William Wallace’s Invasion of Northern England in 1297
By C.J. McNamee
Northern History v.26 (1990)
Introduction: In the winter of 1297 William Wallace, fresh from his victory over the English at Stirling Bridge, presided over a ferocious and prolonged devastation of northern England. There had been raiding in the previous year when the Anglo-Scottish war had first opened, but nothing on this scale. Something of the extent of the destruction, and its impact on life in the region is conveyed by a contemporary chronicler:
At that time the praise of God ceased in all the monasteries and churches of the whole province from Newcastle
to Carlisle. All the monks, canons regular and the rest of the priests and ministers of the Lord, together with
almost the whole of the people fled from the face of the Scot.
Modern narratives have tended to describe the invasion only in general terms, for in two respects the episode has been overshadowed. Historians of England have tended to concentrate on the prolonged phase of Scottish raiding which lasted from 1311 to 1322, historians of Scotland to focus on the importance of the Wallace invasion in the interpretation of the critical situation north of the border. This paper takes a closer look at the invasion of 1297, and the findings have significance both for our understanding of the state of affairs in contemporary Scotland, and for the parallels drawn between Wallace’s invasion and the raids of Robert Bruce and his supporters in the early fourteenth century.
The evidence which allows a reconstruction of the Wallace invasion falls into three main categories. Of the narrative sources, the near-contemporary Chronicle of Walter of Guisborough is much to be preferred. It can be supplemented in places by the Lanercost chronicle, the Scalachronica of Sir Thomas Gray composed circa 1362, Peter Langtoft’s rhyming chronicle, and the works of the Scottish writer John of Fordun. Blind Harry’s Wallace is, however, of little value, as it imputes to Wallace much of the itinerary of Bruce’s invasion of Yorkshire in 1322. Secondly, in the register of John Halton, Bishop of Carlisle, exists a schedule of reductions of parish valuations in the diocese of Carlisle for the triennial tenth of 1301, tax allowances granted in view of the destruction inflicted by the Scots. Thirdly, financial accounts of northern manors then in the King’s hand are preserved on the Pipe Roll. Fortunately, a relatively large number of properties were in this condition at the time of the invasion, most of them recently escheated from cross-Border landowners who sided with the Scots in 1296. These accounts contain details of damage inflicted by the Scots and, occasionally, the dates when it occurred.
The invasion of his own realm marked the nadir of Edward I’s attempts to control Scotland; attempts which until then had met with remarkable success. In 1296 Edward had overrun Scotland in a matter of months. He had taken prisoner King John Balliol and many of the nobles, occupied all the major castles, and imposed on the country sheriffs and custodians of his own choosing, most of them English. He had established his own government based at Berwick-on-Tweed, acting in his name as feudal overlord of Scotland. Edward departed for Flanders on 22 August 1297, confident that the situation in Scotland was well in hand. Not until September did it become apparent that the real struggle for Scotland was beginning, and about to spill over into England; but already in May 1297 the English occupation was menaced by three risings: Andrew Murray led a rising with widespread popular support north of the Forth; another was led by Sir William Douglas, James the Stewart of Scotland, Sir Alexander de Lindsay and Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, in the south-west of Scotland; and William Wallace became active at around the same time, when he killed the Sheriff of Lanark and chased the English Justiciar from Scone.