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Cromwell’s Prisoners

Laurie Pettitt contributed this account as a comment – but we thought it was more suited as a full page; it considers what happened to Cromwell’s prisoners after the Battle of Dunbar.

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow

Cromwell at Dunbar by Andrew Carrick Gow

On the 2nd September 1650, Oliver Cromwell was ‘cornered’ at Dunbar expecting to be beaten soundly by the Scottish Presbyterian force of Sir David Leslie.

The Clerics with the Scottish Army forced Leslie to make a fatal move that allowed Cromwell, on the 3rd September, demolish the Scottish army in the space of an hour. Cromwell was then faced with a problem! 10,000 Scottish Prisoners.

5,000 (ish) he dismissed because they were sick, wounded or STARVING, sending trumpets round Scotland to tell people that they could come to the Battlefield and pick up their sick and wounded……. Without hindrance from his Soldiers but not to remove any weapons. His Problem was; what to do with 5,000 (ish) men in an area where he had had to feed local people because of famine and when his own Soldiers were reduced to a sort of broth of peas and oats (and probably their horses). Two reasons for not releasing them were:

  • they would return to their Army and might have to be fought again or
  • they could be released onto the already starving populations of the local towns. In preparation for Cromwell’s invasion, Leslie had operated a ‘scorched earth’ policy which had even included the destruction of grazing.

The only way to deal with the problem, if you discounted mass slaughter, was to march the Scottish Soldiers to where they might be covered, secured and fed. Durham Cathedral was empty and the march of 100 miles set off first, with Cromwell’s own hungry and marched out (exhausted) troops, to Berwick upon Tweed and then to Durham, stopping at Wooler and Newcastle. The tale of this being a death march is just that. For example in 1648, Cromwell force marched his own men from Pembroke to Coventry, Coventry to Leicester, Leicester to Nottingham, Nottingham to Leeds and thence to Preston where they engaged and conquered the Duke of Hamilton’s army. They then pursued Hamilton and continued on to the Scottish Borders. The march from Pembroke to Preston was 462 miles at 12.5 miles per day.

It is important to know that many of the soldiers hadn’t eaten for four days before the battle; even so, people don’t often die of starvation after the twelve to fourteen days of forced march, especially people who were used to hunger. The most infirm of the Scottish Soldiers had been released. Something else to take into consideration was that Cromwell had the idea of planting 2,500 of these soldiers in Southern and Western Ireland, So to have killed them by negligence would not have been a good idea, and Cromwell had written to Heslerig telling him to treat the men well. They were of value! They obviously had been of no value to their Rulers and Officers because they were in such poor condition. Half starved, poorly clad, without shelter and Officers billeted away from the men.

People ask why Cromwell didn’t release the men to fight in foreign armies as he did with the Irish. Again, two reasons are foremost:

  • France and Spain were Catholic Countries and the Scots were generally Presbyterian Protestants.
  • the majority of the men were raw recruits.

All the rest is in Heslerig’s letter and the grotty sub text I have put underneath. I hope you will see this as both interesting and a very early example of Refeeding Syndrome.

October 1650. A Letter From Sir Arthur Hesilrige, To the Honorable Committee Of The Councel Of State For Irish and Scotish Affairs at White Hall, Concerning the Scots Prisoners

