Battle of Worcester

On this day in 1651, the Battle of Worcester was fought between the Royalist forces of Charles II, most of them Scots, and the Parliamentarian forces of Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army. Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the Royalists by at least two to one. It was the final battle in Charles’s attempt to retake his father’s kingdom, and Charles’s defeat marked the end of the civil wars that had been going on in England, Scotland, and Ireland for nearly a decade.

Until 1649, Scotland’s political establishment had considered the English Parliamentarians to be their allies. Both parties sought to limit royal control: the Parliamentarians believed that the king should be subject to Parliament (or at least willing to work with it), and the Scottish Covenanters believed that he should be subject to God (by which they meant the Assembly of the Presbyterian kirk). However, when the Parliamentarians tried and executed Charles I, Scots of all political stripes were outraged. Charles was, after all, not only King of England – he was King of Scotland, too, and his Scottish subjects felt that England had no right to execute Scotland’s king without a Scottish trial.

In response, the Scots proclaimed Charles’s son, currently in exile on the Continent, King Charles II.  Cromwell then gathered an army and marched into Scotland, where on 3 September 1650 – a year to the day before the Battle of Worcester – he defeated the Scots at Dunbar and took control of Edinburgh. The younger Charles was brought back to Scotland and crowned at Scone on New Year’s Day, 1651. Like the later Stuart exiles, however, the new king intended to rule all of Britain, not just Scotland. Although his general, David Leslie, urged him to remain in Scotland, where he had the greatest support, Charles decided to take his army into England. Cromwell left part of his forces in Scotland and turned south in pursuit. The Royalists’ march toward London was halted at Worcester.

Initially, the Royalists appeared to be getting the better of their enemies at the Battle of Worcester, but in the end Charles’s army was utterly defeated. Malcolm Atkin, in his study of this battle, says that “2,000-4,000 Scots [were] killed in the battle. Many more were wounded and a considerable number of these must have died in the following days or weeks. Most of the survivors were captured.”[1] With the help of English sympathisers, Charles himself escaped[2], but few of the Scots who had fought for him ever made it home. Thousands of them were shipped to the colonies – Barbados, New England, and Virginia – and sold as indentured servants, among them at least three Macalisters who landed in Boston early in 1652. (Another three of this name were sent to Virginia a few months earlier, but it’s possible they had been captured at Dunbar, which also produced many transportees, the previous year. These are the earliest Macalisters on record in the New World.)

Macalisters at home, too, were affected by this defeat. After Worcester, Cromwell quickly conquered all of Scotland outside the Western Highlands. Scotland was declared a protectorate of England, and the government in London hoped to unite the two countries formally. Discontent among the Western clans (who as Episcopalians and Catholics were excluded from the newly decreed religious toleration) and resistance to military occupation led to Glencairn’s Rising (1654), but after that had been put down, Cromwell’s General Monck “established a measure of law and order in the Highlands which had not been seen for centuries, enforcing it with the active co-operation of the clan chiefs. By offering them treaties of surrender to sign, Monck . . . implicitly recognised their own authority over their clansmen, so bolstering their positions of power.[3] In fact, in some ways the Highlanders were better off under Cromwell than they ever had been. Certainly the restoration in 1660 of Charles II “saw a return to widespread disorder”.[4]

Still, for nine years after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester, Scotland was a conquered nation, subdued by a military presence and ruled directly from London. 

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2014

[1] Cromwell’s Crowning Mercy: The Battle of Worcester, 1651 (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1998), p. 113. 

[2] An entertaining and informative account of Charles’s escape back to France can be found in Richard Ollard’s book, The Escape of Charles II after the Battle of Worcester (London: Robinson, 1966, 1986). It is well worth reading if this era is of interest.

[3] John Roberts, p. 127

[4] Ibid., p. 134

Thanks, but Can’t We Just Go Home?

In December of 1651, Alister MacAllister, Daniel (probably Donal) MacAllister, and John MacAllister arrived in New England, becoming the first Macalister immigrants to the future United States on record, as far as I know.  This does not mean, of course, that they were the first to arrive:  Many 17th-century Scots who arrived in the colonies did so as indentured servants, and their arrival went unrecorded.

Emigrating was costly, and some of those who had the best reasons to leave were the very ones who couldn’t possibly afford to do.  Indentured servitude – essentially a form of temporary slavery – made emigration possible.  Indentured servants contracted with a master who would pay their passage for them; in return they would work for the master for a specified amount of time (often seven years).  There was no escape clause; the indentured servant was stuck no matter how bad the situation turned out to be.  Still, at the end of the indenture the individual usually would be given a small parcel of land and the basic tools to start his or her new life.  Many of those who hoped for a better or less uncertain future took the long view and decided it was worth the price.

But indentured servitude – even emigration itself – was not always voluntary.  When there were entire continents out there with land that cost almost nothing (to the Europeans, anyway), transporting undesirables to far-off places offered the authorities both a solution to crime and a workforce for the colonies.  It was a solution they made good use of.  In these cases, emigration itself was part of the punishment:  Those being sent to the New World didn’t necessarily want to go, and many of them would never be able to afford a return home.

Apparently the arrival of people headed for indentured servitude was not always deemed worthy of recording.  But those who were sent to the colonies for some crime or another were more likely to be noted, and the Macalisters who arrived in December of 1651 fall into this category.  They came not as criminals but as prisoners of war.  Like many of the West Highland clans, the Macalisters had fought for Charles II in Scotland’s civil war; evidently some of them followed the king into England to fight on in theirs. After the Royalists were finally defeated at Worcester, these Macalisters were among the many taken prisoner and transported.[1] How they felt about this is unknown.  They might have spent the rest of their lives as broken, disillusioned men.  Or they might have seen it as a wonderful opportunity to start anew.  But the fact that they came to the New World as prisoners of war may well be the only reason we know they existed at all.

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2011


[1]Their arrivals specify that they were prisoners of war, but they might have been taken at Dunbar the previous year.  Most of the Dunbar prisoners seem to have been shipped out in 1650, though.