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The Battle of the Standard
By Konstantinius, 17 January 2007; Revised
Category: Medieval Europe: Military History
King Henry I of England died heirless in Normandy on 1 December 1135. Twice before his death Henry had extracted an oath from his leading barons and clergy that they should respect the rights of his daughter Mathilda—widow of emperor Henry V and presently wife of Count Geoffrey of Anjou—to the succession of the English throne. It is pointless to discuss here the legal implications of an oath extracted in the 12th c., an era where the rules of inheritance where just beginning to become formalized. Whatever the case might be Stephen, Count of Boulogne, nephew of Henry I and a grandson of William the Conqueror, decides to disregard his own oath, leaves Normandy for England, and is crowned de facto king of said country in London by William, archbishop of Canterbury on 22 December 1135. This arbitrary coronation will not be recognized by a large number of the English and Norman barons. Whether this is done out of a sense of legitimacy and obligation to their oath or the nobility’s self-serving ambition is beyond the scope of this short essay. The fact of the matter is that for the remaining 19 years of Stephen’s reign England will be ravaged by annual conflicts along the width and breadth of the country that will pit Stephen and the forces of the crown against Empress Mathilda, the Angevine camp, and their supporters in England and Normandy.
Within the context of this wider conflict David, King of the Scots, invades the northern English counties in 1136 in the interest of the Empress but is induced to negotiations and the signing of an agreement by the arrival in the north of king Stephen at the head of a formidable array. Displaying the same ease with which Stephen had violated his own oath to king Henry, King David will nevertheless return to the north of England in April of 1138, besiege the castle at Wark with part of his force, and proceed to lay waste most of Northumberland and the land around Durham. These deprivations of the country-side and its folk are lamented in the chronicles of Richard of Hexham who interestingly describes the Scots as “pagans” and “heathen”. This perhaps can be understood if we keep in mind that Richard is the prior at Hexham, whose own church is apparently violated and pillaged by the “ruffian Picts”. The implication here is clear: such men who violate some monasteries and extort blood money from others — the monastery at Tynemouth having been obliged to pay twenty-seven marks of silver in order to avoid the fate dealt at Hexham — cannot possibly be Christians, regardless how Christianized their names and their king’s court might be. With king Stephen tied up fighting the barons in the south of England, the Scottish host will continue their ineffective siege of Wark throughout the Spring and early Summer, having been augmented in strength by the defection of a prominent Norman, Eustace fitz John,and his forces to the Scottish standard, as well as levies from the west of the Pennines — the old kingdom of Strathclyde. With his forces thus increased, King David will turn over the siege at Wark to the turncoat fitz John and proceed south, reaching the line of the Tees sometime in mid-August. Here he is further reinforced with Picts from Galloway his army now reaching considerable strength for the era; however we must assume that it is much less than the 26,000 mentioned in the chronicles of Richard of Hexham — even half as many is probably still a little too big for the standards of the time. What about the English response to the threat from the north? Up to this point the highlight of English resistance seems to be the spirited defense of Wark by its garrison under the leadership of its gifted commander Jordan de Bussey whose determined efforts “set at naught and rendered useless all of the king’s — David — endeavors”. The first action is taken not by a military person but by Archbishop Thurstan of York who summons a council of local magnates attended by prominent Norman tenants of the English crown such as Ilbert de Lacy, William de Percy, Count William of Aumale as well as Scots such as Robert Bruce and Bernard de Balliol. Apparently during this council the Archbishop called for something close to a religious crusade against the barbarous Scots who up to this point have been ravaging the country-side and desecrating its religious shrines. The barons, heartened by the words of the Archbishop and the arrival of a small contingent of troops sent by King Stephen as reinforcements, decide to fight. The English host assembles at York and consists of the feudal mounted contingents of the barons as well as the civic militias of York, Beverley, and Rippon. The religious nature of the whole enterprise is reinforced by the three great banners hoisted on a wagon that flew over the entire English host: the banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfred of Rippon. The army will set out from York marching north along the Great North Road as far as Thirsk where an attempt will be made to reach a compromise with the Scottish king. The Scots, being in position to acquire the entire Northumberland by force, reject the English offer. It is now that further Norman reinforcements will arrive from Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire — presumably the mounted contingents of the barons in command — lead by Robert de