On 22nd July 1315, Robert Bruce attacked the English city of Carlisle, with an army reputed to be 10,000 strong. Henry Summerson, in his excellent book on mediaeval Carlisle, claims the siege actually started on the 14th July, but the first attack was not launched until the 22nd, the date stated in the Lanercost Chronicle. Given the size of the attacking Scottish army, there were probably Scots sitting outside Carlisle’s walls well before the 22nd July but whether Robert Bruce himself was present is open to conjecture.
Whatever the start date of the siege, the English commander, Andrew Harclay, had plenty of time to prepare for it and had around 100 men at arms, 46 hobelars and 340 archers to defend the city (the figures vary slightly with different historians, but not by much). The full circuit of Carlisle walls is nearly two miles if you include the castle, so the defenders would be stretched quite thinly. Robert Bruce probably thought he could take the city fairly easily, which may explain the lack of siege machines that the Scots bought with them. But ten days later he had to retreat back over the border, frustrated but certainly not defeated.
The best near-contemporary account of the siege comes from the Lanercost chronicler – not surprising seeing as Lanercost Priory was situated only ten miles east of Carlisle. Even so, that account is fairly brief, with just enough detail to gain some idea of what actually happened. Almost inevitably some of the comments are open to different interpretations, which shows through with variations in history textbooks or papers. The siege took place just 13 months after the Scottish victory at Bannockburn, with Scottish morale running high while the government of England seemed paralysed by the disputes between king Edward II and the earl of Lancaster. Earlier that year, James Douglas had led a raid deep into County Durham and attacked the town of Hartlepool, forcing the inhabitants to flee onto their ships. To quote Lanercost:
The Scots, then, seeing that affairs were going everywhere in their favour, invaded the bishopric of Durham about the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, and plundered the town of Hartle-pool, whence the people took to the sea in ships; but they did not burn it. On their return they carried away very much booty from the bishopric.
The feast day in question is 29th June, only 15 days before Summerson’s date for the start of the siege, which inclines me to believe that the Scottish leaders would not have arrived at Carlisle much before the 22nd July. If they could ignore the English garrisons, both royal and private, at cities like Newcastle and Durham, or major castles like Alnwick and Berwick (still in English hands at that time), they must have been very confident about what they could achieve anywhere in the North of England. Hartlepool is just short of a hundred miles south of the border at either Berwick or Norham, so Carlisle, only ten miles from the border, must have been a near-certain target for the Scots at some point.
Also, a little later in the same year, on the feast of S. Mary Magdalene, the King of Scotland, having mustered all his forces, came to Carlisle, invested the city and besieged it for ten days, trampling down all the crops, wasting the suburbs and all within the bounds, burning the whole of that district, and driving in a very great store of cattle for his army from Allerdale, Copland, and Westmorland.
The feast day of St Mary Magdalene is the 22nd July. I have no idea whether Bruce summoned his army to gather at Carlisle, or to meet somewhere in Scotland (probably Lochmaben) and then advance on Carlisle.
There were some strong historical reasons why Carlisle could have been a tempting target for Robert Bruce. Carlisle and the counties of Cumberland and Westmorland (both now part of modern-day Cumbria) are isolated from the rest of England, and were only incorporated into England mainly in the reign of king Henry I. The Lake District Fells and the Howgill Fells cut those counties off from the rest of England to the south, while the Pennines block easy access from the east. The only easy route into the counties was the road from Newcastle, which ran just south of Hadrian’s Wall and at the time was known as Stanegate. The main road that connected Carlisle to most of England ran south to Penrith, then southeast via the Eden valley and Robert Clifford’s castle and town of Appleby, over the summit of Stainmore and then to eventually reach York – roughly the modern-day A66. An even more difficult route ran south from Penrith to Kendal through the Shap fells, while an old Roman road followed the top of the broad ridge now called High Street, reaching 2,500 feet above sea level at its highest point. Finally it was also possible to reach Lancashire via the long road down the West coast through Cockermouth, Egremont and Millom before fording the sands of the Duddon, Leven and Kent estuaries to reach Lancaster.
