Siege of Berwick & the Battle of Halidon Hill

The Siege of Berwick and the Battle of Halidon Hill

Background events

Seige of Berwick

Edward Balliol had been driven out of Scotland after his initial victory at Dupplin Moor. Short-lived as it had been, Balliol's incumbency had given him a taste for power and he remained game for another try -- with Edward III's urging. To lend support to Balliol's cause was an opportunity for which Edward III had been waiting. The Weardale campaign, which was a disaster for young Edward III -- as Douglas and Bruce had made a fool and a mockery of the cumbersome English forces -- had shown him the strength of the Scots. But their most able commanders were now dead and the time, Edward III must have felt, was right for revenge. If Weardale had shown the strength of the Scots, Dupplin Moor had exposed their weaknesses. Edward Balliol led where Edward III intended to follow, and in March 1333 the deposed puppet-monarch, Balliol, returned to Scotland with an English army and laid seige to the important town of Berwick-upon-the-Tweed, which by 1333 was the only major fortification left in south-east Scotland. Robert the Bruce, using "The Black" Douglas and his nephew Thomas Randolph, had slighted and destroyed most all English strongholds as soon as they fell into his hands, so as to deny refuge to any English army that crossed the Border. But Berwick was more than a castle. It was a border town of strategic and commercial importance, and when the Scots recaptured it in 1318 they had in fact strengthened its defences. The possession of Berwick was now a point of honour.

Edward III of England

[Edward III of England] Once Berwick was surrounded the Scots tried their old and previously successful ruse of raiding deep into English territory to draw the defenders off. But this time it only provoked a counter-raid, and provided Edward III with some very useful propaganda about Scottish atrocities -- which were enbellished to portray the Scots as bloodless barbarians -- thus scaring the English and Borderer's into an alliance with Edward. The English king may have lacked the modern means of propaganda, but he had nothing to learn by way of technique. Public proclamations, petitions to the clergy, all served to emphasize the rightness of retaliation. Not that any Englishman living north of Yorkshire needed reminding of a ferocity of a Scottish incursion.

By the time Edward and his army reached Berwick, Edward Balliol had been conducting his seige with steady progress for two months. Four conduits carrying fresh water to the town had been discovered and smashed. As serious for the defenders was their own failure to adopt Bruce's old scorched earth policy, which the dead king had carried out and and advocated to the end.

Old Berwick
[Old Berwick] Edward Balliol was being assisted in his seige by the capable John Crabb, who had blueprints of the constuction of Berwicks' fortresses and used his knowledge to assist Balliol and Edward III in the seige. One of the most damaging weapons used against the Scots at Berwick was the 'trebuchet'. It was a type of catapult that flung multiple stone balls from canvas and leather slings. It was the shotgun of the catapluts. It had also developed a new use here: the English army used severed heads of the dead soldiers to fling back into the walls of the fortess thus causing disease -- a crude form of bacteriological warfare. It is also possible that an early cannon may have been used, as there is a reference from the English chronicle, "The Brut", which mentions: "Spitouse comyng out of guns." Whether these were actual guns firing projectiles or objects flung as explosive bombs is not known.

The bombardment of Berwick continued for nealy the entire month of June, and on the 27th the English launched an assault on the walls by land and sea which proved quite successful because of the failure of the Scot's attempts at defence.

Faggots (a wad for slow burning) soaked in tar had been stacked on the town walls ready to drop on the English assault ships, but before they could be employed the flames from the burning faggots had blown back into Berwick and set a number of houses alight. A 24-hour truce enabled the Scots to control the fire, but the renewed vigour of the English attack forced them to negotiate a further 15-day truce, guaranteed by giving Edward III twelve hostages.

As the Scots negotiated terms with the English - any hopes of a victory rested with Sir Archibal Douglas (the half-brother of "Good Sir James Douglas" who was killed on Crusade in 1330 taking Bruce's heart to the Holy Land), who was busily, but slowly, assembling a large army. It was unfortunate for Scotland that he had not acted sooner, for his resulting efforts, though brave and heroic, were not essentially threatening enough for Edward III to alter his resolve to maintain the seige -- unless the very letter of the agreement were followed: that Berwik had to be relieved in 15 days or would be surrendered to Edward. Douglas, in fact, crossed the Tweed above Berwick, and burned Tweedmouth, on the southern bank, while Edwards army watched from the northern bank. During the afternoon on the same day, 11 July 1333, the day mentioned in the agreement, two hundred Scottish knights picked their way over the precarious ruins of the Tweed bridge and flung supplies into Berwick, some soldiers even managed to enter the town. The Scots considered Berwick relieved and the agreement fullfilled although the amount of supplies and men that actually made it to Berwick could hardly be considered a relieving force.

