Scottish History and Culture

The Battle of the Standard: August 22, 1138
In the summer, King David again crossed the river Tees. And the English army met him on Cowton Moor.... The Scots were conquered, many being captured, and many killed.
Chronicle of Huntingdon

Click for Larger Image The Battle of the Standard took place near modern-day Northallerton, Yorkshire, England on August 22, 1138. During the conflict, a Scottish Army under King David of Scotland advanced south towards York, and met the Anglo-Norman defenders in an unusual encounter.

The Battle of Standard is generally considered a defeat of the Scots, who were drawn into an English war as a result of their King's landholding and feudal ties. But as we will see, within one year of his humiliating defeat, King David managed to gain mastery over much of northern England and in the process, earn the respect and admiration of Europe.

Since the reign of Malcolm Canmore (1058 - 1093) and perhaps even as far back as the Battle of Nechtansmere in 685 AD, the Scots (peoples who lived in what is now Scotland) had been in dispute with their southern neighbors over territory in Northumbria. The land had passed between the northern and southern rivals many times, with no apparent resolution of the problem. During the reign of King David I (1124 - 1153) of Scotland, nothing had changed, and in fact events took place that only served to aggravate the seriousness of the disagreement.

At the time, England was controlled by France, and had been since the Norman invasion in 1066. This was quickly followed by the defeat of Scotland in 1072 by William the Conqueror who was quickly gaining enough power to dispute his subservience by France. But the matter was never really settled before William's death and for the next century at least. In fact, for the next 500 years, France considered itself the rightful ruler of England.

Battle of the Standard was named after the Standards Archbishop Thurston brought into battle, Click for Larger ImageIn 1106, Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, invaded Normandy and became the new Duke of Normandy again under French sovereignty. His was a powerful reign, and few wished to dispute his power. King David of Scotland was related to Henry I through marriage, as his sister was the wife of Henry. With the death of Henry in the 1130's, David's niece Matilda or Maud became the rightful heir to the throne of England.

But the Norman feudal Barons were not very enthused with the idea of having a female ruler. Naturally another claimant to the throne came forward, that being Stephen of Blois, cousin of Maud and grandson of William the Conqueror. The battle for power that ensued weakened the Norman power in England considerably and left the door open for King David of Scotland to not only increase his territory but also possibly take England for Scotland.

David promptly started raiding into Northumbria while amassing his forces for an invasion. The harassment, while logical in further weakening the Norman power in England, only served to alienate several very powerful Norman lords in the area. These men, Robert de Brus, Walter l'Espec, and many others would have naturally fallen into line in David's cause to protect the rights of his niece. Instead, they now became allies of the enemy, Prince Stephen.

In 1136, with his army formed King David of Scotland made several forays into what was considered Northern England. After fighting in 1136, Scotland was given the rights to Northumbria, which were to pass to King David's son Henry. Matters quickly deteriorated however, and by 1138, the two sides were at war again. Stephen promptly met the first two invasions of 1138 with more formidable armies. King David was forced to retreat on these two previous attempts when faced with an obviously superior foe. A countering army did not meet his third attempt, which took place in the late summer of 1138.

Longbow, Click for Larger ImageIt seems as though Stephen, although greatly assisted in his efforts to gain complete control of the Kingdom by David's raids, still did not have sufficient support. During the late summer of 1138, Stephen was himself putting down revolts by nobles in southern England. With his own forces occupied, Stephen could not meet David on this third attempt at invasion.

King David's army laid siege to Wark, and quickly noticed they were largely unopposed in the field. Pressing the advantage, David moved south with a large portion of his army, while leaving a force to continue the reduction of the city. The Scots reached the border of Yorkshire unopposed in the middle of August. The inhabitants of York, greatly alarmed, immediately requested the help of Stephen, who responded by sending a small force of Norman knights to their aid, led by Bernard de Balliol.

At this point, it seems as though Archbishop Thurston of York took charge of the matter. He called a military meeting and his words, along with the arrival of the Norman knights seemed to greatly encourage the inhabitants of the area.

The forces of the local feudal barons, the Norman knights, and the city militias of York, Beverly, and Repon took to the field to meet the invading army. The Archbishop, too old to put on armor and take the field, had a wagon affixed with a communal box on a mast, which had the standards of the patron saints of the three cities attached. This became the Standard, which gives the battle its name.

King David took Wark with little opposition, Click for Larger ImageThe armies met at Cutton Mor, just north of the city of Northallerton, Northumbria. The 'English' or Norman force took ground on a small hillock to the south, while the Scots advanced and formed up on another just to the north. Of note is the size and composition of the forces; the Scots outnumbered the Norman army, but the Norman force had a larger number of archers and knights, and therefore the forces were about equal in strength.

From this point, variations in the story make it impossible to determine the exact events of the battle, but the following is clear. King David was pressured into leading with forces inappropriate for the battle by old traditions. Instead of countering the set up of the opposing army and placing strength against strength, he was forced to allow the Highlanders of Gallway to lead the attack. These men although fierce, were wasted against the superior front of dismounted knights and archers whom they attacked. This situation was further aggravated when King David's son attacked with the mounted Scottish Knights. The force broke through the Norman line, but instead of turning to attack the back of the Norman front, they continued on against the bulk of the Norman Knights who were protecting the standard.

After two hours, the battle was largely decided. Neither side had gained a serious advantage, nor would further battle change the result. The Scots turned and retired from the battlefield. The Norman side claimed victory, as they prevented further intrusion and the sacking of York. The Scots could do the same, as they returned to their siege of Wark and eventually took the city without further opposition.

In retrospect, it seems obvious that King David passed up a great opportunity at the Battle of the Standard. The results of his previous incursions, in which he showed a lack of vision or leadership, alienated the Norman lords, who should have rallied to his cause. Had David seen the opportunity and maintained strict control of his forces, he could have invaded and taken England with a much larger force, while supporting his nieces' claim of rule. It would then have been a simple matter to install her in power, subservient to his rule. Despite his strategic errors at the Battle of the Standard, David's rule was successful in the long run. By 1139, he managed to gain control of the Earldom of Northumberland from Stephen and, with the Scottish possession of Cumbria, he became master of northern England - not bad for someone who had been roundly defeated only one year before.

In contrast, Prince Stephen seems much more astute, as in the following year he ceded Northumbria to Scotland outright and placated King David. This allowed Stephen to consolidate his power and eliminate the only true threat to his Kingdom, the Scots. Thus the battle became a victory for both sides, but the Normans won the war.


The Battle of the Standard

Battle of the Standard

The Battle of the Standard


David I

Battle of Nechtansmere on GOTC

Thursday, December 26th, 2019

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