The Battle of the Standard, 1138, from the Hexham Chronicle

Scottish atrocities depicted in the 14th century Luttrell Psalter.Richard, prior of the church of Hexham, wrote an account of Scotland’s invasion of England in 1138, along with their defeat at the Battle of the Standard.

A. D. 1137. In the following year, immediately after Easter [11th April], when king David had levied his troops; he set out to lay waste Northumberland, in violation of the treaty of peace. But at the command of king Stephen, (who still remained in Normandy,) the greater part of the earls and barons of England, with a large force of soldiers, marched to Newcastle in Northumberland, being prepared to offer resistance should he invade England. At length, by means of envoys, a suspension of arms was agreed upon until the following Advent [28th Nov.], and after forty days they retired to their own quarters. On king Stephen’s return from Normandy in Advent, after having, on payment of a large sum, concluded a two years’ truce with the earl of Anjou, the ambassadors of David, king of Scotland, and his son Henry, speedily presented themselves, holding out a withdrawal of the armistice unless he would confer on Henry the earldom of Northumberland, but the king gave no ear to their demand.

A. D. 1138. On the fourth ides of January [10th Jan.], king David’s nephew William, son of Duncan, with a portion of David’s army, made a nocturnal attack upon the fortress called Carrum, in the king of England’s territory, and having plundered the neighbourhood around, proceeded to storm the castle. Afterwards the king himself and his son Henry arrived with a further reinforcement, and applying the whole strength of their resources, attempted to carry the town by various assaults with battering machines and other implements, and after that laid siege to it for three weeks. Yet he gained no advantage, but, on the contrary, every attempt proved injurious to himself: for the knight’s and others who were in the fortress, most ably defending themselves and the town, killed his standard‑bearer and many others of his men, under his own eyes, and wounded many more. The king, perceiving the inability of his efforts, and the many and daily increasing losses to himself and his troops, at length raised the siege, and rushed with his whole force to devastate Northumberland. And then that execrable army, more atrocious than the whole race of pagans, neither fearing God nor regarding man, spread desolation over the whole province, and murdered everywhere persons of both sexes, of every age and rank, and overthrew, plundered, and burned towns, churches, and houses. For the sick on’ their couches, women pregnant and in childbed, infants in the womb, innocents at the breast, or on the mother’s knee, with the mothers themselves, decrepit old men and worn-out old women, and persons debilitated from whatever cause, wherever they met with them, they put to the edge of the sword, and transfixed with their spears; and by how much more horrible a death they could dispatch them, so much the more did they rejoice. The mournful lamentation of the Psalmist then plainly received its fulfilment, “O God, the heathen are come into thine inheritance. Thy holy temple have they defiled, and made Jerusalem a heap of stones,” and, indeed, the whole remaining portion of that psalm. It is said that in one place they slew a multitude of children together, and having collected their blood into a brook, which they had previously dammed back, they drank the mixture, of which the greater part was pure blood. It is said, also, that in the church they shattered the crucifixes with every mark of dishonour, in contempt of Christ and to their own infamy; they dug up the altars, and near them, yea, upon them, they slaughtered the clergy and the innocent children. Wherefore we may again not unfitly exclaim in lamentation with the Prophet, ” O God, Thou hast cast us out, and scattered us abroad; Thou hast also been displeased, and hast not turned unto us again,” and so on as there follows. That infamous army received accessions from the Normans, Germans, and English, from the Northumbrians and Cumbrians, from Teviotdale and Lothian, from the Picts, commonly called Galwegians, and the Scots, and no one knew their number; for multitudes uncalled for allied themselves with those above mentioned, either from love of plunder, or opportunity of revenge, or the mere desire of mischief with which that region was rife. Overrunning the province, and sparing none, they ravaged with sword and fire almost all Northumberland as far as the river Tyne, excepting the towns and the seacoast which lies on the eastern side, but this they designed to devastate on their return. A portion of that army also crossed the Tyne, and massacred numberless persons in the wilds, laying waste in the same way the greater part of the territory of St. Cuthbert on the west side.

