The Battle of Halidon Hill

Saturday 19th July marks the anniversary of the Siege of Berwick and Battle of Halidon Hill.


Monument placed at the foot of Halidon Hill on the A6105

Edward III was born in 1312 and at the tender age of 13 was created Earl of Aquitaine in order that he could go, with his mother Isabella, to France to pay homage to Charles IV on behalf of his father Edward II.

While there, Isabella conspired with the exiled Roger Mortimer which led to an invasion of England, the eventual murder of Edward II and the coronation of Edward III in 1327.


The coronation of Edward III

However, as Edward was still only 15, it was Mortimer who was de facto ruler of the country.  In 1328, after defeat at Weardale, Mortimer and Isabella signed the Treaty of Northampton in the name of Edward which ended the First Wars of Scottish Independence.  In exchange for £100,000, Scotland was to be recognised as an independent nation, Bruce and his descendants were its rightful sovereigns and the Anglo-Scottish border was to be that at the time of Alexander III.

This was deeply unpopular with the English nobility who saw it as a humiliation.  There had always been tension between Mortimer and Edward and in 1330, Edward captured and executed Mortimer.


Edward seizes Mortimer

Meanwhile in Scotland, Bruce’s son David II, born in 1324, was now the king of Scotland.  Incidentally, under the terms of the Treaty of Northampton, he was married to Edward II’s daughter Joan at Berwick in 1328.  There had been unrest from a group of the English nobility known as The Disinherited.  They had lost land in Scotland through the treaty and plotted to replace the child king David with the exiled Edward Balliol, son of the “puppet king” John Balliol.

The Treaty of Northampton did not permit English forces to cross the Tweed.  So in July 1332 a fleet of 88 ships sailed from Yorkshire to Kinghorn in Fife with a small army of about 1,500 to 2,500 men.  Significantly a large proportion of the foot soldiers were longbowmen.  From Kinghorn they marched towards Dunfermline and then north to Perth.  The ensuing Battle of Dupplin Moor was a crushing blow for Scotland. 


The Battle of Dupplin Moor, 1332

Crucially, as Sir Charles Oman puts it in the classic, A History of The Art of War in the Middle Ages, 

“The Battle of Dupplin forms a turning point in the history of Scottish wars. For the future the English always adopted the order of battle which Balliol and Beaumont had discovered. It was the first in a long series of battles won by a combination of archers and dismounted men-at-arms.”

Edward Balliol was crowned at Scone but his reign was not to last long.  He consolidated his position in Galloway, the heart of the Balliol lands.  But in December, Bruce loyalists surprised him and chased him, half-dressed, across the English border.  David II was restored to the Scottish throne.

So the scene was set for the resumption of hostilities.  The Scots had anticipated the resumption of war and strengthened the town’s defences.  The castle was commanded by Patrick de Dunbar, 9th Earl of March.  Some have said, with justification, that March had sympathies with the English; he gave assistance to Edward II at Dunbar on his retreat to Berwick after Bannockburn. The town was entrusted to Sir Alexander Seton.  

Edward III set out to revenge the usurpation of Balliol and had two trebuchets built at Hull and barrels of stone balls specially prepared.  Another siege engine was supplied from York Castle.  These were duly shipped to Berwick aboard the Gracedieu, Jonette and the Nicholas with 691 specially carved stone balls packed in barrels.  Other supplies were sent to Newcastle.  Balliol and other Disinherited nobles crossed the Tweed near Roxborough, near Kelso, on March 11th and advanced towards Berwick. 


Trebuchets—the siege engines of choice!

The siege of the town commenced on 4th April, 1333 led by Edward III’s uncle, Thomas of Brotherton, Earl of Norfolk and Lord Marshall and Lord William Montague.  Another important figure was one John Crabbe.  A Flemish pirate turned mercenary siege engineer, he had been Captain of Berwick Castle working for the Scots when Edward II besieged it in 1319.  He had been captured by the English and now used his insider knowledge of the defences to aid their assault.  

The English encamped on the north side of the river, probably in the vicinity of Bondington.  Ditches were dug and the town’s water supply, probably the Tappee Pond, cut off.  The Chronica Monasterii de Melsa tells us:

“The English everywhere surrounded their army with a ditch, at the bottom of which they found the four conduits supplying the town with fresh water; breaking which, they deprived the town of all fresh water.”

A strict blockade was set up; nobody was allowed in or out of Berwick.  Occasional attacks were made by filling the town ditches with trestles and scaling the walls failed.  An attack from the river fared as badly ending with the burning of the ships although this backfired on the defenders literally with much of the lower part of the town being destroyed by the flames.


