The Battle of Bothwell Bridge

Here are some details of the Battle of Bothwell Bridge and its aftermath, abridged from Alexander Smellie’s “Men of the Covenant”.

The Battle of Bothwell Bridge

After the Sabbath-day on which they sent Claverhouse flying at Drumclog, the Covenanters knew that they must hold together, because their enemies would muster soon to punish them. They grew rapidly in numbers. Within three weeks the two hundred and fifty had multiplied into a legion of between five and six thousand. Probably the ultimate issues of the campaign were never in doubt; the soldiers of the Kirk could not vanquish the overwhelming forces which the King was able to send against them. But, for months, they might have maintained a guerilla war, and, in the end, have extorted from their persecutors terms which were not unfavourable. They were themselves to blame that the result was mournfully different.

Their foes on this occasion were not Charles Stuart, and the Duke of Lauderdale, and General Dalzell, and John Graham; they were the men of their own household. The little band of fighters had pursued their adversaries till they were within sight of the gates of Glasgow, and then called a halt. They were worn with the battle and the chase, and the King had a considerable garrison in the town. So they withdrew for the meantime; and yet they came back soon: Glasgow was a prize worth making an effort to win. Lord Ross hurriedly threw up barricades and stationed his musketeers.

It was still early on the morning of Monday when the Covenanters appeared. But their assault was badly managed and futile. From behind the barricades the guns of the Royal troops flashed out flame and death. At least seven were killed, and their comrades were compelled to beat a retreat. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday were spent by the Whigs in marching to and fro. But in this interval the men who had repulsed them were ordered by the inconclusive Earl of Linlithgow, who had arrived with his army, to leave their quarters within the gates and join his regiments outside. The Covenanters were quickly appraised of this.

They marched again to Glasgow, and stationed themselves in and around the place: it was in their hands now. This was on Friday the 6th of June. Ever since their success on the Sabbath, they had been gathering new recruits. From Ayrshire, from Renfrew, from Lanark, from Stirling in the north and Galloway in the south, companions hastened to join them. Already they were so formidable that the rebellion began to trouble the authorities not only in Holyrood but in Whitehall. But they kept Sir Robert Hamilton in the chief command, a young man whose thirtieth birthday was still in front of him and whose fondness for dissent in its most intransigent varieties had turned him into a “crackbrained enthusiast”. He could not brook the presence of anyone who failed to see each of the many facets of truth from the same angle as himself. An exclusiveness so rigid did infinite harm to others, and wrecked the army of the Covenant. His was the Hard Church which believes in a Hard Master, which thinks that it is not the endurance, but the infliction of hardness that makes a true soldier of Christ, which walks about like a theological detective, without any care or compassion for the sins of the defaulters it arrests.

Every new band of helpers, as it arrived, was compelled to declare itself for the party of rigour or for that of comprehension; there was no permission to see the truth on both sides. The army determined, at one stage, to draw up a manifesto -a “Declaration”. But over this the leaders quarrelled: Hamilton and his intimates demanding a definite repudiation of the Indulgence; the others answering that “neither were we a Parliament nor a General Assembly” to judge such matters, and that, “if we meddled with them, it would hinder many to come who would be as willing as we, and would make friends to become enemies.” Hot words were spoken. More than once the moderate men were on the eve of leaving; it needed John Welsh’s eloquence and the near approach of the common enemy to prevent them from departing in heartache and despair.

And all the while, their doom drew closer to them. From London a large force had been despatched; and, when this was added to the Scottish contingents, the Royalists numbered about fifteen thousand horse and foot. The young Duke of Monmouth, Charles’s son and, meantime at least, Charles’s favourite, had the principal command. He was popular for his good looks, his courtesy, his Protestantism, although his Protestantism was neither very intelligent nor very ardent. He was disposed, too, to lenient courses; it was an encouraging omen for the Covenanters that he received the first place and that Dalzell had to be content with standing second. Many of them were inclined to negotiate with Monmouth; and, though the extremists resisted the proposal, the moderate men managed to carry the point. Another Sabbath had come round, the third since Drumclog. Soon after daybreak, two envoys went to interview the Duke -David Hume and a Galloway landlord named Murdoch. He gave them a not unkindly welcome, and listened while they read the Declaration of some days before. Then he answered that their petition ought to have been worded in humbler terms, but that, if they were willing to lay down their arms, he had no intention to deal harshly. They returned to their comrades to report how they had fared. But the proviso about disarming was a fatal obstacle. Sir Robert Hamilton laughed loudly when he heard it. “Yes, and hang next !” he said. Manifestly the strife must be fought out to the end.

Yet there was another pause before the artillery began to play. Hume and his friend had something more to ask, and Major Maine went over from the King’s lines to ascertain what it was. Had not Monmouth brought with him, they inquired, ” terms of accommodation from England ” ? and would he acquaint them with their purport ? But these were questions to which the General was not prepared to give any reply. The parleyings were over, and the time for decisive action had arrived.

