Friday, May 10, 2019

Fallen Flowers: The Battle of Halidon Hill

By Annie Whitehead

There is a beautiful song, written by Steve McDonald and performed by him and Hollie Smith. It’s called Fallen Flowers and it features the most sublime cello playing. It is not an easy song to listen to, especially if you are, like me, a mother. It talks about a young man who lies dying after the Battle of Halidon Hill and what his mother wouldn't give just to have him back again. The images it invokes are haunting. So, when I found myself near Berwick-upon-Tweed recently, I visited the battlefield, and set out to find out what I could about the battle.

The site itself is bleak, even on a sunny day. And yes, it is definitely a hill, rising some 600 ft above sea level. The battle took place in July, 1333, during the second war of Scottish independence, when the forces of Edward III of England fought the Scots, although this wasn’t a straightforward case of England V Scotland, for Edward had ridden north to support the claim of one Scots king against another.

Edward III, having overthrown Roger Mortimer, was free to turn his attention to Scotland where, just four years earlier, Robert Bruce had died, leaving as his heir his seven-year-old son, David II. The Bruces were not the only ones who laid claim to the Scottish throne, and Edward III supported the rival claim of Edward Balliol. Balliol was crowned, but deposed very soon afterwards, fleeing to Carlisle from where he sent an SOS to the English king.

The Scottish chronicler Walter Bower was vehement in his condemnation of ‘Edward de Windsor king of England’, whom he described as a ‘breaker of oaths and violator of his own pledge’ who ‘disregarded the promise of eternal peace … and promised speedy help, [breaking] ‘the bonds of peace [and assembling] a very large army against his brother-in-law King David.’ (At the tender age of four, David had been married to Joan, daughter of Edward II.)

Edward III responded to Balliol’s call for help by marching his forces to Berwick where he besieged the town. The Scots, led by Sir Archibald Douglas, meanwhile, marched down and occupied Tweedmouth. The townsfolk of Berwick, represented by Governor Anthony Seton, promised to surrender if the town had not been relieved by 11 July. When the Scots managed to destroy a bridge over the River Tweed, Sir William Keith took a small contingent into the town and rescinded the promise of surrender. Unfortunately, Edward III had taken hostages, and he began to hang them, starting with Seton’s own son, Thomas, hung from a gallows in full view of the town. He vowed to hang two more for every day the town continued to defy him. A new surrender agreement was reached.

Douglas, who in the meantime had gone to raid Bamburgh, where Edward's queen, Phillipa was ensconced, waited until the eleventh hour before surrender was due. It was a bad decision. Approaching from the northwest, he had to position his troops high above Berwick at a place beyond Halidon Hill, known as Witches’ Knowe. He then faced the task of leading his troops downhill while Edward, holding Halidon Hill, controlled the surrounding area. Had the Scots made any attempt to enter Berwick, Edward would have seen. The view from the hill towards the Tweed is a clear one, as this picture, taken on a hazy day, still shows.

The English army stood between the Scots and Berwick, and the Scots had to cross a marsh to get to them.

Boggy terrain and English archers made for a deadly combination. It was said that the Scots turned their faces away for the storm of arrows was like sleet.

Douglas was killed, the fleeing Scots were pursued by the English on horseback, and the following day, Berwick surrendered.

If contemporary accounts can be believed, the Scottish losses included ten earls, sixty-nine barons, 105 ‘knights-batchelors', 4,250 men-at-arms, 63,200 ordinary folk, and 5,000 residents of Berwick and the surrounding area.

The losses were certainly catastrophic, not just in terms of numbers but because those who could mount an effective challenge to the might of the English army were now either dead, or in hiding. Edward III, victorious, reimposed Balliol as king.

In October, Edward Balliol held a parliament in Perth. At this parliament, he reversed many of the land grants made by Robert Bruce. Edward III left him alone but Balliol’s position as puppet king was not a free one. He had to pay homage to the English king and grant him all the English-occupied southern shires of Scotland. Edward’s attention soon turned towards France and Balliol, whose decision to reverse the grants of Robert Bruce had been unpopular to say the least, was left increasingly isolated.

The young David Bruce grew to adulthood in exile in Normandy, living at Chateau Gaillard with his wife, Joan, and returning to Scotland in 1341. He did not find it easy to re-establish himself. He gained strength, though, and in 1346 he advanced his troops towards Durham. His army was caught out at Neville’s Cross where Balliol fought for the English. David was wounded and captured. The complicated political situation was to rumble on and on - enough to be the subject of at least one other, completely separate article!

A visit to Berwick shows that the town is still partly encased by sturdy defensive walls. These are not the medieval walls, however, which originally spanned a greater area of the town. These walls, when built, actually cut the town in half and were built in the sixteenth century. Peace between the two countries it seems, was never assured.

Halidon Hill was only one of a vast number of battles between Scots and English. What of those losses? Some estimate the number of Scots lining up against the English at 14,000, with the English fielding some 10,000. Other sources put the numbers of casualties anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000, while yet different figures suggest that somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 Scots took part in the battle.

It is difficult, even when standing on top of the hill, to envisage anything like this number of men fighting for their very lives at this spot. I’d venture to say that Halidon Hill isn’t one of the better-known battle sites. Yet, in visiting such sites, it is also hard to forget that, in amongst however many men who were truly fighting that day, each man who died was mourned by someone. The song I mentioned at the beginning of this post helps to bring home the tragedy of any conflict and I’m glad to say that at least part of this site remains free from crops and it is marked with a memorial stone.

[all photos by and copyright of Annie Whitehead]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley.

Find her at:
on Amazon
and Twitter
and on her own blog, Casting Light upon the Shadow


  1. A beautiful post, Annie. I could see how it must have all unfolded.

    1. Thanks Cryssa - it was quite a moving experience to stand up there and think about what it must have been like.

  2. Such an interesting piece of history brought to life by your article, Annie. I know very little of this aspect of British history and have learned a little bit more reading this. Wonderful!


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