Battle of Northallerton; Outnumbered English Forces Defeat Scottish Invaders

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Battle of Northallerton; Outnumbered English Forces Defeat Scottish Invaders

"Battle of the Standard, Northallerton" by Sir John Gilbert (1879-80)
Engraving of watercolor; courtesy of University of Toronto (Canada) & Internet Archive
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: August 22, 1138

This week's spotlight conflict features a battle most famous for its name. It was the climax of a major Scottish invasion of northern England; it took place during one of the periodic baronial rebellions of that century. The battle itself was of short duration, but it was action-packed, nonetheless.


When King Henry I of England died in December of 1135, it precipitated a succession crisis. His only legitimate son had drowned in 1120, but eventually Henry prevailed on his barons to support his daughter Matilda (also known as Maud) as his rightful heir. Matilda was married to the Holy Roman (German) Emperor Henry V, until his death in 1125. Despite oaths given to support Matilda, many members of the English nobility opposed the concept of a woman ruling their nation. Within three weeks of Henry's death his nephew Stephen of Blois crossed the English Channel with his household troops and seized the throne of England.

This act triggered a number of revolts across southern England, as some barons declared their support for Empress Matilda, while others simply took advantage of the chaos related to the bungled succession. In addition, King David I of Scotland threw his support to Matilda. Then, he backed up his political aid with his nation's military might: in 1136 he invaded northern England, taking much of Northumbria and Cumberland. [The border between Scotland and England was not very well defined.] Stephen formed an army and rapidly marched north to confront the Scots. No battle occurred, but a treaty was promulgated which was to David's advantage.

King David I of Scotland (reigned 1124-1153); Detail of an illuminated initial on the Kelso Abbey charter of 1159; Currently in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh
King David I of Scotland (reigned 1124-1153)
Detail of an illuminated initial on the Kelso Abbey charter of 1159
Currently in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

King David kept up the pressure on England, making more attacks on northern England over the next two years. In fact, the Scottish monarch made three separate raids or invasions into English territory in 1138 alone. In late July, a third Scottish attack turned into a large-scale invasion, including more than 25,000 troops from most of the regions of David's realm.

In answer to the Scottish cross-border attack, Archbishop Thurstan of York called together the various English magnates of Yorkshire to organize a response. [At 70 years old, Thurstan exerted more energy on behalf of his king than many of the dukes and barons. The churchman also had another interesting title bestowed upon him: "Lieutenant of the North."] The various Anglo-Norman nobles agreed to call out their personal retinues, and organize themselves in York.

In addition to the noble retinues, the towns of York, Beverly, and Ripon organized their civil militias to meet the Scots' invasion. Further, a contingent of reinforcements arrived from nearby Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Finally, the Yorkshiremen were joined by an embassy of Anglo-Scots nobles, seeking to negotiate peace with King David. They were escorted by a small group of mounted knights (perhaps mercenaries), and these men represented the only military support sent by King Stephen (who was busy in southern England with another baronial revolt). Altogether, the English force totaled about 10,000 men. This force marched to the small market town of Thirsk in northern Yorkshire, hoping for a peaceful resolution, but prepared to oppose the Scots if they advanced further into England.

Because of his age, Archbishop Thurstan was unable to accompany the Anglo-Norman army which he helped to form. His representative at the battle was Radulf Novell, Bishop of Orkney. It is believed that the on-the-ground commander of the Anglo-Norman force was William Le Gros, Count of Aumale (sometimes referred to as William d'Aumale). Perhaps Walter Espec, the Sheriff of York, also played a significant role in the battle.

English Army

The English army at this battle was outnumbered by the Scots, but they did not lack for courage. They apparently deployed in a single body – no right or left wing or center. It is likely that the nobles' retinues – probably the most experienced and well equipped portions of this army – were deployed in the center. The reinforcements from Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire were probably similarly trained and equipped. Most of the knights and their men-at-arms deployed in the front ranks, dismounted. There was a small reserve of mounted knights and their retainers, guarding the horses. Some of the better-armored knights lined up in front of the town militias, to give them some backbone, and to absorb the first Scottish attacks.

The town militias were probably what the old Anglo-Saxon system would have called fyrd. They were likely men who trained once a month (or so) with shield, spear, and axe; there were probably even some farmers, their sons, and servants, wielding mainly farming equipment – scythes, pitchforks, axes, and similar implements. These less-well-trained fighting men probably lined up to either side of the knights, men-at-arms, and their retinues. There was also a large number of bowmen present in the Anglo-Norman ranks, likely placed just in front of the forward ranks. Some may have used crossbows, but perhaps an early form of the now-famous English longbow was also present. They would play an important role in the upcoming battle.

