The Battle of Neville's Cross

The Battle of Neville's Cross


Background: - Crecy & Black Agnes

The State of Scotland, 1334-1338

After Halidon Hill, Edward III of England now occupied Berwick and Edward Balliol formally handed over the town and its castle to the English Crown. Many other southern Scottish lands and holdings also came under English ownership. Edward Balliol was again re-installed as the puppet king of Scotland, and most of Lowland Scotland was at the mercy of Edward III who took the title, Lord Paramount of Scotland. The Bruce's son and legitimate heir was now in danger, as was the Bruce dynasty, so he was sent off to France with his wife where they stayed as guests of the Phillip VI for seven years.

During David's exile, and vast areas of Scotland were devastated during a power conflict, turned skirmish, between the Bruce faction and the Balliol faction. Scotland had a string of Guardians; the most notable was Sir Andrew Murray (a relative of Wallace's co-general, Andrew de Moray) who led the Bruce faction, in skirmishes and small battles to eventually take back Scotland from the Balliol faction.

The major conflict of these skirmishes took place in 30 November 1335, at the Battle of Culbean, in the northeast near Ballatar on Deeside. It was fought to determine the fate of Kildrummy Castle. Kildrummy, was once a Comyn stronghold (supporters of Balliol and enemies of Bruce). Now David loyalists held the castle. Balliol appointed one of the "Disinherited", David of Strathbogie as king's commander in the northeast. Strathbogie came north with a strong force equipped with siege engines (supplied by the English) and laid siege to Kildrummy. The castle was on the point of surrender when Sir Andrew Murray, the Guardian, led a guerrilla attack against the Balliol forces in a surprise dawn attack. Apparently not everyone forgot Bruce's tactics. Shortly after this success for the Bruce faction under Murray, the Anglo-Balliol faction found it increasingly difficult to hold on to Scotland, even with the yearly support from Edward III of England, leading campaigns personally.

Black Agnes of Dunbar
(Note: If you wish to bypass Black Agnes and get right to Neville's Cross, go down 5 paragraphs, or click here - Battle of Neville's Cross.

It is worth relating the story of one very brave and heroic woman named "Black Agnes of Dunbar" at this point. During the time when the English soldiers were busy attacking many Scottish lands, castles and towns, this one woman held on for dear life against the powerful English attacks.

Agnes, it is told, was a woman of dark complexion (thus, Agnes the Black) with a defiant and flamboyant temperament. She well should have been expected to be courageous and brave, she was the daughter of one of Robert Bruce's generals, Thomas Randolph (and Bruce's nephew), who fought with Bruce in most of his campaigns and at Bannockburn.

[castle seige] She was actually a countess, the Countess of Dunbar, but the English came to know Black Agnes in a different light - one of dark power. She, they reasoned, had to be a witch. During several months in 1338, an English force tried to bring down Dunbar Castle. They faltered and failed after several attempts and each time they failed, Agnes would come to the top of the walls and taunt the soldiers and order a defense of the fortress. Though nothing but a few wall fragments and ruins remain today, at the time Castle Dunbar was a formidable stronghold. IN Ange's time, it had been recently been fortified. Without the aid of advanced siege weapons and 'guns' or cannons, it was nearly impregnable. The English leader, Earl of Salisbury, having failed to breach the sent for help to England, the Tower of London in fact, for several siege weapons of an advanced design. They were known as Mangonels - large catapult machines that could hurl large boulders. These siege machines were very expensive to build, and to get them into Dunbar they had to be brought by sea through Berwick-upon-Tweed. Each day the English assaulted the castle hurling huge stones into the walls of Dunbar, with little effect. After each attack, Agnes of Dunbar (who conducted the defenses herself) would come up to the battlements with her ladies-in-waiting, and use their handkerchiefs to wipe away smudges and marks left by the Mangonels. This infuriated the English. Agne's actions holding off the siege machines with her antagonistic and dramatic actions of defiance, made them believe she had to be a witch. She got quite a reputation as the Scots cheered her on and the English cursed her name. Salisbury then brought in a large battering ram called a "Sow" to crush open her gates. But when they put the Sow into position Agnes and her defenders dropped large chunks of stone and masonry from the parapets directly on the Sow - crushing it completely.

The English under Salisbury decided on a different tactic. They intended a siege of attrition. They intended to starve the people out, ladies and all. When word got around to one man, Alexander Ramsay, a minor guerilla leader serving the Bruce faction, he procured several innocent looking fishing vessels from the Forth River. He filled them to the brim (although disguised) with food and drink, and sailed innocently past an English naval blockade disguised as simple fisherman. Somehow he managed to slip past the English, went ashore by cover of a wooded area near a large Rock, and sailed around to the rear of the castle, which had a secret seaward door. Agnes and her valiant defenders were saved. Four months later, now late spring, Salisbury quit the siege saying it was pointless to fight witchcraft when in fact, he was forced to quit because the expensive siege had already cost the English more money than they felt the castle was worth.

