The Anglo-Scottish Wars

The Anglo-Scottish Wars

The prosperity of 13th-century Northumberland was paralleled north of the border in Scotland. The royal burghs grew, trade expanded and agriculture flourished. The Southern Uplands were grazed by the sheep of the great monasteries, and their wool provided the trade for the important towns of Roxburgh and Berwick. Berwick was the greatest Scottish port, ‘a second Alexandria’, and in 1286 its customs revenue was over £2,000, compared with Newcastle’s £323 in 1282.

There were close links between Northumberland and Scotland. The border was long established, but it separated two regions with much in common. Lothian had been part of Anglian Northumbria, and the 12th century had seen extensive .Norman settlement in

southern Scotland. There was much common landholding across the border: Gilbert de Umfraville, baron of Prudhoe, and holder of Redesdale, was also Earl of Angus. The Gospatric family, descendants of the old pre-Conquest Northumbrian royal house, were now Earls of Dunbar, but also held the Beanley barony in the Aln valley. The Scots’ king himself held Tynedale.

This prosperity and accord was swept away after Alexander III of Scotland died in 1286. An early fragment of Scots’ verse claimed that ‘Qwhen Alexander our kynge was dede’ then ‘our golde was changit into lede’, a backward look to a golden age that had more justice than such claims usually have. The King’s successor was a very young child, Margaret of Norway. A group of Guardians took control of Scotland, and negotiated that the girl should eventually marry Edward I’s son and heir. However, Margaret died on her way from Norway, and faced with rivals for the throne the Scots reluctantly allowed Edward to arbitrate. This he did, at the price of recognition of his overlordship of Scotland, and he decided in favour of John Balliol, who did homage to Edward.

As late as Michaelmas 1295 there was still peace on the border, and Ellen de Prenderlath, a Scotswoman, invested a legacy in a mortgage secured by a lease on Moneylaws, just on the English side of the Tweed. The Scots, however, had had enough of Edward I’s claims to overlordship. In Berwick, English ships were burnt and merchants killed, and a group took Wark Castle. Edward rapidly recaptured Wark and besieged Berwick, which he took with great ferocity, slaughtering many of the inhabitants. In a counter-move the same month, April 1296, a party of Scots, aided by Adam Swynburne of East Swynburne in Tynedale, raided across the Cheviots, burning villages and crops, damaging Hexham Priory, and, according to English propaganda that was probably a gross exaggeration

or distortion, burning alive 200 schoolboys at Corbridge school.

This outbreak of war was to lead to 300 years of trouble and poverty along the border. Many landowners were torn in their loyalties, and several Northumbrians like Swynburne, Wishart of Moneylaws, and Ros of Wark sided with the Scots. Although William Wallace, a leader, of the Scottish independence revolt, wasted much of the county in

1297 from a base in Rochbury forest (but was unsuccessful in besieging the castles) , Edward I was largely victorious and carried the war into Scotland. But after Edward’s death in 1307,  Robert Bruce’s campaign of ‘defending himself with the longest stick he had’ led to raids in Northumberland. In 1308 the crops at Temple Thornton near Nether

witton had been ‘sold in a hurry through dread of a raid of the Scots’. The Community of Northumberland paid Bruce £2,000 in blackmail for truces in 1311  and 1312-13.  Cattle and sheep were driven off, crops taken or destroyed. The discord of Edward II and his barons led to weak resistance; some, like Thomas of Lancaster, had dealings with Bruce.

After his defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, Edward still refused to recognise Scottish independence, so Bruce ran an intensified terror campaign     in the north of England, penetrating as far as north Yorkshire. There was great devastation, but because it was remote from the heartland of southern England, Edward was slow to react. The record for Tarset in Redesdale in 1315 that ‘the manor is now worth nothing because it lies waste and destroyed by the Scots’ is repeated in village after village. The coalmines at Cullercoats were destroyed. Law and order collapsed, and the people were torn between the Scots and local oppressors like Jack le Irroys. In 1316 the inhabitants of Bamburgh complained that this constable of Bamburgh Castle refused to let them buy off Bruce for £270 unless they paid him an equal amount. There were many petitions for war damage, and in 1318  Edward ordered the distribution of 40 tuns of wine to deserving members of the Northumbrian gentry.

The disasters of these years were compounded by a wet summer and ruined harvest in 1315, and great famine the following year. In desperation at Edward’s lack of protection for the county, a group of Northumbrian knights and gentry led by Sir Gilbert de Middleton rebelled in 1317, in alliance with the Scots and possibly with Lancaster.

They kidnapped the Bishop-elect of Durham and two cardinals, and held Mitford and Horton Castles. The rebels were defeated, but, although they have often been pictured as mere bandits, the revolt was partly a response to the breakdown of law and order, and their action is understandable. Many Northumbrians changed sides at this time.

