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The Anarchy: Battle of the Standard


Date & Conflict:

The Battle of the Standard was fought August 22, 1138, during The Anarchy (1135-1154).

Commanders & Armies:


  • David I
  • approx. 16,000 men


  • William of Aumale
  • approx. 10,000 men

  • Battle of the Standard Background:

    In January 1138, King David I of Scotland invaded England in support of his niece's, Empress Matilda, claim to the English throne. The daughter of King Henry I, Matilda had been blocked from taking power upon her father's death in 1135 by King Stephen and numerous other nobles. As a result, a civil war began in England between the forces of Matilda and Stephen. Invading in 1136, David had secured Cumberland for Scotland. Returning the next year, David agreed to a truce with Stephen after a brief campaign. That November, with the truce expiring, David demanded the whole of Northumberland.

    Refused in this request, David began mobilizing his army and crossed the border in January 1138. As Stephen was in the south campaigning, David initially met little opposition and seized Norham Castle and laid siege to Wark Castle. Pushing south, the Scottish army demanded tribute from various towns and abbeys to prevent their destruction. On June 10, a Scottish detachment led by William fitz Duncan defeated an English force at the Battle of Clitheroe in Lancashire. Crossing the Tyne in July, David entered Northumberland and took possession of Alnwick Castle.

    The English Response:

    With the Scots wreaking havoc across northern England, the nobles of Yorkshire gathered in York to discuss the situation. Though mistrustful of each other, they were unified and rallied by the elderly Archbishop Thurstan of York. Led by William of Aumale, they agreed to return with their forces in preparation for facing David's army. While troops gathered, Robert de Brus (ancestor of King Robert the Bruce) and Bernard de Balliol were dispatched as peace emissaries to David's army which was near the River Tees. A friend and vassal of David, de Brus was rebuffed and renounced his homage to the Scottish king.

    The Battle of the Standard:

    As the Scottish army continued moving south, the English departed York and assumed a defensive position along the Great Northern Road near Northallerton. Positioned on a low ridge, they placed their armored men and knights to the front with archers and lightly armed levies to the rear. In the center stood a cart with a mast holding a pyx and the consecrated banners of York, Ripon, and Beverley. Approaching the English position early on August 22, David sought to take them by surprise by utilizing a heavy mist which covered the field. Preparing for battle, the Scots formed into four lines.

    At this point an argument appears to have broken out among the Scottish commanders. While David intended to attack first with his knights and armored troops, his Galwegian contingent, who had been key at Clitheroe, insisted on leading the advance. Though he initially demurred as the Galwegians were lightly armored spearmen, he ultimately relented and allowed them to open the battle. Surging forward, the Galwegians took heavy losses as the English archers opened fire. Reaching the enemy lines, they were repulsed by their more heavily armored adversaries.

    Though the Scottish foot did exert pressure on the English, they were unable to achieve any meaningful breakthroughs. With his infantry beginning to melt away, David, who wished to continue the fight, was encouraged to fall back by his friends. Around this time, his son Henry led the Scottish knights on a mounted charge against the English. Though they punched a hole in the English line, no Scottish infantry moved to exploit the breach. By mid-morning, the Scottish army was departing the field in disarray. While the English did not attempt a pursuit, troops did kill numerous Scots that were fleeing from the area.

    Aftermath of the Battle of the Standard:

    While casualties for the battle are not known with precision, sources indicate that English losses were light while the Scottish army may have been reduced by as many as 12,000. Falling back to Carlisle Castle, David reorganized his forces. Though defeated in battle, he still possessed the largest force in the region as the English victors had released their levies. Moving to consolidate his hold on Cumberland and Northumberland, David was approached by Cardinal Alberic, Bishop of Ostia in September. Agreeing to cease offensive operations, David entered into peace negotiations with Stephen.

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