Battle of Byland: the story behind one of the most important Scottish victories

The Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 is seen by many as the moment of victory for Robert the Bruce in his fight for independence for Scotland. But it was far from the end of the story because the Wars of Independence were to run intermittently for years to come.

One of the most significant post-Bannockburn events was the Battle of Old Byland on 14 October 1322 when the Scots once again faced their English foes – but this time on English soil. However, for those interested in following the events of the time there are many fascinating Scottish locations to visit which feature in the weeks, months and years leading to, and after, the Battle of Old Byland.

But, firstly, how did the wars of independence come about? Back in 1286, Scotland was an independent kingdom and it had a peaceful relationship with its next-door neighbour. That year the Scottish King Alexander III was killed after falling off his horse leaving behind a grieving widow and a sickly grandchild, Margaret, as his successor. His first wife and all his children had died and he had remarried in the hope of producing a male heir to the throne but it was not to be. Margaret in 1290 eventually sailed from Norway to come and claim her throne but she died at Kirkwall Palace on Orkney mainland possibly from severe seasickness.

Kirkwall Palace on Orkney where Queen Margaret is said to have died. Image by Alasdair Northrop

So, Scotland was without a clear heir to the throne with some 13 different claimants.

The Scottish nobility invited Edward 1 of England to choose who was the best candidate and in 1292 at Berwick upon Tweed – then a Scottish town – he made John Balliol the new King. When Balliol’s nobles signed an agreement to support the French against the English, Edward was furious and came to Scotland to dethrone the Scottish King and put himself in his place.

An uprising against Edward was led by the now-legendary William Wallace – better known as Braveheart thanks to Mel Gibson’s hugely successful film. Wallace was initially successful humiliating the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. But the following year he was heavily defeated by Edward 1 at the Battle of Falkirk. After that Wallace was on the run until 1205 when he was captured and taken to London to a face a horrendous death when he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Robert Bruce, the grandson of one of the original contenders for the Scottish throne, took over the cause of independence. He had a meeting with his main rival John Comyn which ended in the latter’s murder in a church at Dumfries in southern Scotland.

The River Nith at the town Dumfries where John Comyn was murdered. The Devorgilla bridge is named after his mother. Image by Alasdair Northrop

Not sure what to do next he rode to Glasgow cathedral where he received the support of Bishop Robert Wishart and was crowned king at Scone in Perthshire. Over the next nine years he was involved in a series of victories and setbacks as he battled to regain Scotland from the English as well as having to suppress his Scottish rivals.

By 1314 Edward 1 had died and much of Scotland was under Bruce’s control. The last key castle to be held by the English was Stirling and Edward’s son Edward II was forced to come to Scotland to relieve it. Despite being outnumbered by the English, Robert was a well-experienced commander and, thanks to his clever strategies including forming groups of human hedgehogs with treacherous spears – known as schiltrons – to combat the charging English knights, he won the Battle of Bannockburn. Edward was lucky to escape and, despite losing the battle, would still not acknowledge Robert as the rightful king of Scotland.

The Robert the Bruce statue at Bannockburn with the author standing below it. Image: Alasdair Northrop

In an attempt to force Edward to the negotiating table Robert regularly sent invading forces into northern England causing misery and mayhem. Edward II had domestic problems with his own noblemen and in 1319 entered into a truce with the Bruce. When the truce ran out in 1322 Robert had talks with one of the English rebels, Thomas of Lancaster about entering into an alliance. Robert started the attacks again with Sir James Douglas, Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray and Walter Stewart laying into the northeast. But Edward II focused on his rebel lords and finally defeated then at the Battle of Boroughbridge, north-west of York.

Boosted by his success Edward II decided to invade Scotland but Robert was more than ready. He destroyed crops and removed livestock on the probable routes Edward would take leaving him short of supplies. Meanwhile, Robert moved his main force north of the Firth of Forth. Edward got as far as Edinburgh but his army was suffering from sickness and starvation and James Douglas successfully beat the King’s light horse in battle.

There was no choice but to return to England but on the way, Edward’s men badly damaged Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh and Melrose and Dryburgh abbeys in the Borders. Dryburgh made the mistake of ringing its bells to celebrate the unsuccessful invasion and the retreating English troops heard them and made a diversion to set fire to it. Heat cracked masonry on the south side of the south transept is thought to be the result of that action.

The ruins of Dryburgh Abbey in the Scottish Borders. Image: Alasdair Northrop

Emboldened by his success Bruce invaded England yet again.

Edward and his wife were staying at Rievaulx Abbey in what is now Yorkshire and Robert was getting closer. By an interesting coincidence, the first monks at Melrose Abbey originally came from Rievaulx. The English army, led by the Earl of Richmond, stood between the two kings strongly positioned on what was believed to be Sutton Bank near Byland Abbey. Bruce used the same tactics as he had in the Battle of Brander Pass by sending a force of Highlanders to scale the cliffs and use the flanks to attack Richmond’s rear. The Scots charged and the result was a rout. Richmond was captured and once again Edward had to flee. Robert took full advantage of the situation and destroyed English castles, demanded money in return for not burning down monasteries, towns and villages.

In 1327 Edward II was deposed in favour of his son and the following year a peace treaty was drawn up between the two countries. Robert died just a year later and his heart was eventually buried at Melrose Abbey which he had helped to rebuild after the attack of 1322. His body was buried in the Abbey at Dunfermline which was then still an important Royal town.

Dunfermline Abbey where Robert’s body was buried. Image: Alasdair Northrop

Robert’s heart was to go on a long journey before reaching Melrose as he had requested Sir James Douglas to take it with him on a crusade to the Holy Lands to make up for the murder of his rival in a church.

Douglas only got as far as Spain and was killed in a battle against a Moorish force. During the battle, he threw Bruce’s heart – in a casket – at the enemy. The Moors allowed it to be returned to Scotland and at Melrose there is a heart-shaped stone where Bruce’s heart was said to be buried in 1331. The stone was designed by BBC sound engineer Victoria Oswald and carved using Scottish sandstone by Hugh Durrant.

It bears an inscription taken from John Barbour’s 14th-century poem, the Bruce. “A noble hart may have nane ease. Gif freedom failye.” It means “A noble heart cannot be at peace if freedom is lacking.”

The heart marking the spot where Robert Bruce’s heart is said to be buried at Melrose Abbey. Image by Alasdair Northrop

An ancient casket was discovered during archaeological excavations in 1996 and returned to the ground in a ceremony two years later led by then Scottish Secretary of State, Donald Dewar. The following year Dewar became the inaugural First Minister in the newly devolved Scotland – a development Robert Bruce would surely have thoroughly approved of.


Featured image: “Bannockburn Fields and Robert the Bruce Statue 02” by Shadowgate, licensed under CC BY 2.0


About the author:

Alasdair Northrop is a Scottish Blue Badge tourist guide and qualified in 2014. He does a variety of work ranging from driver guiding to walking tours and has a wide range of interests. Before becoming a guide,  Alasdair was an award-winning journalist and edited Scotland’s national business magazine for 15 years. He recently wrote the history of the Scottish Tourist Guides Association which is available as an ebook on Amazon.  You can find more about Alasdair on his Guild profile or on his website