Friday 7 April 2023

"Sack Leith and burn and subvert it and all the rest", the assault on Leith, 1544

The second game of Stuart's recent visit saw us move forward into the mid 1500s with a scenario based around Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford's, invasion of Scotland in 1544. Those of you who have followed this blog for while will know that I have been slowly building up forces for the 1540s English campaigns, in fact my first post on the 1540s troops was back in 2014, The Tudor campaigns of the 1540s in Scotland, France and domestically with Kett's and the Prayer Book rebellions have fascinated me for years and provide a host of scenarios for wargames. 

The Assault on Leith, 4th May 1544

The 1 July 1543 saw the Treaty of Greenwich between Scotland and England, the terms of which betrothed Henry VIII's son Edward to the seven month year old Mary Queen of Scots. The infant Queen had inherited the Scottish throne following the death of her father, James V, in December 1542. The proposed peace between the two kingdoms would not take place, in the sixteenth century at least, as the agreement was soon revoked by the Scots Parliament. A furious Henry VIII had seen the treaty as a means to keeping Scotland quiet whilst he pursued his chief objective of invading France. If he could not subdue Scotland by peace he would do so by war. Henry knew only too well, following the events of 1513, that if he wanted to invade France, then its northern ally, Scotland, had to be dealt with first.

Henry appointed Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, to conduct a campaign in the north ordering him to: "Put all to fire and sword, burn Edinburgh town, so raised and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what you can of it, that there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God upon them for their falsehood and disloyalty. Do what you can out of hand, and without long tarrying, to beat down and overthrow the castle, sack Holyrood house, and as many towns and villages about Edinburgh, as you may conveniently. Sack Leith and burn and subvert it and all the rest, putting man, woman and child to fire and sword without exception where any resistance shall be made against you". This was intended to be a chevauchée style campaign, very different from the campaign Hertford would conduct three years later as the Lord Protector.

On 1 May 1544 Hertford and his 16,000 strong army were carried by 200 ships from Newcastle arriving in the Firth of Forth on 3 May. A party of English troops rowed to St Mynettes and finding the town undefended put it to the torch whilst taking any boats they could find to aid with the main English landing. That night the English fleet anchored off Inchkeith intending to take Leith the following day. The morning of 4th May saw the English land rapidly two miles west of Leith. The Vanguard was led by John Dudley, the Lord Admiral, Hertford took command of the main battle and Francis Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, commanded the rearguard. The English had no cavalry but they did disembark some lighter artillery pieces which could be manhandled into action.

As the English advanced toward Leith a defending Scots force of around 6,000 men comprising cavalry, infantry and artillery, blocked their path under the command of the regent, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, Cardinal Beaton and the Earls of Huntly, Moray and Bothwell. Coming under fire from the Scots artillery the numerically superior English army attacked with a force of arquebusiers under Captain Peter Mewtys overrunning the Scottish guns. An account published in London later that year and entitled "The Late Expedition in Scotland made by the King's highness' army under the conduct of the Right Honourable the Earl of Hertford in 1544" describes this clash: "And in a valley, upon the right hand, near unto the said town, the Scots were assembled to the number of 5,000 or 6000 horsemen, besides a good number of footmen ; to impeach the passage of our said army ; in which place, they had laid their artillery at two straits through which we must needs pass, if we minded to achieve our enterprise. And seeming, at the first, as though they would set upon the Vanguard : when they perceived our men so willing to encounter with them, namely, the Cardinal, who was there present, perceiving our devotion to see his holiness to be such as we were ready to wet our feet for that purpose, and to pass a ford which was between us and them ; after certain shot of artillery on both sides : they made a sudden retreat ; and leaving their artillery behind them, fled towards Edinburgh. The first man that fled was the holy Cardinal like a valiant champion ; and with him the Governor, the Earls of Hunlty, Murray and Bothwell, with divers other great men of the realm. At this passage, were two Englishmen hurt with the shot of their artillery ; and two Scottish men slain with our artillery." After a brief clash the Scots forces withdrew from the field.

