(In the transfer from one system to this page some errors appear such as original page changes result in a new paragraph being formed. i don't seem to be able to alter that, sorry. Ian Copinger)
By the end of September 1346 the people of the Palatinate of Durham had enjoyed a splendid and bounteous year. An early spring and exceptionally warm summer had produced an abundant harvest. Furthermore, on the 26th of August King Edward had decisively defeated the King of France at the battle of Crecy, with the gracious Bishop of Durham, Thomas Hatfield, at his right hand leading 80 archers during this victory. Reason enough to be complacent.
A prolific harvest such as this had brought problems. With so many men away in France most manors were short-handed. Previously the „Haliwerfolk‟, (residents of the Palatinate and guardians of the body and possessions of St Cuthbert) had always refused to bear arms outside the Palatinate, but the Bishop had persuaded them that the King's reason for the war with France was just and must be supported. Of course this willingness to fight abroad could be attributed to the new law which entitled soldiers under arms to he paid. These paid soldiers were encouraged to abandon the usual practice of demanding release from campaigns during seed-time and harvest-time which had previously restricted wars to the summer season. This enabled the King to extend his campaign and lay siege to Calais.
The victory at Crecy, based as it was on the supremacy of the long bow, caused some heart searching in Durham. The majority of the population had resented the proclamation issued by the King to every Sheriff in England. The gist of the proclamation was "that every able-bodied man, when he is at leisure and on fast days, use bows and arrows, and learn to practice the art of shooting. All and everyone is forbidden to attend or take part in the hurling of stones, handball, football, hockey, coursing and cock-fighting". Little did they realize that this ability to use bows and arrows would be required in the near future.
Nevertheless the Palatinate basked in a state of euphoria until early in October when disturbing news began to arrive in Durham. Rumour had it that the Scots had amassed a huge army which had crossed the border into Cumberland on 3rd October. Raids of a few hundred Scots were commonplace and could easily be contained, but this was an invasion.
This move by the 23 year old David II, King of Scotland, was not a normal offensive. The King of France, in his distress at the success of King Edward III, had turned to his traditional ally asking him to create a diversion to cause Edward to abandon the siege of Calais and return to England to engage David. No doubt the French King would relay to David the number of English nobility and followers attending Edward to indicate that no opposition would be encountered should the Scots invade. He also offered to supply David with a number of French soldiers and a considerable amount of money.
Anticipating such a possibility, Edward, before the battle of Crecy, had offered David the restitution of the township of Berwick if he would refrain from harassing England whilst he was in France. To David the French offer was preferable, especially in view of the callous treatment meted out to him by King Edward, his brother-in-law.
With an army of between 20,000 and 30,000, which included French Auxiliaries, David struck first at Liddell Tower, on the border of Cumberland, putting the whole of the garrison to the sword. Laying waste to Lanercost Abbey, and capturing neighbouring Naworth Castle, he sacked the Abbey of Hexham and plundered the town which he occupied for three days. He then moved east to Corbridge where his troops attacked Aydon Castle, although he spared the lives of the inhabitants. From here he advanced in the direction of Newcastle, crossed the Tyne at Ryton, and entered the Bishopric of Durham. After crossing the Derwent he halted at Ebchester. Following the line of the Roman Road of Dere Street to Lanchester, David moved towards Durham reaching Beaurepaire on the 16th of October. Here he occupied the manor house of the Priors of Durham Monastery, and his army camped within the park.
Detachments of the Scottish army roamed over the area pillaging, ransacking and bringing cattle and the plunder of the recent harvest back to the camp. It is said that they imposed a tax upon everyone who remained in the neighbourhood and killed any who refused to pay. Some monks arranged with the army that if the lands and tenants of the church were spared, a payment of one thousand pounds would be made. The Scottish army, having advanced so far into England without any opposition and expecting further easy successes, "feasted upon the abundance they had collected and made great mirth". David, even then, assumed that there was no possibility of meeting any opposition.
In the absence of the Bishop of Durham, the traditional defender against the Scots, the Archbishop of York, previously commissioned by the King, took on this role. He was ably assisted by the Sheriffs of York and Northumberland, the northern nobles and Bishops. Between them, whilst David was marching east, they mustered an army from all the shires north of the Trent. The response was astonishing given that the cream of the English fighting men were in France with King Edward. The resultant army comprised of knights, esquires, ordinary soldiers and many clerics, offered considerable means of home defence. The inclusion of clerics in the English army, both monastic and secular priests, is amply demonstrated by the report of priests at Beverley, who at the gate of the town off took off their sandals, and, bare-headed, with swords and quivers at their thighs, and their bows under their arms marched forward in procession, imploring the help of God and all holy angels. Elements of the army from the northern shires, including 1,700 archers from Lancashire, moved north and east to oppose the Scots. It came together and camped at Bishop Auckland Park, when it was reckoned that between 15,000 and 18,000 men were present. To retain secrecy this assembled army advanced towards Durham early on the 17th of October by way of Kirk Merrington and Ferryhill so as to approach Durham from the south. As no mention is made of Lord Percy and the men from Northumberland in this move, it must be assumed that they were not part of the army mustered at Bishop Auckland, but were in Durham awaiting either an onslaught from King David or reinforcements from the south.
