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Battle of Boroughbridge 16th March 1322

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 26, 2008 3:24 pm    Post subject: Battle of Boroughbridge 16th March 1322 Reply with quote

Battle of Boroughbridge
16th March 1322

The battle of Boroughbridge saw the total defeat of rebel forces under the Earl of Lancaster. It was a small but dramatic battle, or at least appears so thanks to the graphic detail provided in the contemporary accounts. It was achieved by a royal commander who took a strong position, holding a major river crossing, giving the rebels no alternative but to fight for control. He also used a very effective combination of tactics against the heavily armoured rebel force: a defensive wall of spears copied from the Scots and an offensive arrowstorm provided by his archers. In this, Harcla's victory foreshadowed the devastating success achieved some years later against the French at Crecy.

The action was fought for control of a narrow bridge and a nearby ford by which the Great North Road crossed the River Ure. Today the battlefield has been largely engulfed by the town, but in 1322 Boroughbridge had probably not yet extended as far north as the bridge. The land on either side of the river will have been floodplain meadow. But, while the bridge was probably very close to its present site, it is uncertain exactly where the ford lay, making it difficult to appreciate exactly how all the forces were deployed and where they fought.

The site is easily explored on foot from a car park within the town. Despite urban expansion, the battlefield can still be easily appreciated on the ground, because it was a fight across the river and there is still today considerably more open ground than might at first appear.

The Battle

By the night of the 15th March 1322 the royal forces under Sir Andrew de Harcla had reached Ripon. Importantly, he was far better informed of the rebel army’s movements than they were of his. While at Ripon he received news from a scout or ‘spy’ that the Earl of Lancaster’s forces were on the march along the Great North Road and could be expected to reach Boroughbridge the next day.

That night Harcla marched the six miles to Boroughbridge, where the road crossed the River Ure. If he could reach and take the bridge before Lancaster arrived then he would be in a very strong tactical position. With his archers and 'pikemen' he would be able to hold a determined charge by Lancaster’s forces which, although probably outnumbered, were far stronger in heavily armoured knights and men at arms. In open country such an advantage could more than outweigh any superiority Harcla had in overall numbers but in an opposed river crossing, whether by bridge or by ford, this advantage would be removed.

Apparently unaware of the threat from the north, or at least its proximity, Lancaster reached Boroughbridge on the16th March. Indeed so poor was the Earl’s scouting that it was only once they had begun to take quarters in the town that the rebels discovered Harcla already held the bridge. Even today the crossings of the Ure are few and far between, but in the 14th century there was no real alternative for a major force than to use the crossing at Boroughbridge. With the army of the Earls of Surrey and Kent in close pursuit, retreat was not an option.

First of all Lancaster sought to negotiate with the commander of the royal forces. But, even though Harcla owed his status as a knight to Lancaster, he would not change sides. Though next year he would be executed as a traitor, as a scapegoat for the failure in the campaign against the Scots, at this point Harcla must have realised that there was little future in the rebel cause. Lancaster army was far outnumbered by the various royal forces that were in the field. There was now no alternative for the rebels but to fight for control of the bridge, or they would be caught between the two forces and would then have no hope of success.


Harcla had sent the horses to the rear and his knights and pikemen were deployed on foot to hold the north part of the bridge. One source claims that Harcla broken the wooden bridge. This would have been a logical action, especially if their primary objective was defensive - to stop Lancaster crossing the river while waiting for the main royal army to arrive from the south. Other pikemen and archers were placed at the ford. The main problem in interpreting the deployments is the fact that none of the contemporary accounts specify how close to or on what side of the bridge this other crossing was.

The pikemen were deployed in ‘schiltron, after the Scottish fashion’, that is in the form of a shield. The Cumbrian troops will have been very familiar with this tactic from their action against the Scots, which the latter had proven was a very effective infantry tactic to hold a cavalry attack, and heavily armoured cavalry was the rebel army’s great strength. Soldiers thus deployed in schiltron, like the more famous late medieval Swiss and German pike, seem to have been the precursor of the well disciplined and close order formations of pikemen typical of 16th and 17th century infantry action across Europe.