Gentlemen, I Received your Letter dated the Twenty sixth of October, in that you desire me, That Two thousand three hundred of the Scotch Prisoners now at Durham or elswhere, able and fit for Foot Service, be selected, and marched thence to Chester and Liverpool, to be shipped for the South and West of Ireland, and that I should take special care not to send any Highlanders. (1) I am necessitated upon the receipt of this, to give you a full accompt concerning the Prisoners: After the Battel at Dunbar in Scotland, my Lord General writ to me, That there was about (2) Nine thousand Prisoners, and that of them he had set at liberty all those that were wounded, and, as he thought, disabled for future Service, and their Number was, as Mr Downing writ, (2) Five thousand one hundred; the rest the general sent towards Newcastle, conducted to Berwick by Major Hobson, and from (3) (4) Berwick to Newcastle by some Foot out of that Garison, and the Troop of Horse; (5) when they came to Morpeth, the Prisoners being put into a large walled Garden, they eat up raw Cabages, Leaves and Roots, so many, as the very seed and the labor, at Four pence a day, was valued by sufficient men at Nine pounds; which Cabage, as I conceive, they having fasted, as they themselves said, near eight days, poysoned their Bodies; for as they were coming from thence to Newcastle, some dyed by the way-side, and when they came to Newcastle, (6) I put them into the greatest Church in the Town, and the next morning when I sent them to Durham, about Sevenscore were sick, and not able to march, and three dyed that night, and some fell down in their march from Newcastle to Durham, and dyed; and when they came to Durham, I having sent my Lieutenant Colonel and my Major, with a strong Guard both of Horse and Foot, and they being there told into the great Cathedral Church, they could not count them to more then (7) Three thousand; although Colonel Fenwick writ to me, That there were about Three thousand five hundred, but I believe they were not told at Berwick and most of those that were lost, it was in Scotland, for I heard, That the Officers that marched with them to Berwick, were necessitated to kill about Thirty, fearing the loss of them all, for they fell down in great Numbers, and said, They were not able to march; and they brought them far in the night, so that doubtless many ran away. When I sent them first to Durham, (8) I writ to the Major, and desired him to take care, that they wanted not any thing that was fit for Prisoners, and what he should disburse for them, I would repay it. I also sent them a daily supply of bread from Newcastle, and an allowance equal to what had been given to former Prisoners: But their Bodies being infected, the Flux encreased amongst them. I sent many Officers to look to them, & appointed that those that were sick should be removed out the cathedral Church into the (9) Bishops Castle, which belongs to Mistris Blakiston, and provided Cooks, and they had Pottage made with Oatmeal, and Beef and Cabages, a full Quart at a Meal for every Prisoner: They had also coals daily brought to them; as many as made about a hundred Fires both day and night, and Straw to lie upon; and I appointed the Marshal to see all these things orderly done, and he was allowed Eight men to help him to divide the coals, and their Meat, Bread and Pottage equally; They were so unruly, sluttish and nasty, that it is not to be believed; they acted rather like Beasts then Men, so that the Marshal was allowed Forty men to cleanse and sweep them every day: But those men were of the lustiest Prisoners, that had some small thing given them extraordinary: And these provisions were for those that were in health; and for those that were sick, and in the Castle, they had very good Mutton Broth, and sometimes Veal Broth, and Beef and Mutton boild together, and old Women appointed to look to them in the several Rooms: There was also a Physitian which let them Blood, and dressed such as were wounded, and gave the sick Physick and I dare confidently say, There was never the like care taken for any such Number of prisoners that ever were in England. Notwithstanding all this, many of them dyed, and few of any other Disease but the Flux; some were killed by themselves, for they were exceeding cruel one towards another. If a man was perceived to have any Money, it was two to one but he was killed before morning, and Robbed; and if any had good clothes, he that wanted, if he was able, would strangle him, and put on his clothes: And the (10) Disease of the Flux still encreasing amongst them, I was then forced, for their preservation, if possible it might be, to send to all the next Towns to Durham, within four ot five miles, to command them to bring in their Milk, for that was conceived to be the best Remedy for stopping of their Flux, and I promised them what Rates they usually sold it for at the Markets, which was accordingly performed by about Threescore Towns and places, and Twenty of the next Towns to Durham continue still to send daily in their Milk, which is boiled, some with Water, and some with Bean flower, the Physitians holding it exceeding good for recovery of their health.

Gentlemen, You cannot but think strange this long preamble, and to wonder what the matter will be; in short its this, (11) Of the Three thousand prisoners that my Officers told into the Cathedral Church at Durham, Three hundred from thence, and Fifty from Newcastle of the Sevenscore left behinde, were delivered to Major Clerk by order from the Councel, and there are about Five hundred sick in the Castle, and about Six hundred yet in health in the Cathedral, the most of which are in probability Highlanders, they being hardier then the rest, and other means to distinguish them we have not, and about Sixteen hundred are dead and buried, and Officers about Sixty, that are at the Marshals in Newcastle. My Lord General having released the rest of the Officers, and the Councel having given me power to take out what I thought fit, I have granted to several well-affected persons that have Salt-works at Sheels, and want Servants, Forty, and they have engaged to keep them to work at their salt-pans; and I have taken out more about Twelve Weavers, to begin a Trade of Linnen cloth like unto the Scotch-cloth, and about Forty Laborers. I cannot give you on this sudden a more exact Accompt of the prisoners, neither can any Accompt hold true long, because they still dye daily, and doubtless so they will, so long as any remain in Prison. And for those that are well, if Major Clerk could have believed that they had been able to have marched on foot, he would have marched them by Land; (12) for we perceive that divers that are seemingly healthy, and have not all been sick, suddenly dye, and we cannot give any reason of it, onely we apprehend they are all infected, and that the strength of some holds it out till it seize upon their very hearts. Now you fully understand the condition and the number of the Prisoners, what you please to direct, I shall observe, and intend not to proceed further upon this Letter, until I have your Answer upon what I have now written. I am,

