How the Scots lost Battle of Halidon Hill

The Scottish position on Witches Knowe behind Bogend.
The Scottish position on Witches Knowe behind Bogend.

Saturday July 19 is the anniversary of one of the bloodiest defeats of the Scots in the Anglo-Scottish wars – the Battle of Halidon Hill.

The Scots had held Berwick since 1318 and in 1333 it was commanded by Sir Alexander Seton. A series of events in England prior to Edward III becoming king had set the scene for hostilities between the two kingdoms to resume.

The English camped to the north of the town and commenced a siege of Berwick on April 4, cutting the water supply from the Tappee Pond. Occasional attacks were made by filling the town ditches with trestles and scaling the walls but failed.

An attack from the river fared as badly, ending with the burning of the ships, although this backfired on the defenders literally, with much of the lower part of the town being destroyed by the flames.

While unsuccessful, we have the first recorded use of guns in a British siege. An early chronicle tells us: “He went toward the toune of Berwik-vpon Twyde … so that thai hade non drede of the Scottes & made meny assautes with gonnes and with othere engynes to the toune…”

A parliament was held in Tweedmouth and terms of surrender were accepted. These were that, unless the town was relieved by July 11, it would capitulate and the inhabitants would be free to leave.

Hostages were given as a guarantee of good faith, among which was Thomas, one of Alexander Seton’s sons. Messengers were sent to inform the Guardian of Scotland, Sir Archibald Douglas.

Douglas’ army moved south, outflanking the English, sacked Tweedmouth and then threatened the English army from Sunnyside. Sir William Keith, with a small group of Scots, managed to cross the bridge and get into the town. The besieged thought that they had succeeded in fulfilling the terms of the truce.

Edward disagreed and he hanged the hostages. The Scots threatened the English that they would sack North Northumberland if the siege was not lifted. Edward was not intimidated and Douglas ravaged the countryside to the south as far as Morpeth.

New, more specific, terms for a settlement were drawn up. This time the Scots had to force a body of 200 men through English lines with a loss of no more than 30. If they were not successful by July 20, the town would be surrendered with no loss of life.

Douglas returned north and set his battle lines at Witches Knowe, north of Halidon Hill. Edward arranged his 9,000 troops in three divisions, each with its own body of archers on each side of it. The Scottish army was arranged in four schiltrons of spearmen, in total probably about 15,000-20,000 men.

It is easy to judge with the benefit of history but as is often the case in these matters, a combination of lack of battle experience, sense of honour and lack of intelligence of the terrain conspired, and Douglas attacked.

The battle was preceded by a single combat between the champions of each nation. Scotland was represented by Raoul Turnbull, a giant of a man, accompanied by his mastiff. Sir Robert Benhale dispatched the dog then Turnbull with a mighty two-handed sword.

The battle commenced.

The already fatigued Scottish army made the tactical error of marching from the heights of Witches Knowe on to the plain over the marsh still known as Bogend.

They were severely hampered. The English, who had been rested in their position long before, brought into play their relatively new secret weapon – the longbow. Volley upon volley of arrows rained down upon the Scots, leaving them in total disarray. Their attack was doomed.

It is said the hail of arrows was so intense that many Scots turned their faces away as if walking into a storm of sleet. The ‘Lanercost Chronicle’ reports: “...the Scots who marched in the front were so wounded in the face and blinded by the multitude of English arrows that they could not help themselves, and soon began to turn their faces away from the blows of the arrows and fall.”

There were some pockets of bravery but soon Edward gave the order for his cavalry to charge and the English pursued the retreating Scots for five miles to Ayton.

Archibald Douglas and many of the Scots nobility were killed that day. The Scottish casualties ran into the thousands. By contrast, the English lost only a handful of men.

In England, the victory – the first for many years –brought a great boost to the morale of the nation: Bannockburn had finally been avenged. News of Halidon sent shock waves across Scotland. Most of the Scotland’s leaders were dead. It was said that the English victory had been so complete that it marked the end of the northern wars.

A chronicler wrote of Scotland that: “[there was] not a man was left of that nation who had either skill, power or inclination to assemble an army or direct its operations.”

But Edward III did little to exploit his success. His attention turned to France and thus began the Hundred Years War. The longbow had proved its worth and was to be a major weapon in the English arsenal until the musket was properly developed.

And Berwick?

The years between 1318 and 1333 was one of the last periods the Scots would hold Berwick for any length of time. The town would exchange nationality a further eight times before Richard, Duke of Gloucester took it for the last time in 1482.

But that’s another story.