The battle of Solway Moss or Sollom Moss was fought on the 24th November 1542 between an invading Scottish army and a defending English force under the leadership of Sir Thomas Wharton. The resulting Scottish defeat was perhaps the most embarrassing of all the defeats that the Scots suffered at the hands of their old enemy.

The Background

Relations between the two kingdoms of Scotland and England had been gradually deteriorating ever since the English king Henry VIII had made his decision to dispense with the Pope, and became particularly fraught when the Scottish king James V failed to turn up for an agreed meeting at York in 1541.

This led to the usual tit-for-tat cross border raids. The Scots raided Northumberland and so the English retaliated. Robert Bowes, the English Deputy Warden for the East March, led a raid on Teviotdale only to be ambushed by the Earl of Huntly and defeated at the battle of Haddon Rig on the 24th August 1542. In October that same year the Duke of Norfolk led an English army of some 20,000 which burnt Eccles, Kelso and a few villages but ran out of beer after four days and so returned home to Berwick on Tweed.

Although James had raised his own army at Fala Muir, its leaders took Norfolk's retreat as their cue to disband and go home, since they, like much of the Scottish nobility, had became disenchanted with their king and disinclined to get involved in any fighting. But as the Scottish army raised in the east march disbanded, James V simply decided to try his luck in the west. With the assistance of Cardinal David Beaton and the Earl of Moray another army was raised and placed under the command of Robert Maxwell, 4th Lord Maxwell and Admiral of Scotland, with the intention of launching a surprise attack in the west march.

The Battle of Solway Moss

On the 22nd November 1542 Robert Maxwell was at Langholm Castle with the main force of somewhere between 15,000 and 18,000 men, whilst king James remained at Lochmaben Castle1. Maxwell's English counterpart Sir Thomas Wharton, the Deputy Warden of the West March2, who had the responsibility for defending his country against this latest northern incursion, had a mere 3,200 men at his disposal and was clearly outnumbered. He was however, reasonably well informed of the location and size of the Scottish army and its likely intentions, and as a wily commander with a wide experience of border warfare he was confident in his ability to outfox the Scots.

On the 22nd November, whilst Maxwell was at Langholm, Wharton launched a raid on Middlebie, designed purely to confuse the Scots regarding the disposition of the English forces and persuade them to cross the river Esk at Arthuret rather than to go by the way of the Solway Sands at Gretna (which was their original intention). Wharton returned to Carlisle on the evening of the 23rd November and awoke the next morning to discover that the Scottish army had indeed begun to make its way across the river Esk at the Sandyforde near Arthuret.

Since it was November the river was running high and the road beyond the ford little more than a boggy track, thereby achieving Wharton's first objective of manoeuvring the Scots on to a terrain where it would be difficult for them to deploy their numerical superiority. Wharton deployed his own men at Hopesyke Hill between a marsh and the Hallburn stream and waited for the advance guard of the Scots army to reach his position. He had with him two hundred Kendal archers under the command of Walter Strikland who duly opened fire with volleys of arrows when the advance guard army came in range. Once the longbowmen had done their usual damage, Wharton further attacked the Scots with a troop of Border Horse under William Musgrave. This combination appears to have convinced the Scots advance guard to retreat.

When he deployed at Hopesyke Hill Thomas Wharton raised six standards specifically with the intention of making the Scots believe that there was a much larger English army present. Even so he appears to have been somewhat surprised at how rapidly the troop of Scots horse present in the advance abandoned the infantry and fled back to the main body. It took half an hour for Wharton to over run the Scots foot at Hopesyke Hill, after which he took his time in moving forward, unsure as he was as to how the Scots would now react to his presence. But he allowed Musgrave's Border Horse to begin a series of charges against the main Scottish army that was picking its way across the marshy ground beyond the Esk ford.

It was at this point, whilst Robert Maxwell was attempting to rally his forces, that Oliver Sinclair turned up and announced that in fact James V had placed him in charge of the Scottish army3. This sudden change in leadership only added to the confusion in the Scottish ranks, particularly since many of the Scottish leaders refused to accept Sinclair's authority.

Although there were no more than a few hundred English Horse doing little more than harrying the Scottish flanks, this was sufficient to persuade the Scots to retreat. Apparently convinced that there was a mighty English army on its way and fearful of being trapped in the marshy land on the wrong side of the river Esk, they began to panic and the retreat soon turned in to a rout. The Scottish army rapidly disintegrated into a scrambling mass of men trampling each other underfoot in their haste to escape.

Unfortunately for the retreating Scots, since the river level was high, the ford was too narrow to accommodate the numbers now trying to cross and many were simply swept away and drowned in the river. Others took the probably more sensible course of simply surrendering. The Lord Maxwell soon found himself a prisoner as indeed did Oliver Sinclair. With both the alternative Scottish commanders captured by the enemy the battle was effectively over.

The Aftermath

In truth Solway Moss wasn't much of a battle and there was little actual fighting. Thomas Wharton was to subsequently estimate the English losses at seven dead and one wounded. No one is quite sure how many Scots were killed that day, but it is reasonably certain that many more were drowned or trampled to death in the subsequent panic than were ever killed in combat by the English. Wharton took 1,200 prisoners including both the Scottish commanders, two Earls, another four Scottish Lords4

In terms of the military balance of power between Scotland and England the battle was of no more significance than the now largely forgotten battle of Haddon Rig. (Which of course the Scots won.) However the psychological impact of a large Scottish army being effectively destroyed by a handful of English soldiers is not to be underestimated and it is often said that it was the shock of the defeat together with the disappointment of the birth of a daughter on the 8th December 1542, which led to the death of James V on the 14th December 1542.

Henry VIII subsequently agreed to release the captured Scottish nobles only condition that they promoted the idea of the marriage of the young Queen Mary with his own son and heir Prince Edward. The English Lords (as they became known, used their influence to persuade the newly appointed Regent of Scotland, James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran to sign the Treaty of Greenwich agreeing to just such a match. In the end, this turned out to be no solution to the problem of Anglo-Scottish relations either as the Rough Wooing was soon to demonstrate.

Thomas Wharton received his due reward for humiliating the Scots when he became Thomas Wharton, 1st Baron Wharton in 1544, the launching his family on the path that was to eventually lead to a dukedom.


1 There appears to be some disagreement as to whether James remained at Lochmaben because he was ill or because of concern for his heavily pregnant wife. Or possibly both.
2 Serving under the Warden himself, then the Earl of Hertford, now better known as Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset
3 It appears that king James had unimpressed by Robert Maxwell's performance to date decided that a change of manager was called for.
4 Being the Earl of Cassil and the Earl of Glencairn, together with the Lord Fleming, Lord Somervell, Lord Olivaunt and Lord Graye.


  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • Battle of Solway Moss and the 'Rough Wooing' 1542
  • Solway Moss
  • The Battle of Solway Moss

See in particular the detailed account of the battle given by James R. Bell in his Battle of Sollomoss (Solway Moss) 1542 submitted as Proof of Evidence under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 in support of an Application for Full Planning Permission by Edinburgh Woollen Mill Ltd. To Develop a National Distribution Centre at Brampton Road, Longtown.

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