An imaginative recreation of events surrounding the clash of the english and scottish armies at the battle of neville’s cross.
They came out of the night as the monks were singing evensong in the priory of Beaurepaire. The soft chanting of the brothers was drowned beneath the shouts and cries of the Scottish marauders as they burst into the small chapel, swords drawn.
A burly giant of a man with long flowing black hair stepped forward.
“Who’s in charge here?” he roared.
A short elderly monk with a lined face and a silver fringe of hair around his tonsured head replied quietly:
“I am the oldest among us. My name is Brother Simeon. The Prior is not here at present. I am his representative.”
“Well, Master Simeon, my men need food and ale and promptly,” said the giant, “and my name is Alain Wallace of Dumfries, and I’m the captain of this motley crew.” At this he waved his sword at his ragged band of warriors who variously grunted in assent. “And if ye all do as ye’re told, we’ll perchance spare your miserable lives!”
Brother Simeon led the group to the refectory where stew and bread and ale was laid out on the tables. The monks were shouldered into a corner, guarded by a couple of warriors while the rest of the band fell to with gusto, and showing little evidence of delicate table manners, rapidly demolished the victuals.
“And now, Sir Monk,” began Alain Wallace wiping gravy from his beard with his sleeve, “ye’ll escort some of my men to your byres, and show them your cattle and your pigs to slaughter, for an hour behind me is the great army of King David of Scotland, and their stomachs are as empty as were ours.”
“But the livestock is the property of the Prior,” protested Brother Simeon. “I have no authority to……”
He was interrupted by Wallace before he could complete his sentence.
“If ye want to keep your head upon your shoulders, you prating oaf, ye’ll do exactly as I say,” he roared.
The timid cleric blanched and subsided into silence. After a moment he replied,
“We are men of God, men of peace. We serve only the King of Heaven. But we are also men of charity. Your army will be fed.”
“A wise decision, Brother,” sneered Wallace, “and you will prepare the best chamber in the priory for King David. Make haste!” The burly Scotsmen waved his hand, and Brother Simeon scuttled away hurriedly.
An hour later the invading host of King David emerged from the darkness, and in a short time row upon row of glimmering campfires were alight on the banks of the River Browney below the Priory. The appetizing aroma of roasting beef wafted up into the night air, and the muffled tones of weary men could be heard as they prepared to eat and rest.
In the refectory, King David of Scotland, son of the great national hero Robert Bruce, sat dining from the prior’s silver dishes. He was a handsome young man, his comely appearance marred only by a livid battle scar on his left cheek. As he ate, he stared broodingly into the shadows, contemplating the prospects of the morrow. He had seized the opportunity to invade his southern neighbor in response to offers of money and weapons from the beleaguered French King, Philip VI, who was currently locked in a desperate struggle with his deadly enemy, Edward III of England. David felt constantly the looming shadow of his famous father who had driven the English from Scotland thirty years before. He needed the chance to show his own boldness and skill as a leader. Thus he had assembled a formidable army of fifteen thousand men for his incursion south. He was at one moment confident of fame and glory, but at the next filled with doubt about the raw and ill-equipped levies, who composed the bulk of his army.
“Wallace,” he called, “bring that monk to me. I wish to question him.”
Brother Simeon was pushed into the firelight where he stood trembling expectantly.
“You need not fear, Brother,” said the King in a soothing voice. “I am no barbarian in spite of what you may have heard. You will not be harmed. Tell me what you have heard of the English army. What is its position and its strength?”
Brother Simeon replied in his mild voice, “Sire, I know little. This is an isolated spot, and we seldom hear news.”
“Oh, come now, Brother,” said the King smiling, “you must have heard something.”
“Only that there is an army raised against you by Queen Philippa. In the absence of the king, the Lords Percy and Neville and Sir Thomas Rokeby are commanding the host.”
The king stroked his beard thoughtfully. “I have crossed swords with Percy before. He it was who gave me this,” he said, ruefully touching the scar on his cheek. “Well I shall be glad to cross swords with him again. How many think ye, Brother, are gathered in this English host?”
“Alas, Sire. I know not,” answered the monk.
“Very well. You may go,” snapped the king. He dismissed the relieved monk who bowed low and withdrew into the shadows.
“Wallace,” said the King, “pass the word to my captains. We march on the city of Durham at daybreak.”
As the dawn was breaking on the following morning of Tuesday, October 17, 1346, the Scots huddled around the cold embers of their fires, eating oats taken from bags carried around their waists. The dry oatmeal was rapidly mixed with water from the river to form an unappetizing but sustaining bowl of cold porridge. They ate hastily not knowing when their next meal would come. Some pondered grimly that it might be indeed their last meal on earth, but most were optimistic that the day would bring spoils and plunder from the prosperous city of Durham a mere three miles away.
The Earl of Douglas had ridden out with a foraging party of some 500 horseman long before dawn. Young David Bruce was awake in Beaurepaire Priory donning his battle armor, assisted by his servants and squire. He had risen and breakfasted on cold beef an hour before his army awoke, and had been meeting with his generals, the Earl of Moray, who would command the right flank of the army, and the High Steward who was in charge of the left flank. The King himself planned to command the center.
As the sun rose, the Scottish army moved out toward Durham, drums beating and banners flying. Brother Simeon and the monks retired to the chapel where their voices could soon be heard lifted in prayer. Had the young King David been able to eavesdrop, he would have noted with a grim smile that the monks, like their brethren three miles away in the Cathedral Church, were praying fervently for an English victory!
As the Scottish host proceeded slowly toward the city, the King spied a band of horseman galloping towards him, the clattering hooves of their mounts throwing up a thick cloud of dust. As they neared the King’s party, he recognized the Earl of Douglas, blood pouring from a gash in his arm. The soldiers around him wore weary expressions and some were wounded.
