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The Battle of Neville’s Cross – 17th October 1346


There is a WALK associated with this article.

In common with many other battles of the medieval period, evidence of the events that took place outside Durham on the 17th October 1346 exists only on the shelves of libraries, but it comes from such diverse sources that at least we can be reasonably certain that they took place at all. It’s a strange irony that despite the catastrophic effects they had on the lives of many of their participants, medieval battles were positively benign with regard to their effect on the territory they fought over.

Of the details of the battle itself and the events that lead up to it, almost nothing is known with certainty, including its precise location or even the size and composition of the forces involved. Although several chronicles were written, most were not particularly contemporaneous and some may have used newsletter sources that now no longer exist. With the possible exception of prior John Fossor’s letter to Thomas Hatfield, the bishop of Durham, few can be regarded as particularly authoritative and some are little more than propaganda – written to glorify patrons or to vilify the enemy.

Official papers and financial accounts exist to help us understand how English armies were organised but there is very little evidence to allow us to do the same for the Scots. What we really lack today however, hundreds of years on, is physical evidence – artefacts and human remains – to help dissuade us from indulging too much in the virtual world of our imagination or the egocentricities of Colonel Burne’s ‘doctrine of military probability’.

The narrative of my own account as one whose historical expertise is profoundly non-academic, will focus on what has previously been written by the chroniclers and generally agreed upon by others such as Professor Michael Prestwich, Alexander Grant and Richard Lomas all of whom contributed to an excellent book entitled ‘The Battle of Neville’s Cross 1346′ that was assembled for a symposium in 1996 to mark the 650th anniversary of the battle.

There are though, several other sources including the aforementioned Colonel Burne that whilst they are certainly less reliable academically, they are nonetheless interesting and have the advantage of promoting perfectly reasonable theories for which there is little evidence (but little to contradict them either). I’m perfectly happy to consider them, including the many legends that are associated with the battle, in the context of this article. I also present my own independently sourced material, backed up with many hours spent exploring the likely battle sites which I hope will help to illustrate the points made in the course of this text.

Prelude to a Battle

When David Bruce, the young king of Scotland, was woken roughly on a chilly October morning in 1346 with dire warnings of the impending arrival of a hitherto undetected – and totally unexpected – English army, it is said that he scoffed and proclaimed: ‘There are none in England but wretched monks, disreputable priests, swineherds, cobblers and skinners’. Only a few hours later, on his way to Ogle Castle in Northumberland in the custody of the English squire John de Coupland and with an arrowhead lodged firmly in the bones of his face, he was able to reflect on the brutal shortcomings of his bold statement that morning.

Only ten days earlier he had led a formidable army across the border into England, confident that its own was 300 miles away on the other side of the English Channel, besieging the French seaport of Calais. Although he was the brother-in-law of the English king, Edward III, he was also the son of Robert the Bruce who had rid his country of the English and had terrorised their northern marches for years. In 1332, after Edward Balliol had launched his first assault on the Scottish crown, he had been sent to live in France with whom Scotland had been formally allied since 1326; now, twenty years later, it was a direct request from the French king Philip VI to help lift the siege on Calais by attacking England in the north that had been the catalyst for the invasion.

Here was a perfect opportunity to build on his father’s legacy and establish his position and reputation without incurring the sort of risk that an operation of this type and magnitude might normally have entailed. Since returning to Scotland he had mounted several raids into England and it was inconceivable that as long as their continued to be an English presence in Scotland that war could be avoided. His barons, particularly John Randolph (who had served jointly with the king’s nephew, Robert Stewart, as regent in David’s absence) and William Douglas, were successful, aggressive and experienced commanders but perhaps inclined to be over-mighty. To impose his will on men like this in a full-blown campaign would be asking a lot of the 22-year-old but with their help, and a large army, success must have seemed almost guaranteed.