The combatants confronted each other on opposite banks of the Clyde. Between them was the old and steep and narrow Bridge of Bothwell, not more than twelve feet wide, and guarded in the centre with a gatehouse. The King’s army was much the larger. It was well officered. The Duke of Monmouth led the cavalry, the Earl of Linlithgow the infantry. Claverhouse rode at the head of his dragoons, and the Earls of Home and Airlie were in command of their respective troops; Lord Mar held a command of foot. Dalzell’s commission, much to his annoyance, was late in arriving from London; and he did not get to the scene of the action until everything was over.

The advantages of position were with the Presbyterians. If they could only have abandoned their controversies, and gone to work singing the Drumclog Psalm, a new victory might have been theirs. But at Bothwell they were without unity, without buoyancy, without competent generalship. Let us listen to James Ure: ” We were not concerned with an enemy, as if there had not been one within a thousand miles of us. There were none went through the army, to see if we wanted powder and ball. I do really think there were few or none that had both powder and ball, to shoot twice.” The Covenanters had predestined themselves to failure and shame.

There were some who did their best. Ure was one, and Henry Hall was another; but the honours of the lamentable day are with David Hackston of Rathillet. For hours, with three hundred men of Galloway to aid him, the genuine and great-hearted soldier held the bridge. After awhile, the three hundred, wearied with their vigil and struggle, begged, not to be withdrawn, but to have reinforcements from the larger mass behind them; but no reinforcements were sent. Then they asked for ammunition, and were told that the ammunition was at an end. At last Hamilton gave them the order to fall back on the main body. They obeyed ” with sore hearts,” as Hackston writes; for they felt that the order was the last folly of this black and bitter Sabbath, and that now their fate was sealed. The barrier which hitherto had hindered its advance having been removed, the Royal artillery slowly and steadily crossed the Clyde; and soon, from the same bank as that on which they stood themselves, the Duke’s cannon poured death into the lines of the Whigs. Even yet the Royalist triumph might have been postponed. But a panic seized the Covenanters. Numbers of them fled recklessly and at random. Only Rathillet and his companions held their ground, until they too, seeing that all was over, retired from the moor in sullen silence. The rout was complete. By ten o’clock in the morning, every hope was extinguished; and from the King’s side a messenger took horse for Edinburgh, bearing news of the victory.

No fewer than four hundred perished in the death-chase; some accounts, indeed, would double that number. Twelve hundred were taken prisoners; and very many of these would have been massacred in cold blood, if Monmouth had not interposed. Bound two and two, they were dragged eastward to Edinburgh. No one on the wearisome road dared to extend to them a hand of succour. When the capital was reached, the mob greeted them with the taunt, “Where’s your God? where’s your God?” Two of the ministers, adherents of Welsh rather than of Robert Hamilton, were executed at the Mercat Cross. Five Covenanters were hanged on Magus Moor, though not one of them had a personal share in the death of the Archbishop. As the Edinburgh gaols could not hold the crowd of other prisoners, a part of Greyfriars churchyard was transmuted into a place of confinement; and into it they were penned like sheep.

Sentinels guarded them day and night. They were exposed to sun and rain, wind and weather; for there was no covering above their heads – none at least until, with the approach of winter, some wooden huts were erected, “mightily boasted as a great favour”. Their bed was the bare ground. They were poorly fed, and it was next to impossible for friends to convey any comfort to them. In this plight they lived “a life half dead, a living death, and buried”, until the dreary weeks of November. A few hundreds had been freed on their pledge to desist in the future from armed resistance ; here and there one, more fortunate than his comrades, had gained the goodwill of his gaolers; some had contrived to escape across the churchyard walls; some were dead. Only two hundred and fifty-seven remained out of the twelve hundred.

Early one November morning, they were marched by a party of soldiers from the Greyfriars to a vessel, the /library/bothwellbridge/thecrown.phtml”>Crown, lying in Leith Roads; the Privy Council had decreed that they should be banished to the West Indies, and sold for slaves. On board the ship their pains came to a climax. They were crowded under deck in a space not sufficient to hold one hundred people. Those with some health were forced to continue standing, that the sick and dying might lie down on the hard boards. Hour after hour, in the poisonous air, many fainted away. “All the troubles we met since Bothwell,” one of them, James Corson, wrote to his wife, ” were not to be compared to one day in our present circumstances. Our uneasiness is beyond words. Yet the consolations of God overbalance all; and I hope we are near our port, and heaven is open for us.”

Off the coast of Orkney, in a night of tempest, the captain ran his vessel close inshore and cast anchor, locking and chaining the hatches over the prisoners in the hold. In the darkness, at ten o’clock, the ship was dashed against the rocks, and was broken in two. The sailors made a bridge of the mast and escaped to the rough beach; nearly sixty of the Covenanters were able, in one way or in another, to follow their example. But the other two hundred were drowned, only a few of their bodies being washed to the land, to be buried at a place called Scarvating, where one may see the graves today.

Men of the Covenant

      by Alexander Smellie. (Edinburgh, Scotland: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1903 (1975 reprint)).
    The book, published originally by Andrew Melrose, and more recently reprinted by The Banner of Truth Trust, has an illustration of the monument at Deerness, Orkney, to the Covenanters drowned in the Crown. Alexander Smellie (1857-1923) was a minister in the Original Secession Church.

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