History reclaims sole battle of low-key war: The importance of a Scots victory which forced Charles I to recall Parliament has finally been recognised. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
A FORGOTTEN British battlefield has at last found its place in history.

Few people have heard of the Battle of Newburn Ford in 1640, when English soldiers defended a crossing of the river Tyne from Scots invaders. The history books gloss over it and it is often omitted from lists of important English battles - perhaps because the English army was ignominiously defeated by the Scots. Now English Heritage, the government agency in charge of historic buildings and landscape, has decided that Newburn Ford is an important British battle and that the battlefield should be included in its official register. On 28 August 1640, 20,000 Scots defeated 4,000 English soldiers who were defending a ford over the Tyne four miles west of Newcastle. The Scots had been provoked by Charles I, who had imposed bishops and an alien prayer book on their church. The Scots army, led by Alexander Leslie, who had fought as a professional soldier in Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus, fought its way to Newcastle and occupied the city for almost a year before Charles I paid it pounds 200,000 to depart. The battle brought to an end the 'Eleven Years of Tyranny' by forcing Charles to recall Parliament.

David Smurthwaite, a historian at the National Army Museum who has investigated the Battle of Newburn Ford for English Heritage, writes in his report: 'The events of 28 August 1640 at Newburn Ford have never been accorded great recognition. It was the only action of a decidedly low-key war (the second Bishop's War against the Scots).

'The Scots acted with great restraint throughout, doing the minimum necessary to achieve their political objective. The English army was ill-paid and mutinous and by no means had its heart in the fight.'

The Scots also had the advantage of the rising ground above Newburn and of a much larger force of experienced fighters.

The small number of casualties in the battle - a few hundred at most - indicates that the fighting was not severe.

'This would appear to suggest that Newburn languishes in well-deserved obscurity, but in fact the battle was in one respect of the greatest importance. The cost of first trying to get an army together to conduct the war, and then the need to find pounds 200,000 to buy the Scots off once they occupied Newcastle after their success at Newburn, meant that King Charles I was forced to recall Parliament in November and deal with it in earnest for the first time in 11 years. Newburn administered the coup de grace to Charles' famous attempt to rule without Parliament.'

Mr Smurthwaite regards the battle as a classic example of how to conduct an opposed river crossing. His research has established the location of the battlefield as an area of about a mile to each side of Newburn on both sides of the river. The Scots army drew up on the steep bluffs above the flood plain of the river, using the church as a convenient site for its guns.

The English army was drawn up on the southern side behind earthworks defending the ford at Newburn and a smaller ford to the east at Kelshaw.

The Scots cannonade drove the English back from the earthworks and at low tide in the afternoon, the Scots cavalry crossed the Tyne, scattering the English foot soldiers to the west up Ryton and Stella banks while the English horsemen recoiled towards Stella.

To the west of Newburn, the battlefield is now Tyne Riverside Country Park. Gateshead Metropolitan Borough Council has erected boards explaining the local wildlife but there are no plaques marking the battlefield. The east of Newburn is an industrial landscape of power stations, although part of this has been decommissioned and offers a opportunity to consider the importance of the site in future development.

However, the local authorities of Gateshead and Newcastle upon Tyne have no plans to provide any interpretation of the battlefield. Gateshead is planning to put a car park and events field on an important part of the site, at Parson's Haugh.

(Photographs omitted)

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