Unlike his father, whose strategy of guerrilla-style warfare had helped predefine the terms ‘hit and run’ and ‘scorched earth’ and whose use of what, hundreds of years later, would be identified as classic ‘commando’ tactics, David was intent on conducting a much more ambitious and well-invested campaign. Not for him the semi-raw meat and basic oat cakes that his father’s generals ate on the trail; he fully intended to utilise the resources of English towns like Hexham, Corbridge, Darlington and Durham – possibly even using them as winter quarters (which gives us a clear insight into the confidence he had in the long-term success of his enterprise).

The Scottish Muster

The English knew that the Scots were actively recruiting as early as 20th August (before the events at Crecy and the subsequent siege of Calais). An initial Scottish muster took place – probably towards the end of September – in Perth for the purposes of assembling the retinues of the Highland magnates. The most notable feature of this assembly appears to have been the murder in the nunnery at Elcho, of Ranald MacRuari of Garmoran by his West Highland rival, the earl of Ross who then left in some haste taking his entire retinue with him (a slight that would have been inconceivable against his father).


Gathering further support on the journey south, the Scottish host crossed the border on or around the 7th October to lay siege to the stronghold known as the ‘pele of Liddel’ which stood high above the confluence of the river Esk and the Liddel Water about 10 miles north of Carlisle. A force under William Douglas, the knight of Liddesdale, reached the tower that morning with the king and the rest of the Scottish army joining him in the evening. When the tower was finally taken after 4 or 5 days, the Scots killed every adult male inside including its keeper, Walter de Selby and his two sons. It was now that William Douglas apparently advised David that it might be wise to turn back.

Choosing to ignore Douglas’ advice, David led his army south-east towards the Augustinian priory of Lanercost. Under the terms of a truce that had cost the county 300 marks, Carlisle and the surrounding countryside were to be left unmolested but the Scots ransacked the priory before continuing along the river Irthing and down the Tyne valley to Hexham where they stayed for 3 days. Here they ransacked what is now Hexham abbey (then yet another Augustinian priory) and damaged parts of the town though they left it generally intact following the order from the king which forbade its destruction for the reasons discussed earlier.

As they moved further down the valley, Aydon castle, near Corbridge, was voluntarily surrendered ‘to save the lives of the inhabitants’. They then followed the river Tyne east to Ryton – possibly crossing via the ford at Newburn – from where they plundered south to Ebchester, crossing the river Derwent and following the Roman road of Dere Street steeply out of the Derwent valley and on towards ‘the wood of Beaurepaire’ (a distance of roughly 13 miles). Sometime around 3 pm on the 16th of October, they reached ‘the moor of Bearpark’ (about a mile and a half to the west of Durham) where they drew up their battle lines as though to announce their purpose; then they wheeled around and headed into the park itself where they descended on the prior’s lodge at Beaurepaire and pitched ‘tents of the richest and noblest sort, the likes of which had not been seen in these parts for a long time.’

The English Respond

The Scottish threat had long been anticipated by the English and consequently some of the most prominent commanders at the battle: the archbishop of York; Henry Percy; Ralph Neville and Thomas Rokeby, the sheriff of Yorkshire together with the bishop of Durham (who wasn’t present at the battle) had already been charged with overseeing arrangements for a response.

Officials had been shuttling between London and the north since the beginning of the year, and the king had already ordered Henry Percy to send spies into Scotland. Recruitment was underway, primarily from the areas ‘north of the Trent’, but it had been beset with difficulties, particularly in gaining co-operation from the men of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, in dealing with desertions and with the various civic bodies who refused to make the obligatory contributions towards the cost.

When the Scots finally made their move, the English may have been taken by surprise thinking that recent news of their victory at Crecy would have had more of a cautionary effect. Their response however, was swift: the archbishop of York, William de la Zouche, went to Richmond and over the course of several days assembled a large body of troops with whom he marched to the Premonstratensian abbey at Egglestone just outside Barnard Castle somewhere around the 14th-15th October.

There they assembled with other English magnates and their retinues, staying overnight (during which time they managed to visit considerable hardship on the ‘white canons’ of what was a relatively impoverished priory). Next morning, 16th October, they crossed the river Tees and marched north towards Bishop Auckland passing through lands belonging to Ralph Neville from where, no doubt, they continued to gather strength. On arrival at Bishop Auckland (about 10 miles from Durham) they concealed themselves on a wooded hill in the bishop of Durham’s hunting park.


