The Siege and Capture of Newcastle

At this time 372 years a Covenanter army from Scotland under the command of Lord General Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven (spelt Lesley in the account below)and Lieutenant General James Livingstone, 1st Earl of Callander were storming Newcastle.  The City had been under siege since 15th August 1644.  The western half fell on 19th October and the commander of the Royalist garrison, Governor Sir John Marlay negotiated the surrender of the city on 21st October after retreating to the Castle Keep.  The fall of Newcastle to the forces of Parliament signalled the end of Royalist resistance in the North during the first phase of the English Civil War.

The following account of the siege and capture of Newcastle was published in March 1891 in the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend.

If you want to find out more about the siege check out some of the events which are being held at Newcastle Castle to mark the anniversary.



One of the most important incidents in the great Civil War was the siege and sack of Newcastle by the Scots in 1644. The town was conspicuously loyal. The Scots Covenanters, who had been the first to declare openly against the unfortunate Charles, were the objects of mingled hatred and contempt there. The bulk of the gentlemen of Northumberland and Durham shared heartily in these feelings. When Charles visited Newcastle in May, 1639, on his march northward against the Scots, he was magnificently entertained by the Mayor and magistrates. “All the town,” writes Rushworth, “seemed but as one man against the Scots in case of an invasion.” The Mayor, Mr. Alexander Davidson, and the Town Clerk, Mr. Thomas Riddell (son of Sir Thomas Riddell, the Recorder), were knighted by his Majesty. The town had previously been fortified at the charge of the inhabitants, according to the practice of former times. There were 1,500 men able to bear arms in the town and suburbs, besides the trained bands, and it was expected that at least a thousand more would come from the outlying districts for their own safety. Further, there were a troop of 100 horse, consisting of Northumbrian gentlemen of good estates and fortunes, who, all gallantly mounted, went to warfare at their own charges, not putting the King to any expense for their maintenance.

Never on earth, perhaps, since the days of Gideon and Judas Maccabeus, did so pious an army take the field as that of the Scots Covenanters when they invaded England, under Alexander Lesley, afterwards Earl of Leven, in the month of August, 1640. At every captain’s tent-door colours were flying, with the Scots arms upon them, and this motto in golden letters, “For Christ’s Crown and Covenant.” There were daily sermons from their ministers, and prayers morning and evening, under the canopy of heaven, to which the men were called by tuck of drum; and, besides this, reading the Scriptures aloud, praying and psalm-singing were to be heard in every tent. Both in numbers and discipline the Scots were likewise superior to the English. The battle of Newburn, in which the Covenanters defeated and routed the Royalists, spread panic among the English soldiers. In a council of war held at Newcastle, at twelve o’clock the night after the defeat, it was determined that the place was untenable, and Lord Conway accordingly forth-with abandoned it, and marched south into Yorkshire, leaving all the royal stores and magazines collected there as a prize to the victors. The occupation of the town, which the Scots entered the next day, gave them military possession of both the two North-Eastern Counties. The inhabitants were panic-struck, and offered no sort of opposition; and the magistrates seem to have merely considered how to make the bast terms they could. At this time, writes Rushworth:

Newcastle and the coal mines, that has wont to employ 10,000 people all the year long, some working under ground, some above, and others upon the water in keels or lighters, now not a man to be seen, not a coal wrought, all absconding, being possessed with a fear that the Scots would give no quarter; 400 ships using to be here at a time in the river, not a ship durst come in; an hundred and odd coming to the mouth of the haven the day after the fight, and hearing the Scots had possessed Newcastle, returned all empty, and tradesmen in the town for some days kept their shops shut; many families gone, leaving their goods to the mercy of the Scots, who possessed themselves of such corn, cheese, beer, &c., as they found, giving the owners thereof, or some in their stead, some money in band and security for the rest, to be paid at four or six months’ end in money or corn; and if they refuse, said the Scots, such is the necessity of their army that they must take it without security rather than starve.

