The Battle of Neville’s Cross

Tuesday, 17th October 1346

Here’s an event at which The Durham Cow was absent and a good job too! It’s an event that sets our home town well apart from the competition and which – as medieval battles go – is more significant than most. As a self-declared ‘non-expert’ I rely for information on various publications and papers covering the events, written, most notably, by David Penman, Michael Prestwich, Alexander Grant, Richard Lomas, and Robert Hardy all of whom, with the exception of David Penman, contributed to an excellent handbook titled The Battle of Neville’s Cross 1346 (ISBN 1-900-289-20-2) published by Shaun Tyas for a symposium in 1996 marking the battle’s 650th anniversary. Less reliable sources that I’ve enjoyed exploring include Lt. Colonel Burne’s ‘concept of inherent military probability’ as well as popular legends and folklore. Personally, I’ve spent many hours exploring the site of my local battle and many others like it, which has helped me formulate my own conclusions for what they’re worth. All materials used in this post are copyright of The Durham Cow.

One of the most frustrating things about battles, up to and including the medieval period, is that little physical trace remains after the dead have been removed and the field has been scoured for anything of value. We have to rely instead on accounts appearing in chronicles of the period, few of which are contemporaneous and likely to have been written to glorify or vilify one side or the other. Probably the most important and factual source we have, for what today is referred to as the Battle of Neville’s Cross, is the Prior of Durham monastery, John Fossor’s letter to his Bishop, Thomas Hatfield, who was on campaign in France with King Edward III.

Prelude

On being shaken awake that chilly October morning in 1346, the young Scottish king, David Bruce, is said to have scoffed and dismissed the idea of the impending arrival of a large and wholly unexpected English army. A few hours later, en-route to Ogle Castle in Northumberland as a prisoner of the English squire, John de Coupland, and nursing an arrowhead lodged firmly in his face, he would have had time to reflect on his rash appraisal of the situation.

Ten days before the armies clashed on Crossgate Moor, David led his large force across the border confident that the best part of the English army was in France besieging the port of Calais. Not only was David the son of Robert the Bruce, who had rid his country of English domination and laid waste to its northern marches for years but he was also the brother-in-law of Edward III, the king whose kingdom he was attacking. The invasion was in response to a request for assistance from Philip VI of France, whose hospitality David had enjoyed while exiled as a boy, to help lift the siege on Calais by attacking England from the north.

“There are none in England, but wretched monks, disreputable priests, swineherds, cobblers and skinners.”

David Bruce, King of Scotland (1329-71)

This was a perfect opportunity to build on his father’s legacy and establish his own reputation while mitigating the risk that such a bold operation would normally entail. Since returning to Scotland from France he had mounted several raids into England. Nobles like John Randolph, who had served with Robert Stewart (David’s older nephew) as regent in David’s absence, and William Douglas, were successful, aggressive and experienced commanders and so the success of the enterprise must have seemed reasonable to assume.

Unlike his father, whose strategy of guerrilla-style ‘hit-and-run’ warfare had proved so successful for so many years, David was intent on conducting a more ambitious, well-invested but ponderous campaign. He intended to plunder the resources of English towns like Hexham, Corbridge, Darlington and Durham, possibly even using them as winter quarters, giving the impression that he intended to stay for some time.

The Scottish Muster

The English appear to have known that the Scots were recruiting as early as 20th August 1346 (before the battle of Crecy on the 26th). The initial muster was in Perth – probably towards the end of September – where the the highland chieftain, Ranald MacRuari of Garmoran, was murdered in Elcho nunnery by his old rival, the Earl of Ross. He departed hastily along with his entire retinue, a slight that would have been inconceivable against David’s father.

Invasion

Gathering further support on the journey south, the Scottish host crossed the border on the 7th October, laying siege to the ‘Pele of Liddel’, the ruins of which (known today as ‘Liddel Strength’) can be visited near the confluence of the River Esk and Liddel Water on the Anglo-Scottish border about 10 miles north of Carlisle. A force under William Douglas, the ‘Knight of Liddesdale’, reached the tower that morning to be joined by the rest of the Scottish army in the evening. When the Scots finally took the tower – after four or five days – they killed every adult male inside, including the keeper, Walter de Selby, and his two sons. Douglas, at this point, is believed to have advised David that it might be wise to turn back.

David however, decided to continue and led the army south-east towards the Augustinian priory at Lanercost ignoring Carlisle and the surrounding countryside which had bought off the Scots for 300 marks. The priory however, was ransacked, after which the army continued along the River Irthing and down the Tyne Valley to Hexham where they quartered for three days. Hexham Abbey received the same treatment as Lanercost and while other buildings were also damaged, the town was left generally intact on the orders of David himself.

