In common with many other battles of the medieval period, evidence of the events that took place on the outskirts of Durham on the 17th October 1346 exists only on the shelves of libraries. It’s ironic that despite the catastrophic effects on the participants, medieval battles seem to dissolve without trace into the landscapes they were fought over.
Little is known of the battle itself, or of the events leading up to it, including its location or the size and composition of the forces involved. Although several chronicles were written, few were contemporaneous, and some may have used newsletter sources that now no longer exist. With the possible exception of the Prior of the monastery at Durham, John Fossor’s, letter to Thomas Hatfield, 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 is lacking today, 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 extremely non-academic account focuses on what has previously been written by chroniclers and generally agreed upon by researchers such as Professor Michael Prestwich, Alexander Grant and Richard Lomas, all of whom contributed to an excellent book titled The Battle of Neville’s Cross 1346 which was published for a symposium in 1996 to mark the battle’s 650th anniversary.
Other sources, including Colonel Burne’s, lack academic rigor but are interesting nonetheless, promoting perfectly reasonable theories but for which there is little evidence. I’m perfectly happy to consider them, as well as the associated legends and folklore. I would also like to present my own material, having spent many hours exploring the site of the battle (and others like it), which I hope will help to illustrate the points made in the course of this text.
Prelude to Battle
After being shaken awake on that chilly October morning in 1346, the young Scottish king, David Bruce, was given news of the impending arrival of a large and unexpected English army. However concerned he might have been he is said to have scoffed: “There are none in England, but wretched monks, disreputable priests, swineherds, cobblers and skinners”. A few hours later, on his way to Ogle Castle in Northumberland as a prisoner of the English squire, John de Coupland, 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 his own forces across the border with England, confident that its own army was engaged on the other side of the English Channel, besieging the French port of Calais. Whilst David 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 English domination and had laid waste to the 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, who had been allies of the Scots since 1326. Now, twenty years later, he was responding to a direct request for assistance from Philip VI of France, to help lift the siege on Calais by attacking England from the north.
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 seemed inconceivable that, as long as there continued to be an English presence in Scotland, 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 who were 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 a 22-year-old, but with their help, and a large numerical advantage, success must have seemed almost guaranteed.
Unlike his father, whose strategy of guerrilla-style warfare helped predefine terms like “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 more ambitious, well-invested but ponderous campaign. Not for him the semi-raw meat and basic oatcakes 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 had known that the Scots were actively recruiting as early as 20th August 1346 (before the battle at Crecy and the subsequent siege of Calais took). The initial Scottish muster was held in Perth – probably towards the end of September – where the retinues of the Highland magnates assembled. Here, Ranald MacRuari of Garmoran was murdered in the nunnery at Elcho by his West Highland rival, the Earl of Ross, who left hastily, taking his entire retinue with him (a slight that would have been inconceivable against David’s father).
Gathering further support on the journey south, the Scottish host crossed the border sometime around the 7th October, to lay siege to the stronghold known, as the ‘Pele of Liddel’, standing 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 rest of the Scottish army, including the king, 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 quartered for 3 days. Hexham’s abbey received the same treatment as Lanercost’s priory, and other parts of the town were damaged, though it was left generally intact on the orders of the Scottish king himself.
Further along the Tyne Valley, the castle at Aydon, near Corbridge, was voluntarily surrendered, in a bid to save the lives of the inhabitants. The Scots then followed the River Tyne east, past Ryton, possibly crossing further downstream, via the ford at Newburn. Next, they plundered south to Ebchester, crossing the River Derwent and following the Roman road of Dere Street, steeply, out of the Derwent valley, heading for Durham about 13 miles away.
It is thought that, sometime around mid-afternoon, on the 16th of October, they reached“the moor of Bearpark” as Prior Fosser would refer to it later (about a mile and a half to the west of Durham), where they assembled as if to announce their intention. Then they wheeled around and headed into the park itself, descending on the Prior’s hunting lodge of 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 Response
The threat from the Scots had long been anticipated by the English; consequently some of the most prominent commanders at the battle: the Archbishop of York; Henry Percy; Ralph Neville; Thomas Rokeby, the Sheriff of Yorkshire, together with the Bishop of Durham (on campaign with Edward III in France at the time) had already been charged with overseeing arrangements for a response.
Officials had been shuttling between London and northern England since the beginning of the year, with Henry Percy receiving instructions from the king to send spies into Scotland. Recruitment was already underway, primarily from areas ‘North of the Trent’, but it had been beset with difficulties – co-operation from the men of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire had been difficult to obtain, desertions were a constant problem as always, and many civic bodies were recalcitrant in making obligatory financial contributions.
When the Scots finally made their move, there may have been an element of surprise, with the English, perhaps, thinking that recent news of their victory at Crecy would have had 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, to assemble with the retinues of other English magnates. The very next day, they moved north, but only after visiting considerable hardship on the ‘White Canons’ of the already impoverished priory. Next morning, 16th October, they crossed the adjacent River Tees and marched north towards Bishop Auckland, passing through the domain of Ralph Neville himself, from where, no doubt, they continued to gather strength. On arrival at what is now 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: at the same time that 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. Shortly after crossing the River Wear, a few miles south of the city, they clashed with the English vanguard, in the vicinity of Ferryhill and Merrington.
