands again), and managed to outmanoeuvre Cavendish’s field army (which apparently had left the “blockaded” town of Newcastle pretty much at will) fairly consistently through a short campaign which included the indecisive action at Boldon Hill (see previous game report from last year).

At this point news reached Cavendish of Parliament’s capture of Selby, in Yorkshire, which increased the threat against York, so that he chose to march south to support the Royalist effort in Yorkshire. Leven followed him, and in July both forces were involved in the Battle of Marston Moor, which pretty much destroyed any effective Royalist control in the North. In addition, it resulted in Cavendish quitting the country (he moved to Germany to avoid being humiliated at court, since Prince Rupert managed to place most of the blame for the defeat with him) and may have marked the beginning of some disaffection between Cromwell and the Covenanters.

After Marston Moor, York surrendered, and Leven turned his attention once again to Newcastle, which town’s situation was now hopeless – there was no possibility of a relief force.

James Livingston, Earl of Callander
A reinforcement had been sent from Scotland for Leven’s ragged and weary troops – the Earl of Callander arrived with a further 8000 men, and set about the south bank of the Tyne with some vigour. He recaptured the forts at the mouth of the Tyne, and took Gateshead on 27th July – the riverfront, castle and port of Newcastle could now be fired upon from across the river. With the forts lost, the town was now sealed off, and hunger was added to the miseries of the townspeople.

Sir John Marley, Mayor and Military Commander of
Newcastle during the siege
Callander placed a pontoon bridge across the river to the east of the town, near Ouseburn, and Leven’s engineers did the same upstream, on the west side. By September there were batteries placed all around the town, there was mining work under way. Then began a long drawn-out series of letters between Leven and Sir John Marley, the mayor of Newcastle. Hostages were exchanged, formal parties were sent to negotiate. Marley merely wished to play for time. He later claimed that any demands he could make on the armies of Parliament, any nuisance he could offer, struck a blow for his king, but there may have been some wisdom in his strategy. Winter was coming, enthusiasm for a siege which would yield little must have been waning among the Scots. The defenders managed a couple of successful sorties, though their resources were very limited, and successfully destroyed a few mines, and some of Callander’s men were returned to Scotland, to help with the growing problem of the Marquis of Montrose. Eventually, Leven’s patience ran out, and on the 19th October a major bombardment breached the walls in a number of places, and this was followed by a full assault. The town fell quite quickly – the invaders were surprised how quickly the streets were empty, as the civilian fighters went home to hide and have their wounds tended to.

The Keep of Newcastle Castle
Marley and a few of the firebrands locked themselves in the castle, and left the townspeople to cope with the aftermath. An attempt to renew the exchange of demands was ignored by Leven, and when the castle ran out of food Marley, too, surrendered. Legend has it that he required a bodyguard to protect him from the ire of the citizens.


So – as a game?

The early period of confrontation in February is not promising – the Scots’ inability to seal off the river and the port is crucial, and after the main army marched south they had enough strength only to mask the town.

By October the forces are overwhelmingly uneven – the Royalists have no food, insufficient troops, old-fashioned fortifications and no chance at all of relief or reinforcement. A siege in such circumstances has, potentially, to quote the Mad Padre, all the fascination of a slow-motion movie of someone being hit by a bus.

I am working on some tweaks to give a more evenly-balanced game! More later... 

The Durham Tower today...

...and the Herber Tower...

...the Walls near Newgate Street...

...and at Orchard Street


  1. That's a nice clear account of the siege. What seems surprising is why the Scots didn't simply batter the walls down earlier without the need for a full investment if the walls were simply medieval. Obviously the Royalists would have been able to get supplies in but if it wasn't a long drawn out regular siege it wouldn't have mattered much. Or had there been some improvement with earthworks and the like?

    1. Good question Chris. There had been some work done to strengthen the walls, an outwork had been constructed, and the forts at the mouth of the Tyne were new and effective. A couple of things to think about:

      (1) First, and maybe most important, is that I believe Leven was gobsmacked (to use a military term) that the town didn't just surrender when he arrived. He was also very surprised that Cavendish had brought at least part of his field army into the town (and he would have no clear idea of the strength, since - apart from anything else - this force had been growing rapidly).

      (2) The width of the Tyne and the lack of crossings meant that the entire port was pretty much wide open from the sea - anything or anybody could come in the back door - it would require a hefty effort to shut that door.

