Friday, 28 September 2012

The Battle of Alnwick 1093, the armies gather

By the 11th century both England and Scotland had become unified kingdoms with a single monarch taking the place of the various princes, earls and kings who had ruled petty states such as Lindsey, Mercia or Dalriada. England was the more united of the two as the rule of the King of Scotland was enforced only sporadically in the Highlands and islands. Nevertheless the formation of two powerful kingdoms was a significant step in the history of Britain. It was, perhaps, inevitable that trouble would eventually flare up between the two kingdoms. When it came, however, it took everyone by surprise. For the outbreak of hostilities was not due to border disputes or feudal intrigue but to a badly timed joke.

In the summer of 1093 King Malcolm III of Scotland travelled south to the court of King William II of England. Malcolm had married an English wife and, through her, owned several estates in England. Under the feudal law of the time Malcolm was expected to do homage to the King of England for these lands, though Malcolm was careful to ensure that the form of oath did not affect his independence as King of Scotland. The negotiations over exactly what form of oath should be taken had lasted six years, but at last Malcolm was heading south.

The two kings met and got on well, although they were very different men. Malcolm was a talented administrator, devout Christian and devoted family man. William was rash, witty and gay – in both senses of the word. Unfortunately William, after a few drinks, chose to crack a joke at the expense of Malcolm. William and his gay friends thought the jest hugely funny, but William thought it insulting and obscene. As soon as he could do so without arousing suspicion, Malcolm gathered his entourage and returned to Scotland. Once home Malcolm declared war and mustered an army with which to invade England.

The Scottish army marched south in October, plundering its way down the prosperous plains east of the Cheviot Hills. Early in November they reached Alnwick, one of the most powerful castles in Northumberland. Malcolm knew that if the invasion was to continue he had to take Alnwick. He camped his main army north of the Aln on the slopes of the hill overlooking the valley and set to work.

Robert de Mowbray, Earl of Northumberland, was at Bamburgh Castle when the Scots invaded. Malcolm had bypassed the impregnable stronghold, leaving scouts to watch Mowbray and his small force. Lacking in number Mowbray’s force may have been but it included some of the most talented and skilled knights of northern England. Mowbray decided to act. He slipped out of Bamburgh and rode quickly towards Alnwick.

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Northumberland is one of the most beautiful counties in England, but also one of the most fought over. It has seen countless skirmishes, some very bloody, between invading and looting Scots and the avenging English families of the Percies, Umfravilles and Nevilles.

Rupert Matthews, ‘the History Man’, presents fifteen guided walks around the battlefields of Northumberland. He provides an account of events as they unfolded on the ground along with full background and context. His expertise, descriptive powers and lively enthusiasm bring the drama of history vividly to life.

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