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 roundabout on the A167, Great North Road, bears the name ‘Butcher’s Race’ suggesting the carnage that might have been wrought, and a ‘great number’ were killed in the vicinity of the crossing at Sunderland Bridge, with others, including Douglas, being pursued some distance back towards the Scottish camp.
On his return, 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 apparently 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 ground where the two armies would finally give battle.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross
As is the way with fluid battles in days before the use of explosive ordinance, exactly where the action took place has never been established. According to Prior Fossor, the armies arrayed themselves on the moor of Bearpark – also referred to as Beaurepaire – where the topography of the landscape offers limited scope for manoeuvre.
Today it seems 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. A steep slope descends into Flass Vale to the east while 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.
Fitting with military conventions of the time, both sides are said to have arranged themselves into 3 divisions, in a space so confined and beset with natural obstacles that it is not obvious how they might have done it. The English deployed a large complement of archers but exactly where and how is uncertain. Overall numbers vary widely – spectacularly if the the chroniclers are to be believed – but more reasoned estimates put them at around 10,000 for the Scots and 6,000 for the English.
There seems to be agreement among the Chroniclers that the first Scottish division was led by King David, the second by John Randolph, Earl of Moray and Sir William Douglas with the third under the command of the king’s nephew, Robert Stewart, Earl of Atholl and High Steward of Scotland together with Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March. Things are less clear on the English side however: in one popular permutation, the first division is led by the Archbishop of York with Thomas Percy and Ralph Neville leading the second, and the third, sometimes referred to as ‘the rearguard’, under Thomas Rokeby, Sheriff of Yorkshire.
After receiving blessings and encouragement from the archbishop, the English may have initiated the battle by having their archers harass the Scots’ lines. In response, John Graham, the Earl of Menteith, offered to take 100 mounted knights forward to engage them. Denied permission it’s claimed that he attacked by himself, causing consternation in the English ranks but eventually having his horse killed under him and only just evading capture.
The Scots appear to have been disadvantaged from the outset. Only the Steward’s division had sufficient room for manoeuvre while the king was in“a right annoyous place” and Moray and Douglas’ advance was broken up by ‘high dykes’. Nevertheless, to the sound of trumpets and the roar of thousands of men, 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 behind the more heavily equipped men-at-arms who stood firm until the defence could be reorganised. In an untypically long encounter, said to have lasted from ‘nones until vespers’, both sides fought ‘strenuously, bitterly and very fiercely’ using ‘swords, lances, bows and axes’ to the extent that brief truces had to be agreed to allow combatants to recover. Blood is said to have run so freely that the engagement was originally referred to as the ‘Battle of the Red Hills’, indeed the area close by is still known as ‘Red Hills’.
Defeat from the Jaws of Victory
For some reason, with the English managing to do little more than hold their ground, Stewart and the Earl of March chose to withdraw rather than commit the large reserve for which they were responsible. It may have had something to do with Thomas de Lucy’s arrival on the field together with a large contingent (up to 3000) of mounted archers from Yorkshire, though it’s believed they took part only in the pursuit. Whatever might have influenced the decision the English were able to pursue them off the field whereupon retreat turned quickly into a rout.
The king remained on the field, fighting valiantly, but without support his depleted force was eventually overwhelmed. He had suffered a couple of well-documented arrow wounds – one to the face – and was eventually captured by the English squire, John de Coupland (Copeland). It would seem unlikely that it would have been under the bridge at Aldin Grange, as legend suggests, but who knows? Meanwhile, the mass of retreating Scots were fleeing northwards towards ‘the hill of Fyndoune’ (Findon Hill near present-day Sacriston) where the final actions took place. A long and perilous journey of over one hundred miles would be needed for survivors (some of whom were riding the horses of their dead or captured leaders) to reach relative safety beyond Dunbar.
The day proved to be an overwhelming victory for the English whose casualties 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 who was, perhaps, the ablest of David’s commanders and whose father had been a trusted lieutenant of Robert the Bruce. His death brought an end to the male line of his family. Also killed was the Earl of Strathearn and Niall Bruce, the illegitimate brother of David together with many other Scottish magnates officials including the Marischal, Chancellor, Chamberlain and Constable of Scotland.
As was usual for the times, nobles were taken prisoner and held for ransom (indeed they would often hand themselves over) while the common soldier could expect a far less merciful fate. The most significant prisoner was the Scottish king himself, along with William Douglas, the Earl of Sutherland, the Earl of Wigtown (escaped from Bothal Castle near Morpeth), John Graham, Earl of Menteith (taken to London to be 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, Neville’s Cross must be seen as one of the most decisive to be fought on English soil, particularly of the Hundred Years War. It finally secured England’s northern border and according to Prior Fossor, brought to an end to “…the pitiful discord which prevailed between English and Scots over the course of many years”. In fact, Durham would be free of further Scottish military incursions until the Bishop’s Wars almost 300 years later.
For years to come, the Scots would be preoccupied with the political problems of establishing a new regency government, one that was quickly beset by Edward 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 seems to have become an 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.