Not an easy place to reach, and had Carlisle fallen in 1315, not an easy place to retake either. Given the inability of Edward II to recapture Berwick in 1319, if Carlisle had fallen it would have remained in Scottish hands for many years, and from a Scottish viewpoint, justifiably so. Not only did the Scottish kings have a historic claim on Carlisle, Cumberland and the northern half of Westmorland, but the Scottish diocese of Glasgow also claimed religious jurisdiction over Carlisle and Cumbria “as far as the Redecross of Stainmore”. King Henry I had partially headed off this claim by elevating St Mary’s Priory in Carlisle to the status of a cathedral in 1132, but the old beliefs almost certainly still remained.
In 1135, king David I of Scotland occupied Carlisle, and it became one of his main administrative centres, certainly on a par with Edinburgh and Stirling. It remained part of Scotland for the next 22 years before being returned to the England of Henry II. Henry the young king (son of Henry II) offered Carlisle and “Cumbria” to the Scots as part of a reward for their support in his rebellion against his father, and the Scots unsuccessfully attacked Carlisle in 1173 as a consequence of that agreement. The Scots again occupied Carlisle for over a year in 1216, just after the death of king John, but surrendered it one year later. The line of the England-Scotland border was finally settled at the treaty of York in 1237, but the turbulent history of claim and counterclaim must have had some bearing on the minds of both Scots and Northern English. I wonder just how much it might have affected Andrew Harclay’s decision to try and broker a peace with Robert Bruce on his own initiative after the English military disasters of 1322?
When war broke out again in 1296, Carlisle was attacked by those Scots who supported king John Balliol, led by the Comyn earl of Buchan. One year later, William Wallace also considered trying to capture Carlisle, but the defenders were better prepared by then and Wallace turned away from the city. Such were the conflicting alliances of the time that one of the leading defenders of the city then was Robert Bruce, father of the victor of Bannockburn. Robert Bruce the son would have known Carlisle, and to judge by the fact that he initially attacked it only by escalade, probably thought it would be relatively easy to take. He had surprised and almost captured it in 1311, when the city had to pay a large amount of tribute to save itself. As Bruce still had to recapture Perth, Stirling, Edinburgh and Dumfries (amongst other places in Scotland) he may not have been too concerned about occupying Carlisle at that time. Post-Bannockburn, that had changed. He may even have thought he could persuade the city to surrender without a fight, but that would have to be wishful thinking on his part. If there was one man anywhere in the North of England prepared to fight back, it was Andrew Harclay who had been appointed constable of the city and sheriff of Cumberland after the debacle of 1311.
What manner of problems would Bruce have faced when he attacked Carlisle? The accompanying map shows that the city was roughly triangular in shape, with the castle in the Northwest corner and three gates through the city walls. The one facing North was known as the Scots Gate, or Rickert’s Gate, while that facing west was the Irish or Caldew Gate. At the south end of the city, shown here with a double tower, was the English gate, or Botcher’s Gate, although this part of the city defences was heavily rebuilt in the Tudor period. Although this is a copy of John Speed’s map of 1610, the walls were still intact at that time and it gives a reasonable impression of what the city must have been like three hundred years before. I can but apologise for the lack of clarity, but the castle, the cathedral and the three gates stand out fairly well. The layout of the streets behind the East wall and the market square has barely changed and can be easily recognised today.
The city stood on a low ridge of sandstone, surrounded by rivers on three sides. The largest was the Eden, flowing east to west some 300 yards north of the Scots gate, with the bridge over it carrying the main road to Scotland. The Caldew flowed below the west wall of the city, with the road to Cockermouth and West Cumberland crossing it just west the Irish gate, either by a bridge or a ford (the accounts are contradictory here). Finally the smallest of the three, the Petteril, flowed past the east side of Carlisle, but some half a mile from the East wall. It is difficult to envisage what the land was really like immediately outside Carlisle’s walls, but there was almost certainly a fair amount of low-lying, waterlogged land, particularly alongside the rivers Eden and the Petteril. When the Scots eventually built a siege tower or “berefrai” to overtop the height of the city’s gates, it became stuck in mud when they tried to move it. The suburbs that the Scots “wasted” were either outside the English gate or just across the Caldew on the west bank in what is now Shaddongate, Denton Holme and Caldcotes. There was even a church somewhere there, the church of the Holy Trinity. There was also a community of fishermen living outside the walls and close to the Eden, according to Henry Summerson, although given the propensity of that river to flood, one has to wonder where it was located. Possibly alongside the road to the Eden bridge, as shown on the map above.