Leith itself also had a defending force which had fortified the town with a trench and artillery. Carried by the momentum of their first attack the English immediately stormed the town with support from their archers and arquebusiers. The 1544 account continues to describe the assault: "The Vanguard having thus put back the Scots, and eight pieces of their artillery brought away by our hackbutters, who in this enterprise did very manfully employ themselves, we marched directly towards the town of Leith ; which before we could come to, we must of force pass another passage, which also was defended a while with certain ensigns of footmen and certain pieces of artillery, who being sharply assailed, having three of the gunners slain with our archers, were fain to give place ; leaving also their ordnance behind them, with which ordnance they slew only one of our men and hurt another. And in this brunt, the victory being earnestly followed, the Town of Leith was entered perforce and won with the loss only of two men of ours and hurt of three : where the Scots had cast great trenches and ditches purposely to have defended it."

That night the English camped within Leith, protected by the trenches dug to keep them out. The town was plundered and two larger ships, the Salamander and Unicorn were captured. The 1544 account provides the details: "The same night, the army encamped in the said Town of Leith ; and by reason of the said ditches and trenches, we made there a strong camp. The morrow, being the 5th of May, we caused our ships ladened with our great artillery and victuals to be brought into the haven ; where we discharged the same at our pleasure. In the said haven, we found many goodly ships, specially two of notable fairness : the one called the Salamander given by the French king at the marriage of his daughter into Scotland, the other called the Unicorn, made by the late Scottish king James V. The town of Leith was found more full of riches than we thought to have found any Scottish town to have been." Having unloaded the victuals and heavier artillery Hertford's army would attack Edinburgh on 6 May.

The calm before the storm. The harbour of Leith.

A view of the table. Part of the English Vanguard under Captain Peter Mewtys prepares to storm the trenches and take the town of Leith.

The Scenario

Keen to use my new harbour terrain and boat this game focused on the English Vanguard attacking Leith itself and was played using our "Renaissance Rampant" modified version of "Lion Rampant.

The Scots player could place two units and two Culverins defending the town but the rest of the Scots force had to start at the other end of the Leith from the English. The English deployed outside the town and took the first turn. 

The English would win if they could place a unit within the harbour tile (the one which featured the boat in the photos) for two turns in a row. The Scots would win if they could prevent this.

The trench provided cover and was difficult terrain for movement and combat.

One of the "certain pieces of artillery" prepared for the defence of the town.

The Armies

The English Vanguard

1 Unit of Foot Knights (Captain Peter Mewtys retinue leader)
2 Units of English Arquebusiers
3 Units of Shire Bow
2 Units of Garrison Billmen
1 Culverin

The Defenders of Leith

1 Unit of Retinue Foot (Scots Captain defending Leith, retinue leader) 
2 Culverins
2 Units of Scots Arquebusiers
2 Units of Lowland Pike
2 Units of Border Foot
1 Unit of Border Horse

Stuart took control of the English for this game whilst I commanded the defenders of Leith. The photo captions relay the action well but a brief description of the game also follows.

Scots arquebusiers put up a stout defence from the trench, supported by some borderers.

Scots troops rush through the harbour to take up position and defend the town.

The English begin the assault on the town.

Scots troops await the attack in Leith.

English archers and billmen enter the "great trenches and ditches" dug to defend the town. 

A small artillery piece has been disembarked from the English fleet and manhandled into position. It is used to clear the trenches of Scots defenders.

The English come under fire as they approach the town.

A view of the English attack on Leith.

There is skirmishing in the trenches as English billmen...

...and archers attempt to clear them.

Captain Peter Mewtys ordered the English drums to beat and his troops advanced on Leith. Immediately they came under fire from Scots arquebusiers in the trenches and a shoot out developed between the arquebusiers and the archers of both sides. Despite the initial English advantage in numbers they could not drive the Scots from the trenches. Even when a small artillery piece was moved into position and used to fire along the trench the Scots held firm.

Whilst the fighting developed around the trenches on the English left flank on the English right, where the trench had not been defended, the attackers met with more success. They were able to quickly advance on the town, the arquebusiers routing a force of border horse sent to oppose them. The "Town of Leith was entered perforce" and before one of the Scots culverins could open fire the crew had been shot down by the rapidly advancing English arquebusiers.

