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Battle of the Standard – 1138; A lesson in military tactics

Battle of the Standard A lesson in military tactics

England in the early Twelfth Century was a melting pot of power struggles and tantrums over territory. And the border between England and Scotland reflected nothing less. When Henry I died in 1135, things were not set to head off into a peaceful sunset.
Scotland, under the rule of David I, was ever in pursuit of ‘lost lands’, and Henry I’s successor was not an obvious choice. Having left no male heir, his daughter, Matilda – a woman with strong Scottish connections, bearing in mind David was her maternal uncle – unfortunately found herself overlooked by enough of the rich and powerful to lose out. And instead, his nephew, Stephen of Blois, took the throne. This political division became one ripe for exploitation by David.

Scottish forays across the border…

By 1138, David had attempted various unsuccessful raids into the north of England. But Stephen’s army, being both significant in numbers and experienced, had been able to repel the skirmishes with relative ease. However, he was also facing revolt from barons elsewhere, and by this year Stephen’s attention was uncomfortably divided.
In the summer of 1138, David edged deeper into England as far as South Yorkshire. Stephen’s committed representative, Thurstan, Archbishop of York, rallied local backing, however. So the king sent a small force in support, which marched through the night to reach Northallerton 22nd August, 1138. The English and the Scots met that day.
The Scottish objective: To defeat the English and gain territory. The English objective: To defend against a Scottish attack on York.

The banners in battle set the standard…

Thurstan’s call had drawn stalwarts from Durham, York, Beverly and Ripon under the guise of their respective patron saints’ religious banners: St. Cuthbert, St. Peter, St. John and St. Wilfred. Hence the retrospective name granted to the battle.
The English probably numbered about ten thousand strong, however the Scottish will have been far greater in number, possibly as many as sixteen thousand. The English, nevertheless, were a well-equipped, motivated, and experienced army. And though their lower ranks will have been filled with local recruits, the force of household knights that had been sent by Stephen will have bolstered morale. The Scots, on the other hand, were a more disparate collection of entities. Many will have been unarmoured soldiers with a Celtic heritage from Galloway. And these were known to have their own particular techniques in battle that were not in keeping with the Norman approach found elsewhere within the Scottish ranks.

Unusual strategies abounded…

Right from the start, the battle was set to be one of surprise with respect to tactics. The English, taking a southerly position, though utilising a traditional line of archers chose to accompany these with a host of dismounted knights. The horses were left protected by a small mounted guard at the rear of the lines. The Scots, however, took their stance from a more northerly hill, with David intending to present a more typical Norman arrangement with knights (many also unmounted), archers, and foot soldiers. He’d not reckoned on the Galloway mind-set, though. The highlanders were not for being told. They asserted their ancient right to enter battle from the start and stubbornly remained in the centre.
When fighting commenced, David, with his unmounted knights and the highlanders, was in the centre. Prince Henry, David’s son, commanded one flank with the remaining knights on horseback. And troops from Lothian and the borders flanked the other side.
The centrally placed highlanders attacked with verve. But it soon became apparent they were no match for Stephen’s archers, and the Scots incurred heavy losses early on. Prince Henry then launched a mounted attack and managed to break though English lines. But a lack of support from infantry then left his men stranded and they were beaten back, probably by Stephen’s mounted troop on the rear guard.
At this point, David turned to his remaining reserve to swell the force of numbers. But alas, they had retreated and fled. Who knows why… Perhaps they were mortified by the failure of the initial attack. Perhaps they could see the writing on the wall anyway. But by then, the battle was lost, and it became apparent the English had missed a trick.

The aftermath…

As seemed so often to be the case during this period, the balance of power didn’t actually greatly shift. The Scots remained a force for concern, and Stephen continued to have many worries across his domain. The lessons learnt from this foray, therefore, were more of a military and tactical nature. Dismounted knights cannot easily pursue a fleeing army. This meant that however great their success had been, the English couldn’t then maximise the outcome of their victory. The ability to have captured more key Scottish figures may have had far greater impact for Stephen, but it was not to be the case. From the short term view, the immediate threat was at least quashed.
As also seemed so often to be the case during this period, though, the political landscape shifted swiftly anyway. Stephen needed things to quieten reliably along the border. By 1139, David’s son, Henry, was once again confirmed by Stephen as the Earl of Huntingdon, and he was also granted the title of Earl of Northumberland to add to his collection. As a political move, this didn’t necessarily win the Scottish hearts over in full, but it did at least quench their thirst for territory for a while.
The story couldn’t end without there being a consequence, though of course. Ranulf, the Earl of Chester, who wasn’t impressed with the dealings between Stephen and the Scots, jumped ship to support Matilda, and later played a key role in Stephen’s downfall at the First Battle of Lincoln in 1141. And at this point, we shall leave it there. For we will no doubt be writing about that battle soon…