The Background

The Second Scottish War of Independence seemed to be petering out; Edward Balliol had been expelled from Scotland in 1341 and David II had returned from exile in France to take control of Scotland, and Edward III of England had since 1338 been more interested in war with France.1

Then on the 26th August 1346, Edward III and his son, Edward the Black Prince, inflicted a crushing defeat on French army at the battle of Crécy. King Philip VI of France therefore appealed for assistance from his allies the Scots and as Edward III was otherwise occupied with the siege of Calais it seemed an opportune moment for the Scots to take advantage of his absence and attack.

The young David II, then at twenty-two years of age, therefore assembled a large force of over 12,000 men at Perth and marched south towards England; his immediate target being the cathedral city of Durham, whose capture would effectively give him control of northern England.

With the English army away in France, it was down to the locals to make their own arrangements for defence and William Zouche the Archbishop of York together with the local magnates Thomas Rokeby, Henry Percy and Ralph Neville organised a rather smaller force of some 5,000 men to oppose the invaders.

The Battle

For you shall read that my great-grandfather
Never went with his forces into France
But that the Scot, in his unfurnished kingdom,
Came pouring, like the tide into a breach
King Henry V Act 1 Scene 3

On the morning of the 17th October 1346 David's army had reached the outskirts of Durham and was occupying a ridge to the west of the city.

The Scottish army was arranged into three divisions, the left flank was under the command of Sir William Douglas, the right flank by Robert Stewart with king David himself commanding the centre. To the south of their position lay the English army, similarly drawn up into three divisions but with a fourth division held back at the rear in reserve.

As the Scots outnumbered the English at least two to one, they were confident of victory and eager to do battle; both Scottish flanks therefore advanced to engage the enemy. Unfortunately for David, the geography of the area was such that between William Douglas and the English, there was a narrow valley. The Scots were forced to clamber down one side and then up the other in order to get at the enemy, and as they were doing so they presented excellent targets for the longbowmen of the opposing English division of Sir Thomas Rokeby.

It soon became the same old story over again as the left flank of the Scottish army was rapidly destroyed under a hail of arrows and soon the survivors were engaged in a confused and hurried retreat back to the relative safety of their starting position.

On the right flank however the Scots under Robert Stewart appeared to be having more success as they pushed back the English division under Ralph Neville, but as the Scots moved forwards they left their own right flank exposed. The English division held in reserve exploited this weakness to attack the Scottish flank.

Soon the Scottish right flank began to retreat as well, and with both Scottish flanks collapsing this left the Scottish centre with David under attack from three sides, and it wasn't long before the entire Scottish army was on the run.

After the Battle

The king of Scots; whom she did send to France,
To fill King Edward’s fame with prisoner kings!"
King Henry V Act 1 Scene 3

David himself managed to escape from the battlefield alive but was captured 2 soon afterwards by one John Copeland 3 and taken to Calais to meet Edward III before being taken to the Tower of London to spend the next eleven years as a guest of the English king.

Also captured were four earls, two lords and the Bishop of St Andrews but Robert Stewart managed to escape back to Scotland with what remained of the army. Due to the enforced absence of David he ended up as regent and effective ruler of Scotland for the next eleven years.

Two of the captured earls, those of Menteith and Fife found themselves in a lot of trouble. Both had previously taken oaths of fealty to Edward III and their participation in David's little invasion therefore constituted treason. Both were charged, tried and convicted, the life of the earl of Fife was spared but the earl of Menteith was executed for the crime.

Edward III was far to busy in France to take full advantage of the victory, but his namesake Edward Balliol decided to make one last stab at gaining the Scottish throne. (He didn't get anywhere and gave up in the end.)

The battle of the holy relics

When David II came south with his army he also brought with him a 'secret weapon' - Scotland's holiest relic, the Black Rood of Scotland that contained a piece of the 'true cross', to ensure naturally, that God would be on his side.

The English however had their own holy relic, as John Fosser the prior of Durham Abbey is said to have received a vision on the eve of the battle, when Saint Cuthbert appeared before him and commanded that he take the corporax cloth4, place it on the point of a spear carry it as a banner to the battlefield. John Fosser was obedient to the saint's wishes and together with some monks knelt and prayed on the battle field beneath the banner of the corporax cloth.5

In this case the corporax cloth proved mightier than the Black Rood as not only did the English win the battle but they captured the Black Rood as well, which they retained on display at Durham Cathedral.

The corporax cloth was made into a proper banner complete with silver fastenings and fancy decorations so that it could be displayed at festival processions and any subsequent battles. (The earl of Surrey took it to the battle of Flodden where it worked its magic once again.)

The Black Rood remained at Durham until the English Reformation when it disappeared, presumably looted by one of Henry VIII's minions. According to The Rites of Durham, the banner incorporating the corporax cloth; "fell into the possession of one Dean Whittingham whose wife, called Katherine, being a French woman (as is most credibly reported by eye-witnesses), did most injuriously burn the same in her fire, to the open contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly relics"

Neville's Cross

The battle derived its name from the stone cross erected on the site of the battlefield by Ralph Neville to commemorate the victory. The cross is no longer there, having been pulled down and destroyed in 1589 by a set of particularly zealous religious reformers.


NOTES

1 That would be the Hundred Years War

2 Legend has it that David II hid under a bridge over the river Browney but was discovered when his reflection was spotted in the water.

3 His reward; a knighthood and an annuity

4 One of the holy relics of the saint which had been found in his coffin in 1104.

5 And remained untouched and unharmed despite the battle raging around them.


SOURCES

John Hill Burton History of Scotland Vol II pages 326-330 quoted at http://www.royal-stuarts.org/neville.htm

The Battle of Neville’s Cross at http://www.dur.ac.uk/~dla0www/c_tour/nevilles.html

Froissart's Chronicles from http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/texte/atx3_01.htm

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