The English continued to refuse to agree to a treaty, and in 1327 Bruce led a further series of devasting raids. This time he may have planned to annex Northumberland, for he granted land charters to his followers, such as part of Belford to a member of the Scrymgeour family. The ‘poure gentz de la Communaute de Northumbreland’ petitioned Edward for pardon of war-time debts as 200 townships lay deserted. This time Edward did agree to a treaty, but with Bruce’s death shortly after, Balliol renewed his claims, and there was a drift into regular war again.

It would serve no useful purpose to recount the detailed sequence of battles, raids and truces over the period 1330 to 1490. It is unlikely the devastation was ever as great as that in the period of Bruce’s terror campaign, though that was, of course the period when there was still something to lose. The 1330s saw the war carried into Scotland and the

establishment of an English-controlled buffer region in south-east Scotland. But raids continued, and in 1346 David Bruce ravaged around Slaley and Blanchiand before being defeated at Neville’s Cross. After a truce of eight years there was war again in 1355, when Sir Thomas Gray was captured at the siege of Norham and imprisoned in Edinburgh, where he began his great chronicle of the border war, Scalachronica.

Another disaster magnified the tragedy of 14th-century Northum­berland. In 1349 the Black Death or plague struck with even worse effect than the Scots. Many died, and the local economy was disrupted: at Monkseaton in the south-east, the bondage holdings were reduced by one-third, and as late as 1377 six of the other 10 farms had lain waste ‘since the time of the first pestilence’. At Belford there were so many dead the gentry had to ask for a local cemetery as Bamburgh was too distant.

One aspect of the years 1330 to 1400 is particularly important: a change in the power structure in the county. Many of the older families were ruined by the Scots’ raids or by confiscation following their choosing the wrong side at the wrong time. Power and influence increasingly went to holders of military and Crown office, with their incomes, military backing and acquisition of forfeited lands. Foremost were the Percies, an old-established family in Sussex and Yorkshire, but who had only acquired the Ainwick barony in 1309 from Bishop Bek. In 1331 they got Warkworth barony, and made Warkworth Castle their main home, and later acquired the Prudhoe barony from the Umfravilles, who largely retreated into their Lincolnshire lands. During the 14th century the Percies (who became Earls of Northum­berland), along with the Nevilles, rose to be the main military and political leaders in the north, serving as Wardens of the Marches. A host of lesser men also rose in status through the wars, and this was highly resented by the older families, in one case at least leading to murder. John Coupland was a local man who had risen in the royal service, especially after capturing David Bruce at Neville’s Cross. He was made a banneret with a £500 annuity and was several times sheriff of the county. (It is interesting to note that one of his fellow sheriffs in the 1350s was Alan del Strother, who was probably one of the two clerks celebrated in Chaucer’s Reeve’s Tale.) Coupland was murdered on Bolton Moor near Ainwick just before Christmas in 1363 by a group of Northumbrian gentry, a murder that was covered up by the investigating jury, not surprisingly since the jury contained Sir William Heron, one of the instigators of the murder.

The new men had come to say, however. Border warfare became institutionalised, with local leaders having a vested interest in its continuation, and in raiding and plunder. Even during formal truces there were private raids by both sides, often instigated by the great barons themselves. On the Scottish side the Douglases filled the role of the Percies and there was great rivalry between the families, culminating in the Scots’ raid on Durham in 1388, the subsequent personal combat between Harry Hotspur and Douglas before the Walls of Newcastle, and the Scottish victory (but Douglas’s death) at the battle of Otterburn. In 1402 the Percies got their revenge at the battle of Homildon Hill near Wooler. The power acquired by these great border magnates through their standing armies grew to be a threat to both the English and Scottish kings. The power of Percy and Neville put Bolinbroke on the throne in 1399,  and these families were heavily involved in the English political conflicts of the 15th century. For a short period from 1461 to 1464 Northumberland was the focus of the Wars of the Roses, with Edward IV defeating the Lancastrians at Percy’s Cross and Hexham, and besieging Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh. These conflicts, combined with internal political problems in Scotland, meant that there was less organised border warfare than in the 14th century. But this did not relieve the poverty or halt the intermittent fighting and raiding. So in 1416 Hepple in Coquetdale was destroyed by the Scots, and again in 1436, and in the late 1440s the Douglases burnt Alnwick and Warkworth. The future Pope, Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini, travelled through Northumberland in 1435 and recorded a bleak picture. The houses were of earth or wood, white bread was unknown, and at night all the men took shelter from the Scots in a local pele-tower, but left the women outside, saying that they would not be harmed. Aeneas was glad to reach Newcastle and commented ‘Northumberland was uninhabitable, horrible, uncultivated’.