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Battle of Scawton Moor

also known as Battle of Old Byland

Since 1314 King Robert the Bruce had sought a peace treaty in order that the war ravaged realm of Scotland could recover. Edward II was obdurate and impervious to the pleas from his lords, so, each year, the Bruce instigated forays into northern England to extract tribute and booty to help rebuild a bankrupt Scottish economy. He hoped the raids would put pressure on the English barons to persuade King Edward II to negotiate a peace treaty which would recognise Scotland as an Independent Kingdom with himself as its rightful king. Accordingly he sent Sir James Douglas (The Black Douglas) and Sir Thomas Randolph (The Earl of Moray) in a series of wide ranging raids into Northumberland, Cumberland, Lancashire, Durham and Yorkshire to extract tribute which for a medium sized town was 2000 silver merks or £1,300 English pounds (worth £140,000 by today's standards.)

 

Each year the coffers of Scotland were slowly replenished and the process of rebuilding started. Despite the serious ebbing of a high percentage of the English economy to Scotland, Edward still refused to negotiate, a good number of his lords were in revolt and his position was becoming untenable. Edward attacked Scotland several times, the last being in 1319 when he tried to retake Berwick on Tweed. That assault failed when Bruce led a long-range foray into England, forcing Edward to retreat. Now that Edward had beaten his two most dangerous enemies at the battle of Boroughbridge and emboldened by this success, Edward struck at Scotland again.

Bruce reacted with resolve. He instituted a 'scorched earth' policy in the Merse and Lothians. All the livestock were driven away to safe places, granaries emptied and what could not be transported away was set on fire. The roofs of the houses were torn off and burnt and any growing crops were trampled to deny them to the English. Bridges were destroyed, wells befouled with manure and carcasses and streams were dammed causing morasses and floods. He sent Douglas and 4000 moss-troopers with some 2000 highland clansmen to harry the English army in Durham as they marched north, and burn before them all food, forage and shelter that might be of use to the English. Bruce himself led an expedition of 8000 light cavalry and highland clansmen supported by the galleys of the Lord of the Isles in a long range sweeping raid into the north-west of England, sacking Preston and pillaging scores of other towns. By doing this, King Robert hoped that Edward II would turn back to defend his northern shires, but instead, Edward II fell out with Sir Andrew Harcla on policy and ordered him to confine Bruce to Northern England whilst he, Edward ravaged Scotland. Sir Andrew Harcla protested at this unmilitary division of the English forces which would leave the English army unbalanced and short of archers. Edward backed by the Earl of Richmond (John of Brittany) and his favourites, the DeSpensers (Dispensers) summarily dismissed the only competent military leader he had (Sir Andrew Harcla had won the battle of Boroughbridge whereas in the same action, Le DeSpensers had lost theirs.) Harcla retired in a huff to Carlisle with his army and came to an accommodation with King Robert.

When King Robert heard this news, he returned post haste by the Solway Sands in a marvellously timed move of logistical brilliance, involving tides, mudflats, quicksands from Morecambe Bay to Silloth in less than a day. He reached the Scottish border in late July a day ahead of Edward and immediately mobilised his forces. King Edward occupied Edinburgh and Leith, setting up home in Holyrood with Queen Isabella. It is estimated that three-quarters of the populace had fled the city before Edward arrived to be welcomed and feted by the remaining quarter of the populace who thought that preferment would come their way. The castle had been slighted (made indefensible) by the Earl of Moray in 1314 and true to Robert the Bruce's wishes, had not been rebuilt so that it could not be held against him. (Bruce believed in mobile warfare, not static.) Edward's army found there was no foraging to be had. Foraging parties were ambushed by the moss-troopers under Sir James Douglas. The Earl of Surrey, Hugh de Warrene is recorded as making the comment about an old lame cow which was all the English army had managed to capture. 'Yonder cow is the dearest piece of beef I have ever seen, as it has cost a thousand pound or more!' Scots black humour came to the fore once more and grim jokes about the English waiting for next year's harvest began to circulate. Food became even scarcer, even forage for the horses, but this did not really matter too much as the English were now eating the horses, so Edward did what he should have done earlier, organised supply ships to sail from the Humber, Tees and Tyne.