Durham was in like manner deserted and occupied. The bishop forsook his flock and fled. For four days After the fighting not one shop in the city was open. Not one house in ten had either man, woman, or child in it. And not one bit of bread was to be had for money, for the King’s army had eaten and drunk all up in their march into Yorkshire. At Darlington much the same state of things existed. His Majesty’s troops swept the whole land north of the Tees of comestibles before they left it to its fate. They also ordered all the upper mill-stones to be broken or buried, everything of a movable nature to be removed, and the cattle and sheep to be driven off. It was to little purpose that the inhabitants petitioned the King for relief, and represented that they and their posterity were likely to be “ruinated and undone.” The King could not help them, and the Scots might harry them to their heart’s content, without let or hindrance. And so it was that the Scots compelled Durham to pay them £350 a day, Northumberland £300 a day, and Newcastle £200 a day, besides furnishing them with great quantities of hay and straw. Between the two contending parties, then, the people were woefully tested.

Early in August, 1641, the Scots, having received from the English Parliament a large sum of money, or the promise of it, quitted Newcastle. A few days after their departure, the King passed through the town, journeying North to pacify the malcontents across the Border, whence (having neither pleased his friends nor conciliated his enemies) he returned by the same route in November. By this time civil war was seen to be inevitable, and both parties were anxious to secure possession of Newcastle. An order to this effect was issued by the House of Commons; but the Royalist party were in the ascendant upon Tyneside, and the order was disobeyed. William Cavendish, Earl of Newcastle, being appointed governor of the town by the King, was warmly welcomed, and generously helped to put the district in an efficient state of defence. So highly gratified were the burgesses with both King and Earl that they lent his Majesty £700, and gave the Earl their honorary freedom.

In the month of January, 1644, another Scottish army, consisting of 18,000 foot and 3,000 horse, commanded by the same experienced general as before, crossed the Tweed to the assistance of Parliament in the midst of a severe storm. The King’s forces in Northumberland, under Sir Thomas Glenham, were very inferior in number, and their leaders laboured under the disadvantage of being of various ways of thinking. The Yorkshire gentlemen voted for devastating the country before the invaders, while the Northumbrians were naturally averse to seeing their estates laid waste, and proposed to return a conciliatory answer to the propositions of the Scots Commissioners. All agreed that it was impossible to meet the Soots in the field, and the result was that the King’s troops fell back, first over the Aln, and then over the Coquet, after some desultory skirmishes; and the Scots experienced no serious difficulty till they arrived under the walls of Newcastle, except such as bad roads and wretched weather occasioned.

General Lesley came before the town on Saturday, the 3rd of February, and summoned the place the same day. The Mayor and Corporation returned a resolute answer. In the evening the suburb of Sandgate, a poor place without the walls on the east side of the town, was set on fire to prevent the enemy from making his advances under cover. This was on Saturday night, and the suburb continued burning all Sunday and Monday. After three weeks’ waiting, seeing that the siege, or rather blockade, was likely to be a long and wearisome affair, Lesley determined to waste no more time. So he broke up his camp and marched to Heddon-on-the-Wall, leaving behind him only six regiments of foot and some troops of horse to hold the garrison in check. On the 28th of February the Scots crossed the Tyne, without opposition, at the three several fords of Ovingham, Bywell, and Eltringham. The next day they passed the Derwent at Ebchester, their foot crossing the river, which was both deep and rapid, being greatly flooded, in single file, over a bridge of trees. Two days afterwards they crossed the Wear, at the new bridge near Lumley, and on Monday, the 4th of March, they entered Sunderland. Marching and counter-marching up and down North Durham, with skirmishes at South Shields, Hylton, and other places filled up the time till the second week in August. Meanwhile, the battle of Marston Moor had completed the ruin of the King’s affairs in the North; and the surrender of York to the Parliamentarians left Newcastle the last bulwark of the Royal cause in this part of the kingdom. The Earl of Crawford and other Royalists had thrown themselves into the town. But General Lesley, having been joined by the Earl of Callendar, with a reserve army of 10,000 Scots, determined to make himself master of the place, and accordingly sat down before it on the 13th of August, beleaguering it on all sides.