Ferrers and William Peverel, a veteran of Henry I’s campaigns to pacify his own barons — another example of the strange mixing-up of allegiances and nationalities to be encountered on both sides of the conflict. There is not a single reference as to the numbers involved in the English army but we assume that they are roughly equal to that of their opponents. Upon receiving word from scouts that the Scots are moving south, the unknown overall commander of the northern English army orders the array to break camp and march out from Thirsk on the night of the 21st. Since the battle starts in the early hours of the 22nd we can asses, based on conjecture alone, that perhaps the English embark on a forced night march through dense fog in order to surprise the unsuspecting Scottish host and thus gain a tactical advantage. At any rate, the Scots either had warning of the English advance or had themselves set off as early as their adversaries because no such surprise is achieved. Whatever the case might be, both armies are now set on a collision course along the Great North Road, certain to run into each other in a few hours’ time. The English will arrive first on the battlefield and start deploying some time before 6 am on the 22nd to the right of the road along the crest of a flanking hill. How long the deployment takes is lost in historical obscurity—i.e. lack of sources. Richard of Hexham informs us in regards to the English order of battle that “The greater part of the knights, then dismounting, became foot soldiers, a chosen body of whom, interspersed with archers, were arranged in the front rank.” The Hexham chronicler goes on to relate that the remainder of the knights and barons are arranged in a sort of guarde d’ honor around the wagon-standard which is positioned on the very top of the hill and behind the main formation in order to provide an obvious point of inspiration and rallying for the troops: “Some of them soon erected, in the center of a frame which they brought, the mast of a ship, to which they gave the name of the Standard; whence these lines:
It is reasonable to assume — and Beeler also seem to concur on this—that the English formed a deep, dismounted rectangle with knights/archers on the front ranks, the rest of the knights around the Standard in the middle, and the shire levies on the flanks and behind them. About 400 yards to the rear and on the reverse slope a small number of knights were placed to guard the horses of the now dismounted Anglo-Normans. The disposition of the English deployment is totally defensive and makes clear that this is a stance on their part with no intention to pursuit a victorious outcome.
King David and his army arrive shortly thereafter and begin to deploy under the gaze of their enemies across the road. Initially, the Scottish king plans to match the English deployment by dismounting his own knights, place them in the front rank and, supported by archers behind, use them as an armored fist to punch a hole in the Northumbrian formation which then could be exploited by his lesser-armored but furiously impetuous Galwegian and Pictish warbands. The Picts from Galloway, however, are having none of this: they insistently demand that they be put in the front line despite their total lack of armor and heavy weapons. Their claims to their ancient right of occupying the very center of the attacking formation must be so vociferous that eventually King David reluctantly and with great irritation has to concede to a very unusual development in the annals of ancient/medieval combat: a complete re-deployment in the field of battle and in the presence of the formed ranks of the enemy army. One cannot help but wonder what thoughts must have been going on in the minds of the individuals in the Anglo-Norman ranks as they watch their opponents shuffle and shove on the plain below them. A mounted charge by the Anglo-Norman cavalry followed by a general advance of the whole army might have wreaked havoc amongst the disorganized Scottish ranks; however no such action is undertaken—presumably the re-organization of the English army in order to charge might have taken as long as that of their opponents—and finally the Scots will organize in three distinct groups: in the center the wild Galwegians intermixed with some archers for support; the right wing is commanded by the king’s son Henry and it seems to have been intended as the main striking force. It comprises of the levies from Cumbria, some archers, as well as the majority of the English and Norman knights from the Lowlands. It seems probable that these latter remain mounted. The left wing is made up entirely of Lowland and western Highlands foot while King David, in an unusual for the era move, maintains a reserve directly behind the main line consisting of the crack knights of his own bodyguard — now dismounted to match their Norman counterparts on the hill, including the King himself — plus foot from Moray and the eastern Highlands. Thus arranged, and at a predisposed command, the Scottish host will start to slowly move forward towards the hill. The battle opened with a charge uphill of the Pictish center to the accompaniment of wild screams and yells. Though the archers among them must have taken a tremendous toll, the impetus of the charge carries them all the way up the hill to the English line and for a moment a penetration is made; however, the mailed Norman knights seem to have repulsed the initial charge and now the Galwegians retreat