MotorBike Tours Hadrian’s Wall
The Battle of Otterburn took place on 19 August 1388, as part of the continuing border war between England and Scotland. Partly fought in the moonlight, it was a victory for the Scots, led by James Douglas, 2nd Earl of Douglas over Harry Hotspur, son of the Earl of Northumberland. Douglas was killed in the battle, though his victory added to the prestige of his house, foremost among the border fighters of Scotland.
When the latest truce with England ended in the high summer of 1388 the Scots began attacks on both the western and eastern borders, taking advantage of growing divisions between the Percys and the Nevilles, the English wardens. In August the Earl of Douglas led a particularly bold move against the port of Newcastle. This was risky as he was not equipped to carry out a siege. Newcastle was one of the main muster points for English troops in the north, so it was likely there would be more soldiers inside the town defending than outside attacking and with the Earl of Northumberland at Alnwick, there was always a danger that his retreat would be cut off. But the very audacity of Douglas’ move had the effect of convincing the English that his force was only the vanguard of a much larger army close by. Frequent skirmishes took place at the outer defences of the western wall. In the account of Jean Froissart, Douglas is said to have captured Hotspur’s own pennon, though this story reads as if it has been added to provide some romantic colour, a technique in which the chronicler excels.
When Hotspur woke on the morning of the 18th it was to find that his opponent had vanished in the night. By now the deception was clear and he determined to set off in pursuit with all haste before the enemy had a chance to slip back across the border. Hotspur had at his disposal some 8000 troops and, true to his impetuous nature, he decided to set off at once, rather than wait for reinforcements promised by John de Fordham, the Bishop of Durham.
After leaving Newcastle Douglas moved in a north-westerly direction, making for the valley of the River Rede, intending to take the same route back to Scotland by which he had entered England. He was in no particular hurry, despite the obvious dangers of his situation. His force, of course, was weighed down with livestock and other booty but when he reached the tower of Ponteland, a few miles from Newcastle, he paused to attack this unimportant obstacle, thus alerting Hotspur to the direction of his retreat.
By the evening of the same day, he reached the valley of the Rede at a place called Otterburn. Here Douglas set up camp across the road, with his right flank close to the river and his left stretching out on the slope leading up to the moors, approximately one mile beyond Otterburn Tower. Most of the following day-Wednesday 19 August-was spent in unsuccessful assaults on the tower. With his men tired by their exertions, Douglas prepared to settle down for a second night on the banks of the Rede. Believing himself safe from an attack he did not even take the precaution of posting sentries, an action suggesting a dangerous degree of overconfidence. But for the outcome of what was to follow, history is likely to have passed a very different verdict on the second Earl of Douglas.
Hotspur made good progress in his march from Newcastle, but it is likely that he believed the enemy to be further ahead. When he entered the valley of the Rede in the dying summer light of the 19th he was simply looking for a place to camp: his men were tired and stretched out in a long column reaching back to Ponteland. But there, a short distance to the front were the Scots.
Two choices were open to him, to wait for the morning, allowing his men to rest and regroup before beginning the battle, thus allowing the usual English superiority in the longbow to have its full effect; or to take the high-risk strategy of beginning an immediate attack, hoping to gain the advantage of surprise. Hotspur would not wait for dawn a battle would be joined at once. To prevent the Scots slipping away he detached part of his force on a wide sweep to the north, past the Scottish left flank and then, in the words of John Hardyng’s Chronicle, to “hold them in that they fled not away” while the main body of the army launched a frontal attack.
With the sudden approach of the English in the fading light, there was considerable confusion in the Scottish camp, taken by complete surprise. The Chronicle of Pluscarden describes the scene thus;
They rose at once and rushed to arms, but scarcely could a bare half of them arm themselves. The Earl of Douglas also rose and in his haste could hardly put on his armour or fasten it with the buckles, owing to the confusion of the sudden onslaught of the enemy, so he rushed forward with uncovered face to marshall the line of the battle.
Gathering as many men as he could Douglas began a counter-attack that was to win him a battle and immortality. He approached Percy’s right flank to the north, racing swiftly along a wooded hillside, with a slight depression covering his approach for the last two hundred yards, before falling on the astonished Englishmen by the light of the autumn moon with loud cries of “Ah Douglas!” “Ah Douglas!”
