In 1328, Charles IV King of France died without issue. Charles’ closest blood relative was his sister, Isabella. But, as Salic Law disallowed female succession his closest male relative was Isabella’s son, Edward III, King of England. Isabella claimed the throne of France on her son’s behalf but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the French stoutly rejected this notion and backed Charles’ patrilineal cousin, Phillip, Count of Valois. Since the time of William the Conqueror English Kings had held substantial lands on the continent. At its height at the end of the 12th Century, the Angevin Empire included Normandy, Maine, Anjou, Touraine and Aquitaine, and occupied a geographically larger area than that of the Kingdom of France. However, the English Kings did homage for these lands recognising the King of France as their ultimate sovereign lord. The extent of the English lands had been the cause of much friction between England and France for most of the Middle Ages. The French continually sought to check English power and stripped away their lands whenever the opportunity arose, most often when the English were at war with Scotland and could not retaliate. By 1337, only Gascony was in English hands. Edwards attempts at upholding his claim to the French throne were only ever lukewarm. However, in May 1337 a Great Council was held in Paris and it was decided that Gascony should be returned to the French Crown, using a shaky pretence that Edward had been harbouring an enemy of the French King. Emboldened by his victory against the Scots in 1333 and enraged by the threat of losing his remaining continental possessions, Edward renewed his claim to the French throne, with the resolve to use force of arms to get the crown. This was the start of what is known to history as The Hundred Years War.
An initial “phoney war” ensued in the beginning with political manoeuvring and raids on mercantile trade. The first serious action was a naval action where the English decisively defeated the French navy at the Battle of Sluys in June 1340. A proxy conflict then followed over the succession for the Duchy of Brittany with Edward supporting John de Montfort and Philip backing Charles of Blois. Eventually, in 1346, the English backed horse won which gave Edward a useful ally. Seizing his chance Edward launched an all-out invasion in July 1346. After being caught off guard by the speed and ferocity of the English onslaught the French regrouped and mustered a huge army to check their advance. On 26th August the two armies met at Crecy. Although greatly outnumbered the proven tactics of the English, using dismounted men-at-arms and the deadly longbow, destroyed the French army.
Prior to the Battle of Crecy, Philip had written to his ally King David II of Scotland, imploring him to open a second front and invade England from the north. Under the terms of the Auld Alliance David dutifully obliged. Although convinced that northern England would be a “defenceless void”, as described by King Philip, David found stiff local resistance to his incursions. David agreed a truce until September, using the time to muster a more substantial force to invade.
ON the 7th October the Scots invaded via Cumbria with around 12,000 men, which included a small number of French soldiers, and a lot of modern equipment and weapons supplied by France. Their first target was the small border fort of Liddell Peel, which held out for three days before the garrison was overwhelmed and slaughtered. The army spared Carlisle but only because and extortionate sum of money was paid to save their skins. Marching East, the Scots then spent three days looting Hexham Abbey before advancing on towards Durham. The Scots arrived on 16th October and made camp at Beaurepaire Priory, located to the West of Durham on the banks of the River Browney. The monks paid the Scots £1,000 as protection money so they would not receive the same fate as Hexham.
