The Battle of the Standard, otherwise known as the Battle of Cowton Moor or the Battle of Northallerton, was fought on the 22nd of August, 1138.
The Battle of the Standard need never have been fought at all if folks had just done what was expected, but where would we be if history was full of right instead of might. What had been expected on the Norman-English side after the death of Henry I was that his daughter, Matilda I, should have sat nice ‘n’ comfy on the Throne of England and ruled. Of course, the question of Matilda becoming Queen should never have arisen in the first place, but her brother, Prince William, had gone and drowned in a shipwreck, leaving ‘Enery with no male heir. However, despite support from her illegitimate half-brother, the Duke of Gloucester, Matilda was usurped by her cousin, Stephen, the Count of Blois, from across the Channel, with the support of several northern Barons. What claim Stephen had to the Throne beats me, but there you go, that was the year that was. Those events in England, the Civil War of Stephen and Matilda, ushered in the period that became known as ‘The Anarchy’, which lasted from the death of Henry I in 1135 until the succession of his grandson, Henry II, in 1154.
In Scotland, David I had no business getting involved you might think, but it wisnae that simple. You see, David himself was, let’s say, a Norman-Scot and linked by marriage, friendship and allegiance to Henry I and his daughter, Matilda (or Maud as she’d have been kent in Scotland, being David’s neice). Because David I was one of the Margaretsons, he was only half Scots and because of the fact that he’d been brought up in England at the Court of Henry I, he was more Norman than Scottish by the time he went back ‘home’ to rule after the death of his brother, Alexander. He brought back with him a great many Norman Lords and Barons, including Bruce and Balliol, whose descendants famously came to loggerheads in an argument over the Kingship of Scotland. David I was largely responsible for remodeling Scotland, in terms of administration and warfare at least, on Norman feudal lines; at least the parts of ‘Scotland’ over which he had effective control. He also retained lands in England, for which he paid homage, at least in theory, to Henry I and, subsequently, Matilda. In Scotland, David I was known as a pious King, famously ‘Sair sanct for the croun’ and maker of generous donations to the Church and various monastic orders. However, he wasnae above a wee bit fechtin’ when the occasion demanded. In 1138, Matilda demanded his help to repulse Stephen of Blois and Davie, perhaps sensing an opportunity for a wee bit of territorial annexation, decided to pitch in pledged his help.
David invaded northern England three times, but instead of it being third time lucky, it “looks like he overdid it with the sherry!” The first time he invaded on Maud’s behalf was in 1136, when he took Carlise and Northumberland. Contemporary English Chroniclers spread stories of raping, pillaging Picts, whose mindless bloodlust led to butchered children, tortured priests and even cannibalism. It seems then, that ‘spin’ isn’t really a modern 20th Century invention. Stephen’s Head of Propaganda was Thurston, the Archbishop of York, who determined to make the struggle a Holy War and gain an unfair advantage by having ‘God’ on his side. Isn’t it funny that in most European wars, even right up until the Second World War, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht had ‘Gott mit uns’ stamped on its belt buckles, both sides often claimed that ‘God’ was on their side. Maybe there was a mediating influence at work, at first, as a peace treaty was agreed in which Cumberland was ceded to David I and his son, Henry, named after Henry I of England by the way, was made Earl of Huntingdon, in England. David I again invaded northern England in the Spring of 1137 and this time a truce was agreed until November. The following January, when Stephen refused to grant David the Earldom of Northumberland, David invaded for the third time. The result on that occasion was one of the bloodiest battles of ‘The Anarchy’.
It was known as the ‘Battle of the Standard’ rather than the ‘Battle of Cowton Moor’ because of Archbishop Thurston’s ecclesiastic fervour, which led to the English trundling a peculiar cart into position for the battle on the crest of the little hill. That English rallying point was a four-wheeled ‘war alter’ upon which was mounted a ship’s mast bearing a ‘pyx’ containing the consecrated wafer. From the cross-member they had hung the four sacred banners of St. Peter of York, St. John of Beverly, St. Wilfred of Ripon, and St. Cuthbert of Durham. On a scroll nailed to the pole was the legend “Dicitur a stando standardum, quod stetit iltic Militia; probitas vinccre sivc mori” written by Hugh Sotevagina, the Precentor and Archdeacon of York. Numerous Clergy accompanied the army, including Ralph Nowell, the suffragan Bishop of Orkney, who was subordinate to Thurston and independent of the Scotland of David I. These several and various Priests held services on the altar before the battle and trumpeters beside them blew encouragement to the army “gathered here today”.
I guess the less said about the battle the better, for it was another defeat for a Scottish army. As with most medieval battles, it didn’t last too long; around a couple of hours, and in that time the English army, although outnumbered, maybe by around 10,000 to 16,000 men, repulsed the attack of the Scots and Galwegians who appeared out of the early morning fog like a band of hungry wolves. The savage, half-naked Gaelic contingent destroyed itself upon the pikes of the English men-at-arms and under a hail of arrows from their archers. Whatever inroads the Scots did make were closed off by the well drilled English forces. David’s men did mount one successful attack, when Prince Henry’s small detachment of mounted Knights punched right through the English battle formation. However, that opportunity could not be exploited by the infantry that followed up the charge and David was forced to abandon the field. The Scots fled, leaving many of their number dead on the field, but the English, albeit victorious, were unable to follow up with an effective pursuit. If they had, then there would have been far more Scots left lying in the burial place of the slain. You can guess its name from Scot Pits Lane, alongside which hedgers and ditchers have frequently found fragments of and bones weapons, although the graves in the field, thanks to the plough, are no longer visible.