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Issue 88 - Edward's Defeat

Scotland Magazine Issue 88
August 2016

 

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Edward's Defeat

James Irvine Robertson recounts the failed 1314 campaign of Edward II

After his humiliation at Bannockburn in 1314, Edward II refused to make peace and recognise Scotland's independence, but continued to send English armies north. Bruce would counter with raids into northern England, stripping towns and villages of their wealth for use in rebuilding his nation after the ravages of war and hoping to force Edward into a peace.

In 1322, Edward was on a high. Sir Andrew Harclay defeated a revolt by rebellious barons in March of that year, who were trying to curb royal power and corruption. Financed by the clergy, the king decided to celebrate with a major invasion of Scotland. Against Sir Andrew's advice, he gathered an army of 60,000 and rolled north accompanied by his queen, crossing the border on 10 August. King Robert employed his usual tactics. Ahead of the English host he destroyed crops, removed livestock, polluted wells and dammed streams to create marshes.

Sir James ‘The Black’ Douglas took a force of 2,000 Highlanders to shadow the invaders, harrying stragglers and those who went further afield in an attempt to find provisions. Bruce himself led 8,000 men to ransack northern England, avoiding Carlisle where Harclay was in charge of defending Cumberland and Westmoreland, in the hope of forcing the enemy to return to protect their own lands.

Edward reached Edinburgh on 20 August; three quarters of its inhabitants had fled before him. He settled with Queen Isabella at Holyrood, but his army soon began to starve as Douglas’ men swiftly cut down their foragers. Edward organised provision ships to sail into Leith, but the galleys of the Lord of the Isles, Angus Og, captured them and redirected the stores further up the River Forth for use by the Scots. The weather was dire, disease spread in the English army and morale collapsed.

The English king burnt Holyrood abbey on 2 September. His men slaughtered the remaining citizens of Edinburgh before the sorry expedition straggled south with Douglas and Sir Thomas Randolph hounding it all the way. Only about half of the men survived to cross the border into England. On their way they burnt Dryburgh and Melrose Abbeys, where they crucified the abbot and killed the three invalids he had stayed behind to protect. The English, now probably down to 20,000 troops, came to a halt in Yorkshire more than 100 miles south of the Tweed. There they obtained rations and 25,000 more men.

In the meantime, Bruce had marched across the Pennines and linked with Douglas' force at Northallerton. There he heard that Edward was staying only 20 miles away at Rievaulx Abbey. Between them stood the Earl of Richmond and a substantial army. If the Scots could capture Edward, the war might be forced to a close. On 14 October Bruce attacked the English positions. They were on top of a long precipitous ridge crowned by an ancient hill fort. The English were able to do damage to the approaching army by rolling boulders down from the escarpment – they must have thought they were unassailable.

The Scots found a steep gully that led up to the top of the ridge. Bruce sent up a schiltron. The English plunged down the slope to meet it and impaled themselves on the bristling spears of the Scots. The English commander, the Earl of Richmond, sent down another wave of men. They had a problem. The edges of the gully were wooded, rock- strewn and neither archers nor horsemen could manoeuvre amongst them, so they were forced to fight on the narrow front directly facing the Scots. Bruce had dispatched his Highlanders to scramble up the flanks of the scar while he, with his cavalry, made a circle to strike from the rear. The Highlanders attacked, creating confusion amongst the English who had been concentrating on the advancing schiltron. Bruce dispatched a column under Sir Walter Stewart towards Rievaulx in search of King Edward while his own horsemen swept through the undefended English camp before confronting the main part of the English army still tangled up with the schiltron.

The English were routed, suffering heavy casualties. Richmond was captured and it took him three years and 50,000 silver merks to regain his liberty. Edward managed to escape, bundled away by his guard when the alarm was raised at Sir Walter's approach. He fled south, finding a ship to London 60 miles down the road but losing his charger and shield en route. He left behind the Great Seal of England; his treasure, amounting to 260,000 merks; and his queen. She managed to evade the Scots disguised as a nun.

The North of England was in Bruce's power. One of his first actions was to assemble the clergy – abbots, bishops, archdeacons and priors. Since they had given the money to Edward to prosecute the campaign, they could now pay for the damage that had been caused. He would not kill any of them as Edward's men had killed Abbot William Peebles of Melrose, but he stripped them of their silks and velvets, rings and gold crosses and sent them on their way in simple monks' habits. He took tributes from towns and villages. If they refused to pay, they were destroyed. He came away with an estimated 18 million silver merks, perhaps 20 per cent of the wealth of England at the time, with which he rebuilt Melrose and Jedburgh, and reinvigorated the Scottish economy.

Sir Andrew Harclay alone had successfully preserved his own part of the country from the depredations of the Scots by agreeing a policy of non-belligerence with Bruce. He began to explore the possibility of a peace treaty. This was not to Edward's liking and Harclay was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason. His head was brought before the king for his inspection. Three months later Edward signed a 13-year truce with King Robert.