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  Assessment of the Battle

There can be little doubt that the critical factor in the Scottish defeat was David’s decision, in which he may have had little choice, to allow the Galwegians, rather than his armoured troop, to make the initial attack. However there are other issues about the tactics employed at Northallerton that may shed important light on the nature of warfare in the 12th century.

The major factor that has not previously been properly taken into account at Northallerton is the historic terrain. This is something that can be analysed with a little more confidence now that we have new evidence on the probable location of the English battle array. Despite the interpretations of some authors, there was not a significant hill on the battlefield to provide a strong defensive position against an attack from the north, though such places could certainly have been found further north. Why then did the English choose this location to fight? In fact when one begins to reconstruct the historic terrain it can be seen that the English had chosen a strong tactical position. Not only did they control the major road, but they also had a large marsh to provide defence from any outflanking move on the left of their battle array. What lay to their right is at present uncertain, but further research on the historic landscape may yield evidence on this.

The way in which the majority of the English knights and men at arms dismounted and fought on foot has been described by some authors as a curious negation of the greatest strength of the English army, the heavily armoured mounted cavalry charge with couched lances. However, as Bradbury has demonstrated, dismounting many of the cavalry to fight on foot was a typical 12th century Anglo-Norman tactic and one that was probably used widely across the continent.

The events at Northallerton confirm the value of these tactics very well. The dismounted heavily armed troops provided the essential stiffening of the English lines when the local levies were hit first by the Galwegian charge and then later by Prince Henry’s mounted cavalry attack. The first they were able to hold when the levies began to break. The second they could not hold, but they were able rapidly to close up the breach, stopping the infantry that seconded Prince Henry from exploiting his initial success. 180 years later at Myton (North Yorkshire, 1319) the lack of dismounted men at arms to strengthen the English lines was surely the key factor in the total collapse of the English army.

The other major reason for dismounting is described in the intended tactics recorded in the account of the battle of Bourtheroulde (Normandy, 1124): ‘for one section of our men to dismount for battle and fight on foot, while the rest remain, mounted ready for the fray. Let us also place a force of archers in the first line and compel the enemy troop to slow down by wounding their horses’ . The threat posed by the archers clearly also led the Scots to dismount most of their men at arms and knights. Whereas the horses were very vulnerable to the English arrows, blunting a cavalry charge, the heavily armoured men at arms, when on foot, were not. Why then, one wonders, did the late cavalry charge by Prince Henry succeed in breaking through? The retention of a cavalry reserve for just such an attack was a typical tactic of the period. It may be that launching such attacks became more realistic in the later stages of a battle because the archers’ arrows may have been largely spent, especially given the rate of fire which an archer could achieve.

The other important element in the tactics at Northallerton was the prominent role given to the archers. They were almost certainly, as Bradbury says, using the English longbow, and they used it to great effect. Both in the use of the bow and of dismounted heavy cavalry Northallerton seems to show the early stages of the development of tactics which would lead to some of the greatest of English success on the battlefield in future centuries.

 

   
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