Battle of Durham (or Neville's Cross): English Defeat Scots During Hundred Years' War

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Battle of Durham (or Neville's Cross): English Defeat Scots During Hundred Years' War

Fanciful depiction of the Battle of Neville's Cross, artist unknown
Image from a 15th century manuscript of Jean Froissart's Chroniques
Currently located in National Library of France, Paris
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: October 17, 1346

I did not purposely schedule two consecutive postings devoted to battles involving the English and the Scots. There were just so darned many of them. Today's conflict of the day was a kind of sideshow to the main event, the Hundred Years' War being fought between the English and the French.


In 1339, England and France started a conflict to decide if then-King of England Edward III had a legitimate claim to the throne of France. Edward's mother, Queen of England Isabella, was the youngest child of French King Philip IV (reigned 1285-1314).

The first major land battle of the Hundred Years' War occurred in northeastern France at Crécy, on August 26, 1346. [Readers interested in that fight should consult my BurnPit post from August, 2015: Battle of Crécy: English Force Massacres French Chivalry; "Let the Boy Win His Spurs"] Based on a treaty signed with Scotland in 1295, three months prior to Crécy French King Philip VI appealed to the Scottish monarch, the 23-year-old David II, to open a second front against their mutual enemy by invading northern England.

King David took advantage of the English involvement on the European continent, and began preparations to invade his southern neighbor. Hoping that the majority of England's army was involved in the French war, the Scots gathered an army to at the very least raid northern England, and perhaps even capture a few cities. At the very least, a substantial threat from Scotland might cause the withdrawal of some English troops from France to reinforce the border.

Border area of Scotland-England, c. 1300 [Large blue area is main holding of Bishop of Durham]; Image courtesy of
Border area of Scotland-England, c. 1300
[Large blue area is main holding of Bishop of Durham]
Image courtesy of

During the course of the summer of 1346, King David sent out word to his nobles, asking them to gather their forces for an attack into northern England, to honor the provisions of the French alliance. By early October, a considerable force of Scots had been gathered, conservatively estimated by modern scholars at 12,000 men (other chronicles say 15,000, 30,000, or 50,000).

On October 3, word filtered down to the major cities of northern England – especially Durham and York – that a large Scottish army had crossed the border and was despoiling the counties of Cumberland and Northumberland. Because of an early spring and a warm summer, the recent harvest for the area was bountiful. Therefore, the marauding Scots were achieved very successful plundering. The Scots also ransacked the Lanercost and Hexham priories, which drew a remarkable reaction from English men of the cloth.

English Army

Consequently, word went out from William de Zouche, the Archbishop of York (acting in place of the Archbishop of Durham, who was in France with the King) for a mobilization of the northern counties of England to meet the Scottish threat. He was ably assisted by the Sheriffs of York and Northumberland, the northern bishops and nobles, especially Ralph Neville, 2nd Baron Neville de Raby, and Henry de Percy, 2nd Baron Percy. Between them, they mustered an army from all the shires north of the River 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 defense. [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 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.]

English longbowmen re-enactors; Image courtesy of
English longbowmen re-enactors
Image courtesy of

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, about 12 miles southwest of Durham city. To retain secrecy this assembled army advanced towards Durham early in the morning of October 17, approaching 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 already in Durham or its immediate environs, awaiting either an onslaught from King David or reinforcements from the south. The English force is estimated to be about 6,000-7000 men, perhaps as many as 12,000 to 15,000.

Scottish Army

The Scottish invasion force consisted primarily of pikemen, with some contingents of swordsmen, axemen, a few archers, and heavy cavalry and men-at-arms. [Being a relatively poor country, compared to the other nations of Europe, armored horsemen usually comprised a smaller percentage of Scottish armies in the field.] Despite receiving an infusion of French money to carry out the cross-border attack, only so many fighting men could be raised in time for the attack. Also, until modern times – perhaps 1800 and later – it was very unusual for the campaigning season to be extended past mid- to late-August. As primarily agrarian societies, Scotland and England both needed the menfolk at home in autumn to bring in the crops. As stated above, the Scottish invasion has been estimated to contain about 12,000 men, with the outside possibility of 15,000-20,000.

Prelude to the Battle

On October 16, King David II and his army were camped at Beaurepaire (Bearpark), a large park attached to the manor house of the prior of Durham Monastery. For the next several hours, King David considered whether to attack the city of Durham itself. However, as one of the major cities of northern England, the city had strong defenses that had resisted three attempts to storm the town in the previous four years. Without any siege equipment, the Scots decided instead to continue raiding the environs of the city, then probably head for home.

On the morning of October 17, Sir William Douglas, a close friend of King David and one of the leaders of the invasion, was making his way with a considerable number of mounted men (perhaps 1000) in a manoeuvre to circumvent Durham to the south. However, Douglas's contingent ran into the lead elements of the English army on the march to the relief of Durham. A short, violent fight occurred, with the Scots sustaining 300-600 men killed or captured.

Douglas and a number of his men rode back to the Scottish encampment at Bearpark to inform his monarch of the approaching English army. King David convened a war council to make preparations. Sir Douglas made the recommendation that the Scots withdraw and avoid a battle with the English. King David reject that advice disdainfully. Under the circumstances the Scots dare not attack the city for fear of retaliation from a force 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 made the decision to attack the enemy.