The ensuing battle was one of the strangest in all the Anglo-Scottish wars. Because of the poor visibility, Percy was unable to make effective use of his archers. Each man fought in a grim hand-to-hand contest, with only enough light to see for a short distance around him.
The spectral combat ceased whenever clouds flitted across the face of the moon, allowing all a welcome rest in the darkness, only to begin again with renewed vigour when the wind carried them past. In these conditions, the combat continued for several hours, amidst the shrieks of the wounded and dying over ground slippery with blood.
At some point during the night Earl James was killed, but by whom and in what manner is unknown, despite Froissart’s theatrical account. Andrew of Wyntoun, the Scottish chronicler, simply says; “Errl James thar was slane, that na man whist on quhat manner.” His body was found the following morning, stripped of his armour and with a great wound in his neck. Unaware of his death his comrades fought on, steadily pushing the English downhill. As dawn broke Hotspur’s army began to crumble, with men fleeing the field in increasing numbers. Hotspur was taken prisoner, as was his brother, Ralph, who had been badly wounded. Altogether over 1800 men were slain or captured. A number of Scots were also taken prisoner in their over-hasty pursuit of the English.
When the Battle of Otterburn was being fought, the Bishop of Durham was on his way from Newcastle with 2000 cavalry and 5000 infantry. They arrived at Ponteland on the morning of 20 August, where they met groups of men fleeing from the battlefield, which had such a demoralising effect that the whole force retired.
The principal cause of the English defeat is simply stated – Hotspur was a brave soldier but a bad commander, a truth summarised by the Westminster Chronicle; “The calamity that befell our countrymen on this occasion of Otterburn was due in the first place to the heady spirit and excessive boldness of Sir Henry Percy, which caused our troops to go into battle in the disorder induced by haste: and in the second place because the darkness played such tricks on the English that when they aimed a careless blow at a Scotsman, owing to the chorus of voices speaking the same language, it was an Englishman that they cut down”.
When news of the defeat reached London the search for scapegoats began immediately. The obvious candidate was the Bishop of Durham, who was criticised by the Royal Council for arriving too late to help Hotspur. Curiously, no official blame was attached to the commander himself for his military incompetence. He was generally perceived as a rather heroic figure, with King Richard and Parliament both contributing towards the cost of his ransom. The body of Douglas was taken back to Scotland and buried with all honours beside that of his father at Melrose Abbey.
This area just to the west of Otterburn often overlooked, saw so much action and horror close to 650 years ago. Can you imagine the carnage, the screams, blood covered fields, death all around?………..even today our ‘leaders’, thirsty for power and control, ignore history and engage in battle which now devastates cities and renders thousands homeless.
War will always be around us until the Earth no longer exists.
After wandering around this battle site we jump back on our metal horses and ride into Otterburn. Just as you are exiting the village you will see on your left the Otterburn Castle (which was once known as Otterburn Tower Hotel) and legend has it there is part of the hotel which dates back to 1388. The hotel is a Grade II listed castellated, country house hotel in Otterburn. It is set in 32 acres of deer park and woodland in the Northumberland National Park. Founded by a cousin of William the Conqueror in 1086, it was later owned by the Clan Hall, before being rebuilt in 1830 by Thomas James, a magistrate, on the site and using some of the stones from the Otterburn Castle. Nearby Otterburn Hall was built in 1870 on land given to Lord Douglas as recompense for the death of his ancestor Lord William Douglas in the Battle of Otterburn.
We leave Otterburn and head across the Coquet Valley riding onwards to Rothbury, the location where we will find a very important building, in fact, it has world importance.
The road that twists and winds its way to Rothbury is traversing more of this magnificent countryside, passing through traditional Northumberland villages showing off their gorgeous sandstone houses.
This area solely supports a variety of farming from wheat to cattle and the colours you will see depend on the time of year, but be assured that no matter the time of year you will find yourself smiling until your cheeks hurt.
This valley will take us into an absolutely superb village, that, unfortunately, became famous for all the wrong reasons and to be frank it is best to let the sleeping dog lie.