At dawn on the 17th of October William Douglas, a close friend of King David, was making his way with a considerable number of mounted men in a manoeuvre to circumvent Durham to the south. Traveling by way of the Browney to Sunderland Bridge, Butterby, and Shincliffe he meant to attack Durham, either by Elvet Bridge or more likely the Clayport via Gilesgate.
Douglas's, or King David's strategy was nipped in the bud by the contingent being surprised by part of the advancing English army at Sunderland Bridge. In a violent skirmish with elements of this army and trapped in the triangle of land between the River wear and the Browney, between 200 and 600 Scots were killed. Douglas escaped, returned speedily to Beaurepaire, and informed David of the movement of a large English force towards Durham. this ability to surprise such a large force is easily explained when it is realized that the greater part of the area around Durham was, at that time, thick woodland.
No doubt a discussion would take place as to the future strategy of the English army, as some idea of the position of the Scottish army would now be known. The problem facing Neville, as Field Commander, was whether to attack the Scots at Beaurepaire or to relieve the threatened garrison of Durham. The latter course was decided upon, due perhaps to the fact that the Scots would act upon the information brought by Douglas and prepare for such an attack. the English army moved towards Durham reaching the outskirts in order of battle, arriving at the moor near Nevilles Cross some hours before noon.
Douglas had given David the first information of the approach of a large English force but his advice to retreat and avoid an engagement was rejected with disdain. Under the circumstances the Scots dare not attack the city for fear of retaliation from a force of whose numbers and destination they were practically ignorant. Having been advised that any armed forces sent to oppose him would be made up of "husbandmen, shepherds and imbecile and decrepit chaplains". David had spent most of the previous day organizing his troops to traverse Crossgate Moor in order of battle for an advance on Durham.
Meanwhile the population of Durham was near to panic. This was no ordinary raid similar to the three they had endured in the last four years. They had been contained by the garrison in the castle at Durham or by what was left of the fighting men in the County. Now the Sheriff of Durham, William de Mordon, and the Constable of the Castle, John de Pulmore, who was also Rector of Wykham, made the necessary arrangements for the defence of the castle with the meagre garrison at their disposal.
The Guild Masters, some of whose journeymen were in France, had made do with older apprentices for a whole year. They had abandoned any discipline for the time being enabling the apprentices armed with their half-size bows and arrows to become part of the city defence force. The Masters, in the seclusion of the Guildhall, made an inventory of each Guild's silver and made arrangements to hide the pieces from the marauding Scots. The apprentices were joined by crippled former soldiers, old and infirm men armed with axes, knives, hayforks and scythes. Each manned a portion of the city walls which had been built some years previously but whose effectiveness had been marred by the addition of a weak wall and gate at bottom of Claypath known as Clayport
On the morning of the 17th of October the Great North Gate‟s two portcullis and doors opened once to allow Prior Fossor, at the head of a group of monks, to leave for the city and beyond bearing a wooden cross, a spear and the corporax from St. Cuthbert's tomb.
The Prior of the Monastery of Durham had had a dream in which he was directed to take the corporax from the coffin of the shrine of St. Cuthbert, place it on the point of a spear as if it were a banner, and, with a number of monks and the corporax, go to Flass Vale. There he would find a mound known locally as Maidens Bower, and on it he should place the spear and, with the company, pray to St. Cuthbert for mercy.
Amongst the tangle of conflicting descriptions of the Battle of Nevilles Cross there is no one definitive version of the battle. The following is a composite account gleaned from sources available.
The Scots facing south, were formed into three divisions. On the right, where the ground was hilly, cut by ravines and ditches and described as „enclosed‟, the troops were led by Sir William Douglas and the Earl of Moray. The centre was led by King David supported by the Bishops of St. Andrew and Aberdeen, and other Scottish nobles. His standard bearer, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was at his side, holding aloft the red lion on the cloth of gold. The left, and largest force, was led by Robert Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland and Patrick, Earl of March. The battle formation of this army was in a line roughly following Tollhouse Road and Redhills Lane.
The English were divided into four divisions. The left wing facing north, included 1,700 Lancashire archers and was led by Sir Thomas Rokeby, Sheriff of Yorkshire and the Archbishop of York. The centre wing, facing King David, was led by Lord Ralph Neville supported by his son Sir John Neville, and the right wing led by Lord Percy supported by the Earl of Angus. The English formation was in a west-east line from the upper edge of the quarry to the top of the steep slope above the city. The fourth, a strong body of cavalry under Edward Baliol, formed a reserve held west of Nevilles Cross.