      (3) The Scots army had had an arduous march through harsh conditions, and it had a long way to go to support the Fairfaxes and the Eastern Association - the first and obvious objective of taking Newcastle meant that the major north east Royalist port would be closed (Bridlington was the fall back), and - very importantly - supplies of coal to Parliamentarian London would be restored. To emphasise, I think it was a nasty surprise that Newcastle didn't surrender straight away. Plan B was not readily available.

      (4) There are mutterings - contemporary and subequently - that Leven was past his best days. Hard to get a clear picture now, because of the subsequent politics. The Scots' involvement was a huge coup for Parliament, but it was achieved largely through Pym's straight fib that Presbyterianism would become the principal faith of England. No-one, especially Cromwell, had any intention of keeping this promise, and there was a further issue in that Parliament could not raise the money to pay the Scots the promised sums. Any reading of Marston Moor makes it fairly clear that the Scottish part in that victory is heavily disputed, and much of that is - also clearly - because Cromwell wished to discredit his allies. Ultimately this has more importance at the end of the Covenanters' involvement in the First War, but it does seem to effect the reporting of the earlier bits as well.

      (5) When we consider what-ifs, it makes me wonder why Parliament couldn't simply have sent a strong naval squadron up to the Tyne, and bombarded the forts and the town into acquiescence. Maybe the navy wasn't as strong as I had thought?

    2. I have a wild notion, having spent a happy couple of hours once scribbling down notes from Prof. Terry's book on Scottish ordnance supplies in the National Library of Scotland.
      If I remember aright (and the notes are at home and I'm not) Leven's army included 84 'feeld peeces'. Normal practice was that a field piece in the Civil War was a demi culverin - a 9 pdr, which would probably have done damage to a mediaeval wall even though all the heavier guns had been left behind.
      BUT - there seem to have been surprisingly few 9lb shot for all those guns.
      So, either, they didn't have ammunition to use all those guns (in which case why drag them all that way) or a Scottish feeld peece isn't a 9 pdr.
      They had plenty of 3lb shot, but it's generally believed that the fframes were 3 pdrs and that's what these were for.
      My wild theory is that nearly all the guns Leven had managed to drag through the mud to Newcastle were 3pdrs, against which even mediaeval walls might be proof, and that fframes fired something smaller, e.g volleys of musket balls (of which the army had plenty.)
      Now waiting to be shot down in flames ....

    3. Chris (G) - that's interesting - I understand that there were 24pdrs sent by boat from Leith, but they didn't arrive until the 8th Feb or so - too late to point at the defenders to add threat. Terry's book on Alex Leslie explains that the Scots had ingenious lightweight guns which could be carried on a horse, and which fired a 12lb shot. I think this may be borrowed from Lithgow - seems a bit fishy to me. A gun you could carry on a horse would be likely to take off backwards with a speed approaching that of the 12lb shot. Still, they had leather guns and lots of clever stuff, and they had the notorious "Dear Sandie" Hamilton, so maybe anything is possible.

      May I say that I am delighted to think that you spent some hours counting ammunition in George IV Bridge library - I used to do a lot of stuff like that in there, and was gradually convinced (by friends and family) that there must be something wrong with me.

    4. Pretty much the current Mrs G's view....

      Ok, I may be mad, but loading a gun light enough to carry on a horse with sufficient powder to propel a 12lb shot? Nah.

    5. I was idly googling Charles Sanford Terry, the noted historian, to see which book of his would have the ordnance supplies stuff in. I was mildly surprised to see that there was another Charles Sanford Terry who was a musicologist, composer and arranger, collector and cataloguer and expert on the works of Bach, close friend of Edward Elgar, etc. Funny, I thought (as one does), not a common name that - same bloke. Well, well. Renaissance Man was alive and well at the end of the 19th Century - nice one, CST. I admire people like that.

    6. Quite so, me too.
      Not like me, who got the whole numbers thing bum about face. At home now to check notes - apart from the big stuff, the Scots army in Feb 1644 had 6 iron demi-culverin, 42 brass 'field pieces' and 88 case of fframes.
      Strikes me that the way these are listed suggests that demi-culverins and field pieces are different, as well as being made of a different metal.

      To reinforce my pet theory above, an item noted on 26th May 1644:
      "Given out a Midlethorpe(sic)[a village south of York where the Scots were billeted during the siege of that city]for charging the fframes: 100lb powder, 100 musket balls.

