No battle on British soil made less impact on British history than Boroughbridge.1

The Background

In 1321 an alliance was formed between various Marcher Lords and the northern supporters of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster with the objective of removing from power the hated father and son Hugh Despenser, the new royal favourites of the king Edward II. These Contrariants, as they became known, initially achieved their objective of driving both Despensers into exile in the August of 1321, but king Edward later rallied his supporters and by January 1322 he had defeated the Marcher Lords and in the following month recalled both Despensers and set to work on the business of crushing the northern wing of the Contrariants.

As a royal army gathered at Coventry in February 1322 and made its progress northwards, Thomas 'the Martyr' Plantegenet together with Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and other prominent northern barons such as John de Mowbray and Robert de Clifford were holed up in Pontefract Castle considering their options. They decided to make a run for it, intending to go to Dunstanburgh Castle, where they hoped to be able to call on the assistance of Robert the Bruce of Scotland. Thus they made their way along the Great North Road past York towards the town of Boroughbridge and the only bridge across the river Ure.

The Battle

As the remaining Contrariants attempted to make their escape, Andrew de Harcla2, sheriff of Carlisle and Warden of the Western Marches (who ironically had earlier been knighted by the Earl of Lancaster), come south with a force of some 4,000 men. Harcla, who appears to have been kept well informed by his scouts of the movements of the Earl of Lancaster, and therefore made his way to Boroughbridge as well, intent on blocking the escape route to the north. On reaching the town Harcla therefore deployed his men to block the crossing over the river Ure; he placed one contingent of dismounted knights and pikemen on the northern side of the only bridge across the Ure at Boroughbridge, and another blocking the nearby ford at Aldborough where the old Roman road crossed the river.

On the 16th March 1322 the Contrariants reached Boroughbridge and were organising some lodgings for the night when they discovered that the bridge was held by Andrew de Harcla and his men. Faced with these obstacles to his escape north, (and a royal army on its way from the south) and despite the fact that he was outnumbered3 the Earl of Lancaster had little alternative other than to fight. Thomas therefore similarly divided his forces into two and formed the following plan; one contingent led by Humphrey de Bohun would dismount and fight their way across the bridge whilst Thomas himself would leave a cavalry charge against the men holding the ford, force his way across, and then sweep around to the rear of bridge, catching the bulk of Harcla's forces in a classic pincer movement.

Unfortunately for Thomas, Andrew de Harcla had with him a squadron of archers and adopted, what was for the time, an entirely novel tactic when he stationed contingents of these archers at the ford behind a line of pikemen formed into schiltrons "after the Scottish fashion". Thomas simply underestimated the power of the archers (who were probably Welsh mercenaries) as Harcla "directed his archers to keep up a hot and constant discharge upon the enemy". Hence Thomas and his cavalry never got anywhere near the ford as they were struck down by volleys of arrows aimed across the river. After taking heavy losses the cavalry charged back in the opposite direction. With the "affair being thus quickly settled, the Earl of Lancaster and his people retired from the water, nor did they dare to approach it again, and so their whole array was thrown into disorder".

The attack across the bridge fared no better either, as the Earl of Hereford was killed by a Welshman skulking beneath the bridge who speared him in his "fundament" as he crossed the bridge "so that his bowailles comen out there"4. Faced with the death of the Earl his men abandoned the assault and fell back.

With the failure of his attempt to gain safe passage to the north, Thomas made an overnight truce with de Harcla and withdrew to Boroughbridge. However during the night Simon Ward, the Sheriff of Yorkshire arrived with another force to attack the rebels from the south, and so the next morning Harcla entered Boroughbridge with little opposition. Most of Lancaster's men had deserted during the night and those remaining including the Earl of Lancaster surrendered without further resistance.

The Aftermath

Many of the leading lights of the rebellion might have expected to have been treated in a similar fashion to those supporters of Simon de Montfort at the conclusion of the Barons' War; namely to be permitted to retain their lives and their lands in return for the payment of large fines. However Edward II was of a different mind and he decided that the rebels should be tried under martial rather than civil law. (Never mind that technically speaking no state of war had actually existed as the king had not displayed his banners as required; he had been dissuaded from this act by Hugh Despenser who feared being judged under martial law should the king actually lose to Thomas.)

Thomas was taken to his own castle at Pontefract, subjected to a form of trial (in which he wasn't allowed to speak in his own defense) convicted of treason and sentenced to be executed. He was beheaded on the 20th March 1322 thereby granting Edward his desired revenge for the death of his friend Gaveston in 1312. Another twenty four barons were similarly executed for treason, although they were not granted the privilege of a beheading and were subjected to some variation of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Notwithstanding the opinion expressed at the beginning of this article the battle of Boroughbridge was obviously of some significance to those, such as the Earl of Hereford, who died on the battlefield, as well as those who were executed shortly afterwards. But it was most notable for being the first time in history that a cavalry charge was defeated by archery and was thus "the direct forerunner of Crecy and Agincourt" and has thus been described as "an epochal event in medieval warfare, marking the passing of offensive cavalry power in favour of defensive archery".


Just outside the town of Aldborough, there is a stone pillar known as Battle Cross. This used to stand in the market square in Boroughbridge itself but was moved to make way for a war memorial. No one is quite certain, but it is believed to have been erected to commemorate the Battle of Boroughbridge.

One of the vary many theories regarding the historical origins of the character known as Robin Hood suggests that he was a supporter of Thomas of Lancaster who fought at Boroughbridge and became an outlaw as a result.


NOTES

1 From The Guide to the Battlefields of Britain and Ireland by Howard Green quoted on http://www.channel4.com/history/microsites/H/history/heads/footnotes/robin03.html. Other quotations within the text drawn from the Chronicle of Lanercost.
2 Whose name is also sometimes rendered in a more modern fashion as Andrew Harclay
3 The Contrariants do not appear to have had more than 3,000 men on the field, and most likely somewhat less than this number by the time they got to Boroughbridge.
4 According to the Brut, or The Chronicles of England; actually spearing or stabbing an armoured knight in his "fundament", that is his buttocks was a fairly common way of exploiting one of the most obvious weak points of an armoured knight.


SOURCES

  • Alexander Rose Kings in the North (Phoenix, 2003)
  • Historic Battlefields in the Harrogate District from http://www.harrogate.gov.uk/planning/index.html?introduction/publications.htm~main
  • Battle of Boroughbridge at the UK Battlefields Resource Centre at http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/medieval/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=7 which has a great deal more information regarding the battle, including maps and translation of the contemporary accounts of the battle from the Chronicle of Lanercost, the Vita Edwardi Secundi and the Brut or The Chronicles of England
  • Yorkshire Walks: Boroughbridge at http://www.thisisbradford.co.uk/bradford__district/leisure/walks/boroughbridge.html

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