Speed’s map resorts to wishful thinking once he goes outside the walls. The impression given is that the Caldew gate is roughly level with the river Caldew, when in fact the ground there was quite steep. Mediaeval Carlisle stood on its ridge between 50 and 70 feet above the Caldew, with a fairly steep slope dropping towards the river. Any modern day visitor to Carlisle can get en excellent impression of this height if they choose to park on the West Walls car park. (Just follow the road past the front of the railway station, under Victoria Viaduct, and suddenly you are in the car park directly below the cathedral. The climb up the old sandstone steps to the top of the walls, then through the arch into the cathedral close, is one of the most atmospheric ways to enter old Carlisle.) Images of the city from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries show this land as being quite steep, with a few trees and a lot of bushes, probably gorse, hawthorn or bramble, and it is how I imagine it at the time of the siege. It is still like that below the castle walls at the extreme Northern tip of the old city. But all trace of that hillside was wiped out in Victorian times. This became railway country. Seven different companies ran into Carlisle, and although they co-operated by sharing just one passenger station, they all had their own goods depots and engine sheds, and a network of avoiding lines running either side of the Caldew to prevent any congestion in the station caused by the huge number of goods trains. The Caldew was diverted between high retaining walls and bridged in several places as a result.
The north wall, running from the castle to the Scots gate, would also have been well above the level of the river Eden. Any visitor today can get a good impression by standing at the Northern end of Scotch Street, just where it intersects with West Tower Street which is almost certainly the site of the former Scots gate. The road drops down a short hill and past the front door of Debenhams before leveling out as it runs past the offices of the city council and on towards the giant modern roundabout called Hardwick Circle lying immediately south of the Eden Bridge. You get the same impression as you look towards the castle along West Tower Street, or across Bitts Park just below the castle walls; steep ground at first then leveling out closer to the river. Not particularly easy ground across which to launch an escalade.
John Speed allowed his imagination to really get the better of him by showing hills south of the Eden and east of the bridge. The land here is as flat as a pancake, and was for many years the site favoured for horse racing. Some 250 years after the siege, the famous rescue of “Kinmont Willie” Armstrong from Carlisle castle was almost certainly plotted at one of these horse races. Today it is given over largely to sports fields. The slope of the land below the east wall and running south from the English gate is pretty gentle, so it is almost imperceptible, but it is there. Possibly the best indication of the lie of the land can be gained from the map of the 2005 Carlisle floods, showing the streets closest to the Eden and the Petteril submerged under flood water while it remained dry closer to the old city walls. The problem for the Scots would be that this dryer land was almost certainly within easy arrowshot of the defenders.
On every day of the siege they assaulted one of the three gates of the city, sometimes all three at once; but never without loss, because there were discharged upon them from the walls such dense volleys of darts and arrows, likewise stones, that they asked one another whether stones bred and multiplied within the walls.
Andrew Harclay must have been preparing his defences well. I suspect he had every blacksmith, fletcher and wood-turner in the city preparing arrows and javelins by the thousand in the weeks before the Scots arrived, while piles of rocks must have been stacked every few yards around the parapet behind those walls. Recent excavations suggest that the city walls were about 20 feet high, not too difficult to escalade either side of the one of the gates, and once the Scots reached the foot of the walls the defenders would have to rely more on stones and javelins to repel them. I also suspect that there were reserve piles of rocks stacked against the inside of the walls at ground level, ready to replenish those on the parapet. Given his relatively small number of defenders, Harclay would have wanted to move men swiftly around the walls to reinforce any particular crisis point and huge piles of rocks on the parapet itself would have slowed that movement.