While his followers were perpetrating these things, the king of Scotland with a considerable force occupied Corbridge. At this period a monastery of the Cistercian rule, founded the same. year on the property of Ralph de Merley, was destroyed, and very many others were overwhelmed with the heaviest afflictions. Wherefore the monastery at the mouth of the river Tyne, called in English Tynemouth, in order to secure itself and its inmates in this urgent need, paid to the king of Scotland and his men twenty-seven marks of silver. In this raging and tempestuous period, that noble monastery of Hexham, (although in the very midst of the collision, and placed as it were on the very route of these ruffians, so as to be surrounded by them on every side,) yet on account of the renowned merits of its tutelary saints, Andrew the apostle, and Wilfrid, bishop and martyr, and of its other patrons, Saints Acca, Alcmund, and Eata, bishops and confessors, and the other saints who reposed within that church, offered the most tranquil security to its people and those who took refuge in it, and afforded them all a perfectly safe asylum from hostile assault.. Nevertheless, at first the Picts rushed with impetuous haste to the river Tyne, on which the town stands, and would have destroyed it, as they had others; but just as they were about to cross this river, two of their number were killed by their own countrymen, and on this the others retired in fear. Moreover, two of the same tribe of Picts came by chance upon an oratory of St. Michael the archangel, situated on that, the northern bank of the river Tyne, and attached to the aforesaid church of Hexham; thereupon they broke open the door, and carried off what they found. But the vengeance of God overtook them; for, given up to the evil one, they were bereft of reason, and, as the madness drove them, fore night and day, in the sight of all, through forest and country, and both perished by a horrible death; the one first battering his own face with stones, and then having his legs cut off by some one, the other drowning himself in the Tyne. These events striking terror into some of the army, they did not venture to make any further attempt upon the possessions of the church of Hexham. Thereupon David, king of Scotland, and earl Henry his son, guaranteed to that monastery, its brethren, and all belonging to it, continued security from hostilities on the part of themselves and all their followers; and this they confirmed by their charters, which are preserved in that church, the sole condition being that they, on their part, should preserve the peace towards him and his. Thus that noble church, founded by St. Wilfrid, preserving its ancient and wonted lustre in this and other storms of battle and contention, became a secure place of refuge to numberless poor as well as rich, to whom it afforded the necessaries of life, and the preservation of their property.

Meanwhile, about the feast of the Purification of St. Mary [February 2nd], Stephen, king of England, arrived with a great number of earls and barons, and a large force of horse and foot. On hearing of this the king of Scotland left Northumberland, and rapidly retreated with his army to his own territory. He marched to Wark, and afterwards lay in wait with his troops in some wilds near Roxburgh, with a design to ensnare the king of England, who he hoped would take up his quarters at Roxburgh. He directed the citizens to receive him favourably, and to make a show of good faith; but he also directed that when he with his army should steal up by night, and a number of soldiers whom he had placed in the town should make a sudden sally and join him with the townsmen, they all should unite in encompassing the king of England unawares on, every side, and should cut him off with all his men. But the Lord, who knoweth the thoughts of man that they are but vain, brought to nought all these devices. For the king, of England crossed the river Tweed, and did not proceed to Roxburgh, but devastated and burnt a great portion of the territory of the king of Scotland; and then, because many of his knights declined to take arms and carry on the war, (for it was now the beginning of Lent) and also because the king of Scotland and his men dared not give battle, and moreover, his own army was deficient’ in supplies, he therefore retired with his troops to the south of England. But, on the Friday of the week follow–ing the celebration of Easter 15th April, the king of Scotland, so frequently mentioned, with his execrable army, once more returned to Northumberland, and with no less ferocity and cruelty than he had previously exhibited, lie devastated first the seacoast of the county, which on the former occasion had been left undisturbed, and ail those other portions besides which anywhere had escaped uninjured, and after that the greater part of the territory of St. Cuthbert, on the eastern side, between Durham and the sea. And both on this and the former occasion he in like manner destroyed, together with the husbandmen, many farms of the monks who served God and St. Cuthbert day and night. But St. Cuthbert at length took pity on his servants; for, whilst his adherents were perpetrating these enormities, the king with retinue took up his abode near Durham, and there a serious mutiny having arisen on account of a certain woman, the life of the king and his suite was placed in jeopardy by the Picts. Whilst under much apprehension from this danger, suddenly a false report was spread that a large army was approaching from the south of Britain; so he with all his forces, leaving untouched their provisions already prepared, fled unpursued towards their own country, and marching to Norham, which is in the territory of St. Cuthbert, and laying siege to it, endeavoured to assault and reduce it by various plans and devices. And while he remained there occupied in the siege, he dispatched his nephew William, son of Duncan, on an expedition into Yorkshire, with the Picts and a portion of his army. When they had arrived there, and had gained the victory, on account of the sins of the people, they destroyed by fire and sword the main part of the possessions of a splendid monastery situated in Southerness, and in the district called Craven. Then, sparing no rank, no age, no sex, no condition, they first massacred, in the most barbarous manner possible, children and kindred in the sight of their relatives, masters in sight of their servants, and servants in the sight of their masters, and husbands before the eyes of their wives; and then (horrible to relate) they carried off, like so much booty, the noble matrons and chaste virgins, together with other women. These naked, fettered, herded together; by whips and thongs they drove before them, goading them with their spears and other weapons. This took place in other wars, but in this to a far greater extent. Afterwards, when they were distributed along with the other booty, a few from motives of pity restored some of them to liberty, at the church of St. Nary in Carlisle; but the Picts and many others carried off those who fell to their share, to their own country. And finally, these brutal men, making no account of adultery, incest, or such crimes, when tired of abusing these poor wretches like unto animals, made them their slaves, or sold them for cattle to other barbarians.


