Aug. 22, 1138

near Northallerton, Yorkshire

King David of Scotland vs English under William, Count of Aumale
When Henry I of England died, a power struggle ensued between Henry's daughter Matilda (Maud) and her cousin Stephen, Count of Boulogne, who both claimed the throne. The Scots, under King David, supported Matilda, but it was Stephen who gained the crown

David invaded northern England twice in 1138, and both times he was turned back by Stephen, at the head of a sizeable royal army. In the summer of 1138, however, Stephen was occupied suppressing baronial revolts in the south, so when David invaded a third time, he was able to march deep into English territory, aided by a few disaffected English barons. The Scots besieged Wark and moved south into Yorkshire.

The current Archbishop of York, Thurstan, gathered local barons, augmented by a small force sent by Stephen. In addition, the city militias of York, Beverly, and Ripon joined the fray. These militias marched under religious banners, or standards, bearing the symbols of the patron saints of their cities, St. Peter, St. John, and St. Wilfred, respectively. It is these standards that eventually gave their name to the conflict that followed.

At Thirsk, the English received news that the Scots were advancing. They decided on a surprise attack. The English marched through the night, and met the Scots near Northallerton, on the Great North Road, at 6 in the morning of August 22.

Two small hills stood to the right of the road, and the English took position on the southernmost one of these. At the summit of the hill, a wagon bearing the religious standards was placed. Oddly, the English knights dismounted and chose to fight on foot. A line of archers stood at the base of the English line, with the dismounted knights behind and the civil militias to either side and behind the knights. The horses of the dismounted knights were put at the rear of the lines under mounted guard.

The Scots took up their place on the more northerly hill. King David intended to mirror the Norman arrangement of troops, but his Gallway highlanders claimed their ancient right to begin the battle. These highlanders were then placed in the centre, with mounted knights under Prince Henry, David's son, on their right, and lowlanders to their left. David himself led unmounted knights behind the Gallway men in the centre.

The Highlanders began the battle with a series of charges up hill against the centre of the English line. Despite their frenzied attacks, they were decimated by the Norman archers. Prince Henry then took matters into his own hands and threw his mounted knights against the militia. His force took losses but cut through the English lines. Henry appears to have made an attempt to seize the English horses, but his men were beaten back by the mounted guard and forced to withdraw through the English lines.

King David then ordered his reserve forward, but instead of obeying this command, the reserve turned and fled the field. David was left with a few mounted knights of his bodyguard. They had no choice but to withdraw, and the English made no attempt to follow, being content with having repulsed the attack.

What was left of the Scottish forces regrouped at Wark, where they finally took the castle in November. The consequences of the battle were minor insofar as the balance of power. The Scots remained a threat in the north, but the immediate threat to Stephen was diminished.

The major military lesson that might have been drawn from the affair was that a charge by lightly armed foot soldiers - no matter how valiant - stood little chance of success against more heavily armed opponents unless the foot soldiers were well-supported. The Scots did not support their attackers at the Battle of the Standard, and this ultimately cost them the battle.

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Medieval knight image