A town defends itself against seaborne attack

In the chronicles, we have the first recorded use of guns in a British siege.  An early record known as the Brut, describes the scene:

when he was redy, he went toward the toune of Berwik-vpon Twyde and thider come to him Kyng Edward of Scotland with his power and bisegede the toune, and made without the toune a faire toune of pavylouns, and dikede ham wel al aboute, so that thai hade non drede of the Scottes & made meny assautes with gonnes and with othere engynes to the toune, wherwith thai destroiede menu a fair hous and cherches also were beten adoune vnto the erthe, with gret stones, and spitouse comyng out of gonnes and of othere gynnes. and notheles the Scottes kepte wel the toune, that tho 2 knyghtes might nought come therin longe tyme.

Some have said that these were cannon though it is more likely they were hand held small arms.


”…spitouse comyng out of gonnes…“  An early medieval cannon

Edward arrived at the beginning of May having ensconced his wife, Philippa at Bamburgh Castle for safety.  A parliament was held in the area known as the West End of Tweedmouth and terms of capitulation were offered to and accepted by the besieged.  The terms were that, unless the town was relieved by 11th July, it would capitulate and the inhabitants free to leave. Hostages were given as a guarantee of the good faith of the besieged.  Amongst these hostages was Thomas, one of Sir Alexander Seton’s sons.  Messengers were allowed from Berwick to inform the Guardian of Scotland, Sir Archibald Douglas, Earl of Mar.  

Towards the end of the time agreed upon, Douglas’ army came in sight of the town, crossed upstream of the castle at Yareford, proceeded to burn Tweedmouth and threatened the English army from the south side of the Tweed.  Sir William Keith, with a small group of Scots, managed to cross the bridge and get into the town.  The besieged thought that they had succeeded in fulfilling the terms of the truce.  

The Scots encamped on Sunnyside hill to the south of Tweedmouth and threatened the English that they would lay waste to North Northumberland if the siege was not lifted.  Edward was not intimidated and Douglas proceeded south to besiege Bamburgh Castle where Queen Philippa was being kept, supposedly for her safety!

Sir William Keith being Seton’s superior, took over the Governorship of the town.  Edward had other ideas as to whether Keith’s band amounted to a relief-party and when the time of the truce was up, he threatened Thomas Seton with death unless the town was immediately given up. 

Two of Sir Alexander Seton’s sons had already been lost.  Alexander Seton had been killed when Balliol had landed at Kinghorn the previous year against the English and William was killed while defending Berwick against the seaborne attack.  Legend has it, indeed has given it a tragic and heroic twist, that Lady Seton implored her husband not to surrender the town.  “I can always give you more sons but you can never regain your honour.”

This is unlikely as Keith was in charge.  Seton’s son was hanged.  Where is uncertain.  Local myth has it that he met his death at Hang-a-Dyke Neuk on the south bank of the Tweed just upstream of the railway viaduct but this is unlikely as the English were on the north side of the river; the Scots on the south.  The other hostages were to be dispatched over he next few days.


The hostages are hanged

New, more specific terms for a settlement were drawn up.  This time, to win the day, the Scots must be able to cross the Tweed at a fishery called Berwick Stream, win a battle on the peninsula on which Berwick stood or force a body of 200 men through English lines with a loss of no more than 30.  If they were not successful by 20th July, the English would allow those who wished to leave the town to do so with all their belongings.

Word was sent to Douglas who was by now marauding the countryside around Morpeth.  He returned north and crossed the river near Duns.  Their movements were watched by 200 English troops.  A further 500 were deployed as a rearguard to keep watch on the castle and town and the remainder were relocated to the top of Halidon Hill, the Hallowed Down, possibly referring to its proximity to the Cistercian Nunnery at Bondington.

It was dawn, 19th July when the Scottish army moved from Duns eastward along the route that is now the B6355 towards Foulden Hill and emerged at Witches Knowe, then known as Bothulle.

By noon English scouts had spotted the Scottish army and Edward arranged his 9,000 troops in three divisions; to the east, Sir Edward Bohun, in the centre, Edward III and on the left flank, Edward Balliol.  Each division had its own body of archers on each side of it.

The Scots would have seen the smaller English force.  It is easy to judge with the benefit of history but Douglas’ judgement has been questioned.  What was the worst that could have happened?  Berwick would be surrendered with no loss of life or possessions.  As is often the case in these matters a combination of lack of battle experience, sense of honour and lack of intelligence of the terrain conspired to decide Douglas’ mind and engage with the enemy, despite the words of the late king Robert the Bruce never to engage with the English in open battle.

