Under the cover of darkness they moved with great stealth. Their mission a simple one; the capture of Isabella, Queen of England and wife of Edward II.(1) Sir James Douglas and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray led the Scottish hit and run raid. The plan it would seem was conjured up in the heat of a late August summer and by early September, the surreptitious yet substantial raiding party had almost reached York, having entered England via the north-west near Carlisle before they looped south and then east across the spine of England. They dared not enter through Northumberland. Edward II and his vast military army were laying siege to the town and castle of Berwick, recaptured by the Scots a year earlier and which had been held by them until 1296 before they lost it to Edward I. Edward II was determined to wrestle it back and as the magnates of England assembled in the northern Marchers with all their military might, the queen and her ladies were ensconced somewhere outside, but nevertheless near, the walls of York.
Robert Bruce, the victor at Bannockburn five years earlier was not prepared to chance his luck a second time on an open battlefield and instead sought to distract Edward away from the siege at Berwick with something perhaps even more daring. (2) By capturing his wife, Bruce hoped to humiliate the king of England, but also in a single stroke end the ongoing struggle between the Scottish and English crowns. Since the days of Edward I (r.1272-1307), the English kings continued to assert their claim that they ruled Scotland outright since the line of Scottish kings had failed with the death of Alexander III in 1286 and his heir, the Maid of Norway in 1290. The removal of the puppet king, John Balliol a few years later allowed Edward I a chance to rule Scotland directly, a claim his son Edward II inherited and which subsequently dogged his reign. Despite Bruce’s earlier victory at Bannockburn, success had not changed the political landscape. Robert may have been king within the realm of Scotland, but no one outside the boundaries of his kingdom, including the pope recognised him as such. He was hamstrung and he knew it and he needed to establish his legitimacy fast as he had held the title of king since as far back as 1306. He could not live forever. The capture and price for Isabella’s release would unquestionably be Scottish independence.
However, like so many elaborate plans, the execution is often somewhat more difficult. A spy hidden at York, perhaps an Englishman called Edmund Darel, turned coat. He was unexpectedly captured and under interrogation revealed the daring plan to William Melton, archbishop of York and John de Hothum, chancellor and bishop of Ely.(3) According to the author of the contemporary chronicle the Vita Edwardi Secundi, no one at first quite believed what they were hearing, astounded that the Scots would be both so brazen and so bold in venturing this far south and with such intentions in mind in the first place. Nevertheless, the risk was too great and so Isabella was informed and promptly moved her household behind the safety of the walls of York. As days went by the threat became increasingly more apparent and before long it was clear the spy’s story was true as reports of the approaching Scots reached home. The queen, and York were now in line for an imminent Scottish attack whilst the king was in Northumberland and unable to help them in time. The flower of English military might was also at Berwick. York and the queen were essentially defenceless. In order to protect her, Melton convinced Isabella and her ladies to retreat south to Nottingham castle where they could safely hide. It was the safest bet and one Isabella took.(4)
With the queen safely at Nottingham and the military might of England in Northumberland, defence of York fell to its archbishop and the bishop of Ely. Prelates, priests, monks, clerks and peasantry were all they had left as their garrison had gone to war. Those that remained were however stoical and prepared to defend their homes, the queen and northern England. Melton and Hothum, along with Nicholas Fleming, the mayor of York, donned on armour and on 13 September led a brave but ill-prepared gathering, taking the fight to the Scots rather than playing the victim behind the comparative safety of the town walls. Their bravery can only be commended. Many had never worn armour before, wielded a sword, or used their tools for anything other than harvesting the fields or working an anvil. For the monks and clerks this was certainly beyond their vocation. Their bravery and determination to protect both their homes and their queen armoured their souls and emboldened their spirits. God they felt must be on their side.
God though thought differently. Ten miles beyond the walls of York, at Myton next to the river Swale, the citizens came upon the heavily armoured Scottish number, many of whom were veterans of Bannockburn, including their stalwart leaders Douglas and Randolph. The archbishop’s gathering formed up in some array until the Scots, possibly humoured by such a sight, torched bundles of hay recently gathered in the fields. As the acrid smoke smothered the fields, the clergy, clerks and citizens began to waver. According to the Chronicle of Lanercost ‘when the Scots beheld men rushing to fight against them, they formed up according to their custom in a single schiltrom, and then uttered together a tremendous shout to terrify the English, who straightaway began to take to their heels at the sound. Then the Scots, breaking up the schiltrom wherein they were massed, mounted their horses and pursued the English‘.(5) What little discipline the English had began to fall apart and the Scots swept in for an easy kill. Those that escaped the sword more often than not drowned in the river or were taken prisoner. (6) In all, the Lanercost chronicler determined that 4,000 lost their lives, but this is somewhat exaggerated and probably nearer a few hundred. (7) In the fighting that followed the mayor Nicholas Fleming was cut down and killed, whilst William Melton the archbishop of Canterbury and the bishop of Ely barely escaped with their lives, instead fleeing back to York and the safety of the town walls.
The slaughter of so many of the clergy did not go amiss amongst the Scots, who marked their victory by naming the whole debacle, the ‘Chapter’ of Myton.(8) Perhaps in respect for their determined resistance, or because the Scots knew Isabella was now beyond their reach, the battle hardened raiders simply turned around and headed back for home, raiding and burning the north-west counties as they passed. Bruce’s hope for imminent Scottish independence was once more thwarted.
(1)Flores, 189. Vita, 95
(2) Bruce, 640-2
(3) Flores, 189. Ann Paul, 287-8
(4) Ibid, 189. Ann Paul, 287
(5) Lanercost, 227
(6) Anonimalle, 99. Vita, 95
(7) Lanercost, 227
(8) Bruce, 646