The Scottish Disaster at the Battle of Halidon Hill

Battle of Halidon Hill

On 19th July 1333, the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed lay under siege. Close to breaking point, the town’s Scottish defenders had agreed to surrender to the besieging English army on 20th July unless a relief force arrived.

And in the gloom of the early morning salvation appeared on the horizon. 15,000 Scots under the command of Sir Archibald Douglas, Regent to the five year old King David II, approached the town with the intention of breaking the siege.

Standing in Douglas’ way was an English force of around 8,000 men, comprised largely of infantry, archers and a moderate contingent of cavalry.

Although outnumbered by nearly two-to-one, King Edward III of England chose to fight. He had arrived on the outskirts of Berwick several months prior after marching north to support Edward Balliol’s claim to the Scottish throne. And he was in no mood to capitulate.

Holding high ground and a formidable defensive position, Edward III settled in for the inevitable onslaught.

The Battle of Halidon Hill

In the weeks preceding the Battle of Halidon Hill, Douglas had launched a series of raids into English territory. A lacklustre attack on Bamburgh had failed to draw Edward III away from Berwick while the burning of nearby Tweedmouth also did little to tempt the English monarch.

Under pressure to relieve Berwick, Douglas defied a long-running tradition of avoiding the English in open battle if possible. The situation certainly seemed favourable to the Scots, and the English force found itself penned in with the Scots to their front and the Tweed to their rear.

Yet still no movement from Edward III.

After midday the Scots advanced on Halidon Hill but were forced to cross boggy ground. Poor conditions slowed the advance and left the force at the mercy of formidable English longbowmen.

Wave upon wave of arrows rained down on the tightly packed ranks of advancing Scots formed in schiltrons, ripping through the force before it could even reach the hill.

Battle of Halidon Hill
Edward III at the siege of Berwick.

Upon reaching Halidon Hill, intense fighting erupted as Douglas’ troops fought desperately to break the English line. But the English held firm.

The first schiltron broke and fled, and was followed by the second soon after. The third schiltron, which had been tasked with fighting its way to Berwick and relieving the town, found itself fighting on alone in a desperate and bloody melee.

Contemporary English chronicles described the men of the final schiltron as having fought with “the ferocity of lions” until forced to surrender. Upwards of 500 Scots were said to have died during this isolated engagement, including a number of noblemen.

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Several thousand Scots are believed to have been killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill while English losses were significantly lighter.

This defeat on the outskirts of Berwick prompted chaos in Scotland. Sir Archibald Douglas had died in the fighting, leaving Scotland’s infant monarch without a guardian and enabling Edward Balliol to seize control of much of the country.

Much to his detriment though, Edward III appears to have viewed this victory as being a major, crushing defeat for the Scots. But it was far from it.

Edward Balliol was highly unpopular among the new generation of Scottish nobles who rose to prominence under Robert the Bruce, and his ceding of Scottish territory to Edward III was a political disaster which led to his deposition within a few years.

The outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War proved vital for David II, drawing English resources and manpower away to the continent. And in the years following the Battle of Halidon Hill, King David’s loyalists helped consolidate his position in Scotland.

This period of relative peace meant that upon reaching young adulthood, King David was in prime condition to strike back at Edward III.

In 1346, David II invaded England following a plea for help from the French King. At the Battle of Neville’s Cross the Scottish army was crushed, and David was captured.

He spent 11 years in captivity and his ransom nearly bankrupted Scotland.

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