The king of Scots and his men received these tidings with great exultation, and applied themselves to the capture of the fortress before named with still greater energy. The townsmen at first defended themselves with great vigour, but afterwards being few, and many of them wounded, (there being only nine knights,) despairing also of aid from their lord Geoffrey, bishop of Durham, and being besides inexperienced in such struggles, they in dismay surrendered to the king, while as yet the wall was in good condition, the tower very strong, and their provisions abundant. The soldiers, consequently, and those who were in the town, incurred great obloquy, because they had made a feeble resistance, and had too readily given up the castle; and not only were they censured, but their lord also, because he had not garrisoned his fortress according to his means, and as the necessities of the period required. The knights retired with their men to Durham. So the king, having captured the town, and taken the provisions which were there stored up in much abundance, intimated to the bishop that if he would desert Stephen, king of England, and swear fealty to his party, he would restore the castle to him, and make good the damage which it had sustained. This the bishop refused, and the king, therefore, caused the town to be dismantled.

While these events occurred there, about Rogation time, the soldiers sallying from the town of Wark, seized under their walls king David’s supplies, which had to pass close by them, together with the wagons and the attendants: The king, excessively enraged at this, hastened with his whole force to besiege them, and by batteries and all the means in his power he again proceeded to assail it. But by God’s blessing all his endeavours fell fruitless. Many of his men were wounded and disabled, and some slain; likewise, in the conflicts which before this siege had been fought with the king’s son Henry, some were killed, others wounded or taken prisoners, and ransom received for them. Blessed be God over all, who protected the righteous, but overthrow the wicked! The king then, perceiving that his attempts upon the town were useless, caused the crops to be consumed on the ground, and then levying from his own country, and whencesoever else he could, a larger force than ever before, he united his troops into one body. Moreover Eustace Fitz John, one of the barons of the king of England, who held a very strong fortress in Northumberland, called Alnwick, and had long secretly favoured the king of Scotland, now openly showing his treachery, threw off his allegiance to his lawful sovereign, the king of England, and with his whole strength gave his aid to the Scots against the realm of England. Leading with him no inconsiderable number of fighting men; he marched with the king of Scotland to ravage Yorkshire, and had made arrangements to give up to the king of Scotland and his party another strong castle of his called Malton, situated in that province on the river Derwent, not far from York, of which we shall have to say more hereafter. King David then, consigning the siege of Wark to two of the thanes (that is to say, his barons), with their retainers, marched with most of his army to the town called Bamborough, where having taken an outwork of the castle, he killed nearly a hundred men. And then having destroyed the crops around that place, and around William Bertram’s town of Mitford and in many other parts of Northumberland, he crossed the river Tyne. Entering the territory of St. Cuthbert, he there waited for a portion of his army that had not yet joined him, and at his summons the Picts, and Cumbrians, and the men of Carlisle and the adjoining district, came to him without delay. The whole army being thus assembled, he regarded it with unbounded exultation for it appeared to him immense and invincible, and in truth it vas