Sir Walter Scott wrote this of Black Agnes of Dunbar years later:

The Countess, who from her complexion was termed Black Agnes, by which name she is still familiarly remembered, was a high-spirited and courageous woman, the daughter of that Thomas Randolph, Earl of Murray, whom I have so often mentioned, and the heiress of his valour and patriotism."

Thanks to the Bruce faction led by Andrew Murray, Scotland was nearly retaken from the English, and the cost of men and expenses were wearing on the patience of Edward III. His attention had also been diverted away from Scotland to France. Edward III believed he had a claim to the French throne through his mother, Isabella of France (also known as the She-Wolf of France whom you might remember was the princess in the movie, "Braveheart" who had the (fake) affair with William Wallace. In truth she was only 9 at the time, but her person was quite real, and Edward III was her son.) Isabella was the daughter of King Phillip IV "The Fair", of France. In the late summer of 1338, the same year as Agnes’s valiant defense of Dunbar Castle, Edward III set sail for France with a fleet of over 100 ships and began many assaults. Scotland was finally safe. Or so it appeared.

The heroic Sir Andrew Murray, Guardian of Scotland, died also in the year 1338, and the role of the Guardian passed to Robert Stewart (the Steward). He was the son of Robert Bruce's daughter Marjory, and eight years older than his uncle, King David II. Thus he was the heir to David's throne. In 1341 David II returned to Scotland in what everyone believed to be a safe and stable Scotland with Edward III busy in France. During those years that Robert Stewart ran Scotland before the king’s return, he'd become the most powerful man in Scotland, that is, next to the king.

With David's return, the Bruce faction had all but expelled the Balliol threat. David attempted to repair his battered country. He strengthened the power of the Crown's administration, which wasn't good news for the independent Highlanders, restored Scotland's financial revenues and even made some destructive raids into north England. One of them was probably his biggest mistake.

The Battle Stage is Set

Once Edward III took his war machine out of Scotland he focused on France, part of which he viewed as English possession. Thirteen years after Halidon Hill, the French called on Scotland to aid them by attacking England, to draw the English back home, and away from France. Is was a terrible request of the French make of the Scots, and was a worse decision by David II to agree to aid King Philip VI of France. Scotland could ill afford another costly battle against the English and their longbows, but the Auld Alliance compelled David to accept and so he crossed the border into Northumberland burning Hexham and Lanercost. Edward had capable nobles in Neville and Percy in the North of England, and on 17th October, they met in battle.

What led to the Battle

This conflict had its origins in the Hundred Years War between England and France, which lasted from 1337 to 1453. On 26 August 1346, an English army commanded jointly by King Edward III and his son, Edward the Black Prince, heavily defeated the French army at the Battle of Crécy, primarily due to their English and Welsh longbowmen. It has been written that, at the end of this battle:

"The flower of the French aristocracy lay dead upon the field." And that was no exaggeration.

[crecy] Crecy, which is pictured above right, was a battle in which a much smaller English army of about 10,000 men, commanded by Edward III of England and heavily outnumbered by Philip VI of France's force of between 35,000, was victorious as a result of superior weaponry and tactics, demonstrating the importance of the modern military concept of firepower. The effectiveness of the Welsh longbow, used en masse, was proven against armored knights, contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day, which held that archers would be ineffective and be slaughtered when the armored units closed on them. It was a devastating loss for the French who relied on heavy armored knights on horseback, and crossbows (which didn't have the distance or the firing speed of the longbow). After the Battle of Crecy, Edward III went on to besiege the city of Calais, which surrendered to him after eleven months, giving the English a base in northern France. The next major battle in the Hundred Years War, the battle of Poitiers in 1356, would see another defeat for the French, under very similar conditions.

In desperation, King Philip VI of France appealed to his friend and ally King David II of Scotland to create a diversion by launching an attack on Northern England. In response to this plea, and perhaps in the hope of gaining a reputation equal to that of his father, Robert the Bruce - King David personally led a Scots army of 10,000 men southwards. His immediate intention was to capture the mighty fortress stronghold of Durham. In reply, a similar sized English army of some 8,000 men under the overall command of the Archbishop of York hurriedly moved northwards from Yorkshire to reinforce Durham and to confront the Scots army with the Percy's of Northumberland in attendance.