The chief Scottish engineer, William Hunter, had formed a new kind of great guns, never before discovered, which were made purposely for this design, “above three-quarters of a yard long, or some a yard, that would carry a twelve-pound bullet, to do good execution at a good distance, and yet so formed that a horse might carry one of them.” The Scots also brought with them one hundred and twenty other great guns, and a train of ammunition, “very full and large.” We learn from “A True Impartial Relation of the Taking of Newcastle,” published by authority in 1644, and reprinted in 1825 as one of the Newcastle Typographical Society’s Tracts, that no fair means were unessayed to invite the townspeople for their own safety to surrender themselves “unto the Obedience of King and Parliament.” In a letter from “the Committee of both Kingdomes” to “the Mayor, Aldermen, Burgesses, and Common Councell of the towne,” the latter were adjured not to trust to rotten reeds and broken staves, which would suddenly bring the town to ruin, but to acquit themselves like rational men. Numerous copies of a letter from “a well-wisher to the Town” were cast over the walls, in order that they might come into the hands of the inhabitants, who were therein told that it was “no more wisdome, nor Honour, but extreame madnesse, any longer to hold out, when the danger was “present and certain,” and when all hopes of relief had failed them. But when all thece waves could nothing prevaile against the obstinacy of the Enemy, the Army having endured much hardship with patience, and the Mines and Batteries being in readinesse, it was resolved without loss of time to send in a peremptory summons. A courteous correspondence followed, in which the parties designated each other as “loving friends,” and both professed the utmost anxiety to shun the effusion off Christian blood. The result was the appointment, “after many shiftings and delays,” of three gentlemen, besides a secretary, to arrange with the Earl of Leven the terms of a treaty. Sir John Marley (the Mayor), Sir Nicholas Cole and Sir George Baker, Colonel Charles Brandling, Lieut-Colonel Thomas Davidson, and Captain Cuthbert Carr, late Sheriff of Newcastle, were named as hostages on the part of the town for the safety of the Scots Commissioners who went in to treat; and the trio accordingly went out to the Sandgate. But, as the “true and impartial relater” says, “the time appointed for Treaty was very improfitably spent.” The Newcastle gentlemen “would not suffer any propositions to be put in writ, but used high and intollerable expressions against the power of Parliament, and their own power to stand out, and nothing appertaining to the businesse of that meeting. And after three or foure houres’ debate, all they would resolve upon was to send out Propositions to the Lord General within two or three dayes, and in the meantime they declared that whatever should be the conditions of their agreement, they would onely give Hostages to render the Towne after twenty days, if reliefe came not.” Whereupon the Scottish Commissioners, finding themselves deluded and delayed by the governor, who was “void of all candor, and tyrannized so absolutely over the mindes and fortunes of the people that none durst expresse their inclinations to peace and happinesse,” were “forced to part and desert the Treaty, the Governor refusing to doe so much as seeke a continuation thereof while to-morrow.” He “evanished so farre in his owne conceit, that be thought the Army would have taken a summe of money, and have beene gone, and himselfe have been desired to be a Mediator betwixt the King and Parliament. But all hopes of accommodation failing, the Commissioners and the hostages were mutually returned; and thereupon orders were given to the whole Army, and at the sevarall Batteries, to be in a posture ready for action the next day, early in the morning, seeing all fair meanes were ineffectuall.”

Further delay was desired by the besieged, but Lesley refused to give it. Then Sir John Marley, in his own name alone, sent this imprudent message to the Scottish camp, addressed to Lord Sinclair:

My Lord, I have received divers Letters and Warrants subscribed by the name of Leven, but of late can hear of none that have seen such a man; besides, there is strong report he is dead; therefore, to remove all scruples, I desire our Drummer may deliver one letter to himself; thus wishing you could think on some other course to compose the differences of these sad distracted Kingdomes than by battering Newcastle, and annoying us who never wronged any of you; for if you seriously consider, you will find that these courses will aggravate and not moderate distempers; but I will referre all to your owne consciences, and rest Your friend, John Marley.

Sir John Marley’s foolish epistle bears date the 19th, and was probably written shortly after midnight on Friday, the 18th of October. Barely had the drummer who bore it returned to his place within the walls, when the final assault began.

