The Black Douglas

King Robert the Bruce statue
King Robert the Bruce statue
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The Anglo-Scottish War had raged for nearly a quarter of a century and on the last days of summer 1319, a 10 to 15 thousand strong Scottish army was almost at the gates of York. To make matters worse, England’s Edward II had marched his army, including York’s garrison, nearly 150 miles north along the east coast of England to lay siege to Scottish-held Berwick-upon-Tweed. Consequently York was defenceless, ripe for sacking and Edward’s most cherished possession was in imminent peril. If that wasn’t enough, hearts in York may have sunk as deep as Loch Ness when they learnt The Black Douglas was one of the Scottish generals.

For more than a decade Sir James Douglas fought alongside Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots. After the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, the people of north England came to know Douglas only too well. His men rode small horses known as hobbins, giving the name of hobelar to both horse and rider. Douglas’s raids were brutal with crops destroyed and villages burned. In 1318, The Black Douglas recaptured the last Scottish stronghold from the English: Berwick-upon-Tweed. So fearful the English were of Douglas, legend has it mothers would sing to their children:

Hush ye, hush ye, little pet ye,

Hush ye, hush ye, do not fret ye,

The Black Douglas shall no get ye.

In the early years of the war, Edward II’s father – Edward I (Longshanks) – used York as a staging area for numerous invasions of Scotland. Recognising the town’s location and economic importance to the realm, he established a permanent garrison. Longshanks was admired as a reformer of English common law and as a brilliant military tactician who gave no quarter on the field of battle. Militarily, the son proved woefully inept.

Seven years after ascending to the throne Edward II, on 26 June 1314, saw his grand army decimated by Robert the Bruce and Sir James Douglas at Bannockburn, even though the English had a four-to-one advantage. In the words of the Scottish national anthem, Flower of Scotland, the Scots “sent him homeward tae think again”.

The Black Douglas
Society of King Robert the Bruce

Now that Berwick was back in Scottish hands Robert knew Edward would attempt to retake the castle. Though stocked with troops and supplies everyone was aware they couldn’t hold out forever. When the siege was finally underway the King of the Scots, whom Edward steadfastly refused to recognise as such, issued orders to Scotland’s most successful generals – Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, and Sir James Douglas – to take their combined armies and cut a scorched-earth swath through the heart of England driving as far south as York. If successful, the Yorkshire raid might create dissension within Edward’s army and lift the siege of Berwick. Douglas and the Earl also planned the capture of Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella of France, who was in residence at York awaiting her husband’s, hopefully triumphant, return.

The Scottish mobile infantry successfully advanced more than 100 miles into England and within striking distance of York. Douglas and the Earl halted their forces on the north bank of the River Swale, near Myton. In the towns and surrounding countryside rumours likely ran amok about the size and disposition of the Scots, the death and destruction already inflicted, perhaps the number of horns on their head.

Meanwhile, the plan to kidnap Queen Isabella was foiled when a Scottish spy was captured. Likely not having a good day in the local torture chamber, he revealed everything. Isabella was quickly transported from York to the relative safety of Nottingham.

In light of the peril confronting them, York’s leaders never considered surrender or asking for terms that might save their town. Sir William Melton, Archbishop of York, accompanied by Sir John Hotham, Chancellor of England, and Nicholas Flemyng, York’s mayor, settled on a third option. They mustered an unskilled militia of bishops, clergy and any man who could carry a stick, then marched north to confront the battle hardened Scots. En route others joined, most of whom knew nothing of combat, and by the time they arrived at Milton-upon-Swale, Melton’s rag-tag band likely outnumbered the invaders.

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The Archbishop believed his God would carry the day for the righteous men of York. Unfortunately, like his King, Melton was rubbish at battlefield strategy. Instead of forming a defensive perimeter and holding the south end of the only crossing for miles, he marched the men of York across the River Swale bridge, to do battle with The Black Douglas.

The Scots waited in their customary single wedge-division. York’s militia, lacking any manner of battlefield assemblance, stumbled toward the Scottish lines. Nearing close quarters the Scots let loose a terrifying war cry and charged the hapless English. The archbishop’s untrained militia understandably turned on their heels and broke for the Myton bridge. Unfortunately, the Scottish hobelars had already executed a flanking manoeuvre and captured the crossing. Their only access of retreat blocked most of the men of York had little choice but to stand and fight.

Map by the author

Hundreds did manage to make it to the banks of the River Swale, desperate to swim across. The river’s width was not that great an obstacle, yet factor in panic, a fast flowing river and many men who did not know how to swim. Although actual numbers will never be known, by some conservative estimates, 4,000 Englishmen died on the battlefield and another thousand drowned. The archbishop and chancellor escaped. Nicholas Flemyng became the only city mayor to be killed in battle.

The battle of Myton was actually a rout. It held no glory for the Scots.

When Edward’s nobles learnt of the Scottish invasion and the growing threat to their own homes and property, half of Edward’s army at Berwick-upon-Tweed departed the field. The siege of Berwick ended and became another in a succession of defeats for Edward II. What remained of his army could not march fast enough from Berwick to save York from sacking, burning and death.

York, after the slaughter at Myton, was at the mercy of The Black Douglas and the Earl. However, both were only too aware of how far they were from the sanctuary of Scotland’s lowlands. The returning English might move across the north and cut their retreat. Having achieved Robert’s objective, the Scottish generals decided to turn their victorious armies homeward. York was spared.

Now, the rest of the story.

For the next three years, Robert and Douglas conducted lightning raids across the north of England and in 1322, another Scottish army advanced to the outskirts of York. The English were now fearful of a full-scale Scottish assault on the northern frontier. In fact, the Scots were only demonstrating their capability to do so. Truth be told, Robert did not have the resources to capture and hold northern England. Nevertheless, in 1323 at Bishopthorpe, Edward II finally agreed to a council of truce with Robert the Bruce.

Two years later Queen Isabella and her son, Prince Edward, journeyed to France on a diplomatic mission where she became the lover of Roger Mortimer, an exiled opponent of Edward II. By the following year, Isabella raised a mercenary army and invaded England, which was in a state of anarchy. Edward II was quickly deposed, imprisoned and murdered months later.

After another successful pre-emptive victory by The Black Douglas in 1327 in County Durham, where Edward III was almost captured, the adversaries signed the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, finally recognising Robert the Bruce as King of Scots and Scotland an independent country.

As for York, it was never captured by the Scots.

References and Citations

  1. John Parker Lawson (1849), Siege of Berwick, Historical Tales of the Wars of Scotland, and of the Border Raids, Forays, and Conflicts
  2. Walter Bower, 15th century Scottish historian, The Scotichronicon, account of the Massacre of Berwick
  3. UK Battlefields Resource Centre, the Myton Campaign, Battle of Myton
  4. Hyland, Ann (1998) The Warhorse 1250–1600. pp 14, 32, 37
  5. Anglo-Scottish War / First Scottish War of Independence
  6. Brown, Michael (2008) Bannockburn, Edinburgh University Press
  7. Little, AG “The authorship of the Lanercost chronicle”, English Historical Review 31 (1916), pp. 269–279, and vol. 32 (1917), pp 48–49.
  8. Brut or the Chronicles of England, ed. F W D, Brie, 1906
  9. Cooke, D Battlefield Yorkshire From The Romans To The English Civil Wars (Barnsley, 2006) Classmark: Y 942.81 COO
  10. “Flower of Scotland” (Scots: Flouer o Scotland, Scottish Gaelic: Flùr na h-Alba) composed by Roy Williamson, The Corries, 1967

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