Saint Cuthbert

The Battle of Neville’s Cross (Part 2/2)

Today is the 670th anniversary of the Battle of Neville’s Cross, which took place near Durham on October 17th 1346

Having already covered much of the reasoning behind the battle and Scottish campaign preparations in Part 1, I’m plunging straight into this one. You can find Part 1 here

The campaign itself got off to a reasonably good start. Though Roxburgh was passed by due to its formidable strength, King David’s siege of Liddel castle proved successful, reclaiming the Scottish stronghold from an English garrison led by Walter de Selby, who was executed after the castle fell. Once again, William Douglas, the Knight of Liddesdale, is supposed to have counselled the king to quit while they were ahead, but David and his commanders appear to have taken this badly, believing that, having lined his pockets with the spoils already taken, Liddesdale no longer had any stomach for warfare. For all his faults though, Douglas had vast experience of border raids, and it could be that he was genuinely concerned about the success of the campaign. Crossing the border, the Scots burnt up large parts of Cumberland and extracted a 300 merk tribute from Carlisle in exchange for a truce, before heading into Northumberland, where they hit Hexham hard, seeking victuals there. 

Having set up camp briefly at Ryton, Walter Bower relates that David was visited in a dream by St Cuthbert, who asked him not to violate his lands. This is, of course, rather unlikely, and it seems more plausible that Bower was either engaging in a bit of pro-Stewart propaganda by exaggerating David’s faults, or providing a timely moral tale about the folly of arrogance (the refusal to heed Liddesdale’s advice may also be an example of this). Either way, David’s commanders allegedly dismissed the vision, once again vastly confident of their victory, sure as they were that England had no soldiers worth fighting left to defend her, and claimed that they might march all the way to London without opposition.

(An image of St Cuthbert in Durham cathedral)

Unfortunately for the Scots, this assumption was horribly misplaced. Edward III had not left without providing for the defence of his kingdom, and back in March, the Archbishop of York, along with several other northern magnates, had been charged with protecting England in the event of a Scottish invasion. Michael Prestwich states that there was some surprise at the timing of the invasion, as the English may have believed that Crecy would force the Scots to agree to a truce, and as David’s army had not taken the traditional eastern invasion route. But they were by no means unready, and there were decent numbers of men at the English commanders’ disposal. Though Bower’s estimate of ten thousand men recalled from the ports, Wyntoun’s claim that there were twenty thousand archers alone, and the respective claims of other contemporary sources do not add up, Prestwich puts the number of English forces at around 6000- not a large army, but certainly a useful one, and not as small as might be thought.

The Archbishop of York has already been mentioned and he is supposed to have both acted as chief commander, and led the second division of the English forces. Other important northern landowners with the army, including Henry Percy, Ralph Neville, Ferrers, Rokeby, Lucy, Scrope, Mowbray, and, of course, John de Coupland, were actively involved in the battle, along with the pro-Balliol Earl of Angus, and the sheriffs of Northumberland and Yorkshire. Edward Balliol had also joined the force in Yorkshire with his men. Jean le Bel and Froissart even place Queen Philippa at Newcastle, stating that she organised the defence of the kingdom, and then gave a stirring speech exhorting them to “do their duty well in defending the honour of their lord and king, and urged them, for the love of God, to fight manfully”. Though a good tale, this is impossible, as Queen Philippa was not even in England at the time of Neville’s Cross. Nevertheless, in believing that the English had no one to defend them, the Scots had made a big mistake, and by the sixteenth of October, the English army was sitting at Auckland park near Durham. The Archbishop planned to attack at dawn the next day.

(An erroneous (but certainly pretty) depiction of Philippa of Hainault at Neville’s Cross)

Meanwhile, the Scots had burned their way towards Durham, and, by three o'clock on the sixteenth, they reached “Beaurepaire” (now Bearpark) where they stopped to set up camp. A ransom of a thousand merks was allegedly demanded by David from the clergy and inhabitants of Durham, as payment for sparing the town, though nothing was settled that evening. Early the next morning, the king sent Liddesdale with a party of men to take spoils and find goods with which to supply the army from the surrounding land, including the manors of the nearby churches. Unfortunately for Liddesdale, English troops had begun moving during the night (or at least early in the morning, sources differ), and, upon reaching Ferryhill, the Douglas and his men found that they had rode straight into the midst of the enemy’s vanguard. 

Not having the numbers to take on such a force, Liddesdale and the rest of the Scots party turned to flee, and were chased several miles to Sunderland bridge, constantly losing men as they went (one particular spot near Hett known as Low Butcher Race is allegedly a reminder of this, and there are many places in the vicinity which still bear similar names to important locations at the time of the battle). Reaching Beaurepaire, Liddesdale is supposed to have clattered into the Scots’ camp shouting to his king to wake as the English were attacking, causing a brief panic among the army. After all, the sudden appearance of an army which the Scots had not even thought existed must have been a nasty shock.

(A scholarly interpretation of the Knight of Liddesdale on the morning of the Battle of Neville’s Cross)

Fortunately, with the English having temporarily given up the pursuit, David had the time to organise his army into its three divisions. By the time the two armies were in position, about a mile from Beaurepaire, there was about a quarter of a mile between them, and the Scots were just out of bow-shot of the enemy archers. The two sides faced each other in these positions, ready for battle, from morning (about the hour of “terce”, the time of mid-morning prayer in the Divine Office) until about two o'clock (the hour of “none”), when it appears that a detachment of English archers moved in range and began shooting at the assembled Scots. A story popular with certain Scots chroniclers relates that the Earl of Menteith, John Graham, then requested mounted troops to help him scatter the archers, and, upon being refused:

“became angry and rode alone among the archers shaking his lance; he fiercely scattered them in turn, when his noble horse was killed by a flying arrow, and he only just escaped to the king scarcely with his life.”