A Note on Beaurepaire
In around 1248, Bertram de Middleton, Prior of Durham wanted to build a summer residence for his brethren. He explored the land far and near and at last came to the decision that the grassy heights about three miles north west of Durham overlooking the lovely valley of the winding River Browney, was the exact spot for fulfilling his purpose. The name, “Beaurepaire”, meaning beautiful retreat was corrupted over the years to Bear Park, which is where the modern settlement gets its name. The structure is now in ruins and not much can be seen although it has recently received some well needed attention and is being lovingly maintained by groups of volunteers led by Dream Heritage (http://dreamheritage.co.uk/). They have done an amazing job clearing the site and making it accessible for visitors. A description of the manor house is provided in the Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend Volume 5 (1891):
“The chapel is 13 paces long, and eight wide; the east window consists of three lights, circular at the top and very plain; there are three windows on each side, each divided by a mullion into two lights, their framing on the inside square. The wall is strengthened by a buttress of neat hewn stonework between each window, and a cornice runs round the building of the zig-zag figure. There is a door on the north side of the chapel from the court. The walls of the chapel on the inside are ornamented with a regular succession of small round columns or pilasters, belted in the midst, the capitals filled with a garland of open-cut foliage of delicate work, from whence spring pointed arches; three pilasters and two arches in each space between the windows; the west end is equally finished with pilasters and arches, and there is a small window in the centre. At each side of the east windows is a pedestal for a statue of considerable size. The apartment under the chapel is lighted by small square windows; but as the floor of the chapel is gone, it is not easy to determine how it was at first constructed. Adjoining to the chapel, to the west, is a long. building, the two gables of which are standing, having a large window of six lights to the south; this was most probably the refectory. On the north, the remains of a building, 20 paces in length, lighted to the east by three windows, which we conjecture was the dormitory. There is a door case standing, which has been the entrance into the garden or some chief court, with the arms of the See in the centre.”
Despite Edward’s focus on his invasion of France, defence of the north had not been forgotten. Indeed, when mustering his army to invade France Edward had sensibly not asked counties north of the Humber to provide men. An attack from the north had been expected for at least two years and once the Scots crossed the border an army was quickly raised in Richmond, North Yorkshire, under the command of William de la Zouch, the Archbishop of York and Lord Warden of the Marches. Moving north, the army was reinforced on route with men from Yorkshire, Northumberland, Cumberland and Lancashire. Reaching Barnard Castle, command of the combined force of some 6,000 to 7,000 men was handed to Ralph Neville, 2nd Baron Neville of Raby Castle. The force then quickly marched north to face the Scots.
On the morning of the 17th of October, a small Scottish force of some 500 men rode out from Beaurepaire to raid the lands to the south of Durham near Merrington. There, in the morning fog, they came upon the English army as they marched north from Ferrybridge. A fierce fight ensued with the English rear guard mauling the Scots leaving around 300 Scottish dead and chasing them as far as Sunderland Bridge. The commander of the Scottish force, Sir William Douglas of Liddersdale, spurred his horse back to camp to warn King David that the English were almost upon them, and battle was at hand. David gathered his army and led them to high ground to the west of Durham where he arrayed his men in their traditional shiltron formations. The formations were strengthened by men-at-arms and light horsemen on the flanks, riding sturdy mounts called hobelars. The Scots also had archers who were employed to skirmish with the English as they advanced. John Randolph, Earl of Moray commanded the first battle, King David the second and Patrick Dunbar, Earl of March the third.
Although outnumbered the English mirrored the Scots formations and drew up in three battles of their own to face them. The English commanders were Lord Henry Percy in command of the first battle, Ralph Neville the second and Sir Thomas Rokeby and the Archbishop of York the third. The English arrayed themselves with men-at-arms in the centre and archers on the flanks and a small body of cavalry in reserve. Neville had halted his men in a defensible position and as the fog began to lift it became apparent that the Scots had chosen a poor position with obstacles and broken ground between them and the English.
The English received calls for divine intervention from the brethren of Durham Cathedral and were even provided with the Banner of St. Cuthbert (which had proven useful in battle before). The following passage from the Monthly Chronicle of North-country Lore and Legend Volume 1 (1887) describes what the spiritual soldiers did.
Issue was joined not far from the spot where the remains of Neville’s Cross now stands. On that spot was planted the standard of the English host. In compliance with the nocturnal suggestions of their patron saint, who seems to have had an uneasy time of it whenever his beloved city was threatened, the monks of Durham extemporised a standard by fastening to a spear handle the holy cloth (the corporal or corporax) wherewith St. Cuthbert, in the days of his fleshly ministry, was wont to protect the chalice in the eucharistic service. Some of these holy brethren were stout-hearted warriors in their way, and possibly a picked band of them may have shouldered a lance or a battle axe under the command of their noble diocesan; but the bulk of them betook themselves to those spiritual weapons which better beseemed their sacred calling. They ascended the central tower of their magnificent shrine, from the summit of which they could command an excellent view of the greater portion of both armies; and from their sublime watch-tower they chanted their misereres and their songs of triumphal praise according as the tide of victory ebbed or flowed. But the sound of their psalmody was lost in the din of battle.
