When Edward II (1307-1327) came to the English throne he looked every inch a Plantagenet – but there any resemblance to his father (Edward I) or his son (Edward III) ended. Regarded by most historians (and by most of the population of the time) as a fool and a fop, he chose fools and scoundrels as his advisors and favourites. He half-heartedly, and disastrously, continued the bloody dispute with Scotland but was, in addition, beset by unrest in England where the most persistent of his opponents was his powerful cousin Thomas of Lancaster, who held five earldoms and maintained a large army.
The crushing defeat of Edward’s armies by the inferior force of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn (1314) was largely attributable to Edward’s ineptness and his failure to listen to good advice, but a contributory factor was the refusal of Lancaster to go to the aid of his monarch.
In the years immediately following Edward’s humiliation, Lancaster became the power behind the throne. Unfortunately he was neither wiser nor braver than the king he controlled. In particular, he allowed the Scots, flushed with victory, to mount ever more daring, plundering raids into England’s northern counties.
In 1318 the Scots stormed over the border burning and looting Northallerton, Knaresborough and Boroughbridge. Ripon escaped burning by paying a ransom of 1,000 marks but the church at Aldborough was destroyed (the present one dates from 1830). The Scots returned north driving cattle and prisoners before them and burning Skipton on the way.
The following year, while Edward was besieging Berwick, a Scottish army under the Earl of Murray and Lord James Douglas pushed south into Northern England with sword and torch as far as the gates of York. Boroughbridge was once again among the towns pillaged and burned during the incursion.
Having failed in their intention to capture the English Queen, then in residence at York, the Scots turned north again. The Archbishop of York meanwhile raised an “army” of 10,000 untrained men – mostly peasants, monks, priests, choristers and the like – and set off in pursuit of the Scots.
Learning of the chase, the Scots lay in wait at Myton-on-Swale, less than three miles from Boroughbridge, where the River Ure joins the Swale. They tempted the English rabble onto the triangle of land between the two rivers and, cutting off the possibility of retreat across the bridge over the Swale, fell upon them. Many panicking Englishmen were drowned, more were slaughtered, including over 200 monks whose corpses were left on the field, their white habits drenched with their blood – which is how it became known as “The White Battle”.
Meanwhile the troubles between Edward and the English barons continued. The king’s popularity continued to wane and, in the aftermath of his successive humiliations at the hands of the Scots, Lancaster decided the time was ripe for full scale rebellion. But a group of nobles led by the Earl of Pembroke, disillusioned by Lancaster’s incompetence, joined the king and turned the tide against the rebellious Earl.
Nothing truly decisive occurred until February 1322 when, hearing that his enemy was besieging the castle of Tickhill near Doncaster, Edward ordered his army north. Lancaster, heavily outnumbered, and having lost most of his stores and much of his force, retreated to his castle at Pontefract. Here he hoped to stand against the king but his allies urged (at dagger point according to one account) further retreat to his castle at Dunstanburgh in Northumberland where they hoped Robert Bruce would come to their aid. Lancaster reluctantly acceded and he and his knights set out with their small force of 700 men but on reaching Boroughbridge they found Sir Andrew Harcla, Governor of Carlisle, in possession of the bridge and the ford.
Harcla had deployed his knights and a number of pikemen at the north end of the bridge – a wooden structure on the site of the present bridge over the Ure. More pikemen were placed on the Milby side of the ford just down river from the bridge. Archers were placed on slightly higher ground just behind with orders to keep up a constant rain of arrows as the enemy approached.
Lancaster had either to force the river or turn south to face the advancing forces of the king. Fighting Harcla seemed the lesser of the two evils. The battle took place on 16 March and is described in The Lanercost Chronicles (which account is here slightly abridged):
“When the enemy saw that Sir Andrew held the north side of the bridge, they formed the plan that the Duke of Hereford and his son-in-law Sir Roger Clifford should go on foot with their men and seize the bridge while the Duke of Lancaster should take up his position by the ford with the rest of the mounted troops, and capture the river crossing from the pikemen. “When the Duke of Hereford preceded by his standard-bearer, Sir Ralph Applinsdene, and Sir Roger Clifford started boldly across the bridge and rushed bravely on their enemies, the Duke was pierced by pike-thrusts from every side and killed upon the bridge.”
One of these thrusts, from a Welsh pikeman who had craftily stationed himself underneath the bridge, came up through a chink in the decking. Sir Roger was also gravely wounded and barely managed to escape.
Meanwhile Lancaster’s cavalry, attempting to cross the river at the ford, were kept back and thrown into confusion by the hail of arrows discharged by Harcla’s archers. By now many of Lancaster’s men were deserting as were the leaderless men of Hereford and Clifford.
Suing for peace“The Duke (Lancaster) then sent envoys to Sir Andrew seeking a truce until the next morning when he would either join battle or surrender himself. ”
The next day Harcla – now reinforced by Sir Simon Ward, Sheriff of Yorkshire, and 400 men – crossed the bridge into the town where they began rounding up the remnants of Lancaster’s force. Lancaster himself sought sanctuary in the church (which was then on St. James’s Square where the fountain now stands) but Harcla’s men broke sanctuary and dragged him out, stripped off his armour and dressed him in the clothes of one of his servants. He was then sent by river to York.
Edward took Pontefract Castle without resistance and ordered Lancaster to be brought to him there and “had him sentenced to be drawn, hung and beheaded; he did this without the consent of Parliament and without taking weightier and more rational advice.”
Because of the condemned man’s royal connections the first two parts of the sentence were never carried out and he was merely beheaded, according to some accounts, facing north in recognition of his traitorous alliance with the Scots. The prior and monks of Pontefract are said to have asked for and obtained his body which was buried on the right of the high altar of the Priory Church where miraculous cures were later claimed by those who came to regard him as a martyr and saint.
Some thirty of Lancaster’s knights and barons were executed and their heads or bodies displayed in various parts of the country as a warning to others. More had to pay ransom to the king but some escaped to France (and were later to play a part in the downfall of Edward at the hands of his Queen Isabella and her lover Robert Mortimer, another old enemy of Edward’s). All the escapees were outlawed — including one Robert (later Robin) Hood of Wakefield.
Only months after the Battle of Boroughbridge, Edward was again attacking, retreating from and (at Byland Abbey) being defeated by the Scots. Harcla, who had been summoned to Edward’s aid, dawdled with his force at Boroughbridge. He was captured, tried, found guilty of collusion with the Scots, and (as foretold by Lancaster it is claimed) executed. Edward himself was murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1327 while being held prisoner by his wife Isabella and his son Edward III (although Mortimer is credited with being the man behind the deed). And so all the principal characters of the Battle of Boroughbridge, victors and vanquished alike, died violent deaths within five years of each other.
According to Alex Leadman (Battles Fought in Yorkshire) “A clustered column of freestone was erected to commemorate the Battle. It is eighteen feet in height, formed of shafts banded together, and enriched with foliage – evidently fourteenth century work. For over 500 years it stood in the market place of Boroughbridge [the Butter Market at the foot of the High Street] until 21 April 1852, when this venerated and weather-worn landmark of history was removed to Aldborough where it now stands.” Ronald Walker, Boroughbridge Historical Society