Pictured: the inner Gatehouse towers of Alnwick Castle, built by the 2nd Lord Percy of Alnwick.
On the 17th October, 1346 – 650 years ago this week – the armies of England and Scotland met at the Battle of Neville’s Cross. The 2nd Lord Percy of Alnwick played a major part in the English victory.
The English king at the time, Edward III, had left the country to launch an invasion of France, but knew that this would leave England vulnerable to attack from Scotland’s King David II (the son of Robert the Bruce).
In fact, during the course of the 1340s David’s Scottish armies had been taking advantage of the wars between England and France, steadily freeing Scottish provinces and strongholds that had been taken by England and returning them to Scotland. At one point, only Stirling, Roxburgh, Edinburgh and Berwick remained in English control, but the Scots were able to take these too, before turning their attention to the northern counties of England.
Edward III, knowing of the Scottish threat, ensure the army he took to France was raised from the south of England, leaving northern forces as complete as possible to repel any Scottish invasion. Before he embarked for France, he appointed Lord Percy to a position of command for the armies of the north. While the Archbishop of York, William de la Zouch, was the official commander, his command was in name only due to his position of precedence; it was Percy, along with Lord Neville and Thomas de Rokeby, Sheriff of Yorkshire, who would take charge of the northern military if David II attacked.
David did attack, bringing 50,000 soldiers with him through Northumberland, and was able to reach the gates of Durham, where, according to the old ballad “Durham Feld”,
The king looked towards little Durham
And there he well beheld,
That the Earl Percy well armed
With his battle axe entered the feld.
Percy’s army were outnumbered, and probably did not exceed 16,000, and while some of them were expert soldiers sent by Edward III as reinforcements, and others came from the many baronial families of the north, many of the English fighters were clergymen, priests, chaplains and friars, with each division headed by a bishop. Sources say that despite their religious vocations, they ‘were not afraid of a cracked crown, though they had no hair to hide the wound. For piety and a love of their country laid the foundation of their valour’.
Lord Percy may have thought his forces would be insufficient to defeat the Scottish army, as he attempted to negotiate a peace before resorting to battle. He sent a herald to King David suggesting he would ‘cease from further invading the countries and… return into Scotland until some reasonable order for a final peace might be agreed upon betwixt him and [Edward III], otherwise he should be sure to have battle.’
The king, naturally, refused the attempt and the two armies prepared to fight.
The medieval chronicler Froissart described how Queen Philippa of England appeared on the battlefield as the sun rose on the day of the battle, and encouraged the English troops, “desiring them to… defend the honour of her lord the King of England,” and wishing “every man to be of good heart and courage.”
Though the battle itself has been described as ‘lengthy’ and ‘desperate’ by historians, Lord Percy did not need to worry, as England won a resounding victory, and the Scots suffered a crushing defeat. The Scottish army was scattered or annihilated, and David II was wounded and taken prisoner (he would end up in the Tower of London). It was the most important military engagement of Percy’s life and all sources credit his skilful handling of his troops as the reason for the English victory.
The following year, the success of the Battle of Neville’s Cross was built upon with an English invasion of Scotland, in which Percy played a significant part, and the re-establishment of English-controlled areas in the Scottish border counties. In the years that followed, the situation on the border between the two countries was relatively peaceful, with only one serious outbreak of fighting in the 1350s.
Percy’s prowess at the Battle of Neville’s Cross became a popular theme of chroniclers and poets, and he himself became known as “Percy of Durham” after the county where he won his greatest victory.