“Tents of the richest and noblest sort, the likes of which had not been seen in these parts for a long time”

John Fossor, Prior of Durham Monastery (1341-74)

In a bid to save the lives of the inhabitants, the castle at Aydon – further along the Tyne Valley near Corbridge – was voluntarily surrendered. The Scots then followed the River Tyne east, past Ryton, possibly crossing the river via the ford at Newburn. The River Derwent presented the next barrier to the Scots, which they crossed at Ebchester where the long-abandoned Roman fort of Vindomora once defended the important supply route of Dere Street. This they followed out of the steep valley heading for Durham about 14 miles distant where they are thought to have arrived ‘on the moor of Bearpark’ around mid-afternoon. Drawing up in full force to show their hand and announce their intention, they then wheeled into the park, descending on the Prior’s hunting lodge at Beaurepaire where they set up camp.

The English Response

The threat from the Scots had been anticipated by the English. Consequently some of the most prominent English commanders who fought at the battle, including the Archbishop of York, Henry Percy, Ralph Neville and Thomas Rokeby 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, however there was difficulty in obtaining co-operation from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, desertions were causing problems (as ever) and many civic bodies were recalcitrant in making their obligatory financial contributions.

It’s possible that the English were surprised that their victory over the French at Crecy failed to have a cautionary effect on the Scots. 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 which he marched to the already impoverished Premonstratensian abbey at Egglestone just outside Barnard Castle, somewhere around the 14th-15th October. Here they mustered along with the retinues of other English magnates while causing almost intolerable hardship on the ‘White Canons’ of Egglestone. Next morning, 16th October, they crossed the River Tees and marched north to Bishop Auckland, through the manor of Ralph Neville himself and from where, no doubt, they continued to gather strength. On arriving in what is now Bishop Auckland, about ten miles south-west of Durham, they concealed themselves on a wooded hill in the Bishop of Durham’s hunting park.

Preliminaries

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 probing southwards on what may have been some sort of foraging operation. Shortly after crossing the River Wear somewhere in the vicinity of present day Sunderland Bridge, a few miles to the south, they ran into the English vanguard in the area that has been given the name ‘Butcher’s Race’.

Stunned at the unexpected appearance of such a large English force, the Scots turned tail and headed swiftly back the way they had come with the English in hot pursuit. A ‘great number’ were killed in the act of recrossing the river at Sunderland Bridge, with others – including Douglas – being pursued some distance back towards the Scottish camp at Beaurepaire. David’s response to being woken with such news appears to have been well documented but nevertheless, the army was readied and it moved out of the park towards Durham.

Exactly how the battle unfolded is a matter of conjecture and will probably always remain so. According to Prior Fossor, the armies arrayed themselves on the moor of Bearpark where the topography still shows what limited scope there was for manoeuvre. Crossgate Moor on the which the English army quickly established itself, is a narrow ridge running north-south with steep slopes to the east and west, south of the point occupied today by Durham Johnston School where it’s no more than 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 convention both sides are believed to have arranged themselves into three divisions, in a space so confined and beset with natural obstacles that it is not obvious how they might have done it. Personally, I believe that the Scots could only have attacked with cohesion southwards, up the spur from Club Lane, as it seems that hedges which are likely to have been in place at the time would have hindered an attack from the north-west. The English deployed a large complement of archers but exactly where and how is uncertain. We know that the tactic was to dig pits to hamper the attacker but what did they dig them with? Some form of mattock perhaps? Overall numbers for each side 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 joint command of the king’s nephew, Robert Stewart, Earl of Atholl and High Steward of Scotland and 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.

“both sides fought strenuously, bitterly and very fiercely using swords, lances, bows and axes…”

John Fossor, Prior of Durham Monastery (1341-74)

After receiving blessings and encouragement from the archbishop, the English may have initiated the battle by having their archers harass the Scots who, not caring to promote archery within their own army, had no substantial means of reply. In response, John Graham, the Earl of Menteith, offered to take 100 mounted knights forward to engage the English. It’s claimed he was denied permission so 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: the king’s division was fighting 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 brave or frightened men, the 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’ (2 pm until around 5 pm) and so fiercely that brief truces were agreed to allow combatants to recover. Blood is said to have run so freely that the engagement was originally known as the ‘Battle of the Red Hills’ and where an area close by is to this day 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 declined to 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 with a large contingent of up to 3000 mounted archers from Yorkshire (though they may have only taken part in the pursuit). Perhaps there were political reasons for leaving the king to his fate but it appears to have been a massive tactical error which put the entire army in jeopardy. Without the reserve, the remaining Scots were quickly overwhelmed and pursuit of the routed army began.