The standards for the battle of Northallerton (aka battle of the Standard); Images courtesy of
The standards for the battle of Northallerton (aka battle of the Standard)
Images courtesy of

This battle received its name from the wagon bearing the banners of the saints from the minsters of York, Beverly, and Ripon. Someone hit upon the idea of installing a ship's mast to a wagon, and hanging the saints' banners from the mast (see the illustration at the top of this post). Perhaps someone was familiar with a similar contraption used by certain Italian city-states called the carroccio. One chronicle specifically names the banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverly, and St. Wilfred of Ripon as being displayed on the mast.

It is possible that the mercenary heavy cavalrymen sent by King Stephen were carrying his banner of the golden centaur firing a bow on a field of red. It is also likely that some of the Northumbrian troops were carrying the Northumbrian flag; and, since Archbishop Thurstan had helped organize the response to the Scottish invasion, surely the banner of St. Cuthbert – the patron saint of northern England – was to be found somewhere on this battlefield. This "war wagon" was probably placed in the middle the noble knights and their men, or may have been stationed on a small hill to the immediate rear of the English army.

Scottish Army

The army of the invading Scots is a bit harder to enumerate. After launching the invasion about a month before this fight, King David had besieged some castles and other strong points, leaving behind men for occupation duty and for continued encirclement of Wark Castle. Other groups of the invaders were ranging the countryside, in search of loot (and slaves). It has been speculated that the Scottish army at Northallerton was no larger than about 16,000 men.

Scottish light infantry, c. 1138; Image courtesy of
Scottish light infantry, c. 1138
Image courtesy of

Most of the infantry wielded 8-12' spears (early pikes perhaps), while others were more basically armed with swords, axes, and javelins. Some Scots wore no armor, while those that could afford them wore leather or chain mail, occasionally carrying shields and wearing helmets. The knights and men-at-arms were the best-equipped with chainmail, shields, and helms with lances and swords. There were some bowmen scattered throughout the invading army, but not anywhere near the numbers contained in the English host.

Prelude to the Battle

At some point in mid-August, the Scottish emissaries sent by King Stephen journeyed north of the Tees River (at that time the official/unofficial boundary of Scottish and English lands) to meet with King David. The discussion broke down completely, with one of the Scottish nobles renouncing his allegiance to his northern monarch. Returning quickly to Thirsk, the English commanders ordered a slow march to the northwest, in hopes of blocking any further advance by the rampaging Scots.

The hodgepodge Anglo-Norman force followed an old Roman road which ran from York into the Scottish lowlands. The army made good progress, camping somewhere southeast of the town of Northallerton, possibly 10-15 miles or so. In the wee hours of Monday, August 22, English scouts reported that the Scottish army was just north of the Tees River, and was preparing to cross that river in the morning. Moving quickly and decisively, the Anglo-Norman commanders roused their men, and began a night march along the Roman road. At one point during the march, the army took another, secondary road which connected with the Great North Road – which the Scots were using as their main route of invasion. The English bypassed Northallerton, and in the pre-dawn hours the army stopped about two miles north of the town. They began to deploy in a position athwart the Great North Road to block the progress of the Scots.

A 15mm depiction of 'The Standard,' Rallying point of Anglo-Norman army, showing three saints' banners; Image courtesy of
A 15mm depiction of "The Standard,"
Rallying point of Anglo-Norman army, showing three saints' banners
Image courtesy of

Battle of Northallerton ("Battle of the Standard")

The Scottish force crossed the River Tees around midnight and marched to within two miles of Northallerton. King David had hoped to take the Anglo-Norman forces by surprise. There was a heavy mist on the plains around the Great North Road, and the Scots were themselves surprised when their lead elements encountered the English army, already in place and blocking their progress in the brightening dawn light.

The Scottish army was deployed in four divisions, according to most modern accounts. It is likely they deployed in a roughly diamond-shaped formation. King David with his mounted lowland Scots knights and their men-at-arms – along with some Anglo-Norman English lords and their retinues who declared their allegiance to the Scottish monarch –was at the rear in reserve. His son Prince Henry was on the right with one infantry wing and a small body of mounted knights, while troops from Lothian comprised the left wing and the "wild" Galwegians were in the center.

[In a hastily organized war council prior to the battle, King David originally wanted to place his knights – Scottish and Anglo-Normans – and their retinues in the forefront, and use them as the first attack on the enemy. The Scottish ruler was confident his numbers would overwhelm the English quickly. However, the Galwegians claimed an ancient right of striking the first blow in battle, and King David reluctantly acquiesced. Thus, the Galwegians, armed mostly with spears but wearing almost no armor whatsoever, were deployed in the front, to their great folly…]

Within an hour or so of sunrise, the two forces were lined up and preparing for first blood. The left flank of the Anglo-Norman force was anchored on a marshy bog several hundred yards west of the Great North Road. The right flank may also have had similar protection. Two small hills arose just south of the English position; contemporary chronicles stated the English lined up on these hills, but modern archaeology has found otherwise.

