The Dunbar Medal 1651 – not quite the earliest British campaign medal?
When it comes to awarding medals for general service during a war, the British system can be traced back not simply to Waterloo or to East India Company awards in the C18th, but as far back as the late Sixteenth century. Wearable medals were given for service against the Armada in 1588, for some of James I’s naval campaigns and, in rather greater variety, for the Civil Wars of 1842-51.
These early awards have one thing in common – apart from their present rarity – and that is that they were only issued in small numbers to specific people or for specific acts. Those for the Armada, for example, were apparently given only to senior naval commanders (like Lord Howard and Francis Drake) and the same is true for the ‘naval rewards’ of James I. Medals for the Civil Wars are better known and were awarded both by the King as royal rewards and by various commanders on both sides, like the Earl of Essex, Sir Thomas Fairfax and others. In their case, the medals were given to a limited number of individuals as personal rewards for distinguished, meritorious or gallant service rather than as ‘general’ campaign awards given to every participant in a particular action.
The earliest medal which perhaps comes closest to the modern idea of a mass award to all those present in a campaign or action simply for ‘being there’ is the Dunbar Medal of 1650. Or at least, that seems to have been the intention. It was created to celebrate Parliament’s decisive victory over the Scottish royalist army at Dunbar on 3rd Sept. 1650 where the New Model Army under the command of Lord General Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots under David Leslie who supported the claim of Prince Charles Stewart (who eventually became Charles II).
Unlike the other early awards, quite a lot of documentary evidence survives for this medal, both in terms of Cromwell’s correspondence and in Parliamentary journals and archives. As early as 10th September, Parliament “desired” that Lord General Cromwell “let the officers and soldiers of the army know that the Parliament hath taken notice of their good service in this great Battle. And to give them Thanks from the House.” It was immediately ordered that the Committee of the Army “consider what Medals may be prepared both for Officers and Soldiers that were in this Service in Scotland and set the proportions and values of them and their number”.
Parliament took a year to fully consider the issue but authorised an award on 7th September 1651 – a medal was to be given to all those who participated on the Parliamentary side in the battle, unusually for those days both to officers and men alike, and approx. 13,000 men would have been entitled to it.
The small oval medals were awarded in gold for officers and silver for the rest, the gold somewhat larger at approx. 25 mm high by 22 mm wide, the silver approx. 34 mm high by 30 mm wide. They were apparently intended to be worn around the neck from a chain or ribbon and some are indeed seen with a mount fixed to take such things, though most are not, so it must have been up to the recipient to fix the suspension.
Cromwell suggested a view of the House of Commons on one side, which duly appeared on the reverse, and a depiction of the battle on the other side. In actual fact, the obverse bears Cromwell’s profile in armour – though interestingly he specifically asked that the medal should not show him: “… I doe thinke I may truly say it will be verie thankfully acknowledged by me, if you will spare the haveing my Effigies in it”. Was it modesty or the realisation that an effigy on a national medal perhaps smacked too much of monarchical aspirations! Behind the Lord General there is a battle scene, with cavalry action by Cromwell’s famous ‘Ironsides’ and blocks of pikemen. The obverse bears on the left the legend ‘The Lord of Hosts’ and ‘Word (i.e. password or battle cry) at Dunbar’ and on the right ‘Septem: Y 3 1650’. The issued reverse, as suggested by Cromwell, does show the House of Commons in session, with one member addressing the House, with the Speaker seated to the centre. There is no wording to the reverse.
The medal was designed by the prominent artist and medallist Thomas Simon (c. 1623 – 1665) whose details ‘Tho. Simon Fe[cit]’ appears on the obverse. In 1645 he had been appointed by Parliament as ‘joint chief engraver’ with Edward Wade, and, having executed the Great Seal of the Commonwealth, other seals and dies for the coinage, he was promoted to be chief engraver to the Mint. In 1650, he was ordered to go to Scotland to “take the likeness” of General Cromwell, who described him to Parliament as “ingenious and worthie of encouragement” and recommended his advancement in the Mint.
Original examples of this medal are exceptionally rare – which gives the lie to the fact that they were actually ‘mass awards’ whatever the original intention may have been and it is not known how many of either type were produced or indeed actually awarded. It cannot have been very many and, judging by their survival rate, certainly not 13,000! Their ‘life span’ would have been small in any case – it would hardly have been politic to wear them in public after the Restoration in 1660!
From the collectors’ point of view, the medal is tricky, with several versions and manifestations. They were restruck in the 18th Century by the Royal Mint engraver Thomas Pingo (1714–1776) from the original dies found in 1760 at Hursley near Winchester, in the former residence of Cromwell’s son, Richard. Most of these bear a distinctive die flaw (apparent as a clear scar across the surface). Examples were struck again in the late 19th Century from newly-cut dies which produce types whose details are quite sharp and crisp. Those done for the British Museum c. 1880, for example, have RR on the rim. Bronze examples are also found, but these are no doubt simply later specimen examples, collectors’ copies or museum exhibits.