Gentlemen, Your affectionate Servant, Art: Hesilrige Octob, 31, 1650


1: It has been suggested that these soldiers were to be used to fight in Ireland. By the end of October, the fighting in Ireland was quietening down and their intended destinations in the South and West of Ireland makes me wonder if Cromwell wanted them as settlers. Not sending Highlanders to Ireland was because many of the clans were Roman Catholic. After the Battle of Preston, Cromwell allowed anyone who could prove that they were conscripts to go home.

2: Mr Downing, who counted the prisoners claimed to have counted 9,000. The number of sick, starving or injured was 5,100, leaving 4,900 to be sent to Durham. Many may have escaped between Dunbar and Berwick but to think that the prisoners were falling down dead of starvation at that time would be against most studies of death through starvation.

3: Mr Hodgson (not Hobson) Marched the prisoners to Berwick upon Tweed. Guarding the prisoners so far would have been difficult due to the lack of fit men in Cromwell’s own Army. Foul weather had limited the amount of supplies of food available. It should be understood that the land between Dunbar and Berwick had been completely cleared of anything that Cromwell’s army could subsist on, including grazing.

4: At Berwick, the prisoners were taken over by troops from the Garrison at Berwick. It is important to remember that the prisoners were not ‘told’ (counted) when they were handed over so it isn’t possible to say how many escaped between Dunbar and Berwick. The next escort was made up of Horse and Foot, reducing the chance of escape and increasing the chance of summary punishment for trying to escape. Bear in mind that from four days before the Battle of Dunbar to Berwick, the men had had no food at all. Yes, that does mean that they had been starved by their own rulers.

5: The men were enclosed in a field full of cabbages and they ate the whole crop raw. Heslerig says that they poisoned their bodies and that some died by the wayside en route to Newcastle. Men do not die because they have not eaten for eight or nine days. Many people in recent history have endured terrible conditions and starvation and survived.
This is where we come to Refeeding Syndrome. If men gorged themselves on Cabbage leaves or stalks, they will have triggered Refeeding Syndrome which is due to a chemical imbalance in the body after a time of the body living on its reserves. Symptoms of Refeeding Syndrome are respiratory failure, heart failure, confusion, constipation, and diarrhoea. After five days without food the condition is critical; after ten days it is dangerous and (Oh Yes) that is in modern hospital conditions. The men didn’t die by the side of the road because of the march. They died because the thing they wanted most of all killed them – food!

6: They stayed overnight in a church in Newcastle and in the following morning set off to Durham. 140 of the men were incapable of marching and a few had died during the night. They had still had no food and were still within the margin of not being starved to death.

7: The Prisoners were counted upon arrival at Durham Cathedral. Heslerig claims only 3,000 turned up but Colonel Fenwick at Berwick claims to have sent 3,500. They finally blame the losses on the first part of the journey from Dunbar. Many fell down, claiming not to be fit to march and up to 30 were killed to keep order. The claim that a thousand men died on the way to Durham, or that 500 or so escaped is probably not valid. Most of the men were conscripts, who, in their normal life will have been used to living on very little and working very hard for it. Their condition at Dunbar was not much worse than Cromwell’s men.

