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Issue 57 - Coming of Age

Scotland Magazine Issue 57
June 2011

 

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Coming of Age

James Irvine Robertson looks at the turning points in Scottish and English relationships

Scotland’s geography made it a brute of a country to conquer. The Romans with what was probably the most effective army Europe has ever seen tried and failed. And so did the English with a population and wealth at least ten times that of their northern neighbour.
It was not just the terrain that proved such a problem for aggressors; the people could be just as difficult to deal with and for many centuries their quality as soldiers was recognised by the continental powers who vied with each other to employ regiments of Scots in their armies. And the Scots added cunning to courage.
In 1327, for example, a skirmish at Stanhope Park in northern England resulted in no more than 300 casualties. Since it was the only action it gave its name to a campaign by an English army of 50,000 which confronted 20,000 Scots. King Robert Bruce knew he had not long to live and wished to conclude a peace with England. But politics south of the border were in ferment. Edward II, the loser at the battle of Bannockburn, had been deposed and would be later assassinated. Tradition holds that he had a red-hot poker thrust up his bottom, one of the few facts from history known to every English schoolboy. The new king was the teenage Edward III but he was under the influence of his mother and her lover Mortimer. In theory negotiations were under way for a peace treaty between the two nations but the English were still raiding Scots shipping and neither side trusted the other. Bruce decided on a large-scale raid into northern England unless a peace was concluded. It was not. On the day of the young king’s coronation, Bruce launched an invasion.
On 15th June under Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, and Douglas of Liddlesdale, the Scots entered England and began to harry the north. Led by Edward, anxious to win his spurs, an English host gathered at York. It included many mercenary knights, subjects of Edward’s future father-in-law William of Hainault in the Netherlands. On 10th July, the army marched north; along with the wagons, cattle and women needed to supply such numbers. But they could not find the Scots. They arrived in Durham and after four days spotted columns of smoke on the horizon, the result of their enemy’s raiding. So they lined up in battle array and went to meet the enemy. But they weren’t there. Two days later, after toiling through bogs, woods, moors and villages ravaged by the Scots, they abandoned most of their baggage.
The following day at a council of war, the English resolved to march to the river Tyne to intercept the Scots on what was obviously their retreat home. The army set off at midnight and hurried north. The Tyne was in flood so they found it difficult to cross, but of course so would the Scots. But they managed it and continued through a desolate landscape with dwindling supplies, low morale and great frustration. The king promised a knighthood and a life pension of £100 for any man who could find the enemy.
Glory seekers disappeared into the wilderness. A squire, Thomas Rokeby, turned up a few days later. The Scots army was camped nine miles away and had been waiting for days for the English to turn up to give battle. He had been captured but released to pass word back that they were ready for a decisive encounter. On 1st August, Edward’s force rolled into place. Their enemy was in an unassailable position on a hill. The king drew back his forces to allow the Scots space to deploy their army and sent heralds to invite them to fight. Douglas said ‘No, thank you. We intend to remain here as long as it suits our convenience.’ His army sat on their hill watching the English, who were now seriously short of provisions, scurrying around beneath them.
A couple of days later, 4th August, the English awoke to find the Scots were gone. They packed all their gear and followed only to find their enemy had settled on a still more impregnable hill and they watched contentedly as the opposing army laboriously set up camp on the opposite bank of the river Weare. The first night here Douglas led a couple of hundred horsemen across the river and, pretending to be a commander inspecting the sentinels, made his way through the English army to the king’s tent. There he shouted his war cry ‘A Douglas! A Douglas!’ and his followers rushed into the heart of the enemy encampment. The king’s chaplain was killed, the tent ropes were cut but in the mayhem Edward escaped. Douglas and his men, virtually unscathed, retreated leaving about 300 dead behind them.
A captured Scot revealed that a full-scale assault was planned for the following night and the English drew themselves up in readiness for their victory. But on the morning of the 7th August the entire Scots army had gone, retiring across an impassable bog, laying branches to create a road and picking them up behind to prevent the enemy from following. It is said that King Edward wept with frustration and humiliation.
It took another 10 days for the English army to trundle its way back to York. There the king dismissed his barons. They had to buy fresh horses since their own had died during the three-week campaign. The affair had cost the enormous sum of £70,000. The English war chest was exhausted; their mercenaries could not be paid. To add insult to injury, the Scots promptly came back across the border under King Robert Bruce and captured the castle of Norham.
Negotiations were opened which lead to the Treaty of Northampton the following year in which England recognised the independence of Scotland. But for Edward this was a shameful peace, a turpus pax. He grew up to be as formidable a monarch as his grandfather Edward I and, during his reign, launched the Hundred Years War against France. But England had accepted the fact Scotland was a nation in its own right and this could not change.