How fog of war helped bring respite from marauding Scots
TEESDALE in the Middle Ages was sometimes subject to destructive raids by Scottish troops, especially in the 14th century.
In 1323, for example, royal letters had to be sent out to monasteries, seeking accommodation for canons from Egglestone Abbey because the Scots had wreaked so much damage there.
However, trouble from the Scots wasn’t just a 14th century problem.
If we could ask Bernard de Balliol, who lived in Teesdale during the 12th century, he would tell us of the problems he faced from north of the border. Actually there were two men named Bernard de Balliol in 12th century Teesdale. They were father and son, and both of them had to tackle invading Scots.
The first Bernard de Balliol inherited the Teesdale properties of his uncle Guy in 1130, or perhaps a year or two earlier. He substantially improved the defences of his uncle’s castle, to the extent that it became known as Bernard’s Castle. It was still spelt “Bernard Castle” in 1356, but of course we now know it as Barnard Castle.
Bernard might have expected that there would be little trouble from the Scots because at that time, Scotland was ruled by a king who was on good terms with the king of England and with many of the nobility south of the border.
The Scottish king David had grown up in exile among the Norman elite in England.
He spoke Norman French, the same language as Bernard de Balliol and King Henry I, and he admired Norman ways. He was grateful when Norman knights rode north to help him consolidate his authority in Scotland. It seemed that King David would always be a friendly ally of the English, but after Henry I died, everything changed.
When Henry I was succeeded by King Stephen in 1135, civil war broke out in England. David with his Norman contacts and extensive holdings in Huntingdonshire, decided that the time was ripe for him to get involved in English politics.
In 1138 he marched his army into Northern England just when King Stephen was militarily tied up in the south.
While the Yorkshire barons were gathering their troops and preparing to face the Scots, King Stephen sent Bernard de Balliol north to negotiate with King David.
Robert de Brus, the lord of Skelton Castle in Cleveland, went with him. The negotiations failed to keep the peace and before long Bernard’s men found themselves fighting the Scots at the Battle of the Standard, just north of Northallerton.
If the Yorkshire barons hadn’t prevailed in that battle, who knows what damage the Scots would have done in our area?
Although King David was defeated and had to retreat back to Scotland, he continued to look for ways of increasing his influence in Northern England.
Once again Bernard de Balliol and his men had to bear the brunt. A scheme that David seemed quite keen on for a while was to get one of his right hand men installed as Bishop of Durham – at least, as soon as there was a vacancy.
It has been said that the king wanted to control northern England as far as the River Tees, something which he never managed to achieve.
King David’s candidate was William Cumin, the Chancellor of Scotland, a choice that was deeply unpopular with many of the Durham clergy. Little is known about William Cumin, but he seems to have been an unscrupulous man, willing to resort to any means to advance himself.
He must have had military backing, since before long he seemed to be in charge of affairs at Durham, whether the locals liked it or not.
Cumin arrived in Durham at a difficult time for the king of England. The continuing civil war had entered a dangerous phase for King Stephen, who was imprisoned by his enemies.
Northern barons such as Bernard de Balliol and Robert de Brus had to think carefully about their next move, with their king in prison and unable to back them up. They decided that the best course of action was to come to terms with King David and his protege William Cumin.
Before long, the English civil war swung back in favour of King Stephen, who regained his freedom. With Stephen rapidly rebuilding his authority in the land, David thought it prudent to curtail his ambitions, while Balliol and de Brus immediately reaffirmed their loyalty to Stephen. This apparent change of sides by the two barons infuriated Cumin, whose men ravaged Balliol’s lands and slaughtered anyone who tried to stop them. Eventually, it took a military defeat at the hands of another Durham baron to force the Scottish Chancellor out of Durham.
For a time, the people of Teesdale would know peace from their Scottish troubles.
Bernard de Balliol was succeeded by his son, who in turn was succeeded by his brother, another Bernard de Balliol. This second Bernard was lord of Barnard Castle from 1162 to 1189, during the reign of King Henry II. We are now moving towards the last quarter of the 12th century and once more we find the Scots taking advantage of a civil war in England to rampage through the northern counties. In this case the Scottish king was William the Lion and his plan was to march his men south from the border, capturing English castles as he went.
Most of the castles were seized quite quickly, but Alnwick proved more resistant. While the Scottish army was delayed there, the barons of Northern England had time to gather their forces and prepare to fight the Scots. Like King Stephen before him, Henry II was preoccupied with a rebellion in the South and was unable to confront the Scots in the North. Bernard de Balliol was one of the leaders of the northern barons, and there is a tale that he rallied his comrades when they were thinking of turning back because of thick fog. The contemporary chronicler Jordan Fantosme put these words into Bernard’s mouth – “Said Bernard de Balliol: He who has no courage now can have no honour nor anything which appertains to it”.
The northern barons continued their advance. As it turned out, the fog gave their army an advantage – surprise. No one saw them coming.
William the Lion had carelessly wandered away from the main body of the Scottish army, not realizing that the barons’ troops were close at hand. King William was seized by Balliol and the others and taken to the royal castle at Newcastle. He was then quickly transferred to the greater security of Richmond Castle before being taken to Northampton to be handed over to King Henry II. Without their king, the Scottish army melted away and was no longer a threat.
Henry II was a tougher character than King Stephen. He offered to release William the Lion, but he imposed demanding terms that would seriously weaken the Scottish king's ability to trouble England in the future. The Lion was tamed. Bernard de Balliol must have been mightily relieved – after all, there’d already been enough trouble from the Scots in the 12th century and a period of peace would have been most welcome.