Neville was happy to wait for the Scots to make the first move so as not to give up his superior position. He ordered his archers forward to try to provoke the Scots to attack. This worked. Against his Kings orders John Graham, the Earl of Menteith, rashly led a cavalry charge and tried and failed to sweep the archers from the field. The Scottish cavalry withdrew under the hail of arrows exposing the flanks of the spearmen. Unwilling to stand and take this long range assault the Scots advanced to close with the English. Hampered by the terrain, fences and hedgerows the Scots found it difficult to maintain their formations all whilst under a storm of arrows. As the beleaguered Scots got closer the archers retreated behind the men-at-arms. Moray’s battle led the assault but had lost much of its impetus during its tortuous advance and the English made short work of them when it came to hand-to-hand combat. The King’s battle had to endure the arrow storm for longer as they had to cover more ground than Moray to engage the English. When they did close the English men-at-arms attacked with such ferocity that the Scots were unable to retreat in good order and were routed. It is likely that the third and largest battle under the command of the Earl of March may not have even engaged seeing the carnage being wrought on their fellow countrymen. A vestige of the carnage wrought that day is captured in the name “red hills” which is given to this part of Durham and was as literal a description as you can get.
King David was defended gallantly and desperately by eighty faithful followers; but either on the battlefield, or shortly after, by the bank of the Browney, or, as one account says, under the bridge which crosses the little river just below the battlefield, he was captured by Sir John Coupland, a Northumbrian squire, who lost his front teeth from a blow of the royal mailed fist, and gained both honour and riches as a reward for his prowess and luck in effecting the capture, he being knighted and presently made Governor of Berwick. Several great noblemen shared the King's fate of captivity. Among them, the Earls of Fife and Menteith; while a far greater number bit the dust in the agonies of death on that fatal day. The actual battle lasted only from nine a.m. till noon.
When it was all over, the conquerors repaired in triumph to the Cathedral to pay their vows for the succour of the mighty saint beneath whose holy banner they had fought. They had lost comparatively few of the rank and file, and Lord Hastings was the only noble who perished on the field. Lord Neville, at a later period, received a grateful tribute from the exclusive guardians of the Cathedral, for he was the first layman whose bones were permitted to rest within the holy pile. The tradition is that his lordship at his own cost erected a magnificent cross on the spot where the corporax or chalice cover affixed to a spear had served as the standard for the English forces. There is, however, reason to suppose that it was a cross station at the time of its selection as the place for the holy standard, though probably it was not known as Neville's Cross till the victorious lord had put up a memorial of the great fight with King David on Crossgate Moor. The King, it may be mentioned, was released the following year on a ransom of 100,000 marks, and it may be further remarked that this ransom is owing to the English Exchequer even unto this day.
The cross which Lord Neville set up on the site of the battle was an elaborately carved structure. It was, however, one night in 1589, broken down and defaced by "some lewd, contemptuous, and wicked persons," probably Puritans of the period. All that remains of it now is an octagonal stone, the pillar affixed to which, as shown in our view, is no part of the original cross, but appears to have been placed there in more modern times, most likely in the early part of last century.
The landscape has inevitably changed considerably since 1346, however, you can do a really nice walk along the banks of the River Browney and up to the ruins of Beaurepair. The lay of the land is such that with a bit of imagination you can piece events together. There are some really good, if a little faded, information boards on the pedestrian bridge over the A167 near St. Bede’s Close and just off the main road. The view from the bridge gives a great vantage point. Neville’s Cross itself, or what remains of it, can still be seen in a little fenced off area just to the side of A690 as you approach the crossroads from Durham. This too has an information board to read. I’m glad to say that it has recently been refurbished and is a good starting point to walk the battlefield.
It should be noted that the Registered Battlefield area is currently under review with recent evidence suggesting that the battle may have been fought further to the north.