Now on the fifth day of the siege they set up a machine for casting stones next the church of Holy Trinity, where their king stationed himself, and they cast great stones
continually against the Caldew gate and against the wall, but they did little or no injury to those within, except that they killed one man. But there were seven or eight similar machines within the city, besides other engines of war, which are called springalds, for discharging long darts, and staves with sockets for casting stones, which caused great fear and damage to those out-side.
The fact that it took the Scots five days before they set up any siege machines suggests to me that they expected to take the city by escalade. (The same was true of the English attempt to recapture Berwick in 1319). Perhaps Bruce had a trebuchet prepared, and it just took time to carry it all the way from Lochmaben and assemble it, but it also suggests that the Scots were forced to improvise after the initial round of escalades had failed. The church of the Holy Trinity is thought to have been just west of the Caldew crossing in the old manor of Caldcotes. Excavations in 1959 found a number of burials with the bodies laid neatly on an east-west axis, suggesting church burial. There is a Holy Trinity church a few hundred yards further west, but it is Victorian in age. One of the historical manuscripts also suggests that there was a tannery alongside the Caldew, which may have provided some useful shelter for the Scots, both from bad weather and English archers.
But the positioning of the trebuchet beside the Caldew makes good sense in one way. Although the steep ground below the west wall would have made the Caldew gate the most difficult to attack by escalade, the riverbed supplied a huge amount of ammunition. The Eden at Carlisle has eroded its way down to near sea level – it is tidal almost all the way up to Carlisle – but the Caldew is still cutting its way between the heights of Carlisle’s ridge and Denton Holme, and its bed and banks are far more rock-strewn than the meadow-fringed Eden.
I think the weather was most likely to have been typical of a Northern summer, with some dry days interspersed with wet ones. Although 1315 was the first of the famine years, when bad weather wreaked the harvest right across England, I get the impression from Lanercost that the really heavy, continuous rain that ruined what little harvest remained after the Scots had left, did not arrive until September. Regular downpours would still mean that the ground around the city was pretty swampy. But if it had been heavy, continuous rain would the Scots have been able to conduct any sort of effective siege? The arrow-storms from both sides described by Lanercost would have been near impossible in continuous heavy rain, so I suspect there were some intervals of dryer weather. One other factor which suggests the existence of a lot of wet weather is that the Scots appear to have made no effort to burn any of the gates, something they had successfully done elsewhere. Or perhaps they tried but Lanercost never mentioned it.
Meanwhile, however, the Scots set up a certain great berefrai like a kind of tower, which was considerably higher than the city walls. On perceiving this, the carpenters of the city erected upon a tower of the wall against which that engine must come if it had ever reached the wall, a wooden tower loftier than the other; but neither that engine nor any other ever did reach the wall, because, when it was being drawn on wheels over the wet and swampy ground, having stuck there through its own weight, it could neither be taken any further nor do any harm.
Moreover the Scots had made many long ladders, which they brought with them for scaling the wall in different places simultaneously; also a sow for mining the town wall, had they been able; but neither sow nor ladders availed them aught. Also they made great numbers of fascines of corn and herbage to fill the moat outside the wall on the east side, so as they might pass over dry-shod. Also they made long bridges of logs running upon wheels, such as being strongly and swiftly drawn with ropes might reach across the width of the moat. But during all the time the Scots were on the ground neither fascines sufficed to fill the moat, nor those wooden bridges to cross the ditch, but sank to the depths by their own weight.
The “berefrai” must have been built somewhere to the east of the city, as it could never have been moved up the slope to attack the west wall. It was probably built close to the Petteril but had to be in wetter ground in order to remain beyond arrow range. I suspect the sow would have been built in the same place, possibly with the intention of undermining part of the east wall through the side of the moat. Lanercost does not state on which tower the defenders extended their own defences, and it could have been either the English or the Scots gate. I think the Scots gate was smaller, and so a more tempting target, but the English gate might have been closer. I also suspect that the moat would have been more of a dry ditch in any period of sunny weather, as it would not have been easy to divert a river to fill it. It was too high above either the Eden or the Petteril, and the wrong side of the ridge for the Caldew.