The Scottish right wing under William Douglas made the first move in the battle. Having a preponderance of cavalry in his wing, he believed that a breach could be made in the English left wing. This was made up of levies from counties south of the Tees, as well as the Lancashire archers, and seemed to Douglas to be more easily assailable than the rest of the English army. This was an illusion created by Sir Thomas Rokeby, who dispersed the archers amongst the hedges and ditches, and caused the first of many mistakes made by the Scots during the course of the battle.
The terrain consisted of a steep hillside with quarry workings on the right and to the left a series of terraces, ditches and hedges where the hillside had been terraced for farming. Because of the terrain the Scottish bowmen had few targets to aim at and were forced to the rear. The cavalry, eager to avenge the recent defeat at Sunderland Bridge, hardly waiting for the archers to move to the rear, charged. They had to swerve to the left away from a derelict quarry, which crowded the men on the left of the line. The English bowmen waited, hidden by the terracing, ditches and hedges. The inevitable congestion of the horsemen by the move to the left slowed whatever impetus the Scots had, and the haul uphill, hampered by the ditches and hedges, caused a stationary queue to form at the bottom of the hill.
One thousand seven hundred bowstrings thrummed. The arrows whistled. The easy targets offered by the Scots enabled the now revealed English archers to pour their arrows with the great speed and a precision which had recently made the English bowmen famous at Crecy. They slaughtered hundreds, methodically cutting the Scottish cavalry down in swathes. Still they came on. The wounded horses fell screaming in agony and the unseated men, some of whom were already trying to pluck arrows from their flesh, made easy targets for the archers. By the time the Scottish spearmen, under the Earl of Moray, had struggled over terraces, hedges and the dead and dying to reach the English lines, they were in no condition to face the English. Soldiers with spears and bill-hooks now re-placed the archers who had retired, their grisly work in this part of the battle completed. The Scottish right wing was, to all intents and purposes, eliminated from the battle. During this attack the Earl of Moray was killed and William Douglas captured by Sir Robert Beltram.
The initial success of the English archers induced John Graham, who was with King David, to request a hundred lancers to break the archers. This request was refused. However, this did not prevent Graham, alone or with a few attendants, from charging in a suicidal attempt to reduce the havoc created by the accurate bowmen. He did disperse some and fought on until, with an arrow striking his horse and he himself wounded, he was scarcely able to return to his own ranks. The Scottish left wing under Robert Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland with Patrick, Earl of March, being the largest force, were more confident of success. They were faced by Lord Percy, the Earl of Angus, Gilbert de Umfraville and the soldiery of Northumberland. The archers of both sides made the first move, sending a volley of arrows in both directions, but the opposing divisions were too close for a prolonged archery engagement. The encounter became a hand to hand melee, with spears, battle axes, swords and for the English side, billhooks. The screams of the wounded rose above the battle cries of the Scots, whose superior numbers eventually drove Percy and the Northumberland men slowly back towards Nevilles Cross.
King David, leading the Scottish Centre with, amongst other nobles of Scotland, the Earl of Strathearn, the Earl of Montieth and Sir Alexander Fleming, was also enjoying the advantage of superior numbers, easily driving Neville and the Durham men gradually south. The ease with which David drove the English centre created in the Scots a false sense of victory, because this surge forward was the turning point of the battle.
David's right wing was no longer able to offer any resistance and the English left wing, especially the archers, had turned to face David‟s right flank. Once more the deadly English arrows rained on to a completely unprepared enemy thoroughly demoralizing them and causing David to halt. He split his forces to deal with this new situation thus giving advantage to Neville and the men of Durham, and enabling Neville to regroup his forces to attack.
At this same instant the reserve force under Edward Baliol, Lord Roos and Thomas de Lucy entered the fray between the High Stewards right flank and David's left flank, with the cavalry against the left flank of the High Steward and the spearmen against the right flank of David. This brilliant move caused the High Steward to pause and take stock. His own wing, pressed on two sides was in danger of being forced over the ravine into Flass Bog. His only move was to retreat. He saw that the Scottish right wing no longer existed and that David's centre wing was beset on three sides. With his own wing now in jeopardy, he made the decision which ended hopes of a Scottish victory. He gave the order for a full retreat from the battle.
The cavalry under Baliol did not follow up this move, which allowed Robert Stewart and his Scottish followers to retreat north. The later grisly job of hunting stray Scots up to, and over, the border was left to Lord Percy. The whole of the English force concentrated on the remnants of the now scattered Scottish army, the plight of which was desperate. Attacked on all sides and forced to retreat, his nobles dying in a useless bid to prevent David from capture, the battle now dissolved into skirmishes and covered some distance west and north of Red Hills.