During the siege, Lord Leven, with the forces immediately under him, beleaguering the west and north-west parts of the town, was quartered at Elswick, then a village about a mile west of Newcastle. Lord Sinclair’s regiment lay to the east, separated from the main body by Shieldfield Fort belonging to the town. The Earl of Callendar, with his division, was stationed at Gateshead, on the bridge, and at the glass-houses, below which he had thrown a bridge of “keill boats” over the river, for the passing and repassing of his forces, to both sides, and also for the use of the country people, who brought in daily provisions for the army. The bridge itself, being duly guarded by Lord Kenmoor’s regiment at both ends, and a strong sentry set at each of them, with two redoubts, had also there a “watery guard” of “keill boats,” tied with cable ropes from bank to bank, to secure it from any sudden surprise. The besiegers were domiciled on the Town Moor, Leazes, and elsewhere in huts composed of turf, clay, straw, and wattles. On the other hand, a round tower in the Castle Garth, called the Half-Moon Battery (on the site of which the Assize Courts were long afterwards built) was used by Sir John Marley to secure the Close and the Quayside; and the Castle, which had been suffered to fall into a very ruinous state since the union of the crowns, he put into good repair. The walls are described by William Lithgow, an eye-witness of the siege on the Scottish side, as being a great deal stronger than those of York, and “not unlike the walls of Avignon, but especially Jerusalem.” As for the inhabitants, he says, “the richest or better sort of them, as seven or eight common knights; aldermen, coal merchants, puddlers, and the like creatures,” were “altogether malignants, most of them being Papists, and the greater part of all irreligious Atheists; the vulgar condition being a mass of silly ignorants, living rather like to the Berdoans in Libya (wanting knowledge, conscience, and honesty) than like to well-disposed Christians, pliable to religion, civil order, or church discipline.”

On the morning of the 19th of October Lord Leven ordered his batteries to be opened all round the town. The besieged made a gallant defence, and the Scots suffered considerable loss, yet still they pressed on. After some hours’ desperate fighting at breaches which they had made near the White Friar’s Tower, and in the neighbourhood of Sandgate, the Scots forced an entry, made themselves masters of the gates of Newgate and Pilgrim Street, and, being joined by comrades who had entered at other breaches in the walls, effected the capture of the town.

The Milbank Manuscript adds several particulars of the defence from the Royalist side. “The Newgate Ward, which was under Captain Cuthbert Carr, was taken by the enemy, who entered at the White Fryer Tower and Sandgate, and encompassed (hem before and behind; and Pilgrim Street Gate was maintained by Captain George Errington, Lieutenant William Robson, and Ensign Thomas Swan, who fought and killed very many, they themselves not having one hurt, until they were encompassed by the enemy before and behind; and even then would not parley with the Scots who fought against them from without, but did capitulate with “Lieutenant-Colonel Sinclair, who loved and honoured them, and kept his agreement well with them, that not one of them was robbed of his clothes or money, nor were any of his men suffered to give any evil word; and it was the great blessing of God that all that time there was not one man slaine nor hurt, although that company consisted of nine score men, all tradesmen; and there were divers sallies made out at that gate, for it was the largest of all the gates of the town, it being barrocaded and shut up. And after they had surrendered, and the enemy was called over at that breach, they durst not approach, but shot at their friends that called them, and would not believe that the town was taken.”

Edward Man, Merchant Adventurer of Newcastle, was on the side of the Parliament, and was made Town Clerk after the capture (an office which he retained down to his death in 1654). On the day that the town was stormed and taken, he wrote off to a Member of Parliament, informing him of the fact. “The storm lasted,” said he, “two hours or thereabouts. It was very hott, and managed bravely on both parts, till the towne was over-mastered. I am happie God made me a spectator of the fall of those wicked men who were born to vacuate so famous a towne. The Maiors house, or some other adjoyning, are burning; yet my Lord Generall hath given order for the staying off the fire, if possible.”