The use of pikemen in schiltron was an effective defensive answer to cavalry and, according to the Lanercost account, appears to have been the main or first body defending each crossing. However Harcla was also able to deploy the most effective offensive medieval weapon against cavalry, the longbow. Within a few years it would show its devastating effectiveness in halting cavalry in the famous battle against the French at Crecy, but at Boroughbridge, if on a smaller scale, it was used with the same effect.

The rebel forces left the town in two columns to engage Harcla. One, comprising knights and men at arms under the command of the Earl of Hereford, was to advance on foot with a force to take the bridge, which was too narrow for a mounted attack in battle array. The other, under Lancaster himself, was to mount a cavalry attack on the ford. Only one source implies that both sides deployed archers, while none of the descriptions of the action suggests involvement of a significant number of archers on the rebel side.

The Action

Given that Lancaster’s troops had reached Boroughbridge to take up quarters for the night, implies it was late in the day on Tuesday 16th March that the action began.

Harcla had no reason to take the initiative and attack across the bridge or ford, for an opposed crossing would be a difficult and costly assault. All Harcla had to do was to hold his ground and wait for the pursuing royal forces to reach the town. In contrast Lancaster was in a dangerous situation which required desperate measures. He had no choice, negotiations having failed, but to attack and try to force the crossing.

Hereford, with his standard bearer and a few other knights charged across the bridge against the pike, in advance of the rest of his force. Hereford was almost immediately killed by the pikemen. Also killed in the assault were Hereford’s standard bearer and two other knights, while the rest were driven back, many of them wounded, including Sir Roger de Clifford who had been seriously injured by both pike and arrow.

One source claims that a single pikeman crept beneath the bridge and thrust his spear upward between the timbers beneath the Earl’s armour and killed him. However, as Clark suggests, this may be an elaboration based on the events of the battle of Stamford Bridge (Yorkshire, 1066). This is certainly true of the description of his assailant as a Welshman, something which is purely drawn from local tradition.

The attack across the ford, presumably timed to coincide with that on the bridge, fared little better. The river at Boroughbridge is now about 40 metres wide and may have been very little wider in the 14th century. As a result of the heavy rate of fire laid down by Harcla’s archers from the northern bank, Lancaster’s first cavalry attack, which must have had to cross open meadow ground, did not even reach the waters edge before being forced to retreat. One account suggests that the archers were so effective that the cavalry could not attempt another assault, thus throwing the whole battle array into disorder and effectively ending the action.

After what seems to have been a very short battle, Lancaster negotiated a truce with Harcla to allow his troops to retire into the town for the night, either to surrender or to give battle once more in the morning. Harcla’s forces remained deployed at the crossings for the rest of the day and night in case of a surprise attack.


Harcla’s agreement to a truce, rather than taking take the initiative and attacking, has been suggested as being due to his sympathy with Lancaster’s cause. He is seen as giving Lancaster and his supporters the opportunity to slip away in the night and that it was only the arrival of Ward’s troops that forced him to enter the town to take the rebels by force. However his actions are perhaps more likely to have resulted from a wish not to expose his forces to unnecessary danger, and possible defeat, in an opposed assault on the river crossings.

During the night the High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Simon de Ward, from Givendale which is four miles upstream from Boroughbridge, joined Harcla with reinforcements. Very early the next day, the 17th, Harcla entered Boroughbridge, supported by Ward, and called on Lancaster to surrender. There seems to have been no question of organised resistance, because many of the rebel troops had fled during the night. But Lancaster would not surrender, instead taking refuge in Boroughbridge chapel. But Harcla’s men rushed in and took Lancaster prisoner, also capturing his remaining supporters wherever they were founding the town. Though some tried to escape disguised in peasants’ clothes, it is claimed that none of the important figures amongst the rebels managed to escape.

That same day Lancaster was sent by water to York, the other prisoners by road. The king then summoned Pontefract castle which, at the news of their lord’s capture, surrendered. Lancaster was brought to the king there, and on the 22nd March was executed on a hill outside the town. He was then buried in the priory church in Pontefract, where a coffin suggested as being his was found in 1828. Some 30 of his followers were also subsequently executed.

Assessment of the Battle

Although a relatively small action, the battle of Boroughbridge is significant for its comprehensive destruction of the rebel force and subsequent execution of many of the leading figures opposing Edward II.

