Battle of the Standard
On the death of Henry I in 1135 his nephew Stephen of Blois usurped the throne with the agreement of the king’s council. Henry’s daughter and heir Matilda’s claim was ignored. Henry’s illegitimate son the Earl of Gloucester sided with his half-sister, and her uncle David I of Scotland pledged his help. Stephen was profligate and weak, wrecking the country’s finances in short order. Conflict was inevitable.
In January 1138 David I invaded England, taking Carlisle and Northumberland . Stories spread of rapine and mindless bloodlust, of children butchered and priests tortured to death, even of cannibalism. Mostly propaganda in all likelihood, but expanded on by Thurston, Archbishop of York , appointed hastily as Stephen’s commander in the North to recruit from Saxon and Norman communities alike and make the struggle a holy war.
The Scots and English met in the early morning of August 22nd near Northallerton on the Great North Road, both armies taking position on small hills a short distance apart. The English mustered perhaps 10 – 11,000, including 6,000 trained and well-armed warriors, plus 1,000 longbowmen. To the English rear was a chariot with a ship’s mast mounted on it, the banners of four northern saints hanging from it – it is from this standard that the battle takes its name. The Scots outnumbered them, with between 15,000 and 20,000 men, though the bulk were ill-disciplined if tough men of Galway (Galwegians) and the Highlands .
The Galwegians demanded to be in the vanguard, and David acceded to this. Charging the English men-at-arms the semi-naked Galwegians were decimated by volleys of arrow, then when they reached their enemy they faced a wall of pikes and after that battle-ready soldiers armed with long swords and well-armoured to boot. The Scots, with short claymore swords, fought ferociously, screaming “Albanaich” (Men of Scotland) and made some inroads, but any break in the line was quickly filled by reserves marshalled by the English leadership (Archbishop Thurston was ill and absent, his place probably filled by the Sheriff of York, Walter d’Espec).
The Scots mounted force, under Prince Henry, David’s son, did briefly punch a hold in the English defences, but were repulsed. The Lothians in David’s reserve panicked and fled and the battle was lost in that instant, quickly turning to a rout. Some sources say the Scots lost 12,000, but this is highly unlikely. Only one English noble is known to have died in the three hour struggle, so it can be surmised that losses on Stephen’s side were generally low.
David returned to Carlisle in undignified haste but it seems with his remaining force in reasonable order, occupying the city again. Later negotiations took place between David and Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne, satisfying both parties: the Scots kept Carlisle and Northumbria but deferred to English rule there; David agreed to stay at peace with King Stephen.
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