One group of English "hackbutters" see a way into the town and fire on the Scots border horse forcing them to flee.

More Scots defenders advance to take on the English.

The defenders of Leith prepare to fire on the attackers...

...but before they can bring the gun to bear they are "sharply assailed" by some of Mewtys' "hackbutters" and slain. 

An overview of the fighting around the trenches.

A fire fight is taking place between the English and Scots arquebusiers.

On the English right flank the attack is having more success...

...the English enter the streets and the Scots captain leading the defence is shot by an arquebusier.

English billmen have entered the outskirts of the town.

Scots pike advance to engage the attackers but come under heavy fire from the English arquebusiers.

Fierce fighting taking place in the trenches...

...but on the English right flank Captain Peter Mewtys' men push forward.

The fighting around the trenches on the English left flank grew fiercer with English billmen entering the fray and battling Scots borderers at close quarters. Supported by archers and arquebusiers the English billmen managed to clear the Scots defences but they had sustained heavy casualties in the process and were nowhere close to capturing the harbour.

Mewty's saw where a breakthrough could be made and joined his men on the right flank as they forced their way into the town. The unfortunate Scots captain and his retainers were shot down in the narrow streets by the marauding English "hackbutters". This shook the morale of the defending force. Scots pike then joined the fighting in Leith's streets only to be pushed back by the English billmen and their supporting arquebusiers who seemed unstoppable as they fired into the close ordered Scots. The towns defenders crumbled and Captain Peter Mewtys took command of the harbour being pleasantly surprised that the "town of Leith was found more full of riches" than he could have imagined.

The English "hackbutters" force back another unit of Scots pike.

A melee breaks out in the streets...

...but the town is lost and Captain Peter Mewtys captures the Scots ships the Salamander and the Unicorn.

 This was our first "Rough Wooing" game set in the 1540s and it was a lot of fun, despite Stuart's victory! It was great to use the harbour with Stuart's superb buildings and the merchant carrack, all of which helped to set the scene really well. Whilst we have played one game set in Ireland in 1539,, this was our first step into the Tudor wars of the 1540s and it had a different feel to the games we have played set in the earlier Tudor period. Sources such as "The Late Expedition in Scotland made by the King's highness..."  are a great inspiration for skirmish games and the 1540s is really well documented. This is certainly a Tudor decade we will be returning to.


  1. Fantastic looking game, the figures and scenery are first rate....just a shame about the result!

    1. Cheers rross, this one was a pleasure to play regardless of the result

  2. Once again a joy and an education to follow your journey through the Tudor era.
    At least they're not threatening Glasgow!

    1. Thank you Stephen, hopefully more Tudor stuff will be on the way soon and yes Glasgow was safe in this campaign!

  3. Brilliant miniatures, great scenery and a top notch AAR.

    1. Cheers, it was great being able to set the harbour up with Stuart's superb buildings.

  4. The AAR goes on like a 'you are there ' episode (a good thing) with terrain and figures that are always to be marveled at. Such care at crafting scenarios is a wonderful approach.

    1. Thank you pancerni, I love searching through books on the period and contemporary sources to come up with ideas for the scenarios. It has become a big part of the hobby for me.

  5. Excellent AAR and lovely pictures made for great reading.

    1. Cheers Stuart, I am glad it made for a good read.

  6. It's now a ritual with me- when i see that you've got a new post- i wait until I've got time on my hands and when I won't be disturbed so i can read through it all and absorb the historical lesson- and then enjoy the AAR.
    Love your work!

    1. Thank you John, I always wonder when I do the historical write up as an intro "how many people actually read this?" I know a lot of people like to just look at the photos which is great but I do like to diarise the games as well as get the history out there. These events sometimes have no full account anywhere on the internet. I like being able to show how many different scenarios can be covered just within 1490 to 1550.

  7. Excellent looking game, I am of course a sucker for the background and have always found the rough wooing period particularly interesting the carrack in the harbour looks especially fine!
    Best Iain

    1. Thank you Iain. I agree the Rough Wooing is a fascinating period, I hope to do more scenarios based around it in the future.