The Event:

On 22 August 1138, near Northallerton in North Yorkshire, there took place a major battle between English and Scottish forces. The Battle of the Standard was a resounding victory for the English, but stories of the battle would resound down through history for many centuries, fuelling antagonism between the two nations.

In Walter Scott‘s Ivanhoe (1820), Cedric the Saxon refers to this battle and describes it as “a day of cleaving of shields, when a hundred banners were bent forwards over the heads of the valiant, and blood flowed round like water, and death was held better than flight.”

The battle was one of just two major battles during the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda and took place on Cowton Moor. In what was the first major engagement between English and Scots since the Norman Conquest, The Scottish forces were led by King David I of Scotland. The English were commanded by William of Aumale. Unusually for that time, when pitched battles were avoided in favour of long sieges and small-scale skirmishes, the Battle of the Standard was a full-scale clash of armies.

The Scottish army, led by King David, had superiority of numbers and had already advanced through Northern England. David was supporting his niece Matilda‘s claim to the English throne against that of King Stephen (married to another niece) and was simultaneously seeking to enlarge his kingdom. He had already taken much of Northumberland apart from castles at Wark and Bamburgh and seemed to be on a relentless drive southwards, crossing the Tees and heading for York.

King Stephen himself could not resist the threat from David as he was already occupied fighting rebel barons in the south. The English army therefore comprised local militia and baronial retinues from Yorkshire and the north Midlands supplemented by a small force of mercenaries sent by the King.

The battle gets its name from the fact that the centre of the English army was marked by the consecrated banners of the minsters of York, Beverley and Ripon.

The English army deployed across the Great North Road two miles north of Northallerton, blocking the southward advance of King David I’s Scottish army.

In the early morning fog David sought to advance and take the English by surprise. However, the English army was ready and waiting. Despite the greater numbers in the Scottish forces, the English repulsed a series of attacks. An English arrow storm soon decimated the unarmoured and supposedly ‘wild’ Galwegian infantry who led the Scottish attack. Those that survived the arrows were cut down in hand to hand fighting with the well-armed and armoured English men at arms. Although the Scots did breach the English lines, the gaps were quickly plugged and the Scottish attack was soon neutered.

The battle commenced at about 6am. Less than three hours after the start of the battle, it was clear that the English had the upper-hand. The Scots began to flee and soon the retreat became a rout. Based on different accounts, it is believed that English losses were light, and that of the knights present only one was killed. In contrast, about 10,000 Scots were missing or killed, and a considerable number of Knights were either killed or surrendered their armour, weapons and other possessions.


The Significance:

Defeat at the Battle of the Standard did not stop David achieving his aims.

Because the English did not pursue and destroy the Scottish forces, David was able to reassemble an army in Carlisle and consolidated his grip on Northumberland and Cumberland. A truce was negotiated the next month. This allowed the Scots free to continue the siege of Wark castle, which eventually fell in November, starved into submission.

Peace negotiations resulted in David being given most of the territorial concessions he had been seeking, although King Stephen was to retain possession of the strategically vital castles of Bamburgh and Newcastle, and David was to promise to “remain loyal” to Stephen at all times.

Some chronicles say he had already been offered these territories before he crossed the Tees, so the Battle of the Standard and the massive Scottish losses were perhaps unnecessary.

The peace agreement lasted for nearly two decades. Both sides benefitted. David acquired the resources of Northern England. For example, the lead mines of the northern Pennines gave him silver from which he was able to strike his own coinage. And Stephen benefitted because Northern England did not become involved in the civil war between himself and Matilda.

However, King David died in 1153, and King Stephen the following year.

David’s successor Malcolm IV of Scotland was soon forced to surrender David’s gains to Henry II of England.



Suggested Places to Visit:

Battlefield monument on the A167 a few miles north of Northallerton: grid reference SE360977

Carlisle Castle

And for a Scottish interpretation of the event visit