The Scots wondered at their own moderation in the hour of their triumph. If there was some pillage, there might have been more. There would have been less if the ruling authorities could have had their own way. “Then began the whole armie,” writes Lithgow, “commanded and uncommanded (observing King David’s ancient rule that they who stayd with the baggage and they who fought in the field should share the booties alike) to plunder, I say, for twenty-foure houres time, being an act of parmission, although to no great purpose. And why? Because the common souldiers, being only able to plunder the common people (although they might have justly stretched their hands further), had for the greatest part of them small benefite,” getting little “excepting only household stuff, such as bedclothes, linens, tanned leather, calve skins, men and women’s apparel, pots, pans, and such like common things.” The store of victuals and ammunition within the town was found to be almost spent, so that they could not have holden out ten days longer, “unless the one half had devoured the other.” After the lapse of a day, further plundering was prohibited under pain of death; but the Scots are said in the meanwhile to have rifled the town’s hutch, and destroyed most of the deeds and documents belonging to the Corporation.

A news-sheet, entitled “Perfect Occurrences,” bears witness to the religious discretion observed by the soldiery: “They have not taken anything’ from any godly persons, men or women, that they finde never acted or carried themselves against the Parliament; and they do so piously that they show them all the respect that maybe.” Still, saints and sinners all suffered. “Looting” fell not only on the ungodly, but pretty impartially on all who had anything to lose. Even the globes of the Trinity House, terrestrial and celestial, were seized by warriors who would “make the best of both worlds,” and turned them into ten shillings the sum accepted for their ransom.

The ballad mongers were not behind in turning a penny by the sack of the town; and their candid rhymes confess that the pillagers were no respecters of persons.

Straightway to plundering we did fall,

Of great and small, for we were all

Most valiant that day;

And Jenny in her silken gown,

The best in town from foot to crown,

Was bonny and gay.

While Jenny flaunted in ill-gotten silk, there was Te Deums sung. Both sides claimed the favour of God. Lord Leven and his comrades went to church “to give thanks to God that He was pleased, even according to the words and wishes of their enemies, to prosper and bless His people, according to the justness of their cause.” Sir John Marley, the defeated commander, who had now cause to believe in Lord Leven’s presence without the evidence of a drummer, addressed his lordship on the 21st from the Castle, of which he still held possession. He desired that he and chose with him might have liberty to stay, or go out of the town, with His Excellency’s safe pass, to His Majesty’s next garrison not beleaguered, with their horses, pistols, and swords, and have fourteen days’ time to dispatch their journey, so many as pleased to go. “And truly, my Lord,” says he, “I am yet confident to receive so much favour from you as that you will take such care of me as that I shall receive no wrong from the ignoble spirits of the vulgar sort; for I doubt no other. I must confesse, I cannot keep it [the Castle] long from you; yet I am resolved, rather than to be a spectacle of misery and disgrace to any, I will bequeathe my soul to Him that gave it, and then referre my body to be a spectacle to your severity. But, upon the tearmes above-said, I will deliver it to you.” Upon his surrendering himself, he was almost torn to pieces by the mob; was committed to his house, under a strong guard, to protect him from the fury of the people; and, not being considered safe there, was cast, writes Lithgow, “into a dungeon within the Castle, where now that presumptuous Governor remaineth, till the hangman salute his neck with a blow of Strafford’s courtesy.” Parliament and Army were, however, more lenient. His life was spared, and he shared the exile of Charles and Clarendon, and lived to enjoy their Restoration.

Many were the companions-in-arms of Sir John Marley who suffered death in the defence of the town. Conspicuous among the fallen was Sir Alexander Davison, whose mansion was on the Sandhill, opposite the Exchange. Under its roof, in all probability, he received from the King, during his second mayoralty, the honour conferred upon him in 1639. At the siege, he fought on the walls as a lieutenant-colonel, with his son Joseph by his side as captain. Father and son were borne away wounded, and did not long survive the defeat of their cause. They died, and were buried in the church of St. Nicholas, the former being laid in his tomb on the 25th, and the latter on the 29th of October. On the llth of November, the eldest son of the fallen knight placed in St. Mary’s Porch a mural monument recording the manner of their death.

There is a tradition that the Scottish general threatened the Mayor, during the siege, that if the town was not instantly delivered up, he would direct his cannon so as to demolish the beautiful steeple of St. Nicholas. Sir John Marley thereupon promptly ordered the chief of the Scotch prisoners to be taken to the top of the tower, below the lantern, and returned Lord Leven an answer, that if the structure fell, it should not fall alone, as his countrymen were placed in it. And so St. Nicholas’ Church was saved.

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