When Richard III invaded Scotland

A 15th century French depiction of the siege of BerwickThe military reputation of Richard III is centred mostly around the Battle of Bosworth, where he was defeated and killed. However, a new article is shining light on a more successful military campaign that Richard led just before he took the English throne.

In his article, “The Yorkists at War: Military Leadership in the English War with Scotland, 1480-82,” Sean Cunningham examines how Richard, when he was still just the Duke of Gloucester, personally commanded a war effort which humbled the Scots and recaptured the city of Berwick-upon-Tweed. It provides a glimpse into Richard’s abilities and how he was able to become King less than a year later.


Cunningham, a Principal Records Specialist at the National Archives in Kew, details how diplomatic relations between England and Scotland, which have often been strained, broke down in the late 1470s, and how the chaotic situation along the border, propelled both countries into war. The man at the centre of the action was Edward IV’s brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who Cunningham calls the “undisputed lord of the north.” While Edward IV remained in the south of England during the war, it was Richard who led the English forces, establishing defences against the Scots and leading raids and chevauchees into Scottish territory.

Government records show that the English were able to use their resources to bring in more supplies and men into region, and use their navy to take control of the seas. Hundreds of mercenaries were brought in from Germany, Switzerland and Burgundy, and by the summer of 1482 over 20,000 men were ready to launch an invasion of Scotland. The Scottish military efforts, by comparison, were much smaller. Furthermore, the relations between the Scottish King James III and many of his nobles and family members were strained at best (one of James’ brothers was fighting on the English side in hopes of being made a puppet-king).


Edward IV had decided not to personally lead the campaign into Scotland, and made his brother Lieutentant-General for the invasion. Richard and his forces left York on July 15, 1482, marching on the city of Berwick-upon-Tweed. While some of his army besieged the city and its castle, Richard took part of his force to the Scottish capital at Edinburgh, where he hoped to do battle with James III.

Cunningham writes:

As it turned out, [James’] rule was preserved by the treason of his Stewart uncles  – the earls of Athol and Buchan, and the bishop of Moray. They averted military disaster by kidnapping James at the Scottish myster at Lauder, hanging several of his low-born companions. The king was removed from any position of public authority and locked in Edinburgh castle. 

Richard soon realized he would not be able to capture Edinburgh, and brought his forces back to Berwick, where he oversaw the capitulation of town and castle on 24 August 1482 – this would be the last time that Berwick would change hands between England and Scotland. While some contemporary chroniclers and historians have criticized Richard for not trying to take Edinburgh, Cunningham notes that he “was probably making the best of the unexpected political situation in Scotland and was conscious of his inability to keep his army in the field beyond the limited period of service.”

The Yorkist Age: Proceedings of the 2011 Harlaxton SymposiumMoreover Cunningham sees that the invasion of Scotland had other important effects back in England. He adds that the campaign had “demonstrated to the duke and his followers that he possessed and had successfully displayed all the qualities of kingship that were required of an English monarch. That Edward IV – still aged only forty – had failed to lead an army royal into Scotland only placed Gloucester’s abilities in sharper relief. It is thus easier to understand why Gloucester felt confident in his tactics during the period April-July 1483, and why he was able to retain the crown after deposing his nephew.”


The article, “The Yorkists at War: Military Leadership in the English War with Scotland, 1480-82,” appears in The Yorkist Age: Proceedings of the 2011 Harlaxton Symposium, which was published earlier this year by Shuan Tyas and the Richard III and Yorkist History Trust. The book contains twenty-one papers that deal with a variety of topics, including the politics of Edward IV; the piety of Cecily, Duchess of York, and theatre in York. It also contains an edition of a rare English account of the famous meeting between Emperor Frederick III and Duke Charles of Burgundy at Trier in 1473.

More information about this publication is available from the Harlaxton Symposium website.