On receipt of this news on the 6th August, Robert the Bruce requested Angus Og, Lord of the Isles to sail some of his galleys round the North of Scotland to the Forth and institute a blockade. On the 10th August a lone galley with the black ship emblem of the MacDonald's on its sail, under the command of John of Islay,(Angus Og's eldest son and heir) sped up the Forth to Culross to report that Angus Og's fleet was in the Tay and had already sent scouting ships down to the Farne Islands and the Bass Rock with more galleys sent down to blockade the Humber, Bridlington, Whitby, Hartlepool and Tynemouth. King Robert was delighted at this news and knighted young John of Islay straightaway. Several days later, Edward had to grind his teeth in anger with the chagrin of seeing three English supply ships laden with foodstuffs, captured as prizes of war off the Bass Rock, and sail past Edinburgh, up the Forth to Culross where they were unloaded and their contents distributed to the Scottish Army, which by now numbered at least 25,000. Angus Og's galleys captured most of the English supply ships and drove some ashore to be wrecked on the Northumbrian cliffs. A few others, less seaworthy were lost at sea in the severe gales during August. A group of Whitby merchants wrote a letter of complaint to King Edward that they could not move their goods from the port due to the presence of 'Scottish pirates and privateers.'

The weather was unseasonably wet with constant driving rain and high winds every day. Due to lack of shelter and food the English army began to suffer from 'Divers fevers and agues,' dysentery added its misery to the constant cold and hungry soldiery. What morale there was soon slumped into apathetic misery despite the efforts of a small minority of officers who tried to raise their morale, and inevitably the English Army became a barely controllable, sick and semi-mutinous rabble. On the 2nd of September, Holyrood Abbey was set on fire and in a fit of petulance and pique, Edward ordered the valedictory slaughter of the remaining inhabitants of Edinburgh. The English soldiery ran amok, killing some 5,000 men, women, children and even babies were slaughtered and disembowelled in the streets and closes in an act of blood crazed savagery not seen since Edward I sacked the city of Berwick on Tweed, slaughtering 17,000 of it's inhabitants to be left rotting where they fell for months afterwards. Only a few of the inhabitants of Edinburgh managed to escape.

Sir James Douglas and Sir Thomas Randolph with extra highland clansmen sent by Bruce, harried the retreating English rabble unmercifully so much so that only half of the army which had marched into Scotland, stumbled and reeled out of the country. No army is at its best during a rout and it is not surprising that many atrocities were committed, some by Edward's direct orders. Sir James Douglas was too late to save that most beautiful of all Scotland's Abbeys, Melrose, from being set on fire and much too late to save the life of the gentle godly Abbot William Peebles being crucified to the Abbey doors and then shot full of arrows. The other monks who had stayed with him were all dreadfully tortured and then slaughtered. King Robert, who greatly loved and respected the Abbot, was moved to tears at the news and vowed that the English churchmen who had financed Edward's expedition would pay dearly for their sins.

The demoralised English army were by now in a state of mutiny. Badly led by incompetent leaders, without adequate food or clothing, forced to flee from an implacable enemy in downpours of rain, walking in glutinous mud, fording rain-swollen rivers, and forced to sleep in the open. They staggered wearily further and further south towards York, where there was a promise of fresh reinforcements of southern levies and plenty of food round the rich lands of the Abbeys and monasteries. Each day men deserted, fell out sick and diseased, too ill to move, or fell foul of the Scots who were hotly pursuing them. By the time they reached the encampments round Rievaulx Abbey, Byland, Shaws Moor and Scawton Moor, only one third of the English remained. Here they were joined by some 25,000 southern levies and the Lanercost Chronicles indicate that some 48,000 English men-at-arms, hobelars and auxiliaries were being fed daily in addition to the archers and general conscripts who possibly made up another 15,000. Medieval estimates of 200,000 men are wildly inaccurate as the available food supply locally could not possibly support such great numbers. In 1321 an outbreak of cattle plague had reduced the herds to a quarter of the 1319 figure. Rievaulx Abbey made its wealth from wool, having flocks totalling some 14,000 sheep. The wet autumn meant the loss of the hay crop and reduced yields of corn.

