High on an escarpment at Sutton Bank on the edge of the North York Moors stands a signpost proclaiming “Finest view in England”. On a clear day you look out over wooded and craggy slopes, beyond nearby Hood Hill and Lake Gourmire, across the Vale of York and westwards to the Pennines. It is a popular viewpoint and many visitors walk along the top by the Yorkshire Gliding Club, along the earthworks of an ancient Iron Age hill fort to Roulston Scar and the equally famous White Horse etched onto the hillside above the village of Kilburn. But few know this is also the site of a battle. For here on 14 October 1322 a Scottish army led by Robert the Bruce attacked and routed the English and came to within a hair’s breadth of capturing a king, Edward II.
It was the time of the ‘Wars of Scottish Independence’. In August 1322 Edward II had marched into Scotland with an army of over 20,000, despatching his fleet to sail up the coast to the Firth of Forth in a campaign to defeat Robert the Bruce and capture Edinburgh. However, the Scottish army avoided battle and retreated before the English advance destroying all crops and cattle in their wake. Sir Thomas Gray, constable of Norham castle in Northumberland wrote, “The king marched upon Edinburgh, where at Leith there came such a sickness and famine upon the common soldiers of that great army, that they were forced to beat a retreat for want of food...so greatly were the English harassed and worn out by fighting that before they arrived in Newcastle there was such a marrain in the army for want of food, that they were obliged of necessity to disband.”
Edward turned back marching southwards to York with the remnants of his army and by October arrived at Rievaulx Abbey, a few miles to the east of Sutton Bank. Behind him Robert the Bruce with an army of 20,000 ‘moss-troopers and clansmen’ had crossed the border, laid waste to Carlisle, Lancaster and Preston, crossing the Pennines and marching through the Yorkshire Dales where he met with more Scottish troops.
The Scots marched through the night and by the morning of 14 October were in the woods below Sutton Bank. The English army, under the Earls of Richmond, Pembroke and Buchan took up defensive positions on the higher ground launching a barrage of rocks, missiles and hails of arrows against the Scots. Richmond sent his men down the slopes but in the confines of narrow and steep gullies many were killed. The battle now entered its final decisive phase. Bruce deployed his highlanders against the English flanks to gain the summit and the English pulled back; and his remaining ‘moss-troopers’ and cavalry to find a way around the back up onto the moor to attack from the rear. The battle was lost and no quarter was given. However, all was not over. Bruce now despatched Sir Walter Stewart and a contingent of cavalry to Rievaulx to capture the king. They arrived to find an untouched banquet on the table, treasure and the great Privy Seal but no king. Edward had evaded capture by the skin of his teeth fleeing with a small personal bodyguard, eventually finding safety behind the walls of the city of York.
I live in the shadow of Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar and often walk through the woods and along the top of the hills. However, it is only recently I realised I was walking in the footsteps of history and such a large battle had taken place hereabouts. For there is no plaque, monument or information board recalling the events of 14 October 1322; and no cairn or memorial marks the graves of the estimated 8,000 Englishmen and 960 Scotsmen who lost their lives on that day. It would be nice to think that as the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Old Byland approaches this will change.
Words and photographs Copyright © 2016 by Antony J Waller
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