The Battle of Boroughbridge and its Consequences
Updated: Feb 16, 2022
The Battle of Boroughbridge was fought on 16th March 1322. It was a small battle and probably didn't last very long, but its consequences for Edward II and the Despensers - not to mention a number of England's nobility - were important and far-reaching. I've tried to explain it as simply as possible as well as look briefly at the possible reasons for the tyranny of the regime afterwards.
In 1321, after King Edward II had been forced to exile his favourites, the Despensers by Parliament, the rebellious baronial force who had been responsible began to fall apart. Edward, seeing an opportunity to profit by their lack of co-ordination and co-operation, started to pick his enemies off, one by one. He first turned his attention to the Welsh Marches and in particular Roger de Mortimer of Wigmore and his uncle, Roger de Mortimer of Chirk. The campaign was successful and both Mortimers were eventually forced to surrender to Edward at Shrewsbury on 22nd January 1322. They were guaranteed that their lives would be spared by Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke, although he had had no authority to do so from the King.
The royal forces, led in the field by the Earls of Kent and Surrey, then turned their attention northwards, towards the earl of Lancaster, probably the biggest thorn in Edward’s side. By the time Edward and his army had reached Lichfield, his ranks had been swelled from men loyal to him from all over the country and from France as well. To complete his retinue, the Despensers returned from exile and joined him there. He now seemed unstoppable and Lancaster began to suffer the first desertions, including his steward Robert de Holand. Even so, the king’s cousin still refused to surrender.
The first clash came when Edward’s army besieged the rebel-held Tutbury Castle. It was here that Edward’s former favourite, now turned traitor Roger Damory sustained serious wounds. He was captured and Edward pardoned him, perhaps swayed by sentimental memories of their once close friendship. But Damory’s wounds were so severe that he died a few days later.
Lancaster was persuaded by his remaining allies that the only course of action left to him now was to flee north and seek sanctuary - and perhaps help - from the Scots. His best route, they told him was along the Great North Road via the town of Boroughbridge. However, Edward had spies within Lancaster’s ranks and one of these found out Sir Andrew de Harclay, sheriff of Carlisle and told him of Lancaster’s plans. De Harclay immediately summoned up a force of around 4000 men and marched south to head the rebels off at the bridge just north of the town of Boroughbridge.
Lancaster’s men numbered for certain about 700 knights as well as an unknown number of men at arms. Although at first glance Lancaster seemed outnumbered, 700 knights was still an impressive amount of heavy cavalry and if their retinues and foot soldiers were counted in it would have probably been much more. On the other hand, Harclay had fewer mounted knights and more archers and pikemen. However, the biggest factor in the battle was not the numbers but the terrain.
Boroughbridge bridge was a narrow wooden structure - far too narrow for a mounted cavalry charge. This was to Harclay’s advantage and he knew it: as long as he could hold the bridge, he had the advantage. The only other possible way of crossing the river was at a ford (still not positively identified today) a short distance away. But Harclay was aware of this too and intended for it to be as well defended as the bridge.
It was late in the day on the 16th March when Lancaster came into the town of Boroughbridge, intending to rest for the night before pressing on. However, his intelligence had been less efficient than Edward’s and he hadn’t realised the threat that lay in front of him. It must have been a great shock therefore, when he arrived and found that he had already been out-manoeuvred.
Once Lancaster realised that Harclay held the bridge in front of him, thereby blocking off his retreat from the armies of the earls of Kent and Surrey, he knew his situation was dire. He attempted negotiations to try and get Harclay to change sides but this failed and he was left in a desperate plight. He could not retreat yet, with the narrow bridge blocked in front of him, an all out attack - one that was tactically sheer madness - was the only course left open to him.
Harclay’s plan to hold the bridge was simple. He sent his horses to the back and employed his pikemen and knights on foot in a schiltrom (shield formation) to hold the bridge. Just in case Lancaster attempted to cross at the ford further along the river Ure, he sent more archers and pikemen to make a stand there.
The rebels left the town and headed for the river, forming two attack positions: one at the bridge led by Hereford and one at the ford led by Lancaster. It is just possible that Lancaster thought that if he could get his heavy cavalry across the Ure he could then perform a pincer movement, attacking Harclay’s troops from the back and allowing Hereford to take the bridge.
If Harclay had been waiting for the action to come to him, he didn’t have to wait long. Hereford and some of his knights charged the bridge on foot, in advance of the rest of his troops. Although an act of bravery, this was to prove a fatal - and foolish - mistake as they were immediately cut down by the pikes and archers on the other side. Hereford was killed, as were two other knights and his standard bearer. Another - de Clifford -(Hereford’s son-in-law) was seriously wounded but managed to get away. In a short time, Hereford’s men had lost their leader and, in effect, their morale.