Robert the Bruce now took his army of 20,000 moss-troopers and clansmen through the West Marches and laid waste to the areas round Carlisle, Lancaster and Preston before marching across the Pennines through Swaledale and Wensleydale, where he could and should have been ambushed and stopped in his tracks by any competent defender of the easily defensible passes. Bruce joined forces with Sir James Douglas at Northallerton and received the news that Edward II was staying at Rievaulx Abbey. Bruce conferred with Sir James Douglas, Sir Walter Stewart, and Sir Thomas Randolph and discussed the possibility of capturing King Edward and bringing this long drawn out war to an end. The task was given to Sir Walter Stewart, the hereditary High Steward of Scotland, who with three hundred moss-troopers was to break through to Rievaulx Abbey as soon as the English line was broken by the Scottish army on Roulston Scar. Bruce ordered Sir James Douglas to light more fires and increase the amount of smoke to conceal his movements from the English commander the Earl of Richmond. This was done and Bruce concealed two thirds of his army in clumps of trees below a gully which led round the rear of Roulston Scar.

Bruce then sent Sir James Douglas and Sir Thomas Randolph along with six thousand moss-troopers and spearmen to directly assault the ridge next to Roulston Scar hoping that the Earl of Richmond would call on his reserve forces to meet this threat. Out of the smoke the English watched the advance of the Scots, the Earl of Richmond then countered the Scottish move by sending fifteen thousand of his men down the slope to assault the inferior Scottish force. What the Earl of Richmond had not observed was that the gully the Scots were advancing up was very narrow and constricted with steep slopes on each side making movement on horseback very difficult. He found out too late that he could only attack on a very narrow front which the Scots ably defended by forming a schiltrom with their long spears which completely turned the first English charge into a bloody charnel-house of dead, dying and injured horses and men. The Earl of Richmond sent down more men and at this point the Bruce sent up his highlanders under Neil Campbell of Loch Awe and Robert MacGregor to assault both flanks of the English position. The lightly clad clansmen soon scaled both flanks driving the English back with their fierce attacks and Gaidhlig war cries, thus forcing the Earl of Richmond to pull in all his picquets and guards to throw into the battle. This left the alternative route unguarded and then Robert the Bruce struck hard!

Back in Rievaulx Abbey, King Edward and his close cronies the Le DeSpensers were sitting down to a meal in the quarters of Abbot John of Rievaulx. The Lanercost Chronicles reveal that 'two swanis roastit, divers fowls, Salmonys and other fishis with divers pies of meat and fruitis and sweetmeats. A Tun of Claret wine and a keg of burgundy wine with the best abbey ale.' They were fated never to finish that meal, that pleasure would fall to Sir Walter Stewart's men.

Bruce sent Sir Walter Stewart and his moss-troopers to Rievaulx Abbey in an attempt to capture the King. Bruce with his remaining moss-troopers and light cavalry made their way largely unseen, onto Shaws Moor and there in front of them lay, unprotected, the encampments of the English Army. Bruce formed his men into three arrowhead divisions and with the trumpeters blasting out the charge he led his men stirrup to stirrup in an all out thundering gallop, his Lion Rampant banner flying bravely in the hands of Scrymgeour his standard bearer and with a great cry of ' A Bruce! A Bruce!' they came galloping out of the smoke and smashed through the English lines causing widespread panic and destruction. Even a tightly disciplined army would have found it difficult to withstand such a charge. The demoralised English mostly deserted their posts and ran for their lives but some salvaged what honour there was for England that day by standing their ground even though their stand was useless. What casualties Bruce's moss-troopers suffered that day came from the arrows of the few English archers who bravely stood their ground before being hacked down. Bruce's standard bearer Scrymgeour took an arrow in his arm which did no damage due to the chain mail suit. Sir Gilbert Hay lost his horse which was shot through the head and was nearly trampled by his following men. Backwards and forwards, Bruce's force charged scattering the surviving English troops. No quarter was given and the English casualties were horrendous. Finally only the dead and the victorious Scots remained in command of the battlefield.