Battle of Durham (or Neville's Cross)

Initial positions of Scots (blue) and English (red), October 17, 1346; Image courtesy of
Initial positions of Scots (blue) and English (red), October 17, 1346
Image courtesy of

Located about a mile west of Durham is a ridge called the Red Hills (probably from the reddish soil, or possibly a corruption of "Reedy Hills" which grew on its western side in profusion). The terrain consisted of a steep hillside with quarry workings on the west, and to the east a series of terraces, ditches and hedges where the hillside had been terraced for farming. The west side also boasted a steep ravine carved out by the River Browney.

The Scots faced south, 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 center 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 "Lion Rampant," a red lion on cloth of gold. The left, and largest division, was led by Robert Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland and Patrick, Earl of March.

Lion Rampant, the unofficial 2nd national flag of Scotland; Image courtesy of
"Lion Rampant," the unofficial 2nd national flag of Scotland
Image courtesy of

The English occupied a point on the ridge where a flat plateau afforded them the ability to deploy their frontline in an uninterrupted line. Their left (west) flank was protected by the steep ravine down to the River Browney and on the right by a steep drop. Their position was also strengthened by the ground to the north, from where any attack must come, which gently sloped upwards towards the English frontline. This gradient was significantly more pronounced on the western side of the lines.

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 William de Zouche, Archbishop of York. The center 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 fourth division – a body consisting mainly of cavalry with some spearmen – was led by Edward Baliol, formed a reserve held west of Neville's Cross. [Balliol was a Scottish noble that, with English backing, had ruled Scotland three times between 1332 and 1336.] The English formation was in a east-west line from the upper edge of the quarry to the top of the steep slope above the city.

According to eyewitnesses – English clerics watching from the tower of Durham's cathedral – both armies began deploying around 9:00 am, then spent the rest of the morning developing their tactical plans. One chronicle states that at 12:00 noon, a single horn sounded from the Scottish side, signaling the charge.

Initial attack of Scottish right wing, English bowmen launch arrow storm; Image courtesy of
Initial attack of Scottish right wing, English bowmen launch arrow storm
Image courtesy of

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 River 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.

Because of the terrain the Scottish bowmen had few targets to aim at and were forced to the rear. The cavalry, 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 slog uphill, hampered by the ditches and hedges, caused a stationary line to form at the bottom of the hill.

Hundreds of English bowstrings thrummed, arrows whistled in flight. 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, through hedges and the dead and dying to reach the English lines, they were in no condition to face the English. Despite this, the Scots continued the fight. Soldiers with spears and bill-hooks now re-placed the archers who had retired, their grisly work in this part of the battle completed. Though sustaining severe casualties, the Scottish right wing continued to apply pressure to the English left throughout the battle. During this attack the Earl of Moray was killed and William Douglas captured.

Attack of Scottish left wing and center, English right and center pushed back; Image courtesy of
Attack of Scottish left wing and center, English right and center pushed back
Image courtesy of

The Scottish left wing under Robert Stewart, the High Steward of Scotland with Patrick, Earl of March, the largest division in the Scottish army, was more confident of success. They faced 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.

King David, leading the Scottish center 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 center 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.

Attack of English reserves, and retreat of Scottish left wing; Image courtesy of
Attack of English reserves, and retreat of Scottish left wing
Image courtesy of

At this same instant the reserve force under Edward Balliol, 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 center 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.

Retreat of the Scottish left wing, remaining English reserves deployed; Image courtesy of
Retreat of the Scottish left wing, remaining English reserves deployed
Image courtesy of

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 being captured, the battle now dissolved into skirmishes and covered some distance west and north of Red Hills.

Scottish center surrounded on three sides; Image courtesy of
Scottish center surrounded on three sides
Image courtesy of

King David fought with the courage of despair, alongside a gallant group of nobles who fought a bitter defensive action until only eighty of them survived. The King of Scotland fled from the battlefield, thus ended the Battle of Neville's Cross. According to the clerical eyewitnesses, the conflict ended at about 3:00 pm.


It is said that between 1000-3000 Scots lost their lives in the battle, with a large part of the survivors captured. At least 11 Scottish nobles were killed during the battle. There is no figure given for the English dead, merely a statement that a number of knights and esquires were killed in the battle.

Footnote #1: King David II was captured in the aftermath of the battle. He was held for ransom by the English for the next 11 years. Finally, in October of 1357, a ransom of 100,000 marks (equivalent to £15 million in 2006 money) was agreed to.

Footnote #2: This fight was originally called the Battle of Red Hills or the Battle of Durham. The change of name to the Battle of Neville's Cross must have taken place sometime after the erection of the new cross to commemorate the battle. There had 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 a 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.

Remains of Neville's Cross, located in west suburbs of modern-day Durham, UK; Image courtesy of
Remains of Neville's Cross, located in west suburbs of modern-day Durham, UK
Image courtesy of

At some time after the battle, Lord Ralph Neville paid for the building of a newer cross to replace the original, and probably to commemorate his participation in the battle. Whether the original cross was named "Neville's Cross" is not recorded but it seems likely that it was. This newer cross stood until 1589, when the crosspiece was destroyed and the remainder defaced. Today, an iron railings block the public from immediate access to Neville's Cross.

Footnote #3: The "Auld Alliance" between Scotland and France lasted until 1560, when it was formally revoked by the Treaty of Edinburgh. However, there is some confusion about whether this treaty was officially ratified. As a consequence, in 2011, British historian Dr. Siobhan Talbott published the results of her research on this matter and concluded accordingly that the Auld Alliance has never been revoked.

Footnote #4: As with most battles which occurred in this particular time period, I must again admit a debt of informational gratitude to the 1996 book, "Infantry Warfare in the Early Fourteenth Century: Discipline, Tactics and Technology" by Kelly DeVries.

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