Whether or not this charge took place, the activities of the archers do seem to have opened the battle, though there are surprisingly less details about this than might be thought. It is probable that the next action saw the division commanded by John Randolph, Earl of Moray, attack the archers on one of the flanks, and the English were driven back some way before Moray’s division became hampered by the terrain and were driven back in turn, losing their leader in the process. The remains of this division joined the forces of the king as it entered the fray, but this battle also found itself caught in the boggy and uneven ground and was once more forced to retreat. Meanwhile, the Prior of Durham, having allegedly been warned by St Cuthbert in a vision, led the monks out to a hill known as the Maiden’s Bower, where praying and singing took place throughout the battle.

(The Battle of Neville’s Cross, as depicted in a version of Froissart’s Chronicles)

At some point, and possibly more than once, the soldiers on both sides are supposed to have laid down their weapons to rest for a while before resuming the fight- an unusual occurrence in a medieval battle, but one which was perhaps required. King David was not in good shape; by this point, he may have already taken two arrows to the face, and the heads sunk in, meaning that David could not do much more about his wounds than break off the arrow shafts. Seeing the first two divisions collapse under the force of the English onslaught cannot have filled the remaining, less well-equipped, division with hope, especially not as certain of the English reserves, led by Edward Balliol, began to head in their direction. It was during this final stage of the battle that Patrick, Earl of March, and Robert the Steward, who were in command of the rear division and as yet had not really seen much of the fighting, made the decision to retreat, probably on horseback, which enabled them to get away almost unscathed. The rest of the army, now largely without mounts after sustained fighting, were not so lucky, though they managed to flee for two miles or so on foot before being surrounded and conclusively defeated. Allegedly, the Scots closed around their king, protecting him until hardly forty were left alive.

David was finally taken by the Northumbrian squire John de Coupland (a prize which gained Coupland much favour) but not before managing to punch out two of his captor’s teeth. From the battlefield he was eventually conducted to Bamburgh castle, where his arrow wounds were treated, though according to Froissart a small piece remained lodged in his head, which plagued him with headaches at the new moon until it popped out years later. This capture of the Scottish king- like that of William the Lion nearly two centuries before- was probably the greatest triumph of the battle, but certainly not the only one. The Knight of Liddesdale, and the Earls of Menteith, Wigtown, Sutherland, and Fife were also captured, and the unfortunate Menteith was later executed for treason. The Earls of Moray and Strathearn, the Great Marischal of Scotland, the Constable, Chamberlain and Chancellor, and the king’s half-brother Neil of Carrick, along with a great many others met their ends on the field, including a large number of David’s close adherents and retainers, those who shared with their king a passion for chivalric pursuits. In terms of spoils taken, possibly the worst loss was the Black Rood, Saint Margaret’s prized fragment of the true cross, which was seized and gifted to Durham cathedral chapter, another deep emotional blow to the Scots. By vespers it was all over and the whole affair had been a disaster for the Scots.

(David II and Edward III, image from c.1390)

The fall-out of the Battle of Neville’s Cross reached beyond the battlefield. Scotland was once again without her king, and the Steward, now technically in charge of governing the realm, was free to continue building a power base without interference from a suspicious uncle (though when that uncle returned he continued to bear a grudge, probably not helped by the retreat of the Steward and March at Neville’s Cross). Other Scottish magnates also saw opportunities in the power vacuum left by the death and capture of so many of the great men of the kingdom in 1346, and the effects of the lack of efficient executive control over their actions, which began in this period, would be felt well into the fifteenth century. Edward III had the Scots king in his power, and the luckless Bruce would not regain his freedom for several years, during which time he agreed to increasingly unreasonable demands from the English king in his desperation to be set free. And, of course, as with any battle, the grief of the relatives and friends of the fallen must have been great.

At the junction of two ancient Roman roads, situated on the the boundary of several nearby estates, and marking the west route into Durham, there stood, from ancient times, an old cross, a familiar sight to locals and travelers alike. It was this cross which is supposed to have been rebuilt on the orders of Ralph Neville after the battle, though it may be that the site had been called Neville’s Cross before. Whatever its history, Neville’s Cross later became an unforgettable location in the minds of the people of Durham, as the scene of a great victory for the English and St Cuthbert, in the face of an invading force confident of an easy victory. It was certainly not lightly forgotten by the Scots either, least of all King David, languishing in English captivity. Its political, emotional and military significance for both sides is reason enough for it to be similarly remembered in the present day as one of the most important Anglo-Scottish clashes of the Middle Ages.

(The remains of Neville’s Cross in Durham)

(References below cut)

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You can now book your place at the North of England Saints, 600-1500 Conference taking place on 21-22 March 2015 at the Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

The keynote lecture at this two-day interdisciplinary conference will be given by Professor David Rollason (Durham University).

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image: St Cuthbert praying by the river Tyne, BL Yates Thompson 26, fols 10v-11. © British Library


Holy Island has a recorded history from the 6th century. It was an important center of Celtic Christianity under Saints Aidan of Lindisfarne, Cuthbert, Eadfrith of Lindisfarne and Eadberht of Lindisfarne. After Viking invasions and the Norman conquest of England a priory was reestablished. A small castle was built on the island in 1550. it is isolated, beautiful and a photographer’s dream.

This is Northumberland.