The brave force was attacked by the English as they carried out this operation; considered sufficient by Sir Archibald Douglas for him to claim that in the terms of the agreement drawn up, Berwick had been relieved by the agreed date, and that the seige must therefore conclude. To drive home the fact that he had enough force to back his legalistic points, Douglas drew up his army on Sunnyside hill, south of Tweed, and threatened that unless Edward complied with the agreement the army would move off south and devastate England. His half-brother, Sir James "the Black" Douglas, had of course adopted similar and successful postures in the Weardale Campaign of 1327. But Edward III was no longer the boy king of England he had been then, and his circumstances had been much improved this time.

Edward decided that the town had not been relieved in any sense and called Douglas's bluff. It was now Edwards turn to insist.

As the seige had not been broken, the town (according to the terms) must surrender or Edward decided the twelve hostages would die. To show he was in earnest Edward erected high gallows as close to the walls of Berwick as security would allow. Included among the hostages were two young sons of the castellan, whom Edward decided would be amongst the first to die. The first of the hostages, Thomas Seton, was hanged before his parents eyes, the third of their children to die in the war against England. Douglas's army stopped dead in its tracks.

This was not the hesitant young monarch they had humiliated in Weardale, but a ruthless, calculating military leader, prepared to abide conventions of his day and take them to their extremity. He was certainly in the mold of his grandfather, Edward I "Hammer of the Scots." Realising what they were now facing, the Scots returned to the negotiating table.

The resulting agreement was confusing and complicated, but it was put into writing and signed on 15 July 1333, proclaiming a truce of the seige until sunrise on 20 July. The town and castle of Berwick would then be regarded as having been relieved upon some very complex conditions.

The Battle of Halidon Hill

Meanwhile, Douglas feinted attack unsuccessfuly against the English town of Bamburgh, seeking to divert Edward and failing completely. The Scots now prepared to march directly to the aid of the beleagured town of Berwick and seek an encounter.

[Halidon Hill] Douglas shifted position and camped at Duns, some thirteen miles to the west of Berwick. He then moved out on the morning of 19 July, knowing that he must relieve Berwick by the following sunrise according to the agreement. From the summit of Halidon Hill, Edward could follow his every movement as he approached Berwick along the direct route. Only one direction offered any chance of surprise: to swing to the north behind a hill now called Witches Knowle, which was higher than Halidon. This was the route Douglas chose, his chosen force of 200 warriors held in reserve on his left flank.

Leaving only sufficient men to deter a sally by the hungry Scottish defenders, the English withdrew from their trenches to deploy on the south-facing slope of Halidon Hill which rises some 600 feet above sea-level, an ideal defensive site, the summit crowned by trees, a morass at the base. Edward formed his knights and men-at-arms into three divisions, or "battles", drawn up in a line with each battle flanked by a contingent of archers; the right was commanded by Thomas, earl of Norfolk, the king led the centre and Balliol took the left.

Prior to the battle proper, there occurred one of those incidents that are alleged to be a part of chivalry; such as gentlemenly agreements to surrender towns when honour has been satisfied: a single combat between two champions.

The incident which had preceeded Bannockburn with Bruce cleaving the head of the charging English knight, De Bohun, had proved to be a correct augury of foretelling of that battle, as the Scots went on to win Bannockburn in glorious fashion. No doubt the Scots had hoped for the same outcome for the two man clash before the Battle of Halidon Hill.

Battle of Champions

[*] The Scottish champion was a knight of the Borders named Turnbull, according to the chronicler Baker, a giant of a man, and identified in Scottish lore as the first to bear the surname, having saved King Robert Bruce from a charging bull. Whatever Turnbull's previous exploits (and evidence suggests the story is indeed true), we have it from the chronicles that at Halidon, he (Turnbull), was accompanied by a large black mastiff, and opposed by a English knight from Norfolk called Robert Benhale. It was not unusual for Turnbulls to be present at the battles near the Borders, as their lands were a baronial possession of the House of Douglas, but unfortunately for Douglas the result of his champion was to prove only too accurate a prediction of the outcome of the day. The dog was the first to be dispatched by the English knight, cut clean in two by his two-handed sword, and was followed shortly thereafter, after a fierce struggle, by the death of Turnbull too. Accounts vary as to whether he was hacked to death, or run through by Benhale's lance. Either way, the outcome was the same: valuable time and daylight was lost along with the Scottish champion.