very large, consisting of more than twenty-six thousand men. His heart and the hearts of his men were lifted up, and putting their trust in themselves and their numbers, and having, no fear of God, they spoke boastfully and proudly. They both designed and threatened to give to destruction not only Yorkshire, but also the greatest part of England; for, with such a host, they did not imagine that any one would venture or be able to resist them. These transactions occurred within the octave of the Nativity of St. Mary [8-15th Sept.]; and the king then passing by Durham, destroyed the crops as far as the river Tees, and, according to his usual practice, caused the towns and churches which had previously escaped uninjured to be dismantled, plundered, and burnt. Crossing the Tees, he commenced a similar career of violence. But God’s mercy, being moved by the tears of innumerable widows, orphans, and victims, no longer permitted such wickedness to remain unchastised. For whilst he and his men were engaged in this course of outrage, information of his crimes, his proceedings, and his designs was conveyed to the men of Yorkshire, both by common report and by sure intelligence; whereupon the barons of that province, to wit, archbishop Turstin (who, as will presently appear, greatly exerted himself in this emergency), William de Albemarle, Walter de Gant, Robert de Bruce, Roger de Mowbray, Walter Espec, Ilbert de Lacy, William de Percy, Richard de Courcy, William Fossard, Robert de Stuteville, and other powerful and sagacious men, assembled at York, and anxiously deliberated as to what course should be pursued at this crisis. Much irresolution was caused by distrust of each other, arising from suspicions of treachery, by the absence of a chief and leader of the war (for their sovereign, king Stephen, encompassed by equal difficulties in the south of England, was just then unable to join them), and by their dread of encountering, with an inadequate force, so great a host; so that it appeared as if they would actually have abandoned the defence of themselves and their country, had not their archbishop, Turstin, a man of great firmness and worth, animated them by his counsel and exhortations. For, being the shepherd of their souls, he would not, like a hireling on the approach of the wolf, seek safety in flight, but rather, pierced with the deepest emotions of pity at the dispersion and ruin of his flock, he applied all his energy and labours to counteract these great evils. Wherefore, by the authority of his divine commission, and the royal warrant with which on that occasion he was provided, he boldly urged them, by their loyalty and their honour, not to allow themselves through cowardice to be prostrated at one blow by utter savages; but that rather they all, with their dependants, should seek God’s favour by taste repentance, and turning with all their heart to Him whose wrath these many and heavy evils proved that they deserved, they should then act with the confidence and courage demanded in so pressing an emergency. If they acted thus devotedly, trusting in God’s mercy, he assured them of victory; for that infamous people were directing their hostile endeavours against God and holy church rather than against them, and therefore were fighting in a cause unrighteous, nay rather accursed. But their cause was a just and most holy one, inasmuch as they were encountering peril in defence of holy church and of their country; and if so be it should please God that this contest should not terminate without the loss of some of them, yet, by those who were fighting with such an object, death was not to be feared, but rather desired. He promised them also, that the priests of his diocese, bearing crosses, should march with them to battle with their parishioners, and that he also, God willing, designed to be present with his men in the engagement.