Howbeit on the ninth day of the siege, when all the engines were ready, they delivered a general assault upon all the city gates and upon the whole circuit of the wall, attacking manfully, while the citizens defended themselves just as manfully, and they did the same next day. The Scots also resorted to the same kind of stratagem whereby they had taken Edinburgh Castle; for they employed the greater part of their army in delivering an assault upon the eastern side of the city, against the place of the Minorite Friars, in order to draw thither the people who were inside. But Sir James of Douglas, a bold and cautious knight, stationed himself, with some others of the army who were most daring and nimble, on the west side opposite the place of the Canons and Preaching Friars, where no attack was expected because of the height [of the wall] and the difficulty of access. There they set up long ladders which they climbed, and the bowmen, whereof they had a great number, shot their arrows thickly to prevent anyone showing his head above the wall. But, blessed be God! They met with such resistance there as threw them to the ground with their ladders, so that there and elsewhere round the wall some were killed, others taken prisoners and others wounded; yet throughout the whole siege no Englishman was killed, save one man only who was struck by an arrow (and except the man above mentioned), and few were wounded.
The holdings of the different orders of friars lay just inside the English gate, set against the east and west walls respectively. The Scottish archers down somewhere near the Caldew would not have found it easy to aim directly at the defenders, as they would have been shooting quite steeply uphill, probably with arrow-flight affected by crosswinds. I suspect they were loosing arrows over the wall to fall on defenders from above. Accurate shooting at English defenders would also have been too close to Douglas’s “daring and nimble” escaladers on their ladders.
Here we have some variation in accounts. Lanercost infers that Douglas was already waiting somewhere below the west wall, possibly hidden in trees and bushes, waiting for a key moment to attack. Henry Summerson suggests his men left the main attack and ran round the south end of the city, while yet another account has them running round the north end of the city, and the alarm being raised by the men manning the higher castle walls. They certainly did try to take the west wall, and succeeded for a while before the defenders managed to regain control.
Lanercost’s account suggests growing frustration within Scottish ranks. Their “berefrai” was stuck in mud, their trebuchet had made little or no impression on the Caldew gate, and their sow might take a long time to undermine the walls. After Douglas’s failure to capture the west wall, they made their minds up fairly quickly, to cut their losses and return to Scotland.
Wherefore on the eleventh day, to wit, the feast of S. Peter ad Vincula, whether because they had heard that the English were approaching to relieve the besieged or whether they despaired of success, the Scots marched off in confusion to their own country, leaving behind them all their engines of war aforesaid. Some Englishmen pursuing them captured John de Moray, who in the aforesaid battle near Stirling had for his share twenty-three English knights, besides esquires and others of meaner rank, and had taken very heavy ransom for them. Also they captured with the aforesaid John, Sir Robert Bardolf, a man specially ill-disposed to the English, and brought them both to Carlisle Castle; but they were ransomed later for no small sum of money.
Carlisle had survived, but I suspect only narrowly. The west wall was almost over-run on the final day, and had the Scots taken the city they may well have gone on to take the castle as well. There was an English relieving force, marching from Newcastle, but how large it was is unknown, at least to me. Given that the Scots had ridden unhindered past Newcastle only a month before to launch their raid on Hartlepool, I doubt it would have discomforted them too much. Had they launched two or three more general assaults against the walls, they may have won through at some point by sheer weight of numbers. Although the English defenders had lost hardly any men, by the end of day ten they would have been out on their feet with exhaustion. They must have spent the whole of the siege sleeping by their posts, constantly on alert for a night attack, and surviving largely on cold rations. The weather almost certainly played some part in the Scots’ decision to abandon the siege, but I suspect the main reason for that decision could really be summed up in two words.