At about 6:00 am, the wild Galwegians charged the Anglo-Norman line. However, before they were able to come to grips with the English center, the Scots received a veritable storm of arrows, courtesy of the English bowmen positioned in front of the army. A large number of the Galwegians never reached the enemy line. But some did, and they were met by the dismounted, more heavily armed and armored Anglo-Norman knights and their men-at-arms. Initially recoiling from the melee, the Galwegians made several more attacks on the center of the enemy line, discarding their spears and taking up their swords. But after two of their leaders were slain by English arrows, they were sent reeling back.

Shortly afterwards, at perhaps 7:00 am, the left wing of the Scottish army launched its own attack, probably on the Anglo-Norman right and center. These attackers probably had more success against the city militiamen, but their attack was partially broken up the English bowmen. The knights and their retinues in the center stood firm, and the Lothians soon were retreating in disorder back to their starting position.

By this point, most of the Scottish infantry had lost heart and were streaming away from the field. King David was determined to attack the Anglo-Norman host, but was persuaded to withdraw by his nobles. Seeing their king leaving the field, nearly the entire Scottish army began fleeing the field in great disorder…with one exception.

At about this time, 8:00 am or so, Prince Henry and his mounted retinue made a suicidal charge on the left wing of the English force. Surprisingly, Henry and his men punched a hole through the poorly-trained city militias on the English left. The Scots right wing infantry tried to follow up the successful attack of their prince, but were rebuffed. The mounted Scots made a beeline for the Anglo-Norman mounted reserve guarding the horses of the knights and their retinues. A short, sharp melee broke out, and the Scots were thrown back. However, the English militiamen to their front had closed the gap behind them, and Henry and his men had no line of retreat. According to contemporary historians, Henry and his men hid their banners, then began tearing off any regalia or badges of rank that might betray their identity. Prince Henry and his companions began mingling among the English reserve cavalrymen, and were swept forward in the pursuit of the retreating Scots. [Prince Henry was feared to have died in the battle, but he reappeared in Scotland three days later.]

As the infantry of the Scottish right wing fell back in extreme confusion, they joined the general flight of their army. After a battle of between 2 and 3 hours, the Gaels fled the field and headed for the safety of their "auld sod," Scotland. The battle of Northallerton – also known as "the battle of the Standard" – was over.


As with many battles of this time period, exact casualty figures are next to impossible to determine. Scottish casualties were likely fairly heavy, but most were probably sustained in the post-battle pursuit; one historian claims 10,000 Gaels were made prisoners, with perhaps 2000-3000 men killed or wounded. There were almost certainly large numbers of Scots who drowned trying to cross the River Tees. The Anglo-Norman force probably sustained very light casualties.

Footnote #1: A peace settlement was reached early the next year. Prince Henry of Scotland was given the earldom of Northumberland, and was restored to the earldom of Huntingdon and lordship of Doncaster (though he was required to do homage to King Stephen). King David was allowed to keep Carlisle and Cumberland. However, within 20 years, Northumberland and Carlisle were under English administration once more.

Footnote #2: Although King David pledged loyalty to King Stephen, he was actually a supporter of Empress Matilda for the English throne. However, David did not become involved in the succession civil war (1135-1154) often referred to simply as "The Anarchy."

A short section of Scot Pit Road, now overgrown; Photo courtesy of
A short section of Scot Pit Road, now overgrown
Photo courtesy of

Footnote #3: Modern archaeologist and excavators found several large burial pits in the area of the original battlefield. [A nearby road is named "Scot Pit Lane."] If usual mediaeval custom was followed, these burial pits were likely dug where the largest number of enemy dead were found, i.e., where the Scots assaulted the English front line and died miserably. It is for this reason that modern historians doubt that nearby hills were used by the English. These burial mounds have been almost completely grown over.

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The banner attributed to King Stephen did not exist during his lifetime - it is one of many "fake heraldic" devices invented later and allocated retrospectively to all kinds of people, including Cnut and Moses. Heraldry only began to appear in England in the mid-1140s, taking 10 or 20 years to become widespread. The flags of Saints are much older and non-heraldic in nature.
As for manorial farm workers being present, there is absolutely no contemporary evidence for this and it is extremely unlikely. We have many accounts of the battle and the descriptions of the armies involved give some interesting details - but there is no mention of any non-noble troops among the Anglo-Norman ranks other than the town militias of Ripon, Beverley and York who would all be freemen reasonably armed and equipped. Ailred of Rievaulx later wrote a very detailed account and I suspect he may have been an eye witness at the time.
As for longbows, Ailred's account makes it clear that even against the unarmoured Galwegians the Anglo-Norman bows struggled to bring down the enemy fighters. These were definitely not longbows, but what have recently been termed "common" or "standard" bows of up to 5 feet in length and relatively weak. True longbows only appear in the early years of the 14th century, with devastating results on the battlefield.

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