One of the best aspects of being a historical fiction writer is learning about the lesser known events in history. This is often the by-product of our historical research. In some cases, it could be a small footnote that serves as the invitation down the rabbit hole, or it could be that you’re leading your characters into an arena that you need to know more about.
My interest in Hamilton came as a result of needing to know what my character, James Hart, was specifically walking into on his journey to join the king in Scotland. Quite a bit, as the case would be and the timing couldn’t have been better. Along with having to repel an invasion by Cromwell, Scotland had to tame internal factions that threatened to withdraw their support for the king over religious and moral grounds. Not that these factions were for Cromwell either. This concoction of conflicting agendas makes for a very interesting drama set in the south Lanarkshire region.
The action at Hamilton isn’t as famous or widely covered as Dunbar or Inverkeithing, but we know about the Battle of Hamilton (or Hieton) because of a young man and a courtship.
Eighteen-year-old “Young” Cambusnethen, (who would eventually become the eleventh Lord Somerville), fell deeply in love with Mistress Martha Bannatyne of Corhouse, but he needed his father’s consent to wed his lady-love. Time is usually of the essence in most affairs of the heart, so our young man promptly embarked on a journey to obtain this consent and stumbled into the middle of a war. Fortunately, he had enough foresight to write about it.
With the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of England. One might have expected that the Scots would have had all the time in the world for the Stuarts, even show more tolerance with Charles I, James’s heir, when he tried to impose Anglicanism and a Common Prayer Book on Scotland. But he was encroaching on matters of religion and Scotland had pledged herself to the Presbyterian Covenant. Besides, Charles I was more English than Scottish, no matter his bloodline. This precipitated a war between England and Scotland in 1639 and led to the English Civil War.
Though the majority of Scotland opposed Charles I, his execution at the hands of Parliament in 1649 shocked them. They entered negotiations to proclaim the Prince of Wales, Charles Stuart, as King of Scotland provided that he swore to uphold the Covenant, to which he agreed. This alarmed England who considered their actions a threat to their new Commonwealth. In July 1650, Oliver Cromwell invaded Scotland.
The Road to Hamilton
Even with the Scottish Parliament’s support for Charles, there was still a significant faction of staunch Presbyterians who did not approve of Charles, no matter his vows. Colonel Strachan, leader of the Western army, was one of the more extreme instigators behind an official rant known as the Remonstrance of the Western Army that urged Scotland to abandon the King and not engage against Cromwell. Between September and October 1650, Strachan made overtures to Cromwell to negotiate terms for the removal of English troops in exchange for Scotland withdrawing her support for the King. But in the end, the talks fell apart.
The heated rhetoric contained in the Remonstrance became an embarrassment for the Scottish Parliament. By October 1650, Central Army had had enough of Strachan’s posturing. They cashiered him and gave command of the Western forces to his second, Colonel Gilbert Ker. This did nothing to dampen the movement, for Ker’s views were no different than Strachan’s. Any hope that Central Army would assimilate the Western Army was shattered when Ker did one up on Strachan. He broke from the Central Army and announced his autonomy. Worse, Ker’s defiant streak extended to Cromwell, and he also declared war on the English.
Now, Ker was in an unenviable position to be at war with two major armies, and both were converging upon him.
Battle of Hamilton
Enter Young Cambusnethen.
The Central Army in Perth dispatched Colonel Robert Montgomery on November 27th with approximately 3,000 horse to subdue the Western faction. That same day, Cromwell left Edinburgh with another three thousand and headed toward Hamilton with the same intent. Cromwell’s plan was to rendezvous with General Lambert, who was occupying the area around Peebles with his two thousand men.
Two days later, Cambusnethen ran into Montgomery’s forces near Campsie Fells and parted company to continue on his heart’s mission, but not before promising Montgomery that he’d keep his eyes open for the Western Army’s movements. He arrived in Renfrew the next day on the 30th and stopped in on an old friend who was a coronet in Ker’s troop.
While they were catching up, the coronet received an urgent summons to report for duty. Ker had received word that Lambert had entered Hamilton unopposed. Fortunately for the Western Army, Cromwell had been forced to return to Edinburgh, having found the Clyde un-fordable, so he did not add to Lambert’s forces.
Ker gathered his men, approximately 3,000 horse and 1,000 dragoons, and marched toward Hamilton. Cambusnethen postponed his own mission in favour of accompanying his friend and fulfilling his promise to Montgomery.
The Western Army reached the town of Rutherglen (approximately ten miles from Hamilton) by three in the afternoon and stopped to reconnoitre. After some debate, Ker decided to take the offense and launch an attack.
Around midnight of December 1, 1650, Ker dispatched a forlorn hope of 140 troopers. According to Cambusnethen’s account, it was a clear night with a quarter moon rising. The ground was hard with frost, which did nothing to muffle their advance. Lambert must have felt secure for he did not post sentries outside the town, and the forlorn hope reached Hamilton without anyone raising an alarm.
The attack was sudden and the English, assuming the worst, believed a sizeable force had set upon them. There were fierce pockets of resistance and skirmishes in the streets. Lambert was captured briefly but managed to escape into a nearby inn, Sarah Jean’s Close. The English took what shelter they could and barricaded themselves in houses and inns.
By dawn, Lambert realized his mistake and rallied his troops for a counter-strike while Ker arrived with his forces and occupied the banks of Cadzow Burn, just outside the town.
Ker was unsure of the status of the town, and as he debated his next move, a pair of soldiers arrived to give him the false news that the Scots had beaten the English from the town. Cambusnethen called them “rascals, that was more for plunder than fighting,” and they had no difficulty in convincing Ker that the way was clear. When Ker started his advance, Lambert sprang his attack and engaged the Scots at Cadzow Burn.
It was a rout. Ker’s troopers floundered in the river and spongy riverbank while Lambert’s men had the advantage of the high ground and firmer footing of the east bank. Though the Scots recovered briefly, the English rallied and drove them back. The Western Army had no choice than to beat a retreat, and it quickly became a free-for-all. Stung by their poor initial showing against a forlorn hope of only 140 men, Lambert’s army pursued the fleeing army even as far Ayr. During the battle, Ker was wounded and tried to escape, but he was eventually caught and taken prisoner.
The Western Army fell apart following the Battle of Hamilton, and the Scottish Parliament was able to shore up support for King Charles to present a united front against the English. In the end, it only slowed Cromwell down.
As for our correspondent, Young Cambusnethen survived the battle unscathed though his friend, the coronet had been shot in the mouth and cheek during the battle. Cambusnethen helped his friend to safety and later that evening they encountered Montgomery’s forces when he finally arrived to trounce Ker. Though Montgomery was too late to deliver Central Army’s brand of remonstrance against Ker, his three thousand horse discouraged the English from pressing north toward Stirling.
And what of Mistress Martha Bannatyne of Corhouse, the reason for our Young Cambusnethen to have been so entangled with the Western Army? I’m happy to report that they were married and lived happily ever after.
Memorie of the Somervilles: Being a History of the Baronial House of Somerville. James Somerville (1815)
Cromwell’s Scotch Campaigns: 1650-51 by William Scott Douglas
This article was original appeared on the English Historical Fiction Authors blog.