Friday, October 27, 2017

The debacle in Weardale - or how a young king learnt a valuable lesson

by Anna Belfrage

Bannockburn as depicted in Holkham Bible
In 1327, a very young Edward III rode out of York at the head of an army. His purpose was to find and destroy the Scots who were presently raiding northern England, leaving destruction in their wake. Edward was not having it, all of him quivering in anticipation at the thought of teaching these dratted Scots a lesson. After all, Bannockburn was still an open sore for the English, and our gallant young king wanted nothing so much as to show the Scots he too could hammer them. Just like his grandfather had done.

Not everyone was as enthused as Edward. Notably the king’s mother and her constant companion and co-regent, Roger Mortimer, had no desire to provoke a full out war with Scotland. First of all,  they were already in some sort of negotiation with Robert Bruce—they had been since 1326 when they promised Bruce a permanent treaty if he did not take advantage of the turbulent situation caused by their invasion of England and subsequent imprisonment and deposition of Edward II.  Secondly, England was as yet not fully pacified. Yes, by the summer of 1327 Mortimer had control of most of the kingdom, but there were several very strong barons who were severely disenchanted by the fact that England was now ruled by Isabella and Mortimer. Men like Henry of Lancaster, Edmund of Woodstock (earl of Kent) and several others felt they too should have a say in how the realm was governed during the king’s minority.

Robert Bruce
The reason Robert Bruce had agreed to hold off while Mortimer and Isabella did their invading thing was because he wanted a permanent peace. His country needed peace, and a treaty would not only give Scotland that but also confirm Robert Bruce as king, thereby strengthening the Bruce dynasty. At the time, Robert Bruce was all of fifty-three and fully aware of the fact that he would likely not live much longer. His heir was a boy of three and Robert knew his countrymen well enough to know a boy-king could quickly become a pawn—or even worse, ousted.

Edward III being crowned
Robert watched from afar as Mortimer and Isabella landed in September of 1326, sat on his hands throughout the following months as Isabella and Mortimer took control over the country. Come February of 1327, Edward II had abdicated, Edward III was crowned, and Bruce expected the treaty with Scotland to be the next item on the agenda. It wasn’t. Isabella and Mortimer had a kingdom to heal, an administration to put in order, muttering barons to be put in their place. On the other side of the border, Robert the Bruce grew impatient. When the negotiations were yet again put on hold—or broke down, depending on whose POV you applied—the Scottish king decided to do some serious prodding. He ordered his two captains, James Douglas and Thomas Randolph to invade northern England and create havoc.

Which is why, in July of 1327, Edward III did all that mustering. An impressive English army took the field, led by the Earl Marshal of the realm (Edward’s uncle, the earl of Norfolk), the earl of Kent (Edward’s other uncle) and the earl of Lancaster who was more than happy to ride against the Scots as a lot of the raiding was done on his land plus he suspected the king's campaign against the Scots had seriously twisted Mortimer’s nose out of joint. Whatever Mortimer’s private thoughts on this matter, he too rode with the king. While not given an official command, I think it’s a safe bet to assume Mortimer was very much on top of things—it sort of went with his nature.

Edward was of the firm opinion that Scotland was his kingdom. He had his forces ride under the cross of St George, bright red crosses flapping in the wind as the English army advanced. As an aside, Edward III had a serious thing about St George, whom he considered a far more appropriate saint for his bellicose ambitions than Edward the Confessor. This is why he founded a college dedicated to St George at Windsor (which then took over the chapel previously dedicated to St Edward) and why the red cross is part of the insignia for the Order of Bath. Right: not today’s topic.

James Douglas was as capable as any of the commanders on the English side. This hero of the Scottish people had stood by his king through thick and thin and would continue to do so as long as he had breath in his body. He had only one objective with his raiding: to force the English back to the negotiation table, there to recognise Scottish independence and Robert the Bruce as Scottish king. Made Edward almost choke just to think of doing so. His grandfather had fought long and hard to bring the Scots to bay, and our Edward was not about to give back what he considered his.

So off the English army went, eager to corner the Scots and force them to fight. Douglas was no fool.  He'd be outnumbered on the battlefield. Instead, he led his mounted men in a cat-and-mouse game. If Edward and his men rode one way, the Scots would ride the other and set whatever buildings they came across alight. If the English turned towards the destruction, chances were new fires would spring to life behind them. Very frustrating. I imagine Edward took every opportunity offered to call these elusive Scots craven and misbegotten creatures.

The Scots were neither craven or misbegotten. After some weeks of playing the scarlet pimpernel with the English (you know: they seek him here, they seek him there. Is he in heaven or is he in hell, that darned elusive pimpernel?) Douglas found a nice, strong position and set up camp. He also had one of his English captives released, ordering the man to find Edward and tell him the Scots were waiting to do him battle.

