Edward I’s wars for control of both Wales and Scotland had depleted the treasury and when he died, in 1307, his campaign of conquest in Scotland was still not complete. The debts undermined Edward II’s ability to prosecute the war as his father had wished. But neither was the new king an effective military commander and when he did finally campaign in Scotland he suffered disastrous defeats, most notably at Bannockburn (Scotland, 1314). But this was just one aspect of his failings as king. Whereas his father had the strength of character to overawe the nobility, Edward II did not. His incompetent and corrupt rule, complicated by his promotion of his male lovers, brought the kingdom close to anarchy.
His first favourite, Piers Gaveston, had even been appointed regent during Edward’s absence in France, and was able to wield such power that he caused major conflict with the barons. Attempts to banish Gaveston led to armed conflict and in 1311 he was captured at Scarborough castle and subsequently executed, under the orders of the Earl of Lancaster and his allies. Bad blood between Edward and Lancaster then hung over English politics for a decade, with Lancaster even failing to assist the king when Edward resumed the Scottish war.
Defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 was followed by Scottish raids deep into the north of England. This was also a time of great famines and mass starvation, further complicating Edward’s situation. In an attempt to restore effective government, in 1316 the barons forced the king to accept a council, led by Lancaster, which would govern the kingdom. But Lancaster proved just as incapable and made as many enemies as Edward, while the conflict with Scotland continued in the same disastrous fashion. In 1318 the Scots captured Berwick and the attempt to recover it in 1319 had to be abandoned due to the defeat at Myton. Edward had also promoted a new favourite, Hugh le Despenser the younger, who was already an enemy of Lancaster. He also rapidly alienated many of the other barons, including the Earl of Hereford and Sir Roger de Mortimer, who felt their estates in the Welsh Marches were threatened by the grants to Despenser.
When Despenser was banished by parliament, in 1321, Edward attempted to regain the initiative, plunging the kingdom into civil war. Thanks to the unpopularity of the Earl of Lancaster and the lack of effective coordination within the baronial opposition, Edward was able to separately tackle his opponents. In the Welsh Marches, where opposition was led by the Mortimers, he besieged the castles held against him. The Mortimers and their allies surrendered before Lancaster and his followers in the north were in arms. This left the king free to tackle the northern lords. The rebels had assembled at Doncaster and sent forces to besiege the royal castle at Tickhill, while Lancaster led an army south to challenge the king in the field.
The two armies faced each other at Burton on Trent. Lancaster’s forces held the bridge there for three days but were finally outflanked when the royal forces crossed a ford further along the river. Lancaster fired the town and marched out, intending to meet the king in battle, but when he realised how heavily he was outnumbered he retreated. Lancaster’s forces marched north via Tutbury and Pontefract castles, pursued by a detachment of the royal army, under the Earls of Surrey and Kent. With Lancaster in retreat the rebel castles of Kenilworth and Tutbury surrendered as did the 500 troops under Robert de Holland who had been marching to join the Earl.
The rebels’ situation was now desperate. But whereas Lancaster wished to hold out in Pontefract, he was persuaded to march north, on the Great North Road, intending for the castle at Dunstanburgh (Northumberland), where there was the potential for Scottish assistance. But royal forces had already been raised in the North. In mid February Sir Andrew de Harcla, warden of Carlisle and the Western Marches, had been ordered by the king to assemble the knights and men at arms of Cumberland and Westmorland. Harcla was now marching south to join the king, having heard of Lancaster’s retreat from Burton on Trent. He is likely to have taken the major road cross the Pennines into Yorkshire first mapped in c.1350, via Penrith and Brough, which will have brought him down to Ripon before joining the Great North Road at Boroughbridge, with its important crossing over the River Ure.
The defeat of the rebel forces at Boroughbridge was important because it finally dealt with the long standing conflict between the Earl of Lancaster and the king. The execution of Lancaster and many other of the rebel leaders cleared away Edward’s main opponents. But, rather than this resolving the problems of the reign, the king simply created more enemies.
He reneged on all the limitations on royal power that the barons had forced Edward to agree to over the preceding years. He also continued to promote Despenser, further alienating the remaining nobility. The Scottish war continued to go badly, with defeats at Myton (Yorkshire, 1319) and then almost capturing the king himself at Byland Abbey (Yorkshire, 1322). These raids saw the Scots plundering at least as far south as York in the east and Lancaster in the west.
While Edward’s incompetent rule became increasingly unpopular, the Earl of Lancaster’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage and supposedly of miracles. Finally in 1326 Edward’s queen, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer, led an invasion from France. The king’s support melted away, Despenser was captured and executed and Edward forced to abdicate in favour of his son.
Both Clark and Warner provide a useful if brief context within which to place the Boroughbridge campaign. The campaign is also discussed, in somewhat typical 19th century style, by Leadman.
Clark, Battlefield Walks : North, 1995
Leadman, Battles fought in Yorkshire, 1891
Warner, British Battlefields: The Definitive Guide to Warfare in England and Scotland, 2002