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The Battle of Neville's Cross, 1346, from a 15th-century French Manuscript

The Battle of Neville's Cross (17 Oct 1346)

While the Earl of Lancaster was pursuing his victorious course in Aquitaine, and while Edward still maintained a strict blockade upon Calais, the negotiations carried on by Philip of Valois in Scotland began to make themselves felt in their effects. Never did a more favourable occasion present itself for recovering all that Scotland had lost than at that moment. Edward himself, leading one great army through France, and his generals in Britanny and Guyenne employing two other considerable bodies in active warfare, left England, though not without defence herself, at least without the power of interfering with the internal transactions of the neighbouring country.

The very great facilities, however, which this state of things presented, did not in a little tend to carry the boldness of the Scottish counsels into rashness. Immense levies were made in various parts of the country; and David Bruce, finding himself at the head of more than 50,000 men, determined upon seeking temporary revenge, instead of obtaining permanent security. He might have freed Scotland, but he chose rather to ravage England. The truce between the two countries had been already broken before the battle of Cressy; and a hostile incursion from the north, apparently crowned with success, had spread terror and devastation over a considerable part of the English border.1

The pressing entreaties of Philip, and the news that fresh levies were every day drawn from England to swell the assailants of Calais, might afford the chivalrous pretence for an unwise enterprise; but it was probably the augury of one successful expedition which induced the Scottish monarch to risk his whole fortunes upon a second. In the beginning of October, 1346, he began his march, and entered the pale of England. Ravaging the country as he proceeded, the King of Scotland advanced into the county palatine of Durham; and a multitude of excesses are attributed to himself and to his followers by English historians, which, fortunately for the honour of human nature, are by no means proved. His progress received little obstruction, till he arrived in the immediate vicinity of Durham; but the English council and the lords of the English marches had not been ignorant of his approach, or negligent in providing the means of opposition. The former incursion, which had announced the rupture of the truce, had put the queen and the government upon their guard; and orders had been issued in the end of August for calling out the array of the border counties.

Battle of Neville's Cross, from a 15th manuscript Tidings of great military preparations in Scotland had rendered the measures of the English court more pressing and energetic from day to day; and at length the Queen herself,2 finding that a more serious invasion of the country than had taken place for many years was upon the point of execution, is said to have hastened into Northumberland, in order to encourage the nobles and soldiers of the border by her presence and example. Nor were the Barons at all tardy in seconding her efforts; and the Archbishop of York [William De la Zouche], the Bishop of Durham [Thomas Hatfield], the Lords of Percy [Henry de Percy, 2nd Baron Percy], Umfraville, Neville [Ralph Neville, 2nd Baron Neville de Raby], Mowbray [John de Mowbray, 3rd Baron of Mowbray], Lucy [Sir Thomas de Lucy], Rokeby [Sir Thomas de Rokeby], and De Gray [Sir Thomas Grey], called the whole country north of Trent to arms, and marched with increasing numbers to meet the invader.3 Battle of Neville's Cross, from a 15th manuscript The two armies encountered each other at Neville's Cross, within a few miles of Durham; and the Queen, who had accompanied her troops to the field, after exhorting the soldiers to remember their absent King, and to do their duty in defence of his throne and their country, left them to engage, and retired to wait the event.4

The English forces were far inferior in number to the Scots; and both were actuated by equal hate, and inspired with equal courage: but skill was upon the side of England. The Scots had embarrassed themselves amongst enclosed grounds, in which the superiority of their numbers could not be rendered available; their advance guard fell in with the English before they were aware, and suffered a complete defeat; and ere the men at arms could be brought to act, the galling arrows of the English archers had carried terror and disarray into many parts of the Scottish ranks. Sir John Graham, indeed, attempted the same manoeuvre as that which had turned the fortune of Bannockburn; but the Scottish position had not been chosen with the wisdom of a Robert the Bruce. The charge of the gallant knight on the flank of the adverse archers could only be effected imperfectly; and in the melee which ensued, though a very considerable loss was sustained by the English, the Scots were completely defeated.

Battle of Neville's Cross, from a 15th manuscript

One body, commanded by the Earl of March, made its retreat in good order; but from 15,000 to 20,000 brave men were left dead upon the field of battle, and an extraordinary number of noble prisoners fell into the hands of the English.5 Of these the chief was David Bruce the King of Scotland. Wounded in several places, and fighting on foot like a common soldier, he was assailed by a border rider named John Copland, who, after a severe struggle with the unhappy monarch, in which the King with a blow of his dagger dashed out two of his adversary's teeth, succeeded in taking him prisoner, and, accompanied by about twenty followers, carried him safe out of the battle. Such was the victory of Neville's Cross;6 and the expedition which was intended to act as a diversion in favour of Philip of Valois, and by the danger of England to withdraw Edward from France, only served to render the cause of the French king more desperate, and to extend and strengthen the power of his adversary.