James Douglas among his peers
“Yes!” Edward exclaimed. “Finally!” His commanders were not quite as delighted. Mortimer especially had far too much respect for Douglas to believe Sir James had set himself up as an easy kill. He hadn’t. Douglas had chosen his position carefully. A hill, defended by the river Wear and steep slopes, with Douglas’ colours—three silver stars on a blue background—flapping lazily in the wind. Mortimer groaned inwardly, even more so when Edward started talking about what strategies to use to pulverise the Scots.

“You can’t fight them up that hill,” Mortimer told his young king.
“Of course, I can. But I’ll start by inviting him to come down and meet us on the flat ground, prove he is as brave as they say.”
“He’s brave, not a complete idiot,” Mortimer probably replied. “What commander worth his salt would give up that position?”

Mortimer was right. Sir James politely declined Edward’s invitation to come down from his hill, and Edward decided it was time to show the Scots just who had the upper hand. He ordered his archers to advance. The English (and Welsh) archers were the best in the world, and as soon as they came within range, they’d fill those dratted Scots with more arrows than a hedgehog has spines. Douglas was fully aware of how deadly the English archers were. He waited until they were wading the river, or making a hesitant approach up the slopes before attacking them. Dead archers everywhere, making it clear Edward had no hand at all—not in this game of war poker.

An exhausted and dispirited English army settled down for the night. Weeks of chasing the Scots, of more or less constant rain, of insufficient food, had left Edward’s men weak and grumpy. Their Scottish foes were made of sterner stuff: no sooner had the summer night begun to darken, but the Scots began an all-night party, blowing horns and clashing swords against shields. Impossible to sleep in, so to all their other woes, Edward’s men could now add sleep-deprivation.

Come morning, a host of pale and shivering Englishmen did their best to look intimidating and warlike, all of them probably hoping there wouldn’t be a battle this day. There wasn’t. James stuck to his hill and come nightfall the Scots repeated last night’s procedure. Blaring horns, steel against steel, and the English tossed and turned, further plagued by the drifting scents of roasted meat.

A couple of nights of this, and then suddenly, just before dawn, the Scots went quiet.
“Finally!” the English exclaimed, sinking into blissful oblivion. When they woke, it was to discover Douglas had snuck away, leading his men to a new, if possible even more impregnable, position.
Edward spent some time cursing the Scottish dogs to hell and back. Didn’t help much. He ordered the English army to follow Douglas and set up a new camp.

For a change, that August day was a nice day. No rain, and once the tents had been set up and the fires lit, the English had yet another pleasant surprise: the Scots were obviously too tired to repeat the hullabaloo of the preceding nights so the summer night was fragrant and wonderfully silent.
The king and his earls had supper with Mortimer. Plans were drawn up for the next day. Some wine, some good food and they took to their beds—as did the rest of the men. Which is when some of them registered the sound of many horses, approaching at a gallop.
Out of nowhere—or so it seemed—came the Scots. Armed with torches and spears, they charged through the English camp. Some wielded swords to cut the guy ropes, thereby causing the tents to collapse. Others set fire to the tents, or skewered the people trapped within on their spears.

Like witless hens, the English ran before the Scots. Some emerged with sword in hand and began to fight back. Others died. Quite a lot of others. The Scots thundered on, making for the tent flying the royal colours. Swish, and the guy lines were cut. Like a cut soufflé, the tent fell together, trapping the young king inside. The Scots were only moments away from abducting him, but Edward’s men rallied and the Scots backed away. A horn blew. Douglas, calling for help. The horn blew again, and the Scots rode to their lord’s defence. Some moments later, they were gone, leaving a trail of carnage behind them.

Next morning, Douglas and his men were gone, riding hard for Scotland. Standing in the shambles of his camp, the young Edward had learnt a valuable lesson: never underestimate your enemy.

A year or so later, a treaty with Scotland was concluded, sealed by the marriage of Edward’s little sister, Joan, to Robert the Bruce’s little son, David. Edward didn’t want the treaty. He wanted Scotland. But other than never to underestimate, he had also learnt another lesson: bide your time. So he did. For a while.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


Had Anna Belfrage been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. The first book, In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, was published in July 2016, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, was published in April 2017.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex(andra) and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. The ninth book, There is Always a Tomorrow, will be released in November.


  1. It makes me wonder a) how much control Mortimer had over Edward III and b) how good a soldier/strategist Mortimer really was.

    1. I think Mortimer was trapped between a rock and a hard place: he did not want a full-out war with Scotland but had no choice but to accompany Edward III. As to his capacity as a soldier, I think his track record indicates he was very good at it :)


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