Events on the morning of the 17th would have begun early for both sides: while the English army was confessing itself at Bishop Auckland, a large Scottish force of over 500 men led by William Douglas was setting out southwards on what has been consistently described as a ‘foraging’ operation. The camps of both sides were roughly equidistant from the crossing point on the river Wear at Sunderland Bridge; when the Scots reached it they quickly pressed on further south. Not long afterwards, somewhere in the vicinity of Ferryhill and Merrington, the two forces clashed for the first time that day.

Stunned at the unexpected appearance of such a large English force, the Scots turned tail and headed swiftly back the way they had come pursued by the English knights and men-at-arms. A ‘great number’ were killed at or around Sunderland Bridge with others, including Douglas, being pursued for some distance back towards Bearpark.

On his arrival at the Scottish camp, Douglas is said by some sources to have woken a still sleeping David and warned him of the proximity of the English host. David’s attitude was scathing if not disbelieving but he nevertheless readied his army. Moving out of the park towards Durham, they arrayed once more on the moor beyond its walls, overlooking the ground where the two armies would finally give battle.

The Battle of Neville’s Cross

nevilles-cross-mapUnfortunately – like many medieval battle sites (including Hastings) – exactly where the action took place has never been established but according to Prior Fossor, the armies drew up on the moor of Bearpark – (also referred to as Beaurepaire), where the topography of the landscape offers limited scope for manoeuvre.

Today it is generally accepted that the English occupied the ridge on what is now Crossgate Moor which runs roughly north/south and at its narrowest point is only around 600 metres wide. To the east, a steep slope descends towards Flass Vale and to the west, the ground slopes more gently downwards towards the sandstone quarries along the east bank of the river Browney. The whole area is only about 1.5 square kilometres.

What we are told (and what fits with the military conventions of the time) is that both sides may have drawn themselves up into 3 divisions, in a space that is so confined and beset with natural obstacles that it is not obvious how they might actually have arranged them. The English deployed a large complement of archers but again, exactly where and how is uncertain. Overall numbers for the forces involved varied widely – spectacularly it we believe the chroniclers – but more reasoned contemporary estimates put them at around 10,000 for the Scots and 6,000 for the English.

The chroniclers generally agree that the first Scottish division was led by King David, the second by John Randolph, earl of Moray and Sir William Douglas and the third by the king’s nephew, Robert Stewart, earl of Atholl and also High Steward of Scotland together with Patrick Dunbar, the Scottish earl of March. On the English side, things are less clear: in one popular permutation the first division seems to have been led by the archbishop of York with Percy and Neville appearing in the second, and the third (often referred to as the rearguard) containing Thomas Rokeby, the sheriff of Yorkshire.