At this period of perplexity one of the nobles of that province, Bernard de Baliol, sent to them by the king of England, arrived with a number of knights; and, on the king’s part and his own, he greatly aroused their energy to the same effect. Thus incited by the charge of the king and their archbishop, coming unanimously to one decision, they returned to their own abodes; and shortly after again met at York, each fully equipped and armed for battle. Having there made private confession, the archbishop enjoined on them and the whole populace a three days’ fast with almsgiving; after which he solemnly absolved them, and gave them God’s blessing and his own. And although he was himself so greatly reduced by age and infirmity, that he had to be carried on a litter where need was, yet, in order to animate their courage, he would readily have accompanied them to the field of battle. But they compelled him to stay behind, begging that lie would employ himself in interceding for them by prayers and alms, by vigils and fasts, and other sacred observances; while they (as God would deign to aid them, and as their position demanded) would cheerfully go forth against the enemy, in defence of God’s church, and of him who was his minister. So he consigned to them his cross, and the standard of St. Peter, and his retainers; and they proceeded to the town called Thirsk, from whence they dispatched Robert de Bruce and Bernard de Baliol to the king of Scotland, who was then, as has been said, devastating the territory of St. Cuthbert. They very humbly and courteously besought him that he would at least desist from his acts of ferocity; and faithfully promised him that if he would accede to their request, they would obtain from the king of England the earldom of Northumberland; which he claimed for his son Henry. But he, together with his followers, with a hardened heart, spurned their solicitation, and disdainfully taunted them They therefore returned to their associates, Robert abjuring the homage he had rendered him, and Bernard the fealty which he had sworn to him on one occasion when he had been taken prisoner by him. All the nobles, therefore, of that province, and William Peverel and Geoffrey Halsalin from Nottinghamshire, and Robert de Ferrers from Derbyshire, and other eminent and sagacious men, made a compact amongst themselves, which they confirmed by oaths, that not one of them, in this difficulty, would desert another while he had the power to aid him; and thus all would either perish or conquer together. At the same time the archbishop sent to them Ralph, surnamed Novellus, bishop of Orkney, with one of his archdeacons and other clergy, who, as his delegate, should impose penance and give absolution to the people who daily flocked to them from every quarter. He also sent to them, as he had promised, the priests with their parishioners. While thus waiting the approach of the Scots, the scouts whom they had sent forward to reconnoitre returned, bringing the information that‑the king with his army had already passed the river Tees, and was ravaging their province in his wonted manner: They therefore hastened to resist them; and passing the village of Alverton [North Allerton], they arrived early in the morning at a plain distant from it about two miles. Some of them soon erected, in the centre of a frame which they brought, the mast of a ship, to which they gave the name of the Standard; whence those lines of Hugh Sotevagina, archdeacon of York:

Our gallant stand by all contest,
Be this the Standard’s fight;
Where death or victory the test,
That proved the warriors’ might. 

On the top of this pole they hung a silver pix containing the Host, and the banner of St. Peter the Apostle, and John of Beverley and Wilfrid of Ripon, confessors and bishops. In doing this, their hope was that our Lord Jesus Christ, by the efficacy of his Body, might be their leader in the contest in which they were engaging in defence of his church and their country. By this means they also provided for their men, that, in the event of their being cut off and separated from them, they might observe some certain and conspicuous rallying-point, by which they might rejoin their comrades, and where they would receive succour.

Scarcely, then, had they put themselves in battle array, when tidings were brought that the king of Scotland was close at hand with his whole force, ready and eager for the contest. The greater part of the knights, then dismounting, became foot soldiers, a chosen body of whom, interspersed with archers, were arranged in the front rank. The others, with the exception of those who were to dispose and rally the forces, mustered with the barons in the centre, near and around the standard, and were enclosed by the rest of the host, who closed in on all sides. The troop of cavalry and the horses of the knights were stationed at a little distance, lest they should take fright at the shouting and uproar of the Scots. In like manner, on the enemy’s side, the king and almost all his followers were on foot, their horses being kept at a distance. In front of the battle were the Picts; in the centre, the king with his knights and English; the rest of the barbarian host poured roaring around them.

As they advanced in this order to battle, the standard with its banners became visible at no great distance; and at once the hearts of the king and his followers were overpowered by extreme terror and consternation; yet, persisting in their wickedness, they pressed on to accomplish their bad ends. On the octaves of the Assumption of St. Mary, being Monday, the eleventh of the kalends of September [22nd Aug.], between the first and third hours, the struggle of this battle was begun and finished. For numberless Picts being slain immediately on the first attack, the rest, throwing down their arms, disgracefully fled. The plain was strewed with corpses; very many were taken prisoners; the king and all the others took to flight; and at length, of that immense army all were either slain, captured, or scattered as sheep without a shepherd. They fled like persons bereft of reason, in a marvelous manner, into the adjoining district of their adversaries, increasing their distance from their own country, instead of retreating towards it. But wherever they were discovered, they were put to death like sheep for the slaughter; and thus, by the righteous judgment of God, those who had cruelly massacred multitudes, and left them unburied, and giving them neither their country’s nor a foreign rite of burial, left a prey to the dogs, the birds, and the wild beasts, were either dismembered and torn to pieces, or decayed and putrefied in the open air. The king also, who, in the haughtiness of his mind and the power of his army, seemed a little before to reach with his head even to the stars of heaven, and threatened ruin to the whole or greatest part of England, now dishonoured and meanly attended, barely escaped with his life, in the utmost ignominy and dismay. The power of Divine vengeance was also most plainly exhibited in this, that the army of the vanquished was incalculably greater than that of the conquerors. No estimate could be formed of the number of the slain; for, as many affirm, of that army which came out of Scotland alone, it was computed by the survivors that more than ten thousand were missing; and in various localities of the Deirans, Bernicians, Northumbrians, and Cumbrians, many more perished after the fight than fell in the battle.