Meanwhile, at the ford, Lancaster planned to charge across the width of the river, hoping to drive any resistance back through the sheer force and strength of the attack. However, Harclay’s archers let loose a tremendous arrow storm with their longbows, and Lancaster’s knights were forced to retreat even before they got to the water’s edge. The ensuing chaos prevented Lancaster from reforming for another attack and he had no choice but to negotiate a truce with Harclay before night fell. It was agreed that Lancaster would be allowed to retreat to Boroughbridge town for the night and in the morning he would decide whether to fight again or to surrender.
While it has been suggested that Harclay’s leniency in allowing the truce was due to his previous sympathies towards Lancaster and his cause, I think that this is unlikely in the circumstances. It was getting dark and Lancaster was, to all effects, trapped. Any further advance on Harclay’s part would not only have been un-necessary, but also foolhardy in that he would have risked more lives. He did not take a soft approach towards Lancaster: he took a soldier’s approach.
During the night, the rebel force’s numbers became depleted by deserters - particularly from Hereford and de Clifford’s ranks. On the other hand, Harclay was reinforced by Sir Simon de Ward, the High Sheriff of Yorkshire and his men. On the next morning, at first light, Harclay and Ward entered Boroughbridge and demanded Lancaster’s surrender. Despite the odds he still refused and attempted to seek refuge in Boroughbridge chapel. It was to no avail: he was captured, stripped of his armour and sent, by water, to York. Other rebels attempted to flee the town disguised as peasants, but, according to accounts no-one of any importance managed to escape. These prisoners of lesser value were sent to York by foot.
Edward ordered Lancaster to be brought to him at Pontefract Castle, which had recently surrendered. The King and both Despensers presided over a summary trial in which Lancaster was not allowed to speak in his own defence. Of course he was judged to be guilty and sentenced to be drawn, hung and beheaded. At this point Edward stepped in and changed the sentence to beheading, out of respect for Lancaster’s royal blood. The rebel lord was then dressed in a retainer’s surcoat, placed on an ass and taken a mile away, where the sentence was carried out in front of the King.
Lancaster’s was not the only execution. Thirty other rebels, including six northern barons were tried and executed, including: Bartholomew de Badlesmere; Sir Bartholomew Ashburnham; Sir Henry le Tyeys; Sir John de Mowbray; Sir Roger de Clifford; Sir Henry de Willington; Sir Henry de Montfort and Sir Francis Aldenham.
Although it was a small battle, as far as battles go, Boroughbridge was extremely important to Edward II as it eliminated most of the opposition against him in one go. The rebel coalition had fallen apart at the seams: the two Mortimers were in prison, as was Audley; Damory was dead as was Hereford and de Clifford and Lancaster had been executed.
With their enemies wiped out there was now nothing to stop Edward and the Despensers carrying on as before. Except now, perhaps fuelled by revenge, the younger Hugh Despenser became even more ruthless, pursuing the widows and families of the rebels for land and enforcing recognizances designed to cause crippling debt. For example, he forced his own sister-in-law, Elizabeth Damory (Eleanor’s sister), to hand over her valuable lordship of Usk in return for the less valuable one of Gower. He consequently then confiscated Gower from her and gave it to William de Braose, it’s former owner, leaving her with nothing.
Strangely, the man who would eventually turn out as Edward’s deadliest enemy - Roger de Mortimer, was still alive. He and his uncle were eventually brought to trial in July 1322. There they were found guilty and condemned to death (despite the assurances given to them by Pembroke at their surrender). But for some reason, Edward decided to spare their lives - commuting the sentence to life imprisonment and forfeiture of their estates instead. Edward’s merciful change of heart was perhaps to prove one of his most serious mistakes, as he would soon realise when the younger Mortimer escaped from the Tower of London and, in four years time, pursued him and Despenser across England.
I often wonder about the decision of Edward to spare Mortimer. I’m sure that Despenser would have wanted him dead, especially because of the family blood feud between them (Mortimer’s grandfather killed Hugh’s in 1265). Oh to be a fly on the wall then when Edward decided on clemency: Hugh must have not been best pleased, to say the least. Historians have also been quick to criticise Edward for not taking the opportunity after Boroughbridge to make peace with his remaining barons. While it is true that he may have let Despenser get away with tyranny, it is also interesting to try and see things from his perspective. His execution rate could have been much, much higher - but instead he pardoned many of the lesser Contrariants (rebels) and some even changed sides, openly supporting the King and his favourites.
The persecution of the Contrariant families can also, to an extent, be understood in a political way. A family with rebel tendencies could possibly, after a time, have started new fires of rebellion. By taking away their land and fining them to the hilt, Edward and Despenser were also ensuring that any potential future rebellion would fail from lack of funds. In a nutshell, desperate times called for desperate measures (whether right or wrong), and in turn the desperate measures eventually had the opposite effect of what was intended and created another desperate time!
Nevertheless, it is tempting to speculate that if Mortimer had been executed instead of escaping, and if Isabella hadn’t gone to France, the policy of oppression might just have worked, and Edward and the Despensers would have stayed in power for much, much longer.
UK Battlefields Resorce Centre - http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/medieval/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=7
King Edward II by Roy Martin Haines (Mc-Gill Queen's University Press, 2003)
The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer (Pimlico , 2004)