It is, of course, Rothbury…………
The first mention of Rothbury, according to a local history, was in around the year 1100, as Routhebiria, or “Routha’s town”. Fragments from an Anglo-Saxon cross, believed to be 8th century, are the only surviving relics pre-dating the Norman conquest. They are now in the town church and the University of Newcastle Museum.
The village was retained as a Crown possession after the conquest, being made over to the Lords of Warkworth in 1204. Rothbury was a relatively important village in Coquetdale, being a crossroads situated on a ford of the River Coquet, with turnpike roads leading to Newcastle upon Tyne, Alnwick, Hexham, and Morpeth. It was chartered as a market town in 1291 and became a centre for dealing in cattle and wool for the surrounding villages.
A market cross was erected in 1722 but demolished in 1827. In the 1760s, according to Bishop Pococke, the village also had a small craft industry, including hatters. At that time, the village’s vicarage and living was in the gift of the Bishop of Carlisle, and worth £500 per year.
Rothbury has had a turbulent and bloody history. In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Coquet Valley was a pillaging ground for bands of Reivers who attacked and burned the town with terrifying frequency.
Near the town’s All Saints’ Parish Church stands the doorway and site of the 17th century Three Half Moons Inn, where the Earl of Derwentwater stayed with his followers in 1715 prior to marching into a heavy defeat at the Battle of Preston.
Hill farming has been a mainstay of the local economy for many generations. Names such as Armstrong, Charleton and Robson remain well represented in the farming community. Their forebears, members of the reiver ‘clans’, were in constant conflict with their Scots counterparts. The many fortified farms, known as bastle houses, are reminders of troubled times which lasted until the unification of the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1603.
The industrialist Lord Armstrong (1810–1900) helped shape modern Rothbury. Many local buildings reflect his Victorian style and prosperity. At the same time, the planting of more than six million trees and shrubs transformed the surrounding landscape. His magnificent home at Cragside, now in the care of the National Trust, is visited by more than 150,000 people annually.
Cragside, believe it or not, was the first house in the world (as far as I can discover) to be illuminated by electric light. (amazing)
As we leave Rothbury and head towards Alnwick, or at least following the signs for Alnwick, it is not too far until we reach the entrance to Cragside.
Cragside is a Victorian country house near the town of Rothbury. It was the home of William Armstrong, 1st Baron Armstrong, founder of the Armstrong Whitworth armaments firm, and a scientist, inventor and philanthropist. Originally built as a small shooting lodge in 1862, Armstrong employed the architect Richard Norman Shaw to undertake two huge transformations of the house from 1869 to 1884. The resulting house has been described as “one of the most dramatic compositions in all architecture”.
Cragside was very advanced technologically, being the first in the world to be lit using hydroelectric power and fitted out with early versions of a water-powered laundry and a hydraulic lift.
Armstrong filled the house with a significant art collection, he and his wife being early connoisseurs of 19th century British and European art. Thus equipped and furnished, Armstrong made Cragside an integral part of his commercial operations; among many others, the Shah of Persia, the King of Siam and the Crown Prince of Japan were feted, and sold to, under Armstrong’s roof.
Following Armstrong’s death in 1900, his heirs struggled to maintain the house and estate. In 1910, the best of Armstrong’s collection of paintings was sold off, and by the 1970s, in an attempt to meet death duties, plans were submitted for large-scale residential development of the estate. In that period, when asked by the National Trust to compile a gazetteer of the most important Victorian houses in Britain which the Trust should seek to save should they ever be sold, the architectural historian Mark Girouard placed Cragside at the very top of the list. In 1977, when the Armstrong family did sell up, the house passed to the National Trust.
You may wish to stop here and partake of wandering around the house and gardens as it is an amazing place in so many ways.
We then continue up the hill from Cragside, through trees and eventually arriving in the beautiful purple sprouting countryside (in August and early September). Cresting the hill it is as if the whole of Northumberland lies before you…………….and at the bottom of the hill, at the crossroads we turn left, heading north towards Wooler.
On entering Wooler, after approximately 16 miles, there is a turning to our right that signposts us to Belford and we follow this route.
We are now on our final approach of stage 3 heading quickly towards ‘Holy Island’.