King Robert then led his horsemen to the edge of Roulston Scar and ordered his trumpeters to sound the rally. Down below in the gully the English and the Scots turned their heads towards the clamour of the trumpets, to see Bruce's host on the escarpment and with a roar of triumph, Douglas' men surged forward and the English army dispersed, some in flight, most in surrender when Sir James Douglas ordered that the Scots gave quarter. The corrie was a difficult place to escape from and very few English made a clean getaway. The Earl of Richmond surrendered his sword to Sir James Douglas as did his lieutenants, those who were still alive and unwounded, that is. Twenty English knights lay amid the dead with twice as many wounded. The Scots ushered their prisoners up the hill to present to King Robert who it is recorded sat hunched, hawk-like on his horse at the top of the escarpment. Sir James Douglas and Sir Thomas Randolph (himself wounded by a spear thrust in his sword arm) presented their prisoners to the King.

The Earl of Richmond (whom Bruce had last met at Stirling Castle when as John of Brittany before being made Earl, he had gloated over the death of Sir William Wallace) was insolent to King Robert and Bruce had him hustled away under close guard as a valuable hostage. (It took three years to raise the 50,000 silver merks which freed him from prison in Stirling Castle. By comparison the town of Richmond only paid tribute of 1,200 silver merks to prevent it from being sacked and burned by Bruce's army.) Other notable prisoners were the badly wounded Sir Thomas de Uthred, the keeper of the Royal hunt at Pickering Castle, who Sir James Douglas singled out for praise as a worthy fighter; and Sir Ralph Cobham who was reckoned to be the first knight of England. Also captured were Messieur Henry De Sulliey, Grand Butler of France with a party of ten other French knights who were on a visit to Queen Isabella and as guests of King Edward II were expected to fight for him according to the law and codes of knightly chivalry. King Robert warmly welcomed them and invited them to come back with him to Scotland as his honoured guests, which they accepted with alacrity. Now all that was left to do was clear up the battlefield, bury the dead, succour the wounded and then ransack as much wealth as possible from the defenceless supine counties of northern England.

What of the Steward? His men were seen by Edward's personal guard as they thundered towards the Abbey at breakneck speed. Edward was hustled from the Abbot's House, mounted on his grey charger and with a close guard of twenty men galloped away from the scene of his humiliation to try and take ship at Bridlington, leaving over 100 of his bodyguard to sell their lives in buying him some time to escape. This they did do and delayed the Scots sufficiently to allow Edward to slip away. He was pursued by the Steward and fifty of his men for many miles but in the darkness they lost Edward on the road to Nunnington. Edward's horse became lame and he was forced to seek a fresh mount at Pickering Castle where a day later his grey charger became a prize of war and was presented to King Robert. Edward eventually arrived at Bridlington and requested the keeper of the castle to provide him with a ship to take him to London. The keeper escorted Edward to a lookout tower and grimly pointed out in the bay three long sleek galleys belonging to Angus Og. Escape by sea was impossible, no trading galliot could outrun these greyhounds of the sea. Edward then rode pell-mell to York narrowly escaping capture twice, but losing his shield in the process. (Bruce later returned this shield to Edward as an unspoken challenge, fight or negotiate peace! Edward did not rise to the challenge and this later was one of the reasons he was later deposed.) From York, Edward and his party made their way to the safety of Burstwick in Holderness and from thence to London, there to be reunited with Queen Isabella who was not best pleased at being abandoned by Edward, having had to make a perilous journey in disguise as a nun to Tynemouth Priory. She herself only narrowly escaped capture at Rievaulx, leaving the whole of the north of England open to the Scottish army to extract tribute, to pillage and loot at its leisure. What was left of Edward's army abandoned their weapons and retreated to York which being a fortified city was the only refuge open to them. King Edward left behind his finery, personal treasury, armour and to his great shame, the great seal of England at Rievaulx Abbey, in all 100 horse loads with a combined value of 260,000 silver merks.