The Scottish army was arranged in four schiltrons of spearmen; the first led by John, Earl of Moray, the second by Robert Stewart, the High Steward, the third by the Earls of Ross, Sutherland and Strathearn and bringing up the rear, Sir Archibald Douglas.  In total probably about 15–20,000 men.

The battle was preceded by, as had happened at Bannockburn, a single combat between the champions of each nation.  Scotland was represented by Raoul Turnbull a giant of a man accompanied by his mastiff.  According to Scottish lore, he was the first to bear the name having saved Robert the Bruce from a charging bull.  Such derring do did little to help him this day.  Sir Robert Benhale dispatched the dog then Turnbull with a mighty two-handed sword.


The Turnbull/Benhale combat as depicted in a guide

The battle commenced.  

In the west, Moray and Stewart took on Edward Balliol and the King Edward.  Archibald Douglas attacked Edward Bohun hoping to break through and relieve Berwick.  

The attempt was hopeless.  The Scottish army had had to march 15 miles to the site and then made the tactical error of coming down from the heights of Witches Knowe on to the plain.  Modern agriculture has drained the land but one of the farm names gives a clue – Bogend.


The Scots position on Witches Knowe behind Bogend

The Scottish army got severely hampered by the quagmire.  Meanwhile, the English who thad been rested in their position long before remembered the lessons of Dupplin Moor.  Their relatively new secret weapon, the longbow came into play.  Volley upon volley of arrows rained down upon the Scots, leaving any formation they may have had in total disarray.  The Scots would have been tired by the muddy terrain and when one goes to the flat terrain of Bogend you can see how it would literally have been an uphill struggle for them to then reach the English position on Halidon Hill.  


English longbowmen unleash the new horror of medieval warfare

It is said the hail of arrows was so intense that many Scots turned their faces away as if walking into a storm of sleet. The Lanercost Chronicle reports: 

…the Scots who marched in the front were so wounded in the face and blinded by the multitude of English arrows that they could not help themselves, and soon began to turn their faces away from the blows of the arrows and fall.”


The north slopes of Halidon Hill, the site of the English army, as seen from Bogend

There were some pockets of bravery; the Earl of Ross and his contingent fought to the death but Moray’s division broke first and the others soon followed.  King Edward gave the order for his cavalry to charge and the English pursued the retreating Scots for five miles to Ayton.

Among the Scots nobility to be killed that day were Archibald Douglas himself, John Campbell  Earl of Atholl, Alexander Bruce, Earl of Carrick, Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, Kenneth de Moravia, Earl of Sutherland and Hugh, Earl of Ross

It is always difficult to accurately say how may fought and died in these battles, but the Scottish casualties ran into the high thousands.  By contrast, and showing more than anything the unevenness of the odds stacked in their favour, the English lost only a handful of men.  The Brut gives Scottish casualties of 30,000 and English of 7 which is an exaggeration both ways, but you get the idea.

News of Halidon sent shock waves across southern Scotland.  In England the victory, the first for many years, brought a great boost to the morale of the nation.  Bannockburn had finally been avenged.  There were many poems and songs written in celebration.  

The English poet, Laurence Minot, was exultant:

A little fro that foresaid toune
Halydon-hill that es the name 
Thaire was crakked many a crowne 
Of wild Scottes, and alls of tame;
Thaire was thaire banner born all doune.

After Halidon most of the country’s natural leaders were dead, and the few who remained were in hiding. Scotland was prostrate. It was said at the time that the English victory had been so complete that it marked the final end of the northern war. Five years after the battle the English chronicler Adam Murimuth wrote:

And so, men freely declare that the Scotch wars had been brought to their close, that nothing remained of the Scotch nation that was willing or able to defend or govern itself.”

Another chronicler wrote that:

“[there was] not a man was left of that nation who had either skill, power or inclination to assemble an army or direct its operations.”

History shows that this was not quite the case.  Balliol proceeded north and declared himself king once more and restored lands in the borders to the "Disinherited”, by reversing all territorial grants of the Bruce. In doing so he dispossessed a whole new generation of Scots nobility of their land, thus ensuring continued conflict.

Edward III did little to exploit his success.  His attention now turned to France and thus began the Hundred Years War.  The longbow had proved it worth and was to be a major weapon in the English arsenal until the musket was properly developed.


Depiction of the longbow in use at the Battle of Crécy, one of the most important battles of the Hundred Years War

And Berwick?

The years between 1318 and 1333 was one of the last periods when the Scots would hold Berwick for any length of time.  The town would exchange nationality a further 8 times before Richard, Duke of Gloucester took it for the last time in 1482.

But that’s another story.


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