Scottish Combatants
C - Captured; K - Killed; E - Escaped
David Bruce, king of ScotsCCaptured by John de Coupland; wounded twice by arrows, the last of which was not removed from his face until years later
John Randolph, earl of MorayKRandolph's father Thomas, had been one of Robert the Bruce's most able commanders. John Randolph has served as joint regent with Robert Stewart during David's early years in France
Sir William Douglas, lord of LiddesdaleCCaptured by Sir Robert Bartram; temporarily imprisoned at Tynemouth Priory. In 1342 he had kidnapped fellow campaigner William Ramsay's brother and notroriously starved him in his castle at Hermitage, Liddesdale for humiliating him by capturing Roxburgh castle
Robert Stewart, earl of Atholl and High Steward of ScotlandEDavid Bruce’s nephew; fled from the field along with Patrick Dunbar, earl of March. Had shared regency duties with John Randolph then became sole regent following David's capture then king after David's death in 1371
Patrick Dunbar, Scottish earl of MarchEFled the field along with Robert Stewart. Like Menteith he had also served Edward III and provided shelter for Edward II fleeing after Bannockburn. He may have been wary of the threat of execution. The English referred to him as Dunbar probably to avoid confusion with the earldom in the Welsh marches
Duncan, earl of FifeCCaptured by Sir Robert Ogle. Duncan (also known as Donnchadh) was something of a serial captive, being taken also at Dupplin Moor (1332) and Halidon Hill (1333)
Maurice de Moravia, earl of StrathearnK
John Graham, earl of MenteithC*Captured by John de Latoun. Executed for treason for swearing allegiance to Edward III in the 1330s
William de Moravia, earl of SutherlandC
Nigel Bruce, earl of CarrickKIllegitimate son of Robert Bruce, step-brother of David
Malcolm Fleming, earl of WigtownC*Captured by Sir Robert Bartram and escaped from captivity at Bothal castle in Northumberland
Sir Edward Keith (+ brother)KMarischal of Scotland
Sir Thomas CharterisKChancellor of Scotland. (Captured according to Anonimalle Chronicle)
Sir John RoxburghKChamberlain of Scotland
Sir David HayKConstable of Scotland
Sir John Sinclair
Sir John HaliburtonK
Sir Walter HaliburtonC
Sir Henry DouglasC
Sir Henry RamsayK
Sir Thomas BoydK
Sir John StewartK
Sir Alan Stewart (+ brother)K
Sir John CrawfordK
Sir John LindsayK
Sir Phillip MeldrumK
Sir Alexander MoreK
Sir Humphrey Kirkpatrick (+ brother)K
Sir Humphrey BoyceK
Sir Alexander Strachan (father)K
Sir Alexander Strachan (son)K
Sir Ness RamsayK
Sir Adam NixonK
Sir Gilbert InchmartinK
Sir Payton HerringK
Sir John StrachanK
Sir Patrick HerringK
Sir Alexander RaitK
Sir William WisemanK
Sir Roger CameronK
Sir William FraserK
Sir John BonevilleK
Sir Michael ScotK
Sir Andrew ButtergaskK
Sir David LindsayK
Sir Patrick DunbarK
Sir Robert Maitland (+ brother)K
Sir Maurice MurrayK
Sir William VausC
Sir William LivingstoneC
Sir William MowbrayC
Sir John SinclairC
Sir Alexander Ramsay
David Fitzwalter FitzgilbertC
John Stewart (+ brother)C
Sir David AnnandC
Sir William Ramsay (father)K(or C)
William Ramsay (son)C(or K)
Sir William CunninghamC
Sir Adam NicholsonC
James de LorraineC
Adam MoigneC
John DouglasC
John HumeC
William MoreC
John SandilandsC
Henry KerC
English Combatants
C - Captured; K - Killed; E - Escaped
William de la ZoucheArchbishop of York; Warden of the Marches
Sir Henry PercyWarden of the Marches; banneret
Sir Ralph NevilleWarden of the Marches; banneret
Sir John NevilleFought at battle of Crecy eight weeks earlier (26th August 1346)
Sir John MowbrayBanneret
Gilbert d'UmfravilleEarl of Angus; banneret. Anonimalle chronicle refers to him as Thomas d'Umfraville
Sir Robert OgleCaptured the earl of Fife
Lord DeyncourtBanneret
Lord MauleyBanneret
Lord LeyburnBanneret
Sir Henry ScropeBanneret
musgraveSir Thomas MusgraveKnighted in the field
Sir Thomas RokebySheriff of Yorkshire
Sir Robert BartramSheriff of Northumberland & banneret. Captured earl of Wigtown. Resided at Bothal castle
Andrew FitzRalphStandard bearer(?); Banneret
Roger de la ZoucheBanneret
Sir Ralph HastingsProvost of Beverley; Banneret
Sir Thomas de Lucy
Sir Thomas GreyBishop's steward after Neville's Cross. Captured two prisoners. Author of 'Scalacronica' after being captured by the Scots in 1355
Sir Hugh Morisby
Sir William Percy
Robert of RichmondK
Sir John HuddlestonKnighted in the field
couplandJohn de CouplandCaptured the Scottish king David Bruce

After receiving both blessing and encouragement from the archbishop, the English may have initiated what shortly afterwards became known as ‘the battle of Durham’ or ‘the battle of the Red Hills’ by having their archers harass the Scots’ lines; in response, John Graham, the earl of Menteith, offered to take 100 cavalry forward to engage them. Despite being denied permission, he is said to have attacked by himself, causing some consternation in the English ranks but having his horse shot from under him and almost failing to make it back to his own lines.