      It was:
      Scottish History Society, Second Series
      Published: Edinburgh, 1917
      Title: Papers relating to the army of the Solemn League and Covenant, 1643-1647, Vol 1.
      Edited with an introduction by Charles S. Terry.(Bless him!)
      Contents: The Scottish Articles and ordinances of warre from the London 1644 edition; account of arms and ammunition for the expedition to England, 1644-7; account of Sir Adam Hepburn of Humbie of money belonging to the Scottish army in England, 1644-5.

    7. Thanks for this - again, interesting.

      In passing.... I have now changed my house ECW rules for the lightest categories of artillery - especially frames. These now appear as attachments to regiments of foot - unlike other types of artillery, they do not appear as distinct combat units. A foot unit has a light gun attached just like a status marker - they add one combat die (Commands & Colors speak) to their fire effect - the range is unaltered, and they can lose the gun if an artillery hit turns up against them. Implication is that smallest artillery has about same effective range as muskets. I don't care if this is not strictly true - it is so convenient that I am currently using it!

    8. For what it's worth, I've done pretty much the same for our house Civil War rules. While I can't prove it's right, nothing I've read convinces me it's wrong!

    9. On the subject of demiculverins - I know little about the official classifications and names of Renaissance cannon, and every time I open another authoritative book it seems to disagree with all the others. The map in the Late Edit section at the end of my "Sanity Check" post (2 back) shows guns classified by Sir Jacob Astley into "small gunnes" capable of being mounted on top of the towers on Newcastle's walls, and demiculverins which were to be put behind barricades inside the gates, and which presumably were less small.

    10. A very sensible gentleman. It is a bit bewildering at times. I think it's down to early renaissance ordnance not being mass produced and names were only rationalised later, not always consistently. Ordnance firing the same weight of shot sometimes seems to have gone under a variety of names and I don't know if that's down to different use or construction, e.g. is a Bastard Culverin (12pdr) lighter than a Quarter Cannon (12pdr)? For field use rather than battery?
      Now I'm making it up as I go along.

  2. Thanks for the answer Tony. Thought-provoking stuff. Just shows I suppose that there is more to this generalship lark than I thought. Hadn't thought about the lack of intelligence on how many troops Newcastle had poured into err, Newcastle.

    Maybe the psychological factors as you say were really key. If the initial expectation was that the city would fall as in '39, and the temptation was to fight the good fight in Yowkshire, then the plum would fall (as it eventually did anyway) if the field army was successful. Maybe a wise choice by an old campaigner trying to avoid bloodshed. Especially given the civil nature of the conflict.

    And whither the role of the Parliamentarian navy? To say nothing of factional politics between Presbyterians and Independents.

    This is one of the things that fascinates me about the ECW. So many aspects to it that don't fit into neat strategical boxes.

    Great stuff. Look forward to hearing how you balance up the game.

    1. I think your "trying to avoid bloodshed" bit is the maybe the most insightful comment of this entire post. The attitude of the citizens of Newcastle to the Scots was traditionally hostile, but that was mostly based on centuries of border fighting. The 1639 occupation was a nuisance and was humiliating, for sure, but the general view is that the Scottish troops behaved surprisingly well in the circumstances, and Leven made particular efforts to make sure all people who had troops billeted on them were compensated - mind you, he did receive a few hundred thousand quid from King Charles to go away!

      Back to 1644. Given a choice, I don't think either side would choose a solution that destroyed an important town or killed a lot of innocents - not at this stage of the war, anyway. And then there was London's coal supply to consider...

    2. Meant to add...

      At one point during the September/October siege a viable hole was knocked in the walls, but there was no storm, and the defenders effected some form of botched barricade. Throughout the lengthy negotiation with Marley, Leven used the power of his artillery to influence the diplomatic proceedings rather than just take the town - if you read the letters (and they're all in the C S Terry book) Leven exercised astonishing restraint for a long time. Maybe he'd seen enough bloodshed in the 30YW? Maybe, as a religious man, he felt that he should? Maybe, after all, he was getting past it?

      In some ways the length of time the letters went on, the more Marley might have come to believe that he could spin this out forever - Leven's lengthy wait before the storm (and in London the delay was severely criticised by many) may have been a little counterproductive.

      Sorry - at this point I am making it up! - must be already brewing the scenario narrative.