A battle fought on the 22nd August 1138 between the forces of David I of Scotland and an army raised by the local Yorkshire knights during the course of the former's invasion of England. Fought at Northallerton in Yorkshire and called the 'Battle of the Standard' because the English forces fought under the standards or banners of the patron saints of the city of York.

The Background

In 1135 Henry II, the king of England died without a legitimate male heir to succeed him. The crown of England was seized by his nephew Stephen in preference to Henry's nominated heir, his daughter Matilda; but England was divided between the supporters of the two competing factions. To David I of Scotland this presented an opportunity to enlarge his domains at the expense of his southern neighbour.

The campaigns of David I

In the year 1137 king David I of Scotland invaded Northumberland only to be repulsed by an army led by Stephen. A truce was agreed, but David demanded that Stephen appoint Henry (that is David's son) as earl of Nothumberland and threatened to resume hostilities if this was not done. Stephen flatly refused.

So on the 10th January 1138 David sent his nephew William with a force to attack the fortress of Carrum, in the king of England's territory William proceeded to storm the castle then awaited the arrival of reinforcements. David came with his son Henry and laid siege to the town, but despite his best efforts and with much loss after three weeks he had got nowhere. Frustrated by his inability to take the town, David took his army south and devastated Northumberland; "Overrunning the province, and sparing none, they ravaged with sword and fire almost all Northumberland as far as the river Tyne".

The army then crossed the Tyne and devasted much of the county of Durham as well and proceeded to occupy Corbridge.

On the 2nd of February Stephen arrived with an army and David promptly abandoned Northumberland and retreated into the countryside near Roxborough hoping that the English army would follow him, and that he would be able ambush Stephen.

The English did indeed cross the Tweed but rather than proceed to Roxburgh they proceeded to devastate David's territory before retiring south once more. This left the coast clear for David to move into Northumberland again, which he duly did on the 15th April, when he proceeded to ravage the coastal areas that had escaped his attention on his previous visit.

Spooked by rumours that an English army was moving up to oppose him David fled northwards and laid siege to Norham and Wark whilst he sent nephew William on a raid into Yorkshire, which was devasted in a similar fashion. Norham soon surrendered but Wark held out and the defenders even successfully raided the Scottish supply wagons and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.

Thus frustrated by Wark's stubborness but encouraged by the news that Eustace Fitz John, who held Alnwick castle in Northumberland had defected to his cause, David gathered his forces to move south again, and crossed the river Tyne where he waited a while in order to receive further reinforcements in the form of the "Cumbrians, and the men of Carlisle". By now the Scottish army consisted of more than twenty-six thousand men, destroying crops looting and burning towns and villages as as far as the Tees, and continuing in the same vein once they'd crossed that river.

The English reaction

Stephen had his own difficulties in the south and was unable to move north to counteract David this time around. It was therefore left to Turstin, the Archbishop of York to organise the defence of the north.

Turstin called an assembly of the local nobility at York where he urged the nobles to take up arms and defend their country. He assured them (naturally) that God was on their side and promised that the priests of his diocese would march with them into battle. He was assisted in his endeavours by Bernard de Baliol sent by Stephen with a small contingent of knights to help organise the defence of the north of England.1

Thus emboldened the assembly went home to collect their weapons and gather together their men before assembling once more at York ready to do battle. The army then proceeded to Thirsk and sent two delegates, Robert of Bruce and Bernard of Baliol to meet the Scottish king.

They attempted to persuade David to stop looting the north and killing its inhabitants, in return for which they promised to secure from Stephen the appointment of Henry as earl of Northumberland. This is of course what David had earlier demanded from Stephen, but presumably believing that he was now in a stronger position, David turned them down flat.

Robert and Bernard returned from their mission thoroughly annoyed at David's attitude, and the English army moved north to intercept the Scots now doubly convinced that they should do everything in their power to resist him.

The battle

The two armies met some three miles north of Northallerton where there were two small hills; the English occupied one and the Scots the other. On the top of their hill the English army erected a pole from which they hung the banners of the patron saints of York; St. Peter the Apostle, John of Beverley and Wilfrid of Ripon.

On the 22nd August 1138 "between the first and third hours, the struggle of this battle was begun and finished".

The account of the battle given by Richard of Hexham is quite straightforward; the English knights dismounted and formed the front rank interspersed with archers, the Scottish forces similarly dismounted to face them. A force of highlanders from Gallway (aka Picts) attacked, were decimated by the English archers, then cut to ribbons by the armoured knights; the rest of the Scottish army then panicked and ran away.

