It is a misty summer morning, a day’s march north from the city of York. Somewhere in the nearby farmsteads a rooster’s crow heralds a new day as the men of Yorkshire prepare a defensive position on the smooth slopes of a nearby hill. One of the commoners, levied for the upcoming encounter, suddenly yelled pointing his hand to the north. Emerging from the morning mist, another, bigger army was marching towards the hill. Seeing as there was no time to waste the Yorkshiremen scrambled, readying their weapons, lining up into positions.The battle was about to begin.
King Henry Beauclerc had succeeded in securing an undisputed position in both England and Normandy, whilst maintaining at least tolerable relations with his neighbours. But since the death of his only legitimate son five years earlier, King Henry’s foremost concern was to preserve his dynasty by either declaring one of his relatives as his successor, or simply produce a new heir.
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Though the latter seemed the safest and easiest solution, despite Henry’s best efforts, his young queen didn’t bear him a new royal son. Having no other choice, the English king started to look for an heir among his extended family. Of course Henry’s possible picks weren’t any random figures, but no candidate seemed to be good enough for the picky monarch. It was undoubtedly a tough decision to make with Henry’s entire realm being at stake, but before the king took any action on the matter, unexpected news reached England. The last emperor of the Salian dynasty had died of cancer at the age of forty,
leaving no children. This seemingly unrelated event immediately changed Henry’s plans, as the now widowed empress was none other than his only living legitimate offspring born in wedlock twenty three years old daughter Matilda, who shortly became Henry’s best bet to inherit the throne after his death. The king’s bold idea of a woman ruling in her own right was, to put it mildly, a novel concept in the region at the time, and was met with rather tepid enthusiasm among the Anglo-Norman barons.
Knowing that the royal court was generally rather sceptical about this idea, Henry made his liegemen take repeated oaths to recognise Matilda as his royal heir and successor. Around this time she was married yet again, as the English king aimed to rekindle the alliance with the powerful Fulk of Anjou,
which ended after the tragic death of Henry’s heir, William Adelin, some years earlier. The match with Fulk’s oldest son was a favourable one, but didn’t bring Matilda much popularity among Anglo-Norman nobles, who traditionally had rather hostile relations with their southern neighbours and had never really accepted Matilda’s young Angevin husband. As a result, the couple didn’t garner any meaningful support in
England and Normandy throughout the early 1130s’, focusing most of their political activity in Anjou. Despite these flaws, Henry’s succession plans looked reasonably sound, enforced by his strong personality and reputation. But the king didn’t live forever. According to chroniclers, while feasting after a hunting party in the forests near Rouen in late 1135, the English monarch ate too many lampreys, and soon fell ill.
His condition worsened over the week and Henry Beauclerc took his last breath on December 1st, leaving the realm he had carved out over the last four decades to his daughter. As luck would have it, at the time of Henry’s death, Matilda was campaigning out on the periphery of Anjou, which hampered her ability to react quickly to the new situation. Thus, many of the Anglo-Norman nobles that gathered to witness the late king’s burial conspired to put Henry’s nephew, Theobald of Blois, on the throne.
Theobald presented as the most obvious candidate, being the oldest living grandson of William the Conqueror. Yet before any decisions were made in Normandy, Theobald’s younger brother Stephen crossed the channel with his retinue. He swiftly won the support of the higher clergy and the masses of London, and crowned himself as the new King of England. Now,
Stephen wasn’t the most apparent candidate for the English throne, but as the younger son of Henry’s sister he was one of the king’s favourites, and used this to his advantage, building immense wealth and influence over the years. Stephen’s modest, easy-going demeanour combined with solid political acumen earned him a considerable following, and even his older brother Theobald eventually acknowledged Stephen’s coronation.
On the surface, this may seem like a pretty seamless royal succession, at least by medieval standards, but in fact it was quite the opposite. Although Stephen quickly gained the backing of the Church and the part of the nobility that resented Matilda’s marriage into the rival House of Anjou,
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he at the same time alienated those Anglo-Norman barons who maintained their oaths and stood by Matilda’s side after the death of her father. Months passed and since neither Stephen nor Matilda were willing to give up their claims to the throne; the Anglo-Norman realm slowly plunged into civil war.
You’d think that Matilda would have invaded England to take her inheritance by force as soon as possible, before Stephen was able to consolidate his power, but due to various reasons it took her several years to take any meaningful action against the usurper. Yet it didn’t mean that Stephen’s initial years on the throne were any easier because of this. The realm’s integrity depended largely on Henry’s personal authority and after his death,
political tensions started to rise. Due to this weakening central authority, Wales slipped into rebellion, which soon turned out to be a bigger problem than Stephen had expected. But as we’ve already discussed the Welsh Rebellion of 1136 in one of our previous videos, for today we’ll take a closer look at the northern border of the Anglo-Norman realm, where another ruler kept a wary eye on the recent developments in England.