The Battle Begins as the Scots Charge

Edward III of England

[clash at Halidon Hill] Douglas, recklessly charging onto the field, had a more numerous army, 1,200 knights and men-at-arms with perhaps 15,500 spearmen formed into four dense schiltrons. (See Falkirk and Bruce essays for descriptions of schiltrons). The separate brigades were commanded first, by John, earl of Moray; the second nominally under the boy kind David II, but in reality commanded by Sir James Stewart; the third by Archibald Douglas with the earl of Carrick; and the last by Hugh, earl of Ross.

To reach the English lines the Scots had to cross the boggy ground between them. Although it has since been drained, the area is still known to be treacherous after rain.

As they struggled through the bog then up the wet slope, an estimated 500 Scottish soldiers fell at once as flights of longbow arrows from the English and Welsh archers swept their ranks "as thick as motes on the sun beam", wrote an English chronicler.

[war of the Scotsl] Attacking, apparently without pause for any tactical considerations, the Scots charged down a gentle slope but lost all momentum, stumbling and thrashing through the quagmire, barely having time to dress ranks and begin lumbering up the slope towards the English, when archers first let fly. The English longbowman, initially trained by, and often Welsh archers, were practised warriors accustomed since childhood to the strain of the longbow. This they had learned from the Welsh but adapted as their own very quickly. Calmly, methodically, volley after volley were loosed into the packed files of the Scots, men dropping by the score, the tussocks soon slippery with blood. After the dreadful toil of the fatal and swampy climb the Scots never really came to grips, their momentum and valour spent. As the schiltrons wavered Edward III gave the order to mount and he English knights swooped like falcons, lance, sword and mace replacing clothyard shaft. The rout continued for five corpse-strewn miles.

The Scottish casualties were appalling. As the men fled down the slope and away from the lost battle, the English mounted knights charged after them and completed the carnage, chasing them for miles around the countryside and killing all they found.

[Halidon Hill] Casualties were estimated (at the time) in differing figures ranging from 20,000 to 40,000, with negligible losses on the English side. These initial numbers are most likely overly high estimates by the English as it is now thought that only 18,000-25,000 Scots were in the actual battle.

[hand-to-hand combat] Douglas had paid for this tactical blunder with his own life, as did the earls of Ross, Sutherland and Carrick, hundreds of knights, men-at-arms and thousands of foot. The younger Douglas may not have carried the Bruce's heart, but he certainly carried his spirit.

At Weardale James Douglas had honoured the advice of his late king, Robert Bruce, and not allowed himself to become engaged with the English forces in confined and boggy conditions. If Archibald had had the resources to pursue such a policy at Halidon, with perhaps the moral courage to abandon the now symbolic Berwick, the eventual outcome might have been a certain shame, but no disaster. Instead, in the absence of the able Douglas or Bruce, the agreement with Edward was seized upon by the defenders of Berwick as their best hope. Douglas had responded as best he could to a situation that must have appeared to his experienced military mind as always hopeless.

Many accounts of the Scottish loss at Halidon Hill put the full blame for the loss on Archibald Douglas, but this is too simplistic. He was simply without the leadership and resources that James Douglas had under Robert Bruce. And, he was facing an adversary, in Edward III, that was a much better tactician and ruthless military leader than was his father Edward II. He was much in the same mold of Edward I.

King Edward III had proven himself a master tactician, combining lance and bow to near perfection and keeping his horse in reserve, to follow and capitalise upon success. Berwick surrendered and the English balladeers finally had reason to be cheerful -- the humiliation of Bannockburn and Weardale had been, at least in their eyes, avenged.

"Scottes out of Berwick and out of Aberdeen
At the Burn of Bannock ye were far too keen.
King Edward has avenged it now,
and fully too I ween."

David II
[David II] Edward Balliol now enjoyed a second spree as puppet-king, no more popular than the first. The Scots, though beaten, were not cowed and young King David was sent to France for safety. The puppet-king, Balliol, danced to the same tune as his father, John, doing homage and ceding his acres on demand to his English allies.

Resistance continued and Edward decided to administer some more of the same medicine three years after Halidon Hill, laying waste as far as Lochindorb in Moray. In 1338, in a spirited act of defiance, Randolph's daughter, the fiery Black Agnes, countess of March, defied English arms for five months from the walls of Dunbar.

In time the English king began to lose interest in Scotland, his attention focusing more upon ambitions in France, where he would lead his armies to further victories in the begining of the One Hundreds Years War.
(c)Robert M.Gunn, MA

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