It what can only be said to be perceived divine intervention on both sides, David had a vision of failure and the Bishop of Durham of the English had what he claimed was a visitation of his saint. It is said that, as David approached Durham, he had a dream in which he was warned not to invade St. Cuthbert's holy territory. Ignoring this warning, (or later making a divine excuse for losing) David continued his advance. The night before the battle St Cuthbert is said to have appeared to Prior Fossor of Durham (though there were no witnesses). According to Durham, the saint instructed the prior to take the corporax cloth which had been found in his coffin in 1104, attach it to a spear and carry it as a banner to the battlefield. Early the following day, the Prior, in obedience to the saint’s wishes and accompanied by a number of his monks, took this sacred relic to a site within a few hundred yards of the two opposing armies. There, he and the monks knelt and prayed while the battle raged around them. Both sides seemed to be playing up the issue of the moral high ground and in a time when saintly visions were never questioned, all the chroniclers on the English side claimed God had commanded them to win.


The Battle of Neville’s Cross

On the morning of 17 October 1346, the Scots army was arrayed in three divisions on a high but narrow ridge just to the west of the City. Tantalisingly close to the east of them, they could see the great prize - Durham’s Cathedral and Castle. However, to the south they could also see the English army drawn up in four divisions, three to the front and one held back in reserve. David has superiority in numbers, so he was confident of victory, and he ordered his soldiers to advance toward the English lines. Shortly after the march toward battle, the western flank of the Scots division under Sir William Douglas, discovered that if they attacked the English division in front of them, it necessitated descending into a steep-sided valley and then clambering up the other side. This first misfortune was soon greatly magnified by a second. The English division led by Sir Thomas Rokeby that overlooked the struggling Scots soldiers on the west flank happened to contain a strong force of English/Welsh archers. At this time, the English longbow, with its great range and the power to pierce armor, was one of the most terrifying weapons to be found on any medieval battlefield. Almost at once, this division - a third of the Scots army - started to break up, as wave upon wave of deadly arrows crashed down from above. Soon, Douglas's division began a headlong retreat in a state of confusion.

[combat1]On the east flank, by contrast, the Scots division under Lord Robert Stewart, the heir to the Scots throne, was having considerable success. It managed to roll back the division of the English army led by Lords' Neville and Percy that stood in its way. However, in doing so, it exposed its own flank to the English reserve. Stewart's withdraw exposed the center division, led by King David II when Edward Balliol (yes, he was still around and fighting against the Scots once again - see Dupplin Moor) entered the fray against the Stewart division sending the backwards. Finding itself now under attack on two sides, this Scots flank divisions too began to fall back. As the Scots divisions on either flank retreated, the central division commanded by King David II himself was left exposed to attack on three sides. It was thus in an increasingly desperate position. In due course, David himself was wounded and his standard bearer killed. At this point, the central division of the Scots army broke and ran out of confusion.

The Aftermath

King David himself managed to escape. However, legend has it that, while hiding under a bridge over the nearby River Browney, David’s reflection was spotted in the water by a detachment of English soldiers which was out searching for him. David was then captured by John Copeland - the leader of the detachment. Later, King Edward III ordered Copeland to bring the Scots king to Calais and hand him over. For this service, Edward rewarded Copeland with a knighthood and a handsome annuity. King David II was brought back to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. After eleven years in the Tower, he was released in return for a ransom of 100,000 marks, possiblly worth tens of milions in todays currency.

David was now a prisoner of his cousin, Edward III, in the tower of London where he would remain for eleven years.

The Battle of Neville’s Cross derives its name from a stone cross that Lord Neville paid to have erected on the battlefield to commemorate this remarkable victory. The fate of the unfortunate King David II of Scotland is immortalised in Shakespeare’s play King Henry V. In Act 1 Scene 3, Henry says to the Archbishop of Canterbury:

"For you shall read that my great-grandfather
Never went with his forces into France
But that the Scot on his unfurnish’d kingdom
Came pouring, like the tide into a breach,
With ample and brim fullness of his force;
Galling the gleaned land with hot essays,
Girding with grievous siege castles and towns;
That England, being empty of defence,
Hath shook and trembled at the ill neighbourhood."

But the Archbishop replies:

"She hath been then more fear’d than harm’d my liege;
For hear her but exampled by herself:
When all her chivalry hath been in France,
And she a mourning widow of her nobles,
She hath herself not only well defended,
But taken, and impounded as a stray,
The king of Scots; whom she did send to France,
To fill King Edward’s fame with prisoner kings…"


Some years after the dissolution of the Monastery at Durham, St Cuthbert's corporax cloth which Prior Fosser had made into a banner, was destroyed. According to The Rites of Durham, the banner:

"...fell into the possession of one Dean Whittingham whose wife, called Katherine, being a French woman (as is most credibly reported by eye-witnesses), did most injuriously burn the same in her fire, to the open contempt and disgrace of all ancient and goodly relics."

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(c)Robert M.Gunn, MA


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