King David fought with the courage of despair, alongside a gall ant group of nobles who fought a bitter defensive action until only eighty of them survived. Eventually his capture was inevitable. He would have preferred capture by a man of some status and title, but was eventually cornered by John Copeland Esquire who, with Thomas Carre, managed to disarm him. Copeland fell upon David, but a blow from David‟s gauntlet split his cheek and knocked out some of his teeth.
Recognizing the importance of his captive and the possibility of a substantial ransom, Copeland quickly found a horse for the wounded King, and, with his associates, escorted the king from the battlefield. Within an hour David was imprisoned in Ogle Castle on the River Blyth in Northumberland to await future developments.
Thus ended the Battle of Nevilles Cross where the armies were in position at the bell for Tierce (nine o‟clock in the morning), closed and attacked at Nones (twelve noon) and fought until Vespers ( three o‟clock). During the period of the battle monks were to be heard singing psalms and the Te Deum on the central tower of the Cathedral.
It is said that 15,000 Scots lost their lives in the battle. Of the cream of the Scottish nobility, at least eleven were killed during the battle. Eleven were captured and only a few escaped. Among these were Robert Stewart, The High Steward of Scotland and Patrick, Earl of March. There is no figure given for the English dead, merely a statement that a number of knights and esquires were killed in the battle. It is, however, noted that Ralph, Lord Hastings died of wounds after the battle.
BATTLE ANACHRONISMS .
It is possible that different people involved in the same event can give different versions of that event. Similarly it is possible that different people writing about the same event can interpret the event in entirely different ways. Furthermore people can translate languages in such a way as to give different personal interpretations.
The Battle of Nevilles Cross has been the victim of all these 'crimes', and to unravel the myths, legends and down-right personal assumptions with which it is surrounded would be a daunting task. However by taking into consideration all accounts, some, if not all can be satisfactorily explained.
One of the most important and origina1 sources of the battle is the contemporary account by Prior Fossor. It is unfortunate that he spent the whole of the battle in Flass Vale, within earshot of the battle but out of sight of it, despite being behind the Scottish lines. He would, however, ensure that his description included eye-witness accounts.
Some contemporary sources are not to be trusted, being for the most part written to impress the person reading the account. Later versions were translations, snippets of local writings, and, in some cases, assumptions and guesses. This account, with the explanations, is an effort to make sense of some, if not all, of those accounts.
The first and foremost anachronism is the title of the battle itself. It was originally called the Battle of Red Hills or the Battle of Durham. The change of name to the Battle of Nevilles Cross must have taken
place sometime after the erection of the new cross to commemorate the battle. There bad always been a cross on the site. It was a Sanctuary Cross, one of many situated on main roads into the city. They indicated to the fugitive from justice that by crossing the boundary he would come under the sanctuary of St. Cuthbert and the monastery of Durham. The initial cross, either of wood or stone, was also a boundary cross associated with the lands of the Prior of the monastery and land belonging to the Bishop of Durham, whose tenant was Lord Neville of Raby and Brancepeth Whether the original cross was named Nevilles Cross is not recorded but it seems likely that it was.
The legend that the Red Hills took the name from the blood that flowed down the hills during the battle cannot be sustained. The name Red Hills was either a description of the soil, which was a reddish colour, or it was a corruption of "Reedy Hills" because of the reeds which grew in profusion there.
It must have been difficult for anyone to estimate numbers of men in any particular army in medieval times, and estimations lead to inaccuracies. This is why the numbers of men in the opposing armies differ from one account to another.
The number of men that David mustered for his invasion of England varies from writer to writer but the general impression gained from various sources gives the Scottish army to be greater in numbers than the English. The lowest quoted is 15,000, the highest, 50,000 - Hutchinson quotes 30,000, Surtees 28-30,000 whilst Froissart, Speed, Barnes and Knighton indicate more.
The English army is given as equal to or less than the Scots. Hutchinson quotes 16,000, Surtees 16-18,000. Some insist that the English army was only between 12,000 and 15,000. The Scottish army, however, were the more professional and contained well disciplined French troops.
An aura of mystery surrounds the involvement of Queen Philippa in the period before and after the Battle of Nevilles Cross. It is claimed that she personally mustered the troops north of the Trent with the assistance of the Archbishop of York. The Queen was a strong willed person and was known to reinforce King Edward in all things. With her forceful character she could be expected to be involved in the task of protecting England and, in the king's absence, raising an army to resist the invasion by the Scots. This must have been the limit of her involvement, and any other role should be looked upon as doubtful. The possibility of the capture of the capture of the Queen by the Scots, on, or near the field of battle would have been disastrous for the future of King Edward.