For numberless Picts being slain immediately on the first attack, the rest, throwing down their arms, disgracefully fled. The plain was strewed with corpses; very many were taken prisoners; the king and all the others took to flight; and at length, of that immense army all were either slain, captured, or scattered as sheep without a shepherd.

Some other accounts suggest that David's son Henry, after the failure of the first assault, led a charge of mounted knights that broke through the English lines, wasted time trying to steal the English horses, before being beaten back. Then the rest of the Scottish army panicked and ran away.

One thing was clear, despite their superior numbers the Scots suffered a crushing defeat over ten thousand were killed and David I barely escaped with his life.

The power of Divine vengeance was also most plainly exhibited in this, that the army of the vanquished was incalculably greater than that of the conquerors.

After the Battle

It was perhaps fortunate for David that the English army, were satisfied with removing the immediate threat and speedily disbanded and went home; they did not pursue the Scots to press home their advantage. David was thus able to recover his breath and concentrate his efforts on the siege of Wark. Wark finally surrendered in November when the defenders were allowed to march out. He was therefore able to retain (for the meantime) some of the territorial gains he had made, even if they were not nearly as substantial as he'd once hoped.

Stephen was well pleased with the victory as it removed the immediate threat in the north. He rewarded some of the leading members of the successful action by creating William de Albemarle earl of Yorkshire whilst Robert de Ferrers was similarly made earl of Derbyshire.

What it all meant

The Battle of the Standard holds a certain place in 'Scottish' history as one of those missed opportunities. Ah, if only we'd have won they sigh. And indeed if David had won, then it is quite probable that the border settlement imposed by William II might have been superceded by something else, and that the Scotland-England border might have ended up on the river Humber.

As it was David lost and lost badly, and was therefore never fully able to exploit the weakness of the English monarchy during the reign of Stephen.

The battle is often portrayed in nationalistic terms as a Scotland versus England battle. Indeed for the sake of convenience, the account of the conflict given above refers to the two opposing sides as 'Scottish' and English'.

There were however, 'English' fighting on the 'Scottish' side and vice versa. It is particularly worth noting the name of one Robert of Bruce, a 'Scots-Norman' baron who disagreed so strongly with David's policy that he came south to fight against him. (This is a fact coveniently omitted in the 'Scottish' histories presumably to avoid sullying the name of the more famous Robert the Bruce who was of course descended from this very Robert.)

The truth was that Stephen was an Anglo-Norman who happened to be King of the English and Duke of Normandy, whilst David I was an Anglo-Norman who happened to be Lord of Huntingdon and Earl of Northampton as well as being King of Scots (not to mention being Prince of Cumbria to boot). He had ambitions to control the earldom of Northumberland, and was trying to take advantage of Stephen's weakness to achieve that very end. They were just two kings fighting of who had what and were motivated by territorial greed.2

To David's rag bag army of Saxon-English refugees, Scots, Cumbrians, the 'men of Carlise', the whole campaign was one long murderous rampage featuring ample opportunity for looting and raping. To the army of Thurstan it was simply a matter of defending their homes from a marauding bunch of murderers and rapists.

There was nothing remarkable about any of this; it was just the nature of warfare in the twelfth century.


1 There does not appear to have been any one individual in charge on the English side, but the names given for the knights that organised the defence of York were William de Albemarle, Walter de Gant, Robert de Bruce, Roger de Mowbray, Walter Espec, Ilbert de Lacy, William de Percy, Richard de Courcy, William Fossard, Robert de Stuteville

2 In fact, come to think of it David was undoubtedly more English than Stephen.His mother was 'English' his grandmother was 'English', he married the daughter of the Anglo-Danish Waltheof Siwardson and Judith of Lens (a niece of William I) whereas Stephen was thoroughly Norman as far as I can see.

3 It is worthwhile quoting just one of descriptions of the behaviour of David's army during the campaign;

Then, sparing no rank, no age, no sex, no condition, they first massacred, in the most barbarous manner possible, children and kindred in the sight of their relatives, masters in sight of their servants, and servants in the sight of their masters, and husbands before the eyes of their wives; and then (horrible to relate) they carried off, like so much booty, the noble matrons and chaste virgins, together with other women. These naked, fettered, herded together; by whips and thongs they drove before them, goading them with their spears and other weapons.

Sourced from Richard of Hexham's chronicle, The Acts of King Stephen and the Battle of the Standard, 1135 to 1139
Originally translated by Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England (London, 1853-58) online at www.deremilitari.org/hexham.htm

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