It has also been suggested that the battle was the first example in the 14th century of knights and men at arms dismounting and fighting on foot, as they were to do at Halidon Hill (Northumberland, 1333 ) and Crecy (France, 1346). However too much should not perhaps be made of this because of the special circumstances of the crossing of a narrow bridge, while the action across the ford was by mounted cavalry. Perhaps more significant and relevant as a precursor to Crecy is the effective use made by Harcla of the longbow against heavily armoured knights and men at arms. Yet even this is presaged by the action two centuries earlier at Northallerton (North Yorkshire, 1138) where, moreover, the men at arms had also dismounted to fight on foot.

The Armies & the Losses


The royal forces were under the command of Sir Andrew de Harcla, warden of Carlisle and the Western Marches. They were drawn largely from Cumberland and Westmorland and, according to one account, numbered 4000. It is clear from the various accounts of the battle that they comprised a mix of knights, men at arms and archers, but of the 214 knights and nobles listed as engaged in the battle it would appear that just 76 were on the royal side.


The rebel forces, under the Earl of Lancaster, may have comprised as many as 3000 troops while at Burton on Trent, but some may have deserted before the army reached Boroughbridge. It does therefore seem likely that the rebels were outnumbered, especially as Lancaster is said to have been greatly concerned by the numbers that Harcla had with him. However the rebel force appears to have been far stronger in heavily armoured troops. Some 700 knights and men at arms are mentioned in one account while another source lists 138 barons and knights, by name, as fighting against the king at the battle, including important figures such as the Earl of Hereford. The overall size of Lancaster’s force will certainly have been much greater than 700, for the knights will have been accompanied by a significant number of followers.


There is no record of the numbers killed in the battle, although the accounts do name several individuals on the rebel side who died in the action, most notable the Earl of Hereford.

The Battlefield


Leadman does not provide any plan of the battle while Barrett admits that the site of the battle ‘cannot exactly be determined, thanks to the alterations in the ground’. Despite these reservations, we have a good idea of the general location of the battle. The 13th century bridge can reasonably be assumed, from the plan form of the town, to have been either on the site of the existing bridge or in close proximity. However the ford, which was of equal significance in the action, is not located. Although most authors seem to accept a site at the Roman crossing of the Ure, 800 metres to the east of the present bridge, no convincing evidence has been presented to support this identification, and other alternatives exist.


The terrain has changed dramatically since the time of the battle. In particular, there has been expansion of the town of Boroughbridge during the post medieval up to the river and in the 19th and 20th centuries onto the land to the north of the river. In addition there was the digging in the 18th century of the navigation immediately north of the river and beyond that the construction of the railway in the 19th century, as well as the various flood protection works that have taken place in the 19th and 20th century.

You can click on the image below to view a larger version of the image

IF the medieval ford lay here at the Roman crossing of the Ure, then the archaeological potential may be very high. But no finds have been reported in this area.

Archaeology of the Battle

In 1792 a little below the present bridge, during flood protection works along the river bank, bones, fragments of arms and armour were discovered. Then on the 13th August 1881 workmen excavating for the erection of new machinery in the corn mill of Lothouse and Hammond, on the south bank of the river just to the west of the present bridge, found a pike head 17 inches long, broken below the haft. The 1792 discovery is presumably the same discovery reported by both Turner and by Leadman, as ‘remnants of armour, axe-heads and other arms’ which were found within living memory, before 1870 beneath the bridge. In the 1880s none of the artefacts then remained in the area and so Leadman did not see them. Silver pennies of Edward II were also are also see by Leadman, but these need not have any association with the battle.

Other than these 18th and 19th century discoveries no evidence has been identified as to any more recent discoveries or of any metal detecting survey of the battlefield.


Name: Battle of Boroughbridge

Type: battle

Campaign: Boroughbridge

War period: Medieval

Outcome: Royal victory

Country: England

County: North Yorkshire

Place: Boroughbridge

Location: Approximate

Terrain: Open field meadow / Urban

Date: 16th March 1322

Start: probably late in the day

Duration: probably fairly short

Armies: Royal forces under Sir Andrew de Harcla; rebels under Earls of Lancaster & Hereford.

Numbers: Royal: circa 4000; Rebel: 700 knights and men at arms with uncertain number of followers.

Losses: uncertain
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