On the 17th October 1346, Scottish and English forces clashed outside Durham in one of the key battles of 14th-century British history.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross was a disastrous military failure for the Kingdom of Scotland which led to the capture and humiliation of King David II.
Embroiled deep in the Hundred Years War, King Philip VI of France appealed to the Scots for military assistance against the Kingdom of England. Opening a second front on England’s northern border would, it was hoped, stretch English forces and force King Edward III to spread his assets.
Philip VI’s requests for assistance placed David II in a precarious position during a tumultuous period in British history. Defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 was still raw in the minds of many English nobles, and Edward III refused to acknowledge David’s legitimacy as king.
Additionally, David II was faced with political intrigue closer to home. The powerful Balliol family also questioned David II’s reign and continued to press their claim to Scotland’s crown.
In the months preceding the Scottish invasion, Philip VI relentlessly petitioned the Scots to act and invoked the terms of the Auld Alliance. Yet, David II waited until October of 1346 to move south. Despite obvious concerns over deteriorating weather conditions, the Scots would cascade deep into the North of England, rampaging their way through Northumberland.
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.
However, Unbeknown to David II 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 battle.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross
Scottish troops only discovered the English host whilst raiding south of Durham. Under the command of William Douglas, a detachment of 500 Scottish troops was set upon and forced into retreat, with casualties believed to be around 300+.
William Douglas and what remains of his raiding party returned hastily to the Scottish encampment and raised the alarm. Having been informed of the unfolding situation, David II ordered a full mobilisation and the Scottish host makes its way to Neville’s Cross.
The regional 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 the high ground, the Scots are in a precarious position; located on marshy ground with obstacles blocking a clear advance. What they do have, however, is a clear advantage in numbers.
Despite this numerical advantage, David II cautioned restraint and adopted a defensive stance. Recalling the Scottish defeat at Halidon Hill some years before, it is clear he was not willing to risk another disastrous defeat.
English longbowmen were dispatched to harass Scottish lines and force an attack – a tactic which succeeded. The Scottish decision to attack proves to be disastrous. During the advance, Scottish lines fragment and are thrown into complete disarray; the lay of the land simply did not play in their favour.
A ferocious melee ensued and under the boots of mailed soldiers, the ground deteriorated into a muddy stew. Hacking and smashing into the Scots, the English force began to gain the upper hand. Their superior positioning and defensive stance prevented the Scots from breaking their lines.
Leading the Scots’ primary battalion, David II fights valiantly. Hours of intense combat weakened the resolve of the King’s chief lieutenants, however, and with their troops wavering, Robert Stewart, the future king of Scotland, and the Earl of March fled the field and abandoned their king.
King David’s own battalion attempts to flee, but by this point, their routes are blocked and a bloodbath ensues to protect the king.
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Scottish chroniclers, which include Andrew of Wyntoun, write that the Scots lost upwards of 1,000 men during the engagement. According to English chroniclers, the number of Scots killed is closer to three thousand while ‘few English were killed’.
The beleaguered King David is captured and imprisoned in Oldham Castle, where he remained until 1357. In the months following, English forces rampaged their way through the Scottish Borders and occupied large parts of Southern Scotland.
Despite abandoning his king in battle, Robert Stewart was appointed Lord Guardian of Scotland to rule on David II’s behalf.
During his time imprisoned, David II was given options to facilitate his release. These were often unacceptable and bordered on outright ridiculous.
Under terms presented by Edward III, his 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 refused these advances until a ransom was paid for his release.
Despite defeat in the field, it could be argued the Scots won a long-term victory at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. In the years following, Scottish sovereignty would be acknowledged by the Kingdom of England and years of Scottish internal strife was brought to a close – along with 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. Crucially, the victory at the Battle of Neville’s Cross removed any serious threats to Edward III’s rear and enabled him to direct a greater focus toward campaigning on the continent.