This Month in Celtic History
by Stephen Paul DeVillo

August 2004


26 August 1651:   Manx invasion of England stopped at the battle of Wigan.

By the summer of 1651 the civil wars that had raged through Britain and Ireland since 1642 were approaching a climax. The Parliament in London had executed King Charles I in January 1649, abolished the House of Lords and organized the government into a republican “Commonwealth of England.” Scotland remained dubious, even though the Presbyterian-dominated government there had sided with the Puritan-dominated English Parliament up to then. In 1650, though, the young Prince Charles arrived in Scotland and formally pledged his support of the Scottish government. An English army under Oliver Cromwell promptly invaded Scotland, but despite the disaster of Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar that September, the twenty-one year old prince was crowned King Charles II at Scone on 1 January 1651.

With spring, though, Cromwell’s forces renewed their advance into Scotland, and when the English captured the city of Perth, Charles was forced into a difficult decision. With much of Scotland already lost to him, he decided on a bold move: he would take his Scottish army south and invade England in a bid to capture London and unhinge Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth.

To pull this off Charles would need all the help he could muster. A royal summons was sent to one of his father’s staunchest supporters, James Stanley, the Earl of Derby, also known by the old Norman title of Lord Strange. Though much of his lands lay in Lancashire in northern England, Stanley was also the Lord of the Isle of Mann, holding the island in an autocratic feudal rule that had been his family’s possession since the 1400s. Since the downfall of Charles I Stanley had holed up in the Isle of Mann, turning the place into a royalist stronghold, and beating back occasional Cromwellian incursions with an improvised Manx navy.

As the island’s feudal lord, Stanley could demand military service from its inhabitants, so he decided to gather what forces he could and sail to England in support of the young King Charles. What with Mannin’s small population and his own slender finances, Stanley could only raise and equip some 250 men, but he also had a number of royalist noblemen who had sought the shelter of the island over the years. On 11 August he gathered his troops at Castle Ruthin, packed them aboard two small ships, and set sail for Lancashire.

He landed on the English coast on 15 August. The king had crossed the Scottish border and was approaching the city of Carlisle, invading England by the very same route that his grand-nephew Bonnie Prince Charlie would follow in 1745. Rather than immediately rushing inland to join the king, Stanley lingered in Lancashire to increase his forces by calling in military obligations from the tenants of his English estates. The results were disappointing. He had told the king he would bring him 7500 fighting men, but by the end of the week he had barely 1500.

Cromwell, then hastily pursuing Charles, nevertheless saw Stanley as a serious threat, and detached a force to keep him from linking up with Charles. For their part, Charles’ Scottish generals seemed to think that Stanley had at least 5000 men behind him, and, putting religious bigotry above tactical necessity, ordered him to get rid of any Roman Catholics that might be in his army. Stanley, with few enough troops as it was, told the Presbyterians to take a walk.

As Stanley turned to follow the king’s path southward, the small 800-man Cromwellian force under Colonel Robert Lilburne took up positions blocking the road in the hilly terrain north of the town of Wigan, an area known to this day as “the Bloody Mountains.” Advancing on the morning of 26 August, Stanley’s men were surprised by the heavy fusillade of musket shots that suddenly erupted from the hedgerows. Stanley rode forward to lead the assault, but the outnumbered Cromwellians were well dug in and repelled two successive Manx attacks with heavy casualties. His forces dwindling, Stanley again took the lead for a last desperate lunge, and succeeded in breaking through the English lines - with all of six men, who promptly found themselves hopelessly cut off behind enemy lines.

The wounded Stanley galloped forward and sought shelter in a house in the town of Wigan. There he hid in a cupboard while the English troops combed the town for him. The next morning Stanley disguised himself and, now an army of one, stubbornly set off southward in search of his king, while behind him the remnants of his Manx invasion force were dispersed and captured.

Stanley reported to the king as the two rival armies gathered at the western English city of Worcester. At the ensuing battle on 3 September 1651 Stanley had the honor of fighting at Charles’ side, but otherwise his luck had run out. The Scottish royalist army was utterly destroyed, and the fugitive Charles eluded pursuers by hiding in the legendary Boscobel Oak. Ironically Stanley had given Charles the directions to Boscobel, having himself hidden from enemy patrols there while on his way down a few days before. But while Charles hid out at Boscobel, Stanley went another way and was captured.

Of the 400 Manx and Lancashire prisoners taken at Wigan, Cromwell ordered that all the officers and one of each ten men were to be tried at courts-martial. A death sentence was the assumed outcome of these courts-martial, though how many executions were actually carried out is uncertain. As to Stanley himself, though, Cromwell left no room for leniency. “Darbie will be tried at Chester,” he wrote, “and die at Boulton.” Stanley was accordingly beheaded. Cromwell would soon dispatch a force to the Isle of Mann to settle accounts with Stanley’s redoubtable widow Charlotte, whose attempt to defend the last patch of royalist territory would be preempted by one of Mannin’s greatest patriots, Illiam Dhone.

For more information on the Isle of Mann, see the Manx Nation Page.

The stories featured in This Month in Celtic History are drawn from the over 1000 anniversaries of people and events from the histories of the six Celtic nations of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann in the 2005 Celtic Calendar, now available from the Celtic League American Branch.

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