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Can you find the Battle of Byland?

- 13 August 2019 -

Although my wife hails from Yorkshire, I am a relative newcomer. I am therefore fascinated to find out more about our lovely corner of the North York Moors and of its past. Just a mile from Coxwold Cottages are the majestic ruins of Byland Abbey, now maintained by English Heritage. When looking online for more information about this once-great Abbey, I stumbled across references to the Battle of Byland. Whilst the battle’s significance and outcome is well documented, its actual location is still a matter of some conjecture. Indeed, the battle itself, fought almost 700 years ago, is now largely forgotten.

The key facts are that the Battle of Byland took place on 14 October 1322 between two monarchs and their armies – King Edward II of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland. The Scots’ motive for the engagement was to try to force the English into accepting their independence, something that Bannockburn had not actually achieved. The target was to capture King Edward II and force his hand. And the plan very nearly worked with Edward II making a humiliating escape via Scarborough, losing his baggage train and almost his Queen in the process, whilst allowing the Scots to pursue him to the gates of York.

How did this happen? The late 13th and early 14th centuries were marred by bitter warfare between England and Scotland. The warlike Edward I of England was so ruthless in his attempts to suppress Scottish independence that he became known as The Hammer of the Scots. The fortunes of the war changed dramatically when the English army of his son, Edward II, was routed by Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Northern England was left defenceless and open to invasion by the Scots. Monasteries were not spared from the barbarity of the ensuing campaigns. The Cistercian Abbeys of Fountains and Jervaulx were badly damaged during Scottish raids in 1318-19. In 1322, Edward II’s army brutally sacked Melrose Abbey in the Scottish lowlands, even desecrating the high altar.

In October 1322, Edward II was camped at Rievaulx Abbey with his court and entourage. The Scots were only 15 miles away, having scythed their way through northern England, including laying waste to the nearby town of Thirsk. The main purpose of their raid was to capture a high ranking person (ideally Edward II) to force the recognition of Robert the Bruce as King of Scots. The Earl of Richmond was sent by Edward II from Rievaulx to a high point near Byland Abbey to reconnoitre the Scots’ position. He was suddenly surprised and attacked and his men resorted to hurling stones down on the Scots from the western edge of Scawton Moor, overlooking Sutton Bank and Roulston Scar (the flat area of land where the Gliding Club is located today). Earls Douglas and Moray made a direct assault, while highlanders scaled the steep cliffs, which were thought to be too difficult (you can still clamber up the old path today). The Scots won a seemingly impossible victory. Legend has it that Edward II was sitting down to a fine dinner at Rievaulx when he heard news of the defeat. One medieval source describes how ‘being ever chicken-hearted and luckless in war’, Edward hurriedly fled the abbey leaving his troops behind, narrowly escaping capture by the Scots. Rievaulx Abbey was pillaged by the Scots in the aftermath.

Some historians believe that this battle occurred near Old Byland yet the topography of Roulston Scar makes that the much more obvious likely location in my opinion. Nearby are geographical features named “Scotch Corner” and “Hell Hole” whose names probably tell us of the Scottish presence and the terrible fighting that would have occurred here nearly 700 years ago.

Interestingly, on the promontory of a hill overlooking Oldstead and not far from Kilburn and Coxwold, upon Forestry Commission Land, the ruins of a farmstead were rebuilt by the sculptor John Bunting (1927-2002) as a memorial for those killed in the Second World War. The position of the chapel could not be bettered and is said to be where the Battle of Byland took place. In front, the hillside drops away sharply to a wooded valley and in the distance can be seen York Minster. The buildings stand on a piece of flat land butting into the side of the hill just below the crest. Beyond stretch the Yorkshire Moors including our lovely village of Coxwold – surrounded by fascinating heritage and thankfully living in much more peaceful times. If you stay in our luxury Shepherd’s Hut or boutique Holiday Cottage you will certainly enjoy the peace in this picturesque part of the North York Moors national park.

For more information see:

Battle of Byland: building up the evidence

Modern map of the Battle of Byland near Coxwold Cottages
Modern map of the Battle of Byland near Coxwold Cottages
Battle of Byland near Coxwold
Battle of Byland near Coxwold