Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Durham Cathedral & the Dunbar Martyrs (NZ273421)

For all its Norman grandeur, Durham Cathedral was the scene of one of the most heinous war crimes in British history. The story of the Dunbar Martyrs is hardly a secret as such, but over the years the harsh facts of the sorry episode have certainly been conveniently and repeatedly skirted around.

It all began with Oliver Cromwell’s defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Dunbar in September 1650. Thereafter, the English leader, not in the best of moods, proceeded to ransack much of Scotland whilst sending 5,000 prisoners on a forced march south, where they were bolted up in Durham Cathedral. During their journey they covered 120 miles in eight days with no food or water (except whatever they could quickly scavenge) – and almost half the soldiers died en route, with the remaining 3,000 being crammed into the cavernous cathedral building and castle on 11th September.

And there they were kept until 31st October, with virtually no food or water – or indeed heating. They helped themselves to much of the woodwork within in an attempt to keep warm, but illness and disease quickly gripped the prisoners, with dozens dying every day. One of the few items to escape the captives’ makeshift fires was a clock embossed with a Scottish thistle – an item which survives to this day.

Of the 3,000 who began the ordeal, around 1,400 survived – and most of these were promptly sold as slave labour to the new English colonies in the Americas. About 500 were pressed into lengthy military service overseas.

During maintenance work in the 1940s a mass grave was allegedly discovered to the north of the cathedral, it being (it was assumed) the Scottish burial pit. Subsequent investigations have, however, failed to confirm the theory.

A campaign is currently underway to erect a memorial to the victims of this appalling episode.


  1. That Story has been regurgitated for 365 years. For 295 of those years, it could have been excused.
    One thing it does is to say that the 5,000 men were of no value. Deserted by their army, abused by Cromwell's men.
    Let me start by saying that Sir David Leslie, the Scottish Commander was 45 days into 30 days' Provisions. And let us say that he fled the field with an army which was still greater than Oliver Cromwell's worn out 8-9,000. He had approximately 13,000 men with him. 'The Proper Soldiers'.
    East Lothian was in Famine. Scorched Earth by Leslie and the lack of men to produce crops made it so that Cromwell had to feed people in the surrounding area.
    Please remember that figures are very hard to ascertain. If you read the State Papers of Venice for September third 1650, you will be told that Cromwell had been defeated and the King was on the way into England with 50,000 troops.
    Numbers of the dead on the Battlefield vary from 1,600 to 3,000. Hesilrige says that there were an estimated 3,500 men counted at Berwick Upon Tweed but only 3,000 counted into the Cathedral. Some were left at Newcastle for being too sick to walk and that group seems to have surfaced, ready to go and work in the Fens. Others went directly into the Castle/Palace which was an infirmary.

    What you should do now is look up Sir Arthur Hesilrige's letter to the Committee of State for Scotland and Ireland.

    At first reading, you will feel like me.. A complete load of old Cobblers!

    But you may not have heard about the Allied Prisoners of the Japanese on their release in 1945. Terrible privations, starvation, tropical diseases, dysentery, Beri Beri.
    And then people tried to feed them and they died. Later, a feeding regime was devised and men began to improve but some, who seemed healthy would die.
    They called it 'Refeeding Syndrome' and it is still as dangerous as it was 365 years ago.

    If Hesilrige had fed the men in the manner stated, thinking to bring them to health so they could join the Protestant Army in Ireland, he would have killed them. He didn't have the skills and the surgeons he employed only knew about Leeches.
    The top geezer in Science of the Day was Isaac Newton. He was working on finding the Philosopher's stone!

    I think that the lack of food immediately available meant that the men had to be marched South. To have just let them go would be criminal. They would have ransacked the locality for food and then, if they rejoined the Army, Cromwell would have to fight them again. Another Forced march that nobody talks about is when Cromwell freed the conscripts of Hamil;ton's army in 1648.
    They didn't dare go alone because of feared reprisals by the Fierce Northern English. Cromwell gave them an escort and Force Marched them to the Border.

    Why bother to march men to Durham when just a couple of hours slaughter would have rid Cromwell of the problem.

    Read about Leslie at Philiphaugh and Newark castle. There's the way to treat prisoners!

    1. Thanks for your input, Laurie. Yes, it's always absolutely right and correct to put things into context, of course - and to consider the sheer practicalities of the situation at the time.