Froissart's account has Queen Philippa going "from battayle to battayle praing them to do their devoire for the defence of the honour of their lord and master, and in the name of God every man to be of good heart and courage, promising them that she would remember them as well, and better, as though the King her lord was there personally."
That speech was said to have been made in the thick of the battle. An even more curious account of an earlier participation by the Queen was a challenge, sent by David to her as she was staying in Newcastle "with her army", to send forth her troops to meet his in open field. The challenge, it goes on, was accepted and the battle fought "within three English miles of New Casttle, in the land of the lord Nevi1l". This reference to a battle must be the skirmish a breakaway section of the Scottish army had near Newcastle, whilst the main body crossed the Tyne near Ryton.
These accounts are not substantiated by any chronicler of the campaign, and no mention of the Queen at the battle is made except by Froissart and his copyists. Froissart, it must be said, was a protoge of the Queen, and these accounts may have been attempts to enhance his position by glorifying her reputation as a heroine. Raine positively declares that she was in the south of England at that time. No other chronicler mentions her and Prior Fossor, the man on the spot, says nothing of the Queen's presence, when such for the Bishop would have been written with pride.
That Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham, fought in the battle at the side of Lord Neville is mentioned in certain accounts. Surtees states that he was in the van of the battle with the Bishops of Lincoln and Carlisle, however the account of the battle by Prior Fossor was in a letter to the Bishop who was in France with Edward III. It seems strange that he should write a letter about a battle to a person who had been in the thick of the said battle. If the tomb of Hatfield in Durham Cathedral is inspected it will be seen that the coats of arms adorning the tomb are those of the nobles who accompanied him to France. At the far right of the tomb may be seen the coat of arms of the King of EngIand, Edward III, above which is a bust of the monarch. This lasting memorial to a Bishop who served with Edward in France whilst the battle of Nevilles Cross was being fought cannot be ignored.
The vexed question of what William Douglas was doing in the morning of Tuesday 17th October requires examination. Certain facts are known, and quite a number of assumptions are attached to his motives, destination and possibly his flagrant disregard of the orders issued by King David.
Prior Fossor states categorically that David led upon all marauding soldiers to return and forbade all men to leave Beaurepaire on the night of16 th / 17th of October with a view to arranging his army for the assault on Durham early on the 17th. Would King David give anyone, even Douglas, permission to leave early on the morning of the 17th under these circumstances? The assumption that he was given specific
orders to take a large force to encircle Durham and attack it from the east seems likely as a tactical ploy. We assume that he led a 1arge force because the fact that he is said to have lost 500 men seems to indicate that he took twice that number on the venture.
If, as one legend has it, he was leading the said force on a raid on Darlington it must have been against David's stay-put orders. If, however, he had been given permission to raid Darlington, Why take such a large force against a small defenceless town without the slightest possibility of any opposition? It seems strange that Douglas would abandon his share of the plunder of Durham City and Cathedral for an unknown amount of loot.
The legend referred to is the name of a crossroads on the A167 between Croxdale and Hett on the site of the Coach and Horses pub. It is called Low Butchers Race, and is supposed to be where Douglas met up with the English army and ran a bloody race towards Beaurepaire. Subsequently the Scots were trapped at Sunderland Bridge.
What happened at Sunderland Bridge is also something of a mystery. Why, if the Scots were being harried in the general direction of Sunderland Bridge from Croxdale, did they turn right at the Browney, thus being trapped on the tongue of land between the Browney and the Wear? Why not turn left the way they had come, following the Browney to Beaurepaiire and safety?
Finally, why, after being warned by Douglas, did David choose such a poor battle position, accepting the fact that he was there first and had a choice of site? Did he refuse to believe Douglas and continue to ignore the possibility of an opposing army of strength or was he just a poor tactician.
The timing and duration of the Battle of Nevilles Cross have taxed the chroniclers and writers over the years. The usually accepted time for the start of the battle is nine o'clock in the morning and the finish at twelve o'clock noon, the duration being three hours.
One or two accounts suggest that the English were in battle formation "two and a half hours after the sun was over the horizon". If it is accepted that sunrise was at 6.11am on the morning of the 17th October 1346 (ten days were lost after the introduction of the Gregorian Calendar in 1582 thus making the 7th the 17th in 1346) that would see the English in line some time around 9 o'clock. Douglas would have encountered the English army some time before this. Assuming that he returned immediately and warned David upon arrival at Beaurepaire, David had time to move his army into position before the arrival of the English army. Once again we are faced with the tactical ineptness of David in his selection of his battle lines. Some accounts say the battle was fought between 3.00pm and 6.00pm. which would give both armies six hours to organise their battle positions though it is unlikely that the battle would have continued after sunset which that day was 5.25pm.
