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Response to Review no. 190

I thank Professor Prestwich for his generous remarks on my book, which are all the more appreciated because of the stature of the reviewer. Readers of his review who have not also read my book, however, might infer that there is more disagreement between him and myself than is actually the case. Professor Prestwich is correct that my basic thesis is that Edward III never pursued a battle-avoiding strategy (with the possible exception of 1343 in Brittany, which I do not cover), but rather almost invariably sought battle, provided he could fight it on his own terms. It is also true that that a case for this thesis “is easier to make for some campaigns than others,” but it should be understood that I have not tried to argue that Edward III during the Burnt Candlemas campaign was actively aiming for a battle with the enemy, in the way that he was in 1333, 1339, 1340, 1346, 1347, 1355, and 1359-60. As I say on p. 338, “his strategy in 1356 was to use the opportunity presented by the aggression against Berwick to take a great army into Scotland, so that he could ‘apply pressure directly to the Scottish commons and magnates’, who otherwise had little motive to support the peace arrangements agreed between the two kings [Edward III and David II].” (Emphasis added.) On the other hand, I’m sure Professor Prestwich would agree that King Edward was certainly not avoiding battle with the Scots that year, and indeed would have been overjoyed had his elusive foes chosen to make an open stand against him. Likewise, I am essentially in agreement with Professor Prestwich – in substance if perhaps not in nuance – concerning Lancaster’s Normandy chevauchée of 1356: I write that the duke was “prepared to fight, even outnumbered, ‘if necessary’, but for him a major battle was rather an ‘impediment’ to his task than an overriding goal in itself.” (p. 342, emphasis added).

Since there is little or nothing of importance with which I disagree in Professor Prestwich’s review, let me turn to the one minor point on which we are in dispute. The issue of the position of the Scottish army during the Weardale episode is an interesting one. As with very many other points of military detail from this period, there is a wide divergence of scholarly opinion the subject. Everyone agrees that when the English host first encountered the raiders’ army near Stanhope, the two forces were separated by the river Wear. It is also agreed that after a few days in those positions, the Scots shifted to a new position within Stanhope Park, and the English followed them and again encamped on the far side of the river from their enemies. There the disagreements begin. C. McNamee and R. A. Nicholson locate the Scots on the south bank. Professor G. W. S. Barrow has the first Scottish position on the south bank, but recognises that their second position was on the north bank. Barbour’s various editors (most recently A. A. M. Duncan) support or lean towards the view that the Scots were on the north side of the river the whole time.

The main argument for the first-mentioned conclusion is the one that Professor Prestwich gives: it is clear from Jean le Bel and other sources that the English were marching generally southwards from Haltwhistle on the three days before meeting the Scots. Since they were marching south, and no mention is made of crossing the Wear before they found the Scots on its opposite bank, le Bel’s narrative has been taken to imply that the Scots initially occupied the south side of the river. This implication is further strengthened by the statement of the Chronicon de Lanercost that in order to reach Scotland after sneaking out of the park, the Scots had to go around the English army.

There are, however, three problems with this argument. First, John Barbour’s Bruce is explicit that the initial Scottish position lay “on north halff Wer towart Scotland.” Second, Thomas Gray’s Scalacronica describes the same position as “nearby alongside” (‘prestes iouste’) Stanhope, not “across from” the hamlet, which is on the north side of the Wear. Third, it is agreed that the second Scottish position was within the confines of Stanhope Park. Stanhope Park was located along the northern bank of the Wear, with its entrances at Westgate and Eastgate (which take their names from that fact). If the initial Scottish position was on the south bank, then in their shift of position to the park they would have had to have crossed the river (as Barrow concludes they did), and the English would have to have done the same: yet there is no hint in the sources that either army did so.

Thus, even if we leave aside the perhaps overly precise reading of the Scalacronica, we are left with a disagreement between two explicit sources (Barbour and Lanercost), and two conflicting hypotheses concerning a difference of omission: either the sources neglected to mention that the English crossed the Wear before encountering the Scots, or they neglected to mention the English and Scots crossing the Wear during the repositioning of 2-3 August.

Although the Chronicon de Lanercost was written well before Barbour’s Bruce, or even Jean le Bel’s chronicle, that does not mean it should automatically be preferred. Barbour’s account is far more detailed, clearly having been based on the (probably written) narrative of a participant. Insofar as it can be checked it is very accurate, containing no errors comparable to le Bel’s conflation of the Eden and the Tyne, or his confusion between “William” and James Douglas. If we did not know that Stanhope Park was on the north bank of the Wear, it would be difficult to decide which source to accept, though I would lean towards Barbour. But that brings us back to the issue of the “silent” crossing of the Wear. Surely it is very unlikely that the Scots or the English would make a night crossing of the Wear while within striking distance of the enemy, and equally unlikely that the sources on both sides would fail to mention such a dramatic episode if it had taken place. It is much easier to believe that le Bel simply neglected to report that, on their journey from the Tyne, the English crossed the Wear before turning east towards Stanhope. Hence, I conclude that the Scots were on the “north halff Wer” next to Stanhope when they first encountered the English, as well as later when they occupied Stanhope Park.

I deal with this point so elaborately in this reply because it so well illustrates the difficulty of the sources which have to be reconciled to create a good narrative of fourteenth-century campaigns– but also the possibility of doing so. That is why my footnotes (which some historians may perhaps find excessive) are so extensive: apparently in this case they were, even so, not sufficient to head off dispute over the facts.