8: This is where I have always previously stumbled and thought Heslerig to be a villain. How could people still be dying with bread and broth and milk? Were the guards stealing the food? Was the food poisoned? No. What Heslerig thought was the Flux (dysentery) may well have been dysentery in some cases but the symptoms of Refeeding Syndrome also resemble those of the flux. Having read a number of articles on Refeeding Syndrome, I have to believe that Heslerig was trying to deal with something that we struggle with today in Africa. You can’t just stuff food into someone who is in an advanced state of starvation

9: Sick Prisoners were moved into the Castle to be nursed. In the Cathedral, there was a Marshall appointed to divide food and coals. Now we come to the nitty gritty of Heating. It has been said that the Prisoners burnt the pews to keep warm and that no fuel had been supplied. The same sources claim that Heslerig starved the Prisoners to death and I no longer believe that. My question is that if the Cathedral had been unused for three or four years, would the pews have remained there? Then the other question I have to ask is how unarmed men would have been able to chop up Oak pews? Then we ask if there is any sign whatsoever on the walls, pillars or floors which show signs of bonfire damage. Plus the possibility of the straw that was strewn on the floor would ignite. I don’t know who came up with the ‘Burning Pews’ but I do not believe it. The fires will have been coal, controlled and in Braziers. Sir Arthur Heslerig did not leave those men to starve to death.

10: This is where the treatment should have started. Water boiled with milk, then milk and bean flour. Very slowly, very carefully, stoking their digestive systems.

11: Fifty of the 140 prisoners left at Newcastle, joined the three hundred taken by Major Clark. These were taken by Ship to London, where as an interesting interlude, the ship owners simply abandoned the ship and left the men in a poor state. People heard the soldiers’ cries and broke into the ship. The prisoners were taken away to be treated and the cost of treatment charged to the ship owners. Some of these men were transferred to the ship ‘Unity’ bound for Massachusetts. Not as Slaves, but as Indentured Servants.

There were then 600 in health in the Cathedral and 92 Prisoners were given to ‘well affected’ people locally. 1,600 were dead and buried. Officers had been released.

12: Here we have seemingly well men falling down dead. Heart failure and respiratory problems are symptoms of the Refeeding Syndrome.

However you look at these results, it was a terrible shame. But this wasn’t the first time the Scots had put starving, untrained and improperly armed men into the field with disastrous results. Flodden 1513, a Scottish Army demolished by around a third of their number of English Professionals. Hamilton’s invasion attempt at Preston, again destroyed by much smaller forces; at that time, Cromwell sent the Conscripts home escorted.

National institute for Clinical Excellence.

Refeeding syndrome is a potentially fatal condition, caused by rapid initiation of refeeding after a period of undernutrition. It is characterised by hypophosphataemia, associated with fluid and electrolyte shifts and metabolic and clinical complications.  Awareness of refeeding syndrome and identification of patients at risk is crucial as the condition is preventable and the metabolic complications are avoidable Patients at high risk include chronically undernourished patients and those who have had little or no energy intake for more than 10 days Refeeding should be started at a low level of energy replacement. Vitamin supplementation should also be started with refeeding and continued for at least 10 days Correction of electrolyte and fluid imbalances before feeding is not necessary; it should be done alongside feeding

Any patient with negligible food intake for more than five days is at risk of developing refeeding problems. Patients may be malnourished as a result of reduced intake (for example, owing to dysphagia, anorexia nervosa, depression, alcoholism); reduced absorption of nutrition (as in, for example, inflammatory bowel disease, coeliac disease); or increased metabolic demands (for example, in cancer, surgery). High risk patients include those who have been chronically undernourished, especially those who also have diminished physiological reserve. Patients with dysphagia (for example, as a result of stroke) in particular may be at high risk.


Currently no evidence-based guideline exists for the approach to hypophosphatemia (Low Phosphate levels in the blood) in critically ill patients. Not much chance for 1650 then.

Something you need to know is that Soldiers generally like Soldiers because nobody can share the ordeals and fears that they know, even on different sides. Oliver Cromwell was loved by his men. His army in Scotland was made up entirely of volunteers. If you win, and keep on winning, you are never short of followers. Unlike Sir David Leslie, who had been instructed by the Scottish Clerics that offering quarter, disarming the foe and then killing them was O.K. by God. Cromwell’s letter to Heslerig on the 3rd September was plain. It should be noted that there is no record of enquiries of the Scottish Government concerning these men.

The poor men you read about on here were not Martyrs, not Heroes, not Zealots, they were Soldiers, which is an honourable title. The Dunbar Soldiers. If we are human beings, then they were ‘Our Boys’.

Laurie Pettitt, October 2016