“What news, my lord?” called the King.
“We stumbled upon the vanguard of the English army some miles to the south, Sire,” replied the Earl. “They were too strong for us. Had we not fled, we would have been overwhelmed.”
“What are your losses?” asked King David.
“Over 300 of my horsemen were killed or left wounded on the field, Sire,” admitted Douglas soberly. “You must retire and occupy high ground, build a position of defense. Their army is battle hardened and better equipped.”
“Nonsense,” snapped the King in anger. “Our men bear the pride of Scotland in their hearts. We will not retreat. We will march on and we will prevail. Those of your horsemen who can fight will join our center.”
“Yes, Sire. As you wish,” replied Douglas wearily.
By the middle of the morning, the Scottish army glimpsed their enemy drawn up on the high ground ahead of them. Ominously there were numerous ranks of the feared English longbow-men in the forefront of the army. These were the men who had already wrought widespread destruction in the fields of France. An audible shudder ran through the Scottish ranks at this sight.
Henry Percy sent heralds to try to persuade King David to turn and go home unharmed to his country, but he must have known that such a loss of face was impossible for a son of Robert Bruce. A short while later the two armies advanced towards each other and the battle commenced.
Three hours later, the long bitter fight was over, and the Scottish army, destroyed by the hail of longbow shafts and harassed by 5,000 battle-hardened English soldiers newly returned from France, broke and fled the field. The struggle around the banner of King David was intense and desperate, but finally the knot of soldiers was subdued with barely forty remaining alive. To the surprise of the English, King David was among neither the prisoners nor the dead on the battlefield.
A lone man in chain mail staggered down the grassy hill. He had lost his sword and helm on the battlefield, and blood from a deep cut in his forehead ran down into his eyes, blurring his vision as he looked around wildly for a place to hide. At the foot of the hill was a stone bridge across the River Browney, that same river on whose banks the Scottish host had camped the night before. Stumbling the last few steps, the fugitive splashed into the water and waded out of sight under the bridge. Panting for breath the vanquished King of Scotland, David Bruce, paused, cowering in brief welcome sanctuary from the cries and clashes of the distant battlefield. His dreams shattered, his army destroyed, he could only huddle in a stupor, his mind numb with pain.
Presently a horseman came riding down the hill towards the river. John Copeland, a squire from Wooler in Northumberland, had spotted the lone figure fleeing the battlefield and set off in pursuit. He walked his horse slowly onto the bridge, his face drawn in a puzzled frown. He was sure that he should by now have overtaken the fugitive, and yet there was no sign of the man anywhere. What could have become of him?
Copeland dismounted, and leaned over the side of the bridge, staring disconsolately down into the water. Suddenly he stiffened in surprise. There, outlined in the clear water beneath the bridge, was the reflection of his fugitive. The man was hiding below the arch.
Drawing his sword, Copeland cautiously crept through the damp grass down the bank. Taking a deep breath, his grip on his sword tightening, he leapt into the water at the mouth of the arch. He saw in front of him the startled face of the bloodied fugitive.
“You, sir, are my prisoner. I call upon you to yield!” he shouted.
The fugitive glared at him for an instant, an expression of hate and desperation in his eyes. Then suddenly he launched himself forward, and struck Copeland sharply in the face with his mailed fist. The knight responded with a firm blow with the flat of his sword. The king, weak from loss of blood from an arrow wound in his leg, sank to his knees in the water, and stretching out his arm, declared:
“Very well, I yield to you, Sir. I can fight no more.”
As the king staggered to his feet, Copeland spat blood and fragments of two broken teeth into the flowing stream.
“You have left your mark upon me, Sir,” he remarked ruefully. “Will you pray tell me who I have made prisoner?”
The fugitive smiled through his pain. “You will be renowned in days to come, Sir, for I am David Bruce, King of Scotland.”
Copeland’s mouth dropped open in surprise. “My liege, the honor is mine,” was all he could say.
And so it was that King David rode from the field, defeated and in the custody of John Copeland to Ogle Castle in Northumberland. Two surgeons healed his wounds and in time he was sent to Bambrugh castle and thence to the Tower of London where he languished for eleven years pending the payment of a huge ransom. Finally released in 1357, he returned to rule Scotland wisely, leaving behind him a strong and prosperous monarchy. He died in 1371, aged 46. Having no children, he was succeeded by his nephew, Robert II.
His captor, John Copeland (or John de Coupland, as he is sometimes known) delivered up his illustrious prisoner to Queen Philippa in return for a grant of 500 pounds a year for life and one hundred pounds a year for being in service to the King. He was knighted by King Edward III, and held various titles such as Sheriff and Warden of East March. He was also apparently an avaricious man, who grew rich by acquiring large landholdings sometimes by less than scrupulous means. This probably led to his murder by ambush in 1363. His killers fled to Scotland, leading to the suspicion that King David had been complicit in his death. There is no evidence of this.
Ralph Neville, Baron of Raby, and Henry Baron Percy of Alnwick served the King in various capacities on the battlefield and in his royal council. Percy died in 1352 aged 51, but Neville lived into his seventies, siring thirteen children, one of whom became Archbishop of York. Sir Thomas Rokeby, who died in 1356, was High Sheriff of Yorkshire and Justiciar of Ireland. The Earl of Douglas continued to battle the English until his death in 1384, and was instrumental in negotiating the release of King David from captivity.
Brother Simeon and Alain Wallace are fictional characters although I am certain men such as they existed at that time.
My story was inspired by a recent visit to the ruins of Beaurepaire Priory. Closing my eyes, it was not difficult to imagine the marauding Scottish army appearing suddenly out of the night, 660 years ago at that very spot!