The battle of Myton-upon-Swale, in 1319, was one of the celebrated victories of Scottish arms.
According to the patriotic poet John Barbour, a thousand Englishmen died in that battle, and at least three hundred of them were priests.
“Tharfor that bargane callit ware
‘The chapter of Mytoun’, for thare
Slayne sa mony priestis ware.”
But this invites the question; Why were there so many “priestis” on the scene, in the first place? And why were they being led into battle by the
Archbishop of York, “the wise and wealthy Melton”, whose proficiency was in the field of running the royal finances?
The ruler of Scotland at the time was Robert Bruce, who had thrown out the English garrisons. The ruler of England was Edward II, son of the original
“Hammer of the Scots”, who had already suffered a spectacular defeat at Bannockburn.
In the summer of 1319, in a brief interval between the frictions of internal politics, Edward mustered the armed strength of the nation at Newcastle.
Then he took them to the frontier for a siege of Berwick, which was currently in Scottish hands. The chief nobility was there in force- the earls of
Lancaster, Hereford, Pembroke, Arundel, and
“All the Earliss als that war
In Yngland worthy for to ficht,
And baronis als of mekill mycht.”
The Scottish commander in the town was Walter Stewart, the hereditary High Steward of Scotland (who had married Robert’s daughter, and thus became
the ancestor of the Stewart kings).
Robert did not feel strong enough to tackle the “mekill mycht” of England head-on. He tried to distract them, instead, by sending a raiding party
into their own country. They would be mounted infantry led by two of his most trusted commanders- Sir James Douglas, and Thomas Randolph, Earl of
Armies moving between England and Scotland can travel east or west of the Pennines. The English army at Berwick was blocking the eastern route, which
left the western route unguarded. The fast-moving Scottish force crossed the border near the Solway and pushed over the Pennines to the eastern
counties, getting behind the the English besiegers. Then they pressed southwards into Yorkshire.
This is where we come to the un-military cleric, William de Melton.
He wasn’t a member of the aristocracy. In the English Latin of the Middle Ages, “de” simply meant “from”. He was born and bred in the
Yorkshire village of Melton, one of the many villages of that name.
He spent his life in the church and in the royal service. Since the clergy were the literate class of the time, the two careers were necessarily
At the beginning of the reign, he was Controller of the Wardrobe (a financial office) in the royal household, and in his spare time he was the
Archdeacon of Barnstaple and the Provost of Beverley.
Before long, he was also Lord Privy Seal (that is, custodian of the king’s personal seal).
In 1314, the nobility forced the king to make changes in his government. William Melton, as “one of the very few officials who enjoyed the
confidence of all parties”, became Keeper (or Treasurer) of the Wardrobe.
He was nominated as Archbishop of York in 1315, but there was much delay before the Pope was ready to give him the traditional “pallium”, as the
symbol of his delegated authority. As a result, he spent about eighteen months residing at the papal court in Avignon, “without being
Devout and austere in his private life, the wise and wealthy Melton [SAPIENS AT ABUNDANS DIVITIIS] was a man of unbounded generosity throughout
the diocese and beyond. The sum of his loans (on which he received little or no interest) to the king, to the northern barons and knights who found
themselves in difficulties through the Scottish wars, to fellow-bishops and to religious houses, is said to have reached over £23,500; but Melton
himself kept free from debt and opened the way for his nephew and namesake to found a knightly family.
“The Fourteenth Century” (Oxford History of England), May McKisack, p298.
As the Scottish raiders made their mark in Yorkshire, the rumour spread that they were intent on capturing the queen, who had been left behind in
The Archbishop of York, being in residence, was instructed to go out and fight them.
But how? Every available trained soldier was already in the camps outside Berwick. Even the local Yorkshire militia had been summoned up to the
Melton could only obey the king’s command by improvising the semblance of an army out of whatever materials he could find.
There were the good citizens of York, tradesmen of all kinds- the “men of all misteris”, in Barbour’s phrase.
If they were male, they were pressed into service, all the way up to the mayor of York himself (who was listed among the later casualties).
There were the peasantry from the surrounding villages.
And of course the religious people were not exempt. York was full of them, like any cathedral city of the Middle Ages. There were priests in this
army, canons and secular canons, monks and friars, and even the Abbot of Selby.
The king’s Chancellor, who happened to be the Bishop of Ely, had also been left in York. So his episcopal banner joined the Archbishop’s at the
head of the marching body, and the chancery staff were conscripted along with everybody else.
In this way, Melton managed to gather together at least ten thousand men. Barbour says “twenty thousand and mair”. On the twelfth of September,
he took this mass out of York and led them north to the river Swale. The Scots were reported on the other side, so he crossed the river by the bridge
The Scots were arranged in two wings, using the “schiltron” formation which had become their standard. They had arms, armour, horses, and
experience. The English party had none of these things, or at least not much of any of them.
The outcome was predictable, but we have different accounts of the way the rout was accomplished.
“Placing themselves between the bridge and the English, the Scots set fire to haystacks, and from behind this smokescreen attacked Melton’s
force.” “The wars of the Bruces”, Colm McNamee, p94.
Another story gives credit to the “mighty shout” of the Scottish army at the start of the conflict.
According to Barbour;
“The Inglish men com on sadly [aggressively?]
With gud contenance and hardy,
Richt in a frount with a baner,
Quhill thai their fayis com so near
That thai thar visage well mycht se;”
They held this menacing appearance until the two lines were only three spear-lengths apart, when suddenly “sik abasing tuk thame” [such a panic
seized them], that “thai gaf the bak all, and to-ga” [the whole body ran away]. Therefore without much difficulty the “Scottis men… slew and
tuk a gret party”, while many others were drowned in the river as they fled.
And that is how “sa mony priestis” came to be slain.
The report of the battle was enough to break up the encampment at Berwick. The northern lords were not going to let their lands remain unprotected.
This was described by Melton in a later letter as a CONFLICTUM INFORTUNIUM with LAPSUM MAGNUM- an “unfortunate conflict” in which he suffered
“great loss”. But the list of his losses begins with the fact that PERDIDIMUS GENTEM NOSTRAM- “We lost our people”.