Saturday, January 14, 2012

General George Monck and the Siege of Dundee

In the late summer of 1651, Scotland's fortunes were at a very low ebb indeed. Her field army had suffered a decisive defeat at the hands of English Commonwealth forces at the the battle of Dunbar (3 September 1650) and the nearest thing she had to a Government, the Committee of Estates, had been captured at Alyth in Perthshire during the night of 27/28 August by Colonel Alured at the head of a party of 8,000 English horse. King Charles II had led his army out of Scotland and into England at the end of July and only a few scattered garrisons remained to defend the country.

Although Oliver Cromwell had led the bulk of the Commonwealth forces in Scotland south in early August in pursuit of Charles II, a substantial English army remained behind under the command of General George Monck. These men did not stand idle after the capture of the Committee of Estates, but set about reducing the remaining strongholds that were still held by the Scots in the name of Charles II.

Stirling Castle fell on August 14, surrendering on terms after a brief siege. By August 23 Monck was at Perth, where his troops received supplies of cheese, biscuits and other essentials sent by ship from England. On 26 August Monck formally 'summoned' Dundee, in other words he invited the defenders to capitulate on terms. However, the Royalist Governor, Sir Robert Lumsdaine, not only refused by suggested that instead Monck and his army should lay down their arms and accept the King's grace. (It must be remembered that Charles II was still in the field in England at this time, and his comprehensive defeat at Worcester (3 September 1651) was still a thing of the future.)

Dundee was a well-fortified, walled town, which had previously seen off an attack by the Marquis of Montrose. The Governor's confidence is therefore understandable.

The rules of war at this time were harsh, and were to remain unchanged well into the 19th Century. If a garrison surrendered immediately on summons, it could usually expect generous terms. If it resisted for a time and then yielded, it might still receive reasonable terms. However, if it resisted and was eventually taken by storm, any mercy shown was purely at the discretion of the victor. Men taken in arms might lawfully be shot or put to the sword, and although civilians were nominally protected it was the usual custom to allow the victorious troops to loot and rape to their hearts' content for at least twenty-four hours. Obviously if a civilian male picked up a weapon to defend his family he was likely to be killed without question. In an age when uniforms were by no means standardised, even where they existed at all, it was not always straightforward to distinguish between a soldier and a civilian anyway.

This may seem barbarous, but the intention was to encourage garrisons to yield before a 'practicable breach' had been made in their defences. The storming of a fortification was an horrendous business for the attackers as well as the defenders. Many of them would inevitably be killed or badly wounded and it was necessary to provide them with 'incentives'. Some might hope to be promoted, but for the majority the prospect of several hours looting a town without restraint was reward enough.

By 29 August siege guns, including mortar pieces were in place and the following night, amid wet and stormy weather, they were 'played upon the town'.

Late on 31 August Monck was reinforced by two regiments of horse who had been out on patrol (and defeated 400 Scottish cavalry while they were about it) and was now in a position to storm the town. Next day began with a heavy exchange of artillery fire, lasting some two or three hours until large breaches were made in the fortifications. At 11 o'clock the English, with their field cry 'God with us' broke into the town in two separate places. Hand-to-hand fighting continued for half-an-hour, when some of the Scots retreated into the church. They were overtaken by the English and at least five hundred soldiers and townsmen were killed, including the Governor, against around twenty English killed. The large disparity strongly suggests that many, perhaps even the great majority, were cut down in the rout. When the English reached the market-place, quarter was given to another five hundred Scots.

One source I came across claimed that 2,000 were killed, including 200 women and children - it is hard to be definitive about such matters at this date, when the losing side inevitably magnified casualties for propaganda purposes. The 500 dead can perhaps be taken as a minimum.

Although the English soldiers were given an 'official' twenty-four hours to plunder the town, attacks on inhabitants and their possessions went on for a further fortnight despite Monck's attempts to stop them. Given that the New Model Army was one of the most professional and disciplined armed forces in Europe this was completely inexcusable, even by the standards of the time.

I have a long-standing interest in the Civil War in the Three Kingdoms, but until very recently I had never heard of the massacre of Dundee, which is very odd when the whole world, his wife and his cat knows about the similar events at Drogheda for which Oliver Cromwell is held responsible. I have difficulty in accounting for this discrepancy, except to point out that in 1660 General George Monck was instrumental in restoring Charles II to his throne, after which nothing bad could be said about him. Whereas after 1660, nothing was too bad to say about Cromwell.

For anyone who would like to know more about events in Scotland at this time I strongly recommend Cromwellian Scotland by Frances Dow, the book which first brought the sad events at Dundee to my notice.

Brian Wainwright is the author of Within the Fetterlock a novel about the life of Constance of York, the cousin of Richard II and Henry IV and The Adventures of Alianore Audley a light-hearted novel about a Yorkist intelligence agent which is really a parody of the genre. The Open Fetterlock, published in Kindle format only, is not a novel as such but contains extracts from several abandoned or indefinitely postponed manuscripts. He is currently working (very slowly) on a number of projects.


  1. I am not familiar with the Scottish regional action of the Civil War at all. But just from what you are saying, there appears to be a little mystery as to why the slaughter, rape, and pillage went on as long as it did. Perhaps an incident during the siege or just afterward touched it off. Horrid it all seems from looking back on it.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Apparently Monck was 'ill'. And eventually he did crack down, hard. But it's hard to explain such a break down of discipline in what was (by the standards of the time) a very professional army.

    Of course, things did not improve for centuries - if you're interested read up about what happened under Wellington at Badajez. War always bears down hard on the innocent, the difference today is the slaughter is inflicted from a safe distance, not hand-to-hand.

  3. Such atrocities need to be seen within the context of the ideological/religious wars that rent all of Europe in the 17th century. And within that context, I regret to say, they're normal. Part of the mindset of the troops during these wars involves seeing the 'other side' as an instrument of the devil and therefore deserving of the worst of fates--it's an exercise is dehumanising the opposing force, and gives no quarter. And Cromwell and his men were firmly of the opinion that God was on their side and therefore all they did was divinely sanctioned. (Even as Henry V believed the same thing at the siege of Harfleur...)

  4. Barbara Gaskell Denvil (author of SATIN CINNABAR)January 15, 2012 at 1:16 PM

    Fascinating article - thanks Brian. Not my era, but I stayed in Dundee for some months and there were certainly some old grudges held against the English, with the names Monck and Cromwell both loathed - along with quite a few others of course.
    A fortnight's raiding and raping sounds like a nightmare beyond belief. The wretched suffering of the past is often hard to imagine.

  5. I don't think its just Monck vs. Cromwell--it's also Irish national identity vs. Scottish national identity. The Cromwellian period is central in Irish national memory--it really isn't for Scotland. The Scots prefer to remember their victories over the English than their defeats, as a rule.

  6. Regarding Dundee vs. Drogheda, I don't think its just Monck vs. Cromwell--it's also Scottish vs. Irish national memory. The Cromwellian period looms large in Irish national memory in a way it doesn't for Scotland. The Scots seem to prefer to remember their victories over the English rather than their defeats.

  7. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  8. Part of the contention in Dundee may be accounted for by the fact that remains of the dead still get regularly dug up with building works in the city and so the story is relived.
    Also the English stole circa 200k gold coins and much other wealth that day all of which was lost in a storm on its way south.
    So not only did they murder, rape, torture but they also stole the wealth of the rich in the south of Scotland.


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