On This Day, October 17th 1346, Scottish and English forces met in battle outside Durham.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross is a pivotal moment in 14th century British history, as it results in the capture of King David II, a defeat for the Scots, but ultimately a long term victory for Scottish independence.
Embroiled deep in the Hundred Years War, King Philip VI of France appealed to the Scots for assistance in battling England under Edward III. Opening a second front on England’s northern border would, it was hoped, stretch English forces by opening up a second front.
David II of Scotland was placed in a precarious position at this point in his reign. Not only does Edward III refuse to acknowledge David’s legitimacy as king, but neither does the powerful Balliol family, still pressing their claim to Scotland’s kingship.
In the months preceding the Scottish invasion, King Philip of France relentlessly petitions the Scots to act, yet King David waits until October of 1346 to move south. While English troops were amassing in southern England, Scottish forces would puncture deep into their neighbours’ northern region.
In early October 12,000 men marched south and deep into English territory, where to much surprise, they were met with little to no resistance. On the surface it appears that the majority of English troops were at this stage fighting in France.
Bypassing Carlisle, they seized Liddesdale and sacked Hexham before arriving on the outskirts of Durham.
Unbeknown to David II however, a contingency plan had been arranged in the event of a Scottish invasion. Under the command of the Archbishop of York, a modest English force of between five to seven thousand was allocated for the defence of the north.
Divided into two separate forces, English troops made their way from Yorkshire and Lancashire to Durham, where they would meet the Scots in open field.
Attack at Dawn
Scottish troops only discovered the English host whilst raiding south of Durham. Under the command of William Douglas, a detachment of 500 Scottish troops were attacked and forced back, with casualties believed to be around 300+. William Douglas and what remains of his raiding party hastily return to the Scottish encampment and raise the alarm.
Having been informed of the unfolding situation, David II orders a full mobilisation and the Scottish host makes its way to Neville’s Cross.
The landmark is the site of an Anglo-Saxon cross, placed on high ground on the outskirts of Durham and within sight of the famous cathedral.
Despite holding high ground, the Scots are in a precarious position, with obstacles blocking a clear advance and routes of retreat hazy at best. What they do have, however, is a clear advantage in numbers.
Despite their numerical advantage, David II adopts a defensive stance, recalling Scottish defeat at Halidon Hill some years before, he would not risk another disastrous defeat.
English longbowmen are dispatched to harass Scottish lines and force an attack, which succeeds. The Scottish decision to attack proves to be a disastrous one, as during their advance their lines fragment and are thrown into complete disarray; The lay of the land simply did not play in their favour.
A ferocious melee ensues, under the boots of mailed soldiers the ground deteriorates into a muddy stew.
Hacking and smashing into the Scots, the English force begins to gain the upper hand. Their superior positioning and defensive stance prevents the Scots from breaking their lines.
Leading the Scots primary battalion, David II fights valiantly. Hours of intense combat weakened the resolve of David’s chief lieutenants however, and with their troops wavering, Robert Stewart – the future king of Scotland – and the Earl of March flee the field and abandon their king.
King David’s own battalion attempts to flee, however by this point their routes are blocked and a bloodbath ensues to protect the king.
Scottish chroniclers, which include Andrew of Wyntoun, write that the Scots lost upwards of 1,000 men during the engagement. English chroniclers naturally embellish these numbers and claim closer to three thousand, while also stating that ‘few English were killed’.
King David, captured and beleaguered is imprisoned in Oldham castle, but not without resistance. He successfully escapes and legend says that his attempt is foiled while hiding under a bridge, where under the moonlight an English search party catches a glimpse of his reflection.
He would remain in English captivity until 1357, where Edward III would relentlessly insist that David accept his terms.
Under these terms, Edward’s son would be declared the heir to the Scottish throne, essentially ending Scottish sovereignty and destroying decades of struggle – Despite having no son and heir, David refuses these advances time and time again until a ransom is paid for his release.
Despite defeat in the field, the Scots and the Bruce’s win a long term victory. Not only does England come to respect Scottish sovereignty, the Bruce’s solidify their claim to Scottish kingship, ending years of internal strife and eliminating the legitimacy of the Balliol claim.
A period of relative peace would follow these events, however the Kingdom of England would continue in its long and bloody war with France.