back down-slope. Time and again the Highlanders will charge the English line with the same fatal results. At this point in the battle, and seemingly at no orders from anyone, Prince Henry launches the Scottish right wing against the English left. The cavalry will outdistance its infantry support, crash into the line of the shire levies behind the knights, cut their way through them, and emerge greatly diminished in numbers at the back of the northerner’s line. Here a critical opportunity is missed by the Scots: had the knights reined in and attacked from behind, the Northumbrians could have broken. But instead the Scottish cavalry will head straight ahead towards the picketed horses and the small horse guard that lays 400 yards behind the main English line. In the meantime the English will close their ranks and repulse Henry’s infantry who are now, panting and out of breath, finally coming to blows with their enemies. Henry and his few remaining knights, realizing that the opportunity has been lost and in order to get away, will throw away their insignia and mingle with their opponents from whom they are indistinguishable in arms and equipment. Meanwhile the Galwegians in the center are in head-long retreat having lost both their chiefs, Donald and Ulgerich; the Scottish infantry on the right will soon follow them after their half-hearted attempt to keep up with Henry’s impetuous cavalry. The day is now lost for the Scots. King David will order his reserve forward—way too late to have any real impact on the battle--only to find himself deserted by the infantry who, having witnessed the fate of their center and right, have no stomach for any further fighting: they simply turn around and begin to withdraw from the field. Soon the king and his Anglo-Norman bodyguard will be the only Scottish forces left on the field. Seeing the hopelessness of their situation, they’ll send for their horse, mount, and depart. By 9 am it is all over. The defensive disposition of the English deployment is the only thing that prevents a general slaughter of the Scottish army: there will be no attempt to pursuit and the disorganized Scots will be allowed to fall back towards Carlisle with all semblance of organization gone from their ranks. Had the English pursuit, few of the invaders would ever see their homes again. Casualties among the English seem to have been insignificant with only one man of note having been killed, a brother of Ilbert de Lacy.
From the point of view of the military historian this is a battle of lost opportunities for the Scots: twice King David failed to commit the reserve at critical points during the battle, first upon the initial penetration of the Galwegians and secondly after Prince Henry managed to break through the English line with his knights. Had the reserve been committed then against the shaken English line or had the Scottish cavalry turned to hit from behind instead of going for the horses, the outcome would be unknown. What would have happened had King David followed his initial deployment plan also lies in the realm of conjecture; instead, the battle commenced with courageous but undisciplined charges against heavy infantry with missile support entrenched on high ground: rarely the recipe for success in a situation like this. On the other hand the battle is a testimony to the fact that eleventh and twelfth century Normans were not committed to always fighting on horseback and were likely to adopt the tactical disposition that best suited the particular situation.
As an aftermath, and since the English army disbands quickly after the battle despite the few casualties, King David will rejoin his forces who are still besieging Wark. The garrison reaches such severe straights from the ongoing siege that by the beginning of November the only provisions left within Wark consist of one live horse and one preserved in salt. Recognizing the impossibility of the situation the lord of the place, Walter Espec, orders the garrison to surrender and the heroic defenders are allowed to leave the castle under arms in recognition of their valiant efforts at defending the place. The fact that King David lost a major pitched battle but still managed to reorganize the Anglo-Scottish frontier to his favor — on the other end of the border the town and castle of Carlisle are also in Scottish hands by virtue of the treaty of 1136-- testify towards the inadequacy of the Anglo-Norman fortifications along the northern border as well as the extent of King Stephen’s involvement in the south. In 1139, and in order to pacify his northern neighbor, King Stephen will grant King David’s son Henry all of Northumberland with the exception of the castles at Bamborough and Newcastle. The situation will remain as such in the north until an energetic Henry II will take advantage of the minority of the Scottish king Malcolm IV—son of David I who dies in 1153—to restore English ownership of Northumberland, Cumbria, and Westmoreland as well as regain the key fortress of Carlisle all of which had been extracted from Stephen at the height of his difficulties during the civil wars.
Beeler, John. Warfare in England, 1066-1189. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1966.
Stevenson, Joseph. “Richard of Hexham’s Battle of the Standard”. www.deremilitari.org. 01/22/07. http://www.deremilitari.org/resources/sources/hexham
Gravett, Chrisropher. Norman Stone Castles: Europe 950-1204. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2004