There are two sets of times which most chroniclers are agreed on. Fossor may not have had much idea of troop movements and the strategies of army commanders but he did know church service times. In his letter to Bishop Hatfield he stated that The armies faced each other at Terce, attacked at Nones and the Scots were defeated by Vespers. He would not be able to hear the Cathedral bell from the Maidens Bower in Flass Vale, especially over the noise of the battle but one group had a grandstand view of the battle. the monks on top of the central tower of the Cathedral. From these Prior Fossor would be given some idea of the progress of the battle against the only times the monks knew, the church services. How near to the service times were the main points of the battle is hard to tell, but the rough times are; the battle lines were drawn at nine in the morning, the battle engaged at twelve noon and the Scots defeated by three in the afternoon.
Another proof of the time of the defeat of the Scots is the capture David by John Copeland. He is stated to have captured the King and transported him on horseback to Ogle Castle by about the time of Vespers, when to all intents and purposes the Scots were defeated and in full retreat.
Conflicting accounts make it impossible to be exact about the timing of the battle. Nones to Vespers give or take half an hour seems to be the most likely.
A crucial factor of the battle was the entry of Edward Baliol with de Lucy and de Roos to the conflict in a spearhead attack between the centre division led by King David and the left division led by Robert Stewart the High Steward of Scotland. It compelled the left division of the Scottish army to halt its advance and to steadily retreat. By retreating it caused its left flank to be endangered by the precipice of Flass Vale. This in turn forced the threatened soldiers to congest the centre, hampering the movements of the spearmen against the opposing cavalry. This gave rise to a further retreat in order to accommodate the overcrowded soldiers. At this juncture Robert Stewart was to the rear of the King‟s division, and saw from this vantage point that the right wing of the Scottish army under Douglas was no longer in the fie]d and that the centre wing under King David was beset on three sides. Robert Stewart appears to have weighed up the situation. and, realising the impossibility of victory, decided to save his division from utter defeat by ordering them to retire. The English, under Percy, allowed them to carry out this manoeuvre without hindrance for it practically left the English total victors. The suspicion of Robert Stewart having deserted King David in his hour of need without being really beaten in the battle lingers to this day. David is said
never to have forgiven him for that error of discretion. At the moment of Robert Stewart‟s desertion David had, in one bitter instant, lost over half his army. They were still an organised division and could, with courage and tenacity, have altered the course of the battle and resulted in victory instead of defeat.
The desertion, if it were such, left the English right wing under Percy free to join Neville in a combined attack on the Scottish centre where a heroic fight was now raging.
It has been stated in a number of accounts that Robert Stewart only ordered the withdrawal of his division when he observed that the centre had been overcome, the King captured and the cause seen to be hopeless. Others, less generous, state that his motives were more ulterior. They point out that Robert Stewart was next in succession to the Scottish throne, and, if he had ambitions to become King it would be wise to leave David to face captivity or perhaps death.
Whatever his motives, most accounts of the aftermath of the battle show the High Steward planning and executing a retreat towards the border. Back in Scotland he took over the regency from 1346 to 1357 whilst King David was in captivity.
That John Copeland captured King David of Scotland has never been in doubt, but where he was captured is uncertain.
The most persistent account is that Copeland found King David hiding under the bridge over the Browney at Aldin Grange. The rest of the legend concerning his capture, his wounds, the knocking out of two of Copeland's teeth is repeated in all other accounts. Another account suggests that the place of the capture was under a bridge that spanned the Browney between Witton Gilbert and Ash‟ (Esh?) One account states that the King of Scotland fled the battle and was taken at Merrington but the statement that he was captured at Findon Hill given all the facts of the closing stages of the battle, seems to provide a more realistic location.
Prior Fossor mentions Findon Hill as the name of the place where the Scots made their last stand of the battle. This could not have been the remnants of Robert Stewart's division. for we are told that Percy allowed them to retreat without hindrance, and they certainly would not linger to regroup until well away from the battlefield. It may well be that David‟s division tried to follow but was delayed by its rearguard action. It is repeated in the accounts that David fought ferociously, surrounded by brave nobles who gave their lives to ensure his safety. One can only reconstruct the method of his escape from certain death. It would be a case of a few nobles, with soldiers, staying put and fighting to the death whilst David with others retreated until surrounded again by the enemy. This would be repeated over and over again until so few were left that, when Copeland and his friends arrived, the King would have only a token force to protect him.
The position of the Scottish army at the beginning of the battle was east/west, and as the western wing had been defeated, it followed that the road to Beaurepaire was over-run. Aldin Grange, on the way to Beaurepaire, would be thick with English soldiers mopping-up, and, with an eye on the baggage train at the Prior's manor, leaving the only road to safety to the northeast and eventually Findon Hill.
Even this explanation of the circumstances of the King‟s capture is open to doubt and discussion and can never be satisfactorily settled. Where the bridge over the Browney between Witton Gilbert and Ash was located is difficult to find.