Fighting valiantly, the king had suffered a couple of well-documented arrow wounds – one to the face – and was captured, most profitably, by the English squire, John de Coupland (Copeland). Maybe it was under the bridge at Aldin Grange – as legend suggests – but it seems unlikely as it’s a long way for such a high status combatant to get to (never mind the inconvenience of being wounded) unless, maybe, the fight took place elsewhere? Meanwhile, the mass of retreating Scots were fleeing northwards towards ‘the hill of Fyndoune’ or Findon Hill, near present-day Sacriston, where the final actions took place. Survivors would face a long and perilous journey to reach the safety of the border – over one hundred miles away – with some riding horses belonging to their dead or captured leaders.

“Many valiant men of Scotland were slain and lay strewn about over the moor of Bearpark, miserably exposed…

John Fossor, Prior of Durham Monastery (1341-74)

The day proved to be an overwhelming victory for the English whose casualties were described by Prior Fossor as ‘few’ while amongst the many Scots killed was John Randolph, perhaps, the most able 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, David’s illegitimate brother, together with many other Scottish magnates and officials including the Marischal, Chancellor, Chamberlain and Constable of Scotland.

As was usual for the times, nobles who were taken prisoner could usually expect a reasonably comfortable confinement during the time they were held for ransom, in fact they would often hand themselves over. The common soldier however, could expect a far less merciful fate as there was no capacity for taking prisoners. Of the nobles taken prisoner on the day were: the Scottish king himself; William Douglas, Knight of Liddesdale; the Earl of Sutherland; the Earl of Wigtown (who escaped from Bothal Castle near Morpeth); John Graham, Earl of Menteith (taken to London where he was executed as a traitor) and Duncan, Earl of Fife (whose kinship to Edward III may have saved him from a similar fate).

Aftermath

In terms of its lasting effects, Neville’s Cross must be seen as one of the most decisive of the Hundred Years War and the only one to be fought on English soil. 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. The 13th century certainly showed that wherever kingship was weak the fortunes of that country’s border regions suffered commensurately. David’s release was finally negotiated in 1357 after 11 years in English captivity during which time he seems to have become something of an anglophile. However, the ransom payments of 100,000 marks over 10 years, couldn’t be sustained and were the source of constant trouble until the English were distracted by renewed hostilities with France in 1369. When he died in 1371, David left no heir so was succeeded by his nephew Robert Stewart who, for whatever reason, had deserted him at Neville’s Cross and who would become the first of the Stewart (Stuart) dynasty destined to unite the two nations.

The Durham Cow has published a walk to accompany this interpretation of the Battle of Neville’s Cross.

8 thoughts on “The Battle of Neville’s Cross”

  1. Archibald Riddell

    Scott
    I am seeking information on John Sandilands, one of the Scottish prisoners who may well be an ancient ancestor of mine [A Sir John Sandilands, evidentially active at the time certainly is my 18th Great Grandfather].
    Please can you advise me of the historical source of your list of Scottish casualties/prisoners etc. I recognise many of the prisoners names from other sources, but have not come across John Sandilands before.

    Cheers

    1. Hi Archibald,

      I haven’t found much on James Sandilands: Michael Penman in ‘The Scots at the Battle of Neville’s Cross’ (p.163) mentions James Sandilands of Walston being favoured by David II in years prior to the battle; Mark Arvanigian & Antony Leopold ‘Illustrative Documents: The Battle of Neville’s Cross’ include The Chronicle of Geoffrey le Baker (Chronicon Galfredi le Baker de Swynebroke) who specifically mentions James Sandilands as being captured after the battle. That’s all I’ve got I’m afraid.

      1. Archibald Riddell

        Scott
        Thank you, this is useful. Your article lists the names of the prisoners, including John Sandilands, did those names [outside the “famous” ones] come from the sources above?
        Archibald

    1. Hi James,

      It’s a good question and one that seems to be problematic for conflicts where there are no detailed records. As far as I know there is no reliable evidence to suggest what became of battle casualties. Their numbers, like those of combatants generally, are invariably unreliable and usually appear to be heavily exaggerated by chroniclers with various agendas. Whilst wealthy combatants might be well treated and ransomed, common soldiery might well have been finished off if wounded or possibly even killed when captured. Grave pits discovered at Towton suggest that the dead were stripped of anything of value and buried together.

      Best Regards

      Scott

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