However, prior to reaching Holy Island, we pass through another lovely village which was once on the old A1. The village is Belford and it once offered coaching inns as it was a famous stop-off between York and Edinburgh by horse and carriage.
For much of the Middle Ages, Belford was at the forefront of the ongoing border conflict between the Scots and the English and it is believed that only Well House escaped damage or destruction at the hands of Scottish raiders.
In 1272 it is recorded that Walter de Huntercombe, the Lord of the Manor, was charged with ‘assisting pirates’! They had seized, by force, goods belonging to some wealthy Spanish merchants and landed with their booty on Holy Island.
In 1726, A wealthy city merchant, Abraham Dixon bought the Belford Estate. He made improvements which enhanced the fortunes of its inhabitants significantly including purchasing a licence in 1742 allowing him to hold a weekly market and two annual fairs at Belford.
His son continued improvements after his death in 1746 and by 1770, a visitor was able to report the existence of a woolen mill, a tannery, collieries, and a ‘large lime kiln’. Improvements to hygiene were also imposed upon the inhabitants with the forced removal of muck heaps from the houses and the banning of swine.
Larger market towns have gradually replaced Belford in importance and the location of the station outside of the town itself did nothing to halt a gradual decline in its fortunes since the end of the 19th century. Many of the features of its heyday have been retained, however.
Passing through Belford we are now heading towards the A1 northbound which will eventually take us to the junction from the A1 we take towards the Holy Island of Lindisfarne.
There is not a lot to say about the A1 and far be it from me to make up stories of highwaymen, or pirates bringing their ‘swag’ to Belford and other villages.
We do eventually reach the turn off to take us to Holy Island because it is not too many miles from Belford but what you will see as you travel north is a stunning view over the Northumberland coastline towards this island.
We arrive at the turning for Holy Island, where, very nicely you also find a fuel station just in case, BUT behind the fuel station is the new, superb Eat & Sleep Lindisfarne with fabulous food and bunk room facilities to stay the night, but more on this later. However, we turn right and head our way to the island but first, we must contend with the famous causeway…….famous for vehicles becoming trapped in the rising tide resulting in being rescued by
a helicopter, so please, please, please read the timetable before you shoot off across onto the island, just to make sure you have time to discover & explore along with getting back to the mainland again.
Once on the Island, there is so much history it will make your toes curl
In 793, a Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused much consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. Versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record: “In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen men destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne”.
Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court at the time, wrote: “Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets”.
The English seemed to have turned their backs on the sea as they became more settled. Many monasteries were established on islands, peninsulas, river mouths and cliffs. Isolated communities were less susceptible to interference and the politics of the heartland. The amazement of the English at the raids from the sea must have been matched by the amazement of the raiders at such (to them) vulnerable, wealthy and unarmed settlements.
These preliminary raids, unsettling as they were, were not followed up. The main body of the raiders passed north around Scotland. The 9th-century invasions came not from Norway, but from the Danes from around the entrance to the Baltic. The first Danish raids into England were on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent during 835 and from there, their influence spread north. During this period religious art continued to flourish on Lindisfarne and the Liber Vitae of Durham began in the priory.
By 866 the Danes were in York and in 873 the army was moving into Northumberland. With the collapse of the Northumbrian kingdom, the monks of Lindisfarne fled the island in 875 taking with them St Cuthbert’s bones which are now buried at the cathedral in Durham.
Prior to the 9th century, Lindisfarne Priory, in common with other such establishments, had held large tracts of land which were managed directly or leased to farmers with a life interest only. Following the Danish occupation land was increasingly owned by individuals and could be bought, sold and inherited. Following the Battle of Corbridge in 914 Ragnald seized the land giving some to his followers Scula and Onlafbal.
On leaving Lindisfarne (hopefully, you have beaten the tide) we retrace our route back over the causeway and come to our resting place for the evening in superb bunk accommodation, along with a superb food offering, at Eat & Sleep Lindisfarne (discover more on page 114). Tomorrow we wake to another day of adventures that will take us to Britain’s finest castles (in my opinion), to a breath-taking battle site and to the worlds most haunted castle as well, be prepared ~ (sleep well)……..until then, enjoy………:-)