David Bruce remained for some months in the custody of John Copland, who refused to deliver him to any one without the express command of the King; but an order to that effect having been at length received by the borderer, the unfortunate monarch was placed in the hands of Thomas of Rokeby, who conveyed him to the Tower of London on the 2nd of January, 1347.7 His captor, however, was not left without a reward proportioned to the importance of the prisoner; and we find that he was immediately raised to the rank of banneret, while 500l. per annum8 were assigned him, for the purpose of supporting his new dignity. At the same time, Edward gave him another testimony of his gratitude, which was probably very necessary to a border rider of those days; namely, a free pardon for all murders, felonies, robberies, thefts, and acts of receiving stolen goods which the newly created banneret had committed, up to the period of his late advancement.9

While Philippa, crowned with victory, made every arrangement for securing the internal tranquillity of England, and prepared to pass the sea and carry the joy of her presence to her husband and her son, the siege of Calais proceeded slowly but steadily towards its conclusion.

1. Rymer, Foedera, tom. ii. part iv. p. 204.
2. Froissart is the only authority, I believe, who states positively that Philippa was present herself on this occasion; and from that circumstance his account has not only been doubted, but its accuracy has been positively denied. In examining the chapters, however, which refer to this subject, I find him so accurate in regard to all the persons holding a command in the English army, so completely borne out by the state papers in a thousand particulars, that, in the absence of all proof that Philippa was not there, I should at once receive his narrative on that point, even were it not supported by very strong collateral reasons for believing it to be correct. We must also remember that this very book was presented to Philippa herself by the historian who possessed every means of information.
3. Rymer, tom. ii. part iv. p. 206.
4. Froissart, chap. cccvi.
5. It would appear from the State Papers (vol. iii. part i. p. 6.) that the Earls of Fife and Monteith were tried for having borne arms against England and against Baliol, after having sworn fealty to Edward and to that prince. The Earl of Fife was pardoned on account of his consanguinity to the King, but the Earl of Monteith was ordered for execution. We find but rare examples in the civil wars of the fourteenth century, even in the fiercest struggles, of persons being murdered with the mockery of justice, after surrender, on the pretence of being taken in arms against their prince. This extension of the horrors of war to cold-blooded slaughter after the heat of strife is over, is a modern improvement. Whenever we do find a prisoner executed, it was upon the accusation of having quitted that cause to which he had vowed adherence, and not upon his having wrongly or mistakenly chosen his side at first.
6. This battle is generally said to have been fought on the 17th of October 1346: but a mistake may have occurred somewhere in regard to the day; for it is evident from a paper in Rymer (torn. ii. part iv. p. 206.), that news of the fight and its success had reached London on the 20th of that month; and also, as the name of Copland is found amongst those to whom the thanks of the council are given, it is clear likewise that his capture of the King was known at that time, as he was evidently not one of those to whom such a letter would have been addressed had he not performed some new and extraordinary service.
It may not be unnecessary to remark that Barnes is probably wrong in stating that a part of the army besieging Calais was sent to England to aid in opposing the Scots; for we find that, at this very time, Edward was himself drawing large reinforcements from his own country.
7. Rymer, vol. ii. part i. p. 2.
8. Equivalent to more than 6000l. per annum of our present money [AJ Note: That is, in 1836. £500 in 1347 was comparable to roughly £405,000 in 2020 purchasing power].
9. Froissart declares that John Copland refusing in direct terms to deliver the King of Scotland to the Queen, Philippa despatched messengers to her husband complaining of this act of disrespect; but Edward having commanded the borderer to yield up his prisoner and appear before him at Calais, recompensed his services, and gave a special pardon for the offence he had committed against the Queen. The only pardon, however, which I can find recorded is that which I have stated above.

      Excerpted from:

      James, G. P. R. A History of the Life of Edward the Black Prince, Vol. II.
      London: Longman, Rees, &c., 1836. 1-7.

Other Local Resources:

Books for further study:

Burne, A. H. The Battlefields of England.
           Pen and Sword, 2005.

Rollason, David, and Michael Prestwich, eds. The Battle of Neville's Cross 1346.
           Paul Watkins, 1998.

Sadler, John. Border Fury: England and Scotland at War 1296-1568.
           Routledge, 2006.

Sumption, Jonathan. The Hundred Years War: Trial by Fire.
           University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

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This page was created on January 12, 2018. Last updated March 5, 2023.

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