Even if the figure of 15,000 Scottish dead is not accepted (some accounts state that this is an exaggeration) it must be realized that a very large number were killed in the battle. Prior Fossar states in his letter that a large number of Scottish soldiers 'lay dead and were miserably stripped'. This would explain the lack of battle equipment exposed during the excavation of the railway cutting through Red Hills and the fairly recent building of the adjacent housing estates and the school. It also raises the question as to why so few human bones have been unearthed.
Under the circumstances the towns people involved in the 'stripping‟ would not be interested in what should be done with the bodies. It is doubtful if the church would contemplate giving a Christian burial to any of the Scots found on Red Hills (had they not massacred the monks in Lanercost Abbey) and gives rise to the practical question, „what was done with the bodies?‟ Two obvious sites for such a mass disposal within easy reach of Red Hills come to mind.}. Flass Bog could be the site of a mass grave if, as is usually mentioned, it covered a larger area and was wetter and considered to be more treacherous than it is now, but it seems unlikely that it could contain such a large number of bodies. The most probable sites for the disposal of thousands of bodies are the quarries by the side of the Browney. Some of these quarries are very old and are said to be the source of stone used for the building of the Cathedral.
Somewhere in that area is an archaeological find simply awaiting discovery, but, if the account of Prior Fossor is to be believed only the bones of the Scots will be found.
A more rewarding find would be the whereabouts of the bodies of the 200 to 600 Scots who were killed at Sunderland Bridge. No mention is made of these, and they might have been buried with some personal items.
It is often written that the battle of Nevilles Cross did nothing for England but humiliate Scotland. The outrage at this defeat was amply demonstrated by the Scottish soldiers imprisoned in the Cathedral after the Battle of Dunbar in l650, when they defaced the tombs of the Nevilles in a fit of revenge for their defeat at Nevilles Cross some 304 years before.
That it did nothing positive for England at the time is true, as it merely preserved the status quo. But had King David succeeded in defeating the English army then the whole of the country would have suffered tremendously from the destruction and slaughter that marked the Scots advance through the west marches to Durham. The Scottish army would surely have plundered York and perhaps further south and most certainly have wintered in England exacting a terrible price from the people. Edward III would have been forced to return to England and any gains in France lost to the satisfaction of the King of France who in turn might have been persuaded to invade England to assist the Scots to maintain their occupation. Only slight mention is made of the battle in any History of England. No day of national thanksgiving was set aside to celebrate this important victory, the only token remembrance of the conflict being the singing of the Te Deum by the Cathedral choir from the central tower on St. Luke's Eve. This continued until 1811, except during the Commonwealth period when it ceased. It was resumed on the 29th May to celebrate, not the battle, but Royal Oak Day.
If Ralph, Lord Neville was the major hero of the Battle of Nevilles Cross, then John Copeland ( sometimes Coupland) was the minor hero.
That John Copeland captured the wounded King David is confirmed by all accounts. That John Copeland took David to Ogle Castle in Northumberland, the seat of Sir Robert Ogle, is also beyond question but why he did so and his subsequent behaviour are explained by the fact that he lived in the hinterland of the Eastern Marches of Nothumberland.
Copeland had the typical habits and lifestyle of a borderer. He removed King David so that no English noble could demand that he should hand over the King. His friend Sir Robert Ogle, knowing Copeland for what he was, agreed to his request for safe haven until such time as a ransom was paid.
One account states that Queen Phillipa demanded that Copeland surrender the King to her but he refused, although this story, like others involving the Queen is not confirmed.
At this point of the story another character enters the negotiation. On 16th of December 1346, Prince Lionel, the son of King Edward III who was appointed "Custos Angliae" or Regent, demanded that Sir Thomas Rokeby convey King David and Sir Malcolm Fleming to the Tower of London. On 2nd January Rokeby delivered both these men to the Constable of the Tower, having received the prisoners for conveyance from Lord Neville, who in turn, must have negotiated with Copeland. For services rendered in the BattIe af NevilIes Cross, Copeland was given a pension of 500 per year and made a knight banneret. This award was signed by King Edward III
All very nicely arranged, you might think, except that a considerable time had elapsed between King David‟s capture and his delivery to Lord Neville for transfer to the tower, a matter of sixty days. One wonders at the delay until the pattern of Copeland‟s life before the Battle of Nevilles Cross is investigated.
John Copeland was a Border Reiver, a member of that band of cut throats and murders who inhabited both sides the border, and whose livelihood was pillage and plunder. He needed more than just a ransom to be paid to him. This would still leave a list of offences most of which carried the death penalty, should he be brought to justice. He needed a pardon for his past offences.
And so it was that the King's pardon was given to John Copeland for "all breaches of the Peace by homicides, felonies, robberies, thefts, harbouring felons and other enemies of the King, etc." signed by King Edward III at Calais on January 20th 1347.