Harclay fascinates me. He was a minor knight from Hartley, near the Westmorland town of Kirkby Stephen, which must have been one of the poorest and smallest manors in England. His father had been sheriff of Cumberland for a number of years, but the family was not notable. A better description might even be notorious. His brother Michael had been accused as an accessory to murder in 1292, but was acquitted. On the other hand Robert, another of Andrew’s brothers, became a Dominican friar and Chancellor of Oxford University, so they weren’t all bad.
Historians tend to be divided about him, with some condemning him as nothing more than a thug who got lucky by being in the right place at the right time. Others consider him to be gallant, honourable and brave, but ultimately mis-guided because of his attempt to broker a treaty between himself and Robert Bruce. I’m inclined towards the second opinion because what he achieved would have been beyond the capabilities of a mere, lucky thug, and eventually England benefited from it. I think of him as being similar to William Wallace and Bertrand du Guesclin in coming from a comparatively lowly background and rising to high honour on the basis of his ability as a leader. Fair enough, they both had their thuggish tendencies as well, but all three could inspire soldiers in ways utterly alien and probably largely incomprehensible to most of their supposed superiors.
Much of what I know of him comes from papers published by the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society (CWAAS). He was born sometime in the 1270s, and he and his younger brother John are recorded as serving in Scotland in the 1290s, probably as squires. He was supposedly knighted by the earl of Lancaster in1307, not long after the death of king Edward I, so his early experience of war was most likely to be in leading small patrols in the hostile country of southwest Scotland. He would probably have served under Robert Clifford, and the two men would know each other well. He was promoted in 1311, to become constable of Carlisle city, probably in the wake of Bruce’s raid. Clifford would have needed a reliable man in command of Carlisle and promoted Andrew on the basis of his ability. That would almost certainly have angered many other knights who considered themselves more senior to this little known Westmorlander. By 1313 he was also constable of Carlisle castle.
His unorthodox military education made him the ideal man to have defending Carlisle. He almost certainly oversaw every detail of Carlisle’s defences, but probably discussed them with other knights and his senior sergeants and most experienced soldiers or archers. His early experience in Scotland would have taught him to trust the men under his command – if he hadn’t he probably would never have survived. I can envisage him at the siege, fighting alongside his men on the walls, walking around them when the fighting eased, encouraging them and praising them. By the end of the siege he probably knew every single one of them by name. There was no chance of Bruce finding the Carlisle equivalent of Peter of Spalding (who supposedly betrayed Berwick in 1318) guarding any part of Carlisle’s walls.
This might sound like a very twenty-first century model of leadership, but the basics of trust, upwards from soldiers to their commander and downwards from the commander to sergeants, section leaders or even individual soldiers, is as old as the history of organised warfare. Any army in which it broke down was usually defeated. With Andrew it showed up again in the speed with which he marched to Boroughbridge to confront Lancaster. It certainly took Lancaster by surprise, while the tactics he used to defeat Lancaster caught the whole of England by surprise to judge by the reactions of the chroniclers. They were also widely misunderstood. He dismounted his men to fight on foot “in the Scottish manner” according to one writer (the Bridlington chronicler I think). But with the benefit of 680 years of hindsight one has to ask if Robert Bruce would have defended the ford at Boroughbridge primarily with archers? My impression is that Andrew fought Boroughbridge in his own way, adopting some Scottish tactics because they seemed appropriate at the time. There were other innovations that can be attributed to him, including far more extensive use of hobelars for border warfare, and almost certainly developing the idea of archers mounted for speed of travel to better intercept Scottish raiding parties. Some historians have suggested Boroughbridge as being a sort of “prototype” for Crecy and Agincourt, and there were a lot of similarities between them. But it took a younger generation of English commanders under king Edward III, to truly appreciate what he had done.
Can I make one final, personal comment on the siege of Carlisle? My over-riding impression is that the strength of the city’s resistance took the Scots completely by surprise, and contributed to their comparatively early abandonment of the siege. That strength almost certainly reflected the character and example of Andrew Harclay.