Try to envisage a late summer evening on the Banks of the River Tyne in 1640, the evening before the Battle of Newburn Ford.
On the north side of the riverbank is the prosperous village of Newburn. It has a long history, having been established as a Royal Demesne in Anglo-Saxon times in the Kingdom of Northumbria. The village cottages would have clustered around the Church of St. Michael and All Angels, (1) which is referred to in documentary evidence dating from 1067. Even today among many other interesting features it retains its Norman West Tower. It was to play a significant role in the ensuing battle.
Close to the church was Newburn Manor, (2) now long gone, but from documentary evidence we know the Manor was granted as a gift by King John to Robert Fitz Roger, Lord of Warkworth in 1204. In 1332 it passed into the hands of the powerful Percy family, Dukes of Alnwick. Much of the land around Newburn is still owned by the Duke of Northumberland. During the seventeenth century the Manor lands were extensive, stretching from the Ouse Burn to the river Tyne and towards Throckley and Heddon.
Another significant house was Newburn Hall, (3) which probably incorporated an earlier Pele tower and was itself incorporated into Spencers Steel Works in 1895, eventually being demolished in 1966. There were several watermills for threshing corn; in particular Laman or Laymedon and Thrusse or Thrush mills are both recorded in the Estate records for Newburn Manor. Apart from agriculture there are numerous old wagon ways that traverse the area and were developed as the mining industry gained in significance.
The King upon the throne at this time was Charles Stuart and his kingdom was a place of unrest. There were new political ideas and religious ferment, extremes of poverty and wealth; we were on the brink of Civil War and events that would change English monarchy forever. Charles I had dissolved parliament and was desperately alternating between appeasing and alienating the Scots and the Irish. But it was his attempt to impose a new prayer book on the Scots which led directly to the only battle of the Second Bishop’s War which was fought on the banks of the river Tyne at Newburn.
The Tyne, a tidal river, with its fertile valley plains, had been an important means of subsistence and communication for people who have lived here from Mesolithic times when Northern Europe was emerging from the last Ice Age. We know the Romans utilised it as they built Hadrian’s Wall along its course. In 1640 it was fordable at least as far as Newburn, and there were two crossing places, one probably where Newburn Bridge (4) stands today and another, Kershaw Ford (5) about half a mile downstream.
And so, back to that August evening, the 27th, in 1640. The Scottish army, some 20,000 strong, and under the command of Alexander Leslie, are encamped to the north and west of Newburn (6). Fires were lit using coal that could be found in abundance. They set up cannon in the tower of the church of St Michael’s, and many of the soldiers hid among the houses, lanes and hedges of Newburn. The Scots intended to cross the river here in order to attack and occupy Newcastle from the south, its vulnerable underbelly. In a desperate attempt to prevent this, an army was belatedly dispatched from Newcastle which had been expecting the attack to come from the north, despite having received urgent warnings from Newburn of the approaching army of Scots.
The English were led by Lord Conway and consisted of roughly 3,500 men, with a promise of re-enforcements of 2000 led by Sir Jacob Astley the following morning. They encamped in the valley below the medieval villages of Ryton (7) and Stella (8) and hastily established defences (or breastworks) made of earth to defend the two ford crossings. Meanwhile the huge bonfires burned and the Scots army looked on and waited for the morning.
There are contemporary accounts of the ensuing battle, the best perhaps being written by the historian John Rushworth who arrived on the battlefield with a messenger sent from York with a letter for the Lord Conway from the Earl of Stafford. The letter urged him into battle at a time when Lord Conway had almost decided to retreat to Newcastle having assessed, (rightly as it turned out) that his army was hopelessly out-numbered, out-gunned and in a strategically disadvantageous position. They were gathered on the flood plains and meadows of the river at Ryton Willows (9) in full view of the Scots who occupied the high ground above Newburn.
"The Scots, having the advantage of the rising ground above Newbourne, easily discerned the posture and motion of the English Army below in the Valley on the Southside (of) the River, but the posture of the Scots Army the English could not discern, by reason of the Houses, Hedges, and Inclosures in and about Newbourne. The Scots brought some Cannon into Newbourne Town, and planted some in the Church Steeple a small distance from the River Tyne, their Musqueteers were placed in the Church, Houses, Lanes and Hedges in and about Newbourne."
Events overtook any further deliberations at the Council of War being held at Stella. After several long hours of the armies eyeing each other up across the Tyne as they watered their horses, an English soldier shot a Scots officer who, he suspected was taking too much interest in the English positions. In all probability the troops were probably just getting nervous at the approaching battle.
"The Scots played with their Cannon upon the English Breast-works and Sconce; the King’s Army played with their Cannon to beat the Scots out of the Church-steeple; thus they continued firing on both sides, till it grew to be near low water, and by that time the Scots with their Cannon had made a breach in the greater Sconce which Colonel Lunsford commanded, wherein many of his men were killed and began to retire, yet the Colonel prevailed with them to stand to their Armes, but presently after, a Captain, a Lieutenant, and some other officers more were slain at that work. Then the Souldiers took occasion to complain that they put upon double duty, and had stood there all night and that day to that time, and that no souldiers were sent from the Army at Newcastle to relieve them; but Colonel Lunsford again prevailed with them not to desert their Works, but another Cannon-shot hitting in the Works amongst the souldiers, and killing some more of them, they threw down their Armes and would abide in the Fort no longer."
The defences at the fords were breached and the English retreated in confusion, being ill trained, ill paid and largely reluctant to fight a battle for which they had little commitment. The English cavalry and infantry scattered in disarray in different directions. Some headed for Ryton, scaling the slopes of Holburn Dene (10) and others headed for Stella, probably up Peth Lane (11) which appears to have been in existence since medieval times.
The Scots went on to capture Newcastle, which Lord Stafford hastily abandoned to its fate. The consequences for King Charles were to prove serious. The cost of raising the army had been enormous, and he then had to pay £200,000 to free Newcastle. He was forced to recall Parliament in November- the famous Long Parliament - that sat until the Restoration, long after the king had lost his head and the Monarchy, as an Institution, much of its power.
If you take a look in the display cabinets at the Centre you will see some of the musket balls probably used in that famous battle and picked up by people walking in the area. Some of the clay pipe fragments might have belonged to soldiers as they sat on th at sunny August evening contemplating the battle to come. In 1897 whilst quarrying near Newburn quantities of bones, horse and human, and cannon balls were found (12). Is this part of a hastily constructed burial ground where the fallen from battle were lain to rest near where they had met their deaths?
English Heritage, 1994. Battlefield Report: Newburn Ford 1640.
A more in depth history on the Battle of Newburn Ford is available as a booklet from Tyne Riverside Country Park for £2 (including P&P). Please make cheques payable to The Friends of Tyne Riverside Country Park