King David I of Scotland, late king Henry’s skilled protégé and brother-in-law saw the uneasy succession and increasing chaos to the south as an excellent opportunity to spread his own power over the bordering English counties. Being a maternal uncle to Matilda, David had a convenient excuse to wage war on Stephen and starting in 1136 he launched yearly campaigns aiming to take advantage of the turmoil in England.
These campaigns weren’t particularly successful for David, yielding little lasting results, but they effectively tied down much of Stephen’s resources in the north in order to control the Scottish threat. Up until 1138, the English King was personally leading his forces against the Scots, but in the spring of said year he was compelled to march back to face a rebellion mounting to the south, thus leaving the defence of the northern border to his local lieutenants. For David, the absence of the English King was a good reason to launch another invasion,
aiming to take Durham and laying siege to York. In early June the Scots crossed the border advancing deep into Northumberland, taking castles and harrying the countryside. With no royal authority present, local ever-quarrelling English lords were unable to mount any significant resistance, and within the next two months the Scots were already raiding in Yorkshire, putting a direct threat on the city of York.
With the situation steadily deteriorating for the English and with no hope of King Stephen arriving with reinforcements anytime soon, it fell to one of his lieutenants in the area, Archbishop Thurstan of York to organise troops able to challenge the Scottish army. A daunting task, no doubt, but the aged archbishop managed to unite the Anglo-Norman magnates under this common cause and proselytize for a holy war against the Scots.
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The words he sowed must have fallen upon fertile ground. According to sources, having suffered great harm at the hands of the Scottish invaders, the commoner population that answered the archbishop’s preaching, eagerly flocked to the city of York where an army was forming. Thanks to Thurstan’s call to arms, by early August, the English force counted around 10,000 men, an extraordinary number given the circumstances.
When the intelligence reports came in stating that David’s host was on the move, marching south, the English force departed the city to block their approach. They set a camp near the town of Northallerton and in the early morning of the 21st of August deployed on the slope of a minor hill, which was considered a suitable position to defend from. There’s no consensus as to who commanded the English force,
but sources give hints as to the probable array of their army. The centre of the battle line was formed by dismounted heavily armoured knights, which proved to be a useful tactic during the reign of the late king Henry Beauclerc. The flanks consisted of local foot levies, interspersed with groups of archers,
while a mounted reserve was held in the rear. King David, who soon reached the battlefield, deployed his men on elevated terrain just north-west to the English positions. As his army was considerably more numerous, probably around 16,000 men in total, he formed two lines and a mounted reserve under his personal command. David’s original battle plan entailed dismounting his own knights and using them with archers to break a hole in English line in order then to attack it with light infantry.
Yet the brave men from Galloway, who formed the biggest contingent of David’s army, openly questioned this idea and refused to hold back until later in the battle. The Scottish king, who was no stranger to tactics and battlecraft, knew the potential of the Galwegians as they swiftly defeated heavy armoured English knights in a minor battle two months earlier, but still hesitated to put them in the front,
as the battle they were about to fight was obviously much different. Eventually, David reluctantly yielded to their demands, before this internal dispute could entirely break the coherence and composure of his army. The Galwegians moved to the front, taking the honor of leading the first charge at the enemy lines. Undoubtedly, this must have been discouraging for the English defenders to see a battle frenzied wave of unarmoured warriors charging at their positions. The archer volleys put many Galwegians to the ground,
but it was not enough to stop them. The throng of yelling Scots reached the English line and furiously surged against the wall of dismounted knights, struggling to punch a hole in their formation. Pitched battle ensued, as David watched the Galwegian efforts from the distance.
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The Scots fought vigorously, occasionally threatening to break the English line in places where the defence seemed to falter, but in the struggle against well motivated and tightly packed knights, their losses mounted quickly. The remainder of the Scottish troops waited for King David’s order to attack,
but it was his son prince Henry, commander of the heavy cavalry units, who rushed out to support the Galwegians. The ground trembled as Henry’s contingent gained momentum, but the cavalry charge came all too late, as the men of Galloway, suffering heavy losses were already wavering. So when Henry smashed into the English flank and broke the enemy array,
there were hardly any Scottish infantry still fighting to support the princely attack. In the meantime King David ordered the rest of his footmen to attack, but due to poor timing and the running Galwegians, this final charge never happened. Prince Henry and his units were embroiled in the fight against the English reserve horsemen, yet with no support, he promptly called his men to retreat.
Although the Scots had lost many men, King David maintained good control over his troops during the general retreat that followed, so the English were unable to take full advantage of the victory. The battle, though a clear defeat for the Scottish forces, didn’t curb David’s plans as one might have thought. Although he abandoned the plans of expansion further south, much of Northumbria remained in his hands,
and for a time this satiated his ambitions. For King Stephen this was bitter news, though the somewhat stabilised situation on the northern border allowed him to focus more on his problems to the south, the Kingdom of England gradually descended into a full-fledged civil war, known today as The Anarchy.