For their services in the Battle of Nevilles Cross a similar pardon was granted to Copeland‟s associates, William Silver and Robert Beltram.
Immediately after the battle, on the orders of Lord Ralph Neville and Prior Fossor, the standards and banners of the participants were brought to St. Cuthbert‟s Feretory. There a wrought iron grill was erected at the east end of the Feretory in the centre of which was fixed a silver staff. From this hung the Corporax banner of St. Cuthbert, with King David's, Neville's and the rest of the banners alongside. They hung there until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when they were torn down and destroyed. The red velvet banner of St. Cuthbert was burned on the Deanery kitchen fire by the wife of the Protestant Dean Whittingham.
One of the most interesting Scottish treasures seized during the battle was the Black Rood of Scotland. This cross, of great religious importance to the Scots, was brought from Holyrood House by King David. Under the circumstances the carrying of this religious object does not equate with the slaughter of the monks of Lanercost, yet it is known that David was a very religious man.
The cross was of silver, with a central image of the crucified Jesus Christ with the Virgin Mary on one side and John the Evangelist on the other. AII three wore crowns of beaten gold which could be taken off at will. Legend says that it was given to David in a miraculous way by a hind whilst he was hunting. With great reverence it was installed between the pillars in the south aisle of the choir.
If England forgot the debt it owed to the people of the north for the defeat of King David of Scotland, the King of England did not. He rewarded John Copeland, and others, most important of whom was the Commander in Chief of the English army, Lord Ralph Neville. His rewards, some tangible, some in terms of wealth and prestige for his heirs and relatives were considerable.
Lord Ralph Neville‟s father had merely been a Palatinate Baron, a tenant in chief of the Bishop of Durham. A man of local importance certainly, but his only claim to national fame was that he was called to parliament. He died in 1331 and his son, Lord Ralph Neville, would, undoubtedly, have followed in his footsteps without any change in status or duties. The battle of Nevilles Cross changed the fortunes of the Neville family however, increasing their prestige, not only in the eyes of the nobility of England but in the marriage prospects of this large family
'l'he King bestowed upon Lord Ralph Neville the title of Steward of the Household, Warden of the Forests North of the Trent and Warden of the East and Middle Marches. His son, Lord John Neville, who, upon death of his father inherited some of these titles was rewarded by the King for his part in the battle. He was made Admiral of England in 1370, Lieutenant of Aquitain and Senschal of Bordeaux in 1378. His son, the grandson of Lord Ralph Neville really elevated the family into the higher nobility of the kingdom by marrying Joan Plantagenet, daughter of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. One of the descendants of this marriage was the Earl of Warwick, the 'King Maker'.
Lord Neville showed his thanks for the victory at Nevilles Cross in a most generous fashion. He had installed. behind the High Alter in the Cathedral, an altar screen of Caen stone which was shipped to Newcastle in chests. The Bishop of Durham and the Prior of the monastery in turn rewarded the Neville family with the privilege of allowing Ralph Neville and his wife, the only lay persons up to that date, to be buried in the Cathedra1. The Prior also granted the Nevilles permission to have a chantry built in the South Aisle of the Cathedral, and allowed a priest to say mass on certain days.
Finally, Lord Ralph Neville, to commemorate the battle and the involvement of the Nevilles in the event, had erected at his own expense, and supposedly on the site of the original, a most e1aborate cross.
The cross had seven steps leading to a plinth, a large thick square stone on whose chamfered corners were the statues of the four evange1ists. The vertical stalk held the coats of arms of the Nevilles 'the silver saltire‟, and at the top was the image of Jesus Christ crucified, with the Blessed Virgin Mary on one side and St. John the Evangelist on the other, possibly copied from the Black Rood. The figures were canopied and lead covered. The overall height of the cross was three and a half yards.
Unfortunately this was destroyed in 1589, it was said, by persons "utterly despising ceromonies and monuments" or, in other words, protestant fanatics.
Legend has it that, if a person walks nine times round the Cross and then lays his head on the ground, he can hear noises of battle, the clashing of swords on armour and the whistling of arrows. Alas, no more. Railings prevent this action from being carried out.
It seems ironic that, from an insignificant cross that originally adorned this site should rise a magnificent structure, destined only to revert to an insignificant monument comprising several steps leading to a battered socket which now upholds an ob1iterated milestone 'which has long outlived the information which it was intended to convey‟.
The similarity of the rise and fall of the cross can be applied to the Neville family. From a run of the mill baron, the family rose to great heights and then. due to the Neville‟s involvement in the Rise of the Northern Earls, fell back to obscurity.
Nothing however can detract from or fade the glory of the victory the northern men and their leaders won at the Battle of Nevilles Cross.
© J W Dickenson 1991