From the outset the Scots seemed disadvantaged: only the Steward’s division had room to stand and fight; the king was in ‘a right annoyous place’ and Moray and Douglas’ advance was broken up by ‘high dykes’. However, despite this and to the sound of trumpets and the roar of thousands of bellowing warriors, the first two Scottish divisions managed to engage so effectively that on at least two occasions the English archers and ordinary soldiers were forced to retreat while the violent surge broke against their men-at-arms who stood firm until they could be supported again. In what was an untypically long encounter lasting from ‘nones until vespers’, both sides fought so ‘strenuously, bitterly and very fiercely’ using ‘swords, lances, bows and axes’ that, most unusually, several brief truces had to be agreed to allow the combatants to recover.

When at last the English appeared to be gaining the advantage, rather than commit the large Scottish reserve to the fight, both the High Steward and the earl of March chose to withdraw from the field in so disorganised a fashion that the English were able exploit it and quickly turned it into a rout. In the centre the king was surrounded and his force slowly depleted until few were able to continue fighting. David himself had suffered a couple of well-documented arrow wounds, one of which was to the face, and he was eventually captured by the English squire, John de Coupland.

The Rout

The large body of retreating and now leaderless Scots was pursued from the field northwards towards Findon Hill where the final actions took place. At around this time Thomas de Lucy arrived with a sizeable contingent of archers from Yorkshire and may well have taken part in the rout. A long and perilous journey awaited those Scotsmen who managed to escape from the battlefield (many of whom were on their lords’ horses); they would be harried as far as the castle of Dunbar, well beyond the border.

The day proved to be an overwhelming victory for the English whose own fatalities were described by prior Fossor as ‘few’, while ‘…many valiant men of Scotland were slain and lay strewn about over the moor of Bearpark, miserably exposed…’ Among those was John Randolph, perhaps the most able of David’s commanders, whose father was a trusted lieutenant of Robert the Bruce and whose death brought an end to the male line of his family. Also killed was the earl of Strathearn and Niall Bruce, illegitimate brother of David, along with many other Scottish magnates and many of its most important officials including, the marischal, the chancellor, the chamberlain and the constable of Scotland.

As was usual for the times, many others were captured for ransom including the king himself, along with William Douglas, the earl of Sutherland, the earl of Wigtown (who subsequently escaped from Bothal castle near Morpeth), John Graham, earl of Mentieth (who was taken to London and executed as a traitor) and Duncan, earl of Fife whose kinship to Edward III may have saved him from a similar fate.


In terms of its lasting effects, the battle of Neville’s Cross (as it became known much later) must be seen as one of the most prominent to be fought on English soil: it finally secured England’s northern border and, according to John Fossor, brought to an end ‘…the pitiful discord which prevailed between English and Scots over the course of many years’; in fact, Durham itself would be free of further Scottish military incursions until the Bishop’s Wars almost 300 years later.

The Scots henceforth would be preoccupied with the political problems of establishing a new regency government; one that was quickly beset by Balliol’s rekindled attempts to gain the Scottish throne. The 13th century certainly showed that wherever kingship was weak the fortunes of that country’s border regions suffered commensurately.

When David’s release was finally negotiated in 1357 after 11 years in English captivity (during which time he had become an undoubted anglophile) the ransom payments of 100,000 marks over 10 years, couldn’t be sustained and was the source of constant trouble until the English were distracted by renewed hostilities with France in 1369.

When he died in 1371, the Scottish king left no heir and was succeeded by the same nephew who – for whatever reason – had deserted him on the field at Neville’s Cross and who would be the first of the Stewart (Stuart) dynasty.