Many of the monasteries and priories attempted to save their valuables by moving them south before the Scottish army arrived. For example, Prior Robert of Bridlington decided to move to Goxhill in Lincolnshire with all the valuables and most of the canons, leaving just 12 hours before the Scottish Army arrived. However he left behind a poisoned chalice for Robert of Bainton the senior canon who remained. The Scots were plundering the countryside round about and were threatening the priory. Canon Robert rode to Malton, where King Robert had set up his headquarters in the slighted Castle and sought audience with the Bruce. King Robert agreed not to despoil the priory if canon Robert provided bread, meat and wine to the quantity of 18 horse loads per day whilst the Scots were in the area and this was faithfully carried out for 12 days until the Scottish army had left. The priory was left intact and unharmed. Poisoned chalice? I hear you say? Yes, canon Robert and the canons who remained were accused of aiding the enemy and to prevent King Edward taking draconian action against them, they were excommunicated by Archbishop William of Malton and later on in December 1322 they were quietly given absolution and reinstated.

King Robert when at Malton summoned all the Abbots and senior churchmen into his presence. Abbot John of Rievaulx like all the other churchmen was dressed in rich apparel with bejewelled and gold encrusted vestments and protesting volubly about the desecration of his Abbey. Bruce silenced him, although there is no written record of what was actually said Bruce related to Abbot John what had happened to Abbot William Peebles at Melrose Abbey which was a Cistercian foundation the same as Rievaulx and that he was party along with other churchmen to financing King Edward's war against Scotland. Now was the day of reckoning, they would have to pay the price. The price was the complete pillaging of all valuables and trade goods; the only saving grace from the churchmen's point of view was that the Abbey buildings were unharmed and the monks were not tortured or murdered as had been the fate of Scottish monks. King Robert grimly reminded them that Scotland had been pillaged and its infrastructure destroyed by the English armies and now he was going to extract every last piece of treasure that was to be had, starting with them. Thereupon the clerics were all forcibly stripped of their rich apparel, golden rings and other finery and given a monks plain coarse habit in its place. Bruce is recorded as saying 'Our Lord Christ was not the holder of great riches, vestments and privileges whilst He was on earth, why should you desire such as he rejected?' The humiliated churchmen were made to walk back to their churches, monasteries and priories barefoot. (Even today Yorkshire schoolchildren are falsely taught that the Scots stripped the monks and nuns naked and burnt down the buildings.)

Bruce's army set about slighting (making unusable) the castles and extracting tribute from all the towns and villages round about. (One can pity the unfortunate Nicholas Haldane, William Hastings and John Mansregh, merchants of Pickering in North Yorkshire who were held as surety for the tribute of 1,200 silver merks. They were held for three years because King Edward II refused to allow the town to pay the ransom. Three years later, they petitioned the King who again refused. Eventually, their families raised the wherewithal otherwise they would have perished in Stirling prison cells.) Those towns and villages that could not or would not pay were first comprehensively looted and then burnt to the ground with only the lives of the inhabitants being spared. So complete was this process that the monasteries and priories never recovered their former riches ever again. After 6 weeks, Bruces' army made it's way back triumphantly to Scotland via Durham and Northumberland extracting tribute of eight hundred silver merks from the Bishop of Durham (not to burn his sumptuous palace down to the ground) on the way back. The treasure has never ever been properly estimated; (some estimates put it as high as 18,000,000 silver merks - one quarter of all the English treasure) as each of Bruce's soldiers must have had a portion of the loot as well, but it enabled King Robert to make a start on rebuilding his realm.

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