The Battle of Boldon Hill was a skirmish fought in March 1644, between a Royalist army trying to bring the army of the Scottish Covenanters to battle.
It was one of a number of skirmishes and inconclusive battles in the North East of England between the Royalist general William Cavandish, The Marquess of Newcastle (pictured left), and the commander of the Scottish ‘Covenanter’ army, Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven.
The Covenanters (so-called because of the ‘National Covenant’ virtually the entire country had signed, promising to defend their national church against King Charles’ attempt to impose the Book of Common Prayer, which had sparked the earlier Bishops’ Wars) had invaded England after Parliament secured their support in their on-going war with the King.
Held by the Royalists, Newcastle was a key target – not only because of its strategic location on the road from Scotland but because of its vital coal supplies.
After an attack on the city was unsuccessful, Leven’s army crossed the River Tyne higher upstream and attempted an attack against the defences on the southern end of the bridge over the river, which led directly into the walled fortification.
Cavandish led his army out of Newcastle in pursuit of the Scots. The two sides met but bad weather made a battle impossible and the Marquess retreated into the Royalist stronghold of Durham.
In the following days, Leven made raids on Chester-le-Street, a vital crossing point of the River Wear and crucial to the Marquess of Newcastle’s communications with the rest of England, and also on the Royalist garrison at South Shields. While initial attempts at a raid failed, the second raids of 20 March were successful for Leven. In response to this, the Marquess led his army out of Durham.
On the morning of 25 March, the Scots occupied Cleadon Hills and the Royalists took Boldon Hill. The present day village of East Boldon lies between these two hills. The Boldon topography was not favorable for a battle – neither force could see an advantage and were hesitant to engage with one another.
They chose to exchange cannon fire across what is now East Boldon and Cleadon but Cavendish was unable to force an entry into Sunderland itself.
The two sides met again, indecisively, at Hylton Castle near Sunderland at the end of the month but news reached the Marquess of a major defeat for the Royalists at Selby, directly threatening York and his communications with the King. The Marquis had a simple choice – continue the defence of Newcastle and lay siege to Sunderland or put his efforts into that of York, a strategically more important location that the Covenanters were now marching towards.
He chose York, situated in the county where most of his forces were from. However, the Covenanters subsequently took nearby Selby just days after Boldon Hill, before the Marquis could get there and an end game was being played once he arrived in York, outnumbered and without support. By fleeing towards York the Marquis left Newcastle open to conquest. Besieged by a Scottish army of 40,000 troops, and with scant hopes of relief, the city of Newcastle refused to surrender until its defensive walls were finally breached. The garrison of 1,500 made a last-stand at the Castle Keep, Sir John Marley – the Royalist mayor whose statue is one of four on the façade of 45 Northumberland Street – eventually handing over the city on October 20th 1644.
That summer the Royalists were soundly beaten at Marston Moor near York, a massive victory that effectively ended Royalist control of northern England. With his famous ‘Whitecoats’ destroyed and having futilely spent his fortune in the King’s services, Cavendish insisted he would not endure the mockery of Charles’ court and sailed for the Continent the following day. He stayed in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Paris and then Antwerp, where he settled for a time due to his past friendship with people in the city, including the family of the Flemish baroque artist Anthony Van Dyck. He remained in exile until after the 1660 Restoration.