The signpost proclaiming “Finest view in England” stands on an escarpment almost 800 feet (300 metres) high at Sutton Bank on the edge of the North York Moors National Park. On a clear day from this spectacular viewpoint you can look out over the wooded and craggy slopes, beyond nearby Hood Hill and Lake Gourmire, across the Vale of York and westwards to the Pennines. The adjacent Visitor Centre is a popular attraction and many visitors stop to walk the path along the top past the Yorkshire Gliding Club, along the earthworks of an ancient Iron Age hill fort and around the point of Roulston Scar to the equally famous White Horse above the village of Kilburn. But what many do not know is that this is also the site of a battle. For it was here on14 October 1322 that a Scottish army led by Robert the Bruce attacked and routed an English army and came within a hair’s breadth of capturing the king, Edward II; and it is in the woods below that many English soldiers lie buried.
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 retreated before the English advance, avoiding battle and destroying all crops and cattle in their wake. Sir Thomas Gray, constable of Norham castle in Northumberland described it thus, “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 left his queen, Isabella, at Tynemouth and marched southwards to York with the remnants of his army, eventually arriving 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 and was marching over the Pennines and through the Yorkshire Dales. At Northallerton he met with more Scottish troops and set out to capture a king.
Robert the Bruce and his army marched through the night and by the morning of 14 October were in the woods beneath the craggy summit of Sutton Bank. Alerted, the English army under the Earls of Richmond, John of Brittany, Pembroke, Aymer de Valence and Buchan, Henry Beaumont, had broken camp near Old Byland to take up defensive positions along the top, probably from where the Visitor Centre now stands southwards to Roulston Scar. The Scots advanced against a barrage of rocks and missiles and hails of arrows; the Earl of Richmond attempted to counter the advance by sending men down the slopes but the narrow and steep gullies were easily defended by the Scots leading to many English dead. Bruce now set his highlanders against the English flanks and the Scots fought their way to the summit causing Richmond’s troops to pull back to engage and fight the enemy along the top of the escarpment and beyond. The battle now entered its final decisive phase.
Bruce sent his remaining ‘moss-troopers’ and cavalry to find a way around the back up onto the moor, to outflank the English and attack from the rear. The battle was lost, no quarter was given and the English suffered heavy casualties. However, Bruce was not yet finished. He despatched Sir Walter Stewart and a contingent of cavalry to Rievaulx to capture the king. Stewart arrived to find an untouched banquet on the table, treasures, personal possessions and the great Privy Seal but no king. Edward evaded capture by the skin of his teeth fleeing with a small personal bodyguard. Stewart and 50 men set off in pursuit, first to Nunnington and Pickering Castle; then to Bridlington before Edward turned inland and to safety behind the walls of the city of York. Bruce and his army continued their march as far as Beverley taking riches and loot as they went before finally returning to Scotland 6 weeks later.
I live almost in the shadow of Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar and often walk through the woods and take the path along the top of the hills. However, it was only recently when I chanced upon ‘A brief guide to British Battlefields’ by David Clark that I realised I was walking in the footsteps of history and that such a large battle had taken place hereabouts. There is no plaque, monument or information board to the events of that day, which is a shame. No cairn or memorial marks the graves of the estimated 8,000 Englishmen and 960 Scotsmen who lost their lives on 14 October 1322 and that too is sad. It would be nice to think that as the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Old Byland approaches this will be remedied.
Words and photographs Copyright © 2016 by Antony J Waller