Cromwell’s Convicts: The Death March from Dunbar 1650 by John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville

I read this book last year, and held off publishing my review until closer to the publication date which, here in Australia, is 1 March 2020. I’ve read quite a bit of English history, but I had never really focussed on the Battle of Dunbar. and its consequences. Grim reading.

‘The dead may not be able to talk, but science can give them a voice and help us to understand more about their lives.’

The Battle of Dunbar occurred on the 3rd of September 1650 between the English Parliamentarian forces, led by Oliver Cromwell and the Scottish Covenanters led by David Leslie.  It was one of the major battles of the Third English Civil War (1649-1651) and was a decisive (albeit unlikely) victory for Cromwell.  So, what happened next?  In my previous reading about the English Civil War, I’ve focussed on the political consequences, the occupation of Scotland, the rise of Cromwell and then the Restoration.  This book deals with the Battle of Dunbar and its dreadful aftermath.

Following the battle, Cromwell marched on Edinburgh.  After he captured the capital (following the defeat of the castle), prisoners were force-marched towards England. They were force-marched to prevent any attempt at rescue and were imprisoned in Durham Cathedral.

Reportedly, there were 6,000 prisoners.  Five thousand were marched south, without food, adequate water or medical attention.  Of those who survived the seven-day march to reach Durham, as many as 1,700 died from typhus or dysentery.  Most of the rest were condemned to hard labour and exile in the new world across the Atlantic Ocean.

While this book describes the Battle of Dunbar, its primary focus is on what followed. Mr Sadler and Ms Serdiville retraced the route taken by the prisoners on this march and describe recent archaeological excavations in Durham, uncovering some of the victims.  There are also the stories of some of those transported to the colonies in America and the West Indies.

This is a dark period of British history about which I knew little.  It’s easy, almost 400 hundred years later and half a world away, to focus on actions, events, facts and consequences, on the politics and rulers. This book takes us into the details of one particular part of the Third English Civil War and reminds us of the human cost.

Recommended reading for anyone interested in 17th century British history.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Pen and Sword Military for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith