top of page

The Battle of the StandardAugust 22nd, 1138

By: Celtic Bard Jeff

On this day in 1138 The Battle of the Standard takes place the Battle of the Standard, sometimes called the Battle of Northallerton, took place on 22 August 1138 on Cowton Moor near Northallerton in Yorkshire. English forces under William of Aumale repelled a Scottish army led by King David I of Scotland.

King Stephen of England, fighting rebel barons in the south, had sent a small force of largely mercenaries, but the English army was mainly local militia and baronial retinues from Yorkshire and the north Midlands. Archbishop Thurstan of York had exerted himself greatly to raise the army, preaching that to withstand the Scots was to do God's work. The centre of the English position was therefore marked by a mast (mounted upon a cart) bearing a pyx carrying the consecrated host and from which were flown the consecrated banners of the minsters of Durham, York, Beverley, and Ripon: hence the name of the battle. This cart-mounted standard was a very northerly example of a type of standard common in contemporary Italy, where it was known as a carroccio.

King David had entered England for two declared reasons: 1. To support his niece Matilda's claim to the English throne against that of King Stephen (married to another niece) and 2. To enlarge his kingdom beyond his previous gains.

David's forces had already taken much of Northumberland apart from castles at Wark and Bamburgh.

Advancing beyond the Tees towards York, early on 22 August the Scots found the English army drawn up on open fields 2 miles (3 km) north of Northallerton; they formed up in four 'lines' to attack it. The first attack, by unarmored spearmen against armoured men (including dismounted knights) supported by telling fire from archers failed. Within three hours, the Scots army disintegrated, apart from small bodies of knights and men-at-arms around David and his son Henry. At this point, Henry led a spirited attack with mounted knights; he and David then withdrew separately with their immediate companions in relatively good order. Heavy Scots losses are claimed, in battle and in flight.

The English did not pursue far; David fell back to Carlisle and reassembled an army. Within a month, a truce was negotiated which left the Scots free to continue the siege of Wark castle, which eventually fell. Despite losing the battle, David was subsequently given most of the territorial concessions he had been seeking (which the chronicles say he had been offered before he crossed the Tees). David held these throughout the Anarchy, but on the death of David, his successor Malcolm IV of Scotland was soon forced to surrender David's gains to Henry II of England.

Some chronicle accounts of the battle include an invented pre-battle speech on the glorious deeds of the Normans, occasionally quoted as good contemporary evidence of the high opinion the Normans held of themselves.

Then David invades Northumberland. David first moved against English castles on the Tweed frontier. Norham Castle belonged to the Bishop of Durham and its garrison was under-strength; it quickly fell. Having failed to rapidly seize the castle at Wark on Tweed, David detached forces to besiege it and moved deeper into Northumberland, demanding contributions from settlements and religious establishments to be spared plunder and burning The battle began with a charge by the Galwegian spearmen who "after their custom gave vent thrice to a yell of horrible sound and attacked the southerns in such an onslaught that they compelled the first spearmen to forsake their post; but they were driven off again by the strength of the knights, and [the spearmen] recovered their courage and strength against the foe. And when the frailty of the Scottish lances was mocked by the denseness of iron and wood they drew their swords and attempted to contend at close quarters."

The English archery caused disorganization and heavy casualties in the Scottish ranks. Ailred records the bravery and determination of the Galwegians, together with its ineffectiveness:

"like a hedgehog with its quill, so would you see a Galwegian bristling all round with arrows, and nonetheless brandishing his sword, and in blind madness rushing forward now smite a foe, now lash the air with useless strokes".

The Galwegians finally fled after the death of two of their leaders (Domnall and Ulgric); the men of Lothian similarly broke after the earl of Lothian was killed by an arrow.

David wished to stand and fight, but was forced onto his horse and compelled to retire by his friends. Ailred simply says that the English were advancing; Henry of Huntingdon says that David's 'line' had been progressively melting away. Prince Henry led mounted men in a charge on the Anglo-Norman position, as or just after the Scots foot broke. According to Ailred, Henry successfully broke through and attacked the horse-holders in the rear of the Anglo-Norman position; the 'unarmed men' (i.e. unarmoured men) were dispersed, and only rallied by a claim that the Scottish king was dead. Since Prince Henry was unsupported and the rest of the army was withdrawing, for the most part in great disorder, he hid any banners showing his party to be Scottish, and retreated towards David by joining the English pursuing him. Henry of Huntingdon is keener to stress Henry's inability to shake the armoured men; again the attack ends in flight.

"Next, the king's troop ... began to drop off, at first; man by man, and afterwards in bodies, the king standing firm, and being at last left almost alone. The king's friends seeing this, forced him to mount his horse and take to flight; but Henry, his valiant son, not heeding what he saw being done by his men, but solely intent on glory and valour, while the rest were taking to flight, most bravely charged the enemy's line, and shook it by the wondrous vigour of his onset. For his troop was the only one mounted on horseback, and consisted of English and Normans, who formed a part of his father's household. His horsemen, however, were not able long to continue their attacks against soldiers on foot, cased in mail, and standing immoveable in close and dense ranks; but, with their lances broken and their horses wounded, were compelled to take to flight."

The battle lasted no longer than between prime and terce, i.e. between daybreak and mid-morning. In Northern England at the end of August sunrise is roughly 6 a.m. and hence the battle lasted no more than 3½ hours; by not long after 9 a.m. all elements of the Scottish army were in retreat or flight. No numbers are given for total English losses but they are said to have been light; of the knights present, only one was killed. Scottish casualties during the battle proper cannot be separated from losses whilst fleeing in the 10 or so hours of daylight remaining. The chroniclers talk variously of the fugitives scattering in all directions, of their attempting to cross the Tees where there was no ford and drowning, of their being found and killed in cornfields and woods, and of fighting between the various contingents. Richard of Hexham says that of the army which came forth from Scotland, more than ten thousand were missing from the re-mustered survivors. Later chroniclers built upon this to claim 10–12,000 Scots killed. John of Worcester gives more details on the fortunes of the Scots knights:

"But of [David's] army nearly ten thousand fell in different places, and as many as fifty were captured of his picked men. But the king's son came on foot with one knight only to Carlisle, while his father scarce escaped through woods and passes to Roxburgh. Of two hundred mailed knights whom [David] had, only nineteen brought back their hauberks because each had abandoned as booty to the foe almost everything that he had. And thus very great spoils were taken from his army, as well of horses and arms and raiment as of very many other things".

David regrouped his forces at Carlisle; the nobles of Yorkshire did not move North against him, and their local levies dispersed to their homes rejoicing at the victory. Thus, although militarily the battle was a "shattering defeat", it did not reverse David's previous gains. David had the only army still under arms and was left to consolidate his hold on Cumberland and Northumberland. On 26 September Cardinal Alberic, bishop of Ostia, arrived at Carlisle where David had called together his kingdom's nobles, abbots and bishops. Alberic was there as a papal legate to resolve a long-running dispute as to whether the bishop of Glasgow was subordinate to the archbishop of York. However, Alberic also addressed more temporal matters: he persuaded David to refrain from further offensive action until Martinmas (11 November) whilst continuing to blockade Wark to starve it into submission, and the 'Picts' to (also by Martinmas) return their captives to Carlisle and free them there.

At Martinmas, the garrison of Wark surrendered on the orders of the castle's owner (Walter Espec), conveyed by the abbot of Rievaulx. The garrison had eaten all but two of their horses; King David rehorsed them and allowed them to depart with their arms.

Negotiations between David and Stephen continued over the winter months, and on 9 April David's son Henry and Stephen's wife Matilda of Boulogne met each other at Durham and agreed a settlement. Henry was given the earldom of Northumberland and was restored to the earldom of Huntingdon and lordship of Doncaster; David himself was allowed to keep Carlisle and Cumberland. However, King Stephen was to retain possession of the strategically vital castles of Bamburgh and Newcastle, and Prince Henry was to perform homage for his English lands, while David himself was to promise to "remain loyal" to Stephen at all times. Stephen released those who held fiefs in the lands Henry now held to do homage to Henry, saving only their fealty to Stephen.

This arrangement lasted for nearly 20 years, and would appear to have been beneficial to both sides. David was able to benefit from the resources of Northern England (for example, the lead mines of the northern Pennines gave him silver from which he was able to strike his own coinage). Northern England did not become involved in the civil war between supporters of Stephen and those of Matilda, although magnates with holdings further south were drawn in. This included David, who despite his promise to Stephen was a loyal supporter of Matilda, but he did not go South with a Scottish army. The new southern border of David's realm appeared to be permanently secured in 1149, when Matilda's son Henry was knighted by David at Carlisle he having first given an oath that, if he became king of England, he would give to [David] Newcastle and all Northumbria, and would permit him and his heirs to possess in peace without counter-claim forever the whole land which lies from the river Tweed to the river Tyne.

Source: The Society of John De Graeme Image: The Battle of the Standard - Art Work By Rick Scollins

2 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page