Northumberland in the British Civil Wars

This month’s local history focus is Northumberland and we’re kicking things off with a look at the county during the British Civil Wars. Dr David Scott, senior research fellow in our Commons 1640-1660 project, explores the county torn between Scotland to the North and the rest of England to the South.

Northumberland in the eyes of Stuart England’s not-so-liberal elite was one of ‘the dark corners of the land’ – a county where the light of southern Protestantism and civility still struggled to penetrate. A century or more later and the border counties, like the Scottish Highlands, would be admired by those of refined sensibility for the wild beauty of their scenery and the supposedly unaffected simplicity of their inhabitants. But a rather less romantic view of the region prevailed in the seventeenth century. The London cartographer Richard Blome described Northumberland in 1673 as ‘a county of a sharp and piercing air and…thinly inhabited, which is occasioned through its near neighbourhood to Scotland and its barrenness, being for the most part exceeding rough, hilly and very hard to be manured’ (R. Blome, Britannia (1673), 179).

‘Near neighbourhood to Scotland’ was a particularly black mark against Northumberland’s name – but not one that its inhabitants would have contested. The accession of the Scottish king James VI to the English throne in 1603 had consigned the Border Reivers and the ‘debateable lands’ to history; and gone too, or so it seemed, was the threat of invasion from Scotland. But old fears and animosities died hard. Early-Stuart Northumbrians generally shared the view of the border magnate, Algernon Percy, 10th earl of Northumberland, that Scotland was a ‘beggarly nation’, in every way England’s inferior (The Earl of Strafforde’s Letters and Dispatches ed. W. Knowler (1739), ii. 186).

Sir Algernon Percy 10th Earl of Northumberland, His First Wife Lady Anne Cecil, and their Eldest Daughter, Lady Catherine Percy. Anthony van Dyck, c.1633. National Trust, Petworth House

The Scots’ friends in Northumberland were mostly confined to Newcastle and the town’s few hundred or so puritans, who looked northwards to their fellow godly Calvinists for support. Newcastle’s merchant princes, on the other hand, looked southwards to London and its insatiable demand for coal. The Tyne Valley coalfield was the largest in England, and huge profits were to be made mining, shipping and vending coal to feed the capital’s hearths and stoves. ‘This great trade hath made this part to flourish in all trades’, observed one Northumbrian in 1649, and had powered Newcastle past York as northern England’s largest and wealthiest town (W. Gray, Chorographia, or a Survey of Newcastle upon Tine (1649), 37).

Charles I’s wars against his rebellious Scottish subjects in 1639-40 brought home to Northumbrians, quite literally, the old evils of life on England’s northern frontier. When the Scots had last invaded Northumberland, in 1513, they had had been turned back just south of the border; when they did so in 1640 their victorious army occupied the entire county and garrisoned Newcastle. Having marched out of northern England in 1641, the Scots marched back in again early in 1644 – this time at the invitation of Parliament to help defeat the king in the English civil war.

Map of Tyneside, taken from Ralph Gardiner’s petition ‘England’s grievance discovered, in relation to the coal trade’, 1655. Via Tyne and Wear Archives

Hatred of the Scots and their puritanical religion (Presbyterianism) turned Northumberland solidly royalist in the civil war and swelled the ranks of the ‘Whitecoats’ – the Northumbrian brigade that refused to surrender at the battle of Marston Moor and was wiped out by Scottish and parliamentarian cavalry. The Scots’ second occupation of Northumberland and the surrounding counties lasted fully three years, until early 1647, during which time their pay-starved troops committed such ‘infinite oppressions and extortions’ that many northern parliamentarians became as vehemently anti-Scottish as the royalists (Bodl. Nalson IV, f. 212v). At Westminster, meanwhile, the more the Scots tried to foist their authoritarian brand of Presbyterianism onto Parliament, the more convinced were some MPs of the need for at least limited religious toleration and for an end to Scottish interference in English affairs. Heading this anti-Scottish party – a faction known as the Independents – were the earl of Northumberland and the New Model Army’s second-in-command Oliver Cromwell, whose Ironsides had joined in the slaughter of the Whitecoats at Marston Moor.

The Independents’ domination at Westminster provoked yet another Scottish invasion of England, in 1648 – this time in support of the king rather than Parliament. Battered and bruised by their experiences in the first civil war, most Northumberland royalists sat this second one out. Besides, few of them were eager to fight alongside the Scots even against fanatical puritans like Cromwell. Indeed, the ruinous impact of the second civil war on the region would push some Northumbrians in a decidedly radical direction themselves. The mayor of Newcastle and 80 freemen petitioned Parliament in October 1648, requesting that ‘full and exemplary justice be done upon the great incendiaries of the kingdom [i.e. the king and his abettors], the fomenters of, and actors in, the first and second war and the late bringing in of the Scots’ (The Moderate, no. 14 (10-17 Oct. 1648), 115-16, 120 (E.468.2)). Charles’s execution in January 1649 occasioned no regret from the town’s leaders, merely disappointment that he had ‘died like a desperate ignorant Roman – nothing we can see in him tending to a true Christian or the power of godliness’ (The Moderate, no. 30 (30 Jan.-6 Feb. 1649), 295-6 (E.541.15)).

Among the 59 men who signed the king’s death warrant was Newcastle’s MP John Blakiston. The high proportion of northern MPs among the regicides may well reflect hopes in the region that cutting off the king’s head would also sever the regnal union between England and Scotland and end any further danger of the Scots invading in support of ‘their’ king. But the Scots clung obstinately to the idea of a British monarchy and invaded England a fourth time, in 1651, in the cause of Charles II. The overwhelming reaction among Northumbrians to Cromwell’s subsequent defeat of the Scots (at Worcester) and conquest of Scotland was probably one of wearied relief.

Northumberland suffered its final invasion when the English army in Scotland under General George Monck crossed the border late in 1659 en route to London and a bloodless campaign that would end with the restoration of the monarchy in May 1660. Newcastle sent a loyal address to Charles II, expressing the hope that he would ‘unite a divided church, compose a distracted kingdom and ease an oppressed people’ (CSP Dom. 1660-1, p. 4). But the legacy of two decades on the front-line of Britain’s civil wars could not be wished away so easily. The threat of Scottish invasion steadily receded from the 1650s. However, the trauma of war, occupation and regicide had opened divisions in Northumbrian society that would linger for generations.


You can find previous blog from our ‘Local History’ series here. Follow the work of the Commons 1640-1660 project via the James I to Restoration section of our blog.

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