The army of the English having, by God’s help, with a small loss, thus easily obtained the victory, and taken possession of the spoil, which was found in great abundance, was very speedily disbanded; and all returning to their homes, they restored with joy and thanksgiving to the churches of the saints the banners which they had received. They had gone forth to this battle in their gayest array, and with costly splendour, as to. a royal marriage. Some of the barons, with a portion of the army, marched to Eustace’s town, called Malton mentioned above; and having destroyed the suburb, they laid siege to it, because, during the fight, the soldiers had sallied from it by orders of their lord, and set fire to many villages. A truce of eight days was arranged, after which the siege continued. The ground on which the above battle was fought was alone the possession. of St. Cuthbert, the whole surrounding district being owned by others; and this occurred not by design of the combatants, but by the dispensation of Providence; for it may clearly be observed that Divine justice would not long allow to go unpunished the iniquity that had been perpetrated in the territory of his holy and beloved confessor and bishop, but would speedily visit it with wonted vengeance.

The king of England received the news of this event with extreme joy; and, being informed that they had greatly distinguished themselves in this affair, he created William de Albemarle earl in Yorkshire, and Robert de Ferrers earl in Derbyshire. And it is to be remarked that, about this time, fortune in a dike manner befriended himself and his supporters, both in the south of England and in Normandy, in their encounters with their opponents. The king of Scotland added fresh force to the siege of Wark, upon being rejoined by his son Henry, and reassembling his men, who had fled from the fight separately, rather like bitter foes than comrades; for when these Angles, Scots, Picts, and other barbarians, experience a disaster, those who have the power either murder, wound, or at the least despoil the others, and then, by the righteous judgment of God, they were cut off by their allies as well as their foes. The king, upon hearing these facts, imposed upon his subjects heavy penalties and fines, and drew from them an immense sum of money; at the same time, he bound them more strongly than ever before, by oaths and pledges, never more to abandon him in war. He then endeavoured by engines, new constructions, and various devices, to gain possession of the town of Wark. The townsmen, however, destroyed his engines, killed in various ways several of the king’s men, and wounded many, with a loss of only one of their own. soldiers, who was cut off and slain by a multitude of the Scots who had sallied from the castle, and he, rashly confident in his own valour, was staying to demolish one of the engines. The king at length, seeing all his endeavours ineffectual, and damaging to himself and his troops, removed his engines relinquished the assault, and enforced a strict blockade of the town, much against the inclination of his followers; for in consequence of the great losses, difficulties, and destitution which they had there endured, they were completely worn out by the protracted siege.

At this time certain lawless persons, whose sole study and delight was to plan. and perpetrate crimes, banded themselves together in a detestable alliance, the more effectually to carry out their designs of mischief. The chiefs and leaders of this abominable fraternity were Edgar the illegitimate son of earl Cospatrick, and Robert and Uctred, sons of Meldred. Urged, therefore, by rapacity, encouraged by impunity, and frenzied by passion, they overran Northumberland like wolves, seeking whom they might devour; and crossing the river Tyne, they came upon the territory of St. Cuthbert, but lighting upon nothing there which it was within their power or their daring to seize, they returned empty-handed. They then carried off all the booty they could obtain in a village of the parish of Hexham, called Herintun (Errington). Two nights after these same robbers attacked another village called Digentun (Denton). This village was the property of the canons of the church aforesaid, and was distant eight miles east of Hexham. Having slain three of the canons’ servants, and heaped many insults on their prior, who had happened to arrive unexpectedly that night, they marched off with their spoil. This mischance befell these canons contrary to their expectation, inasmuch as the king of Scotland had promised, as well for himself as for all his followers, (as was before said,) the most absolute security to them, their vassals, their effects, their parish, and expressly this very village.

Originally translated by Joseph Stevenson, The Church Historians of England, volume 4, part 1 (London, 1853-58)

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