Today, some six miles south-west of Berwick, perched on
high cliffs above the river Tweed sits the great grey ruin of Norham castle.
With it's 'Norman' keep, double multi-towered inner and outer courtyard
walls and their encompassing ditches, still present a formidable site. In
it's heyday the castle's importance to the English was great, being
mentioned along with the likes of Berwick and
Roxburgh. (both these castles
though were technically 'Scottish' but illegally occupied by 'English'
Norham was originally built by the Bishops of Durham in
the early 12th century as a wooden 'motte' tower and 'bailey' palisade. But
suffered destruction by the Scots and was replaced in 1157 by a stone keep
raised by King Henry II of England (1154-1189). In 1214 Norham was attacked
unsuccessfully by King Alexander II of Scots (1214-1249) for 40 days. King
Robert the Bruce (1306-1329) also besieged the castle on three separate
occasions, in 1318,1319 and 1322 also to no avail. Eventually Norham was
stormed by the Scots in 1327. But under the terms of the peace treaty signed
at Edinburgh between the two nations, Norham was immediately handed back to
The castle's courtyard defences then progressively grew on into
the 14th and 15th centuries, along with the fame of it's alleged
impregnability. Which was finally shattered in 1513,when King James IV of
Scots (1488-1513) unleashed his super-cannon 'Mon's Meg' (now on display in
Edinburgh castle) with her fiery sisters on a 10 day bombardment, destroying
both the inner and outer courtyard walls. Much attention has been given to
this siege prior to James's death at the battle of Flodden 8 miles south of
Norham. However, historians have neglected to mention one of the Scots
earlier attempts to take Norham not by siege but by stealth and cunning.
In 1355 the Lothian Lords of Ramsay of
near Bonnyrigg, Halyburton of Dirleton castle, Dunbar Earl of March of
Dunbar castle and the Earl of Douglas of
Tantallon castle, with a contingent
of visiting French Knights, gathered their forces together in Duns wood near
Nisbet, seven miles north-west of Norham and twelve miles west of Berwick,
to teach Lord Grey and the English garrison of Norham a lesson for repeated
raids into the borders.
The plan was simple. Ramsay with little more than 300
horsemen, would be sent ahead to burn the villages around Norham and steal
cattle to tease the garrison into pursuit. The English would only pursue
once they were convinced that Ramsay was on his own. So Halyburton, Dunbar
and Douglas would continue to hide in the woods until Ramsay hopefully
returned with the English at his heels right into the trap. Historians have
puzzled over the timing, precision and purpose of this Scots raid. As it
wasn't simply a regular ambush but was something greater, an attempt even to
attack Norham since only a token garrison would be left behind.
A possible theory of how they hoped to achieve this is.
If the trap was sprung correctly with no escapees. Once the encircled
English were engaged some of their banners could be stolen and used by
Douglas and the French contingent, whose horses were fresh, to ride back
into Norham castle under the pretense of being returning English Knights.
Halyburton and Dunbar would have sufficient forces to deal with the English,
saving rich Knights for ransom, before joining Douglas in the sacking of
Norham castle. This practice of using stolen banners was quite a common
tactic. For example, King Edward I of England (1272-1307) while attacking
Berwick castle and besieging it's town walls in 1296, sent some of his
horsemen round to a postern gate flying captured Scots banners. They were
unwittingly given entry to the town resulting in a three day massacre of
almost the entire civilian population of Berwick. While the castle garrison
overlooking the town could do nothing. Later the castle was stormed but the
Scots garrison allowed to flee to carry news of the massacre north in
advance of Edward's invasion. Berwick was then colonised by 'English'
merchants and civilians eager to make their fortune from this lucrative
Ramsay's sudden destructive arrival at Norham village
caused chaos. The terrified villagers with what livestock they could save,
flocked into the castle courtyard, while horns sounded and archers rushed to
the battlements firing indiscriminately into the village. The drawbridge was
quickly raised leaving the less agile villagers to fend for themselves as
the marauding, howling Scots circled the castle menacingly. Ramsay torched
the village taunting the garrison to come out and fight. Lord Grey, the
garrison commander and his ally Lord Dacre were suspicious of Ramay's bold
actions fearing another larger Scots army was nearby. So scouts were sent
out by a postern gate to check the immediate vicinity.
Meanwhile, Ramsay began filing stolen cattle across the
ford beside the blazing village. His rear guard took up a defensive position
in front of the castle in case a counter attack was imminent, but no attack
was forth coming. The rear guard then retired over the ford rounding up
loose cattle and gesturing defiantly towards the castle.
Grey's scouts returned, reporting no other armies in the
area. With great haste Grey and Dacre gathered together as many horsemen as
they could muster to pursue Ramsay who by this time was some distance away.
Ramsay's rear guard dragged their heels with some of the cattle to tease the
English on and on. As Grey and Dacre advanced, they abandoned the cattle
then fled rather convincingly in disarray. Grey's men ignored the cattle
since they could be collected later once these arrogant Scots had been
beaten. The rapid pursuit was on, over a six mile stretch of reasonably even
Just short of Duns wood, Ramsay's force stopped turning
to face the English. Many of Ramsay's men leapt from their exhausted mounts
preparing to fight on foot. Grey was delighted, confidently forming his
ranks up for an organized charge. When, suddenly, the call of hunting horns
sounded from the woods sending the forces of Halyburton, Dunbar and Douglas
cascading out on horseback and on foot to engage the bewildered English.
Undaunted, Grey and Dacre, who were professional soldiers could do nothing
but give battle fighting on several fronts at the same time.
As in all battles, things go wrong. John Halyburton of
Dirleton castle was killed in the Scots charge, distracting his men who
flocked round their dead master, thus allowing some of the English to escape
ending the ruse of using stolen banners to enter Norham. Dunbar and Douglas
pressed home the fight, Grey and Dacre were both unhorsed and forced at
sword's point to yield. With their leaders captive the rest of the English
Despite the sad loss of Halyburton, Douglas was
satisfied. They had failed to take Norham but had dealt a serious blow to
the English morale on the border. Lord Grey, his son and Lord Dacre could
all be ransomed for much gold. Lord Grey later spent two years in Edinburgh
castle before being released). Also, the English horses, arms and armour
could readily be used by the Scots. The stolen cattle were and added bonus.
However, the lesser captive men-at-arms were of no ransom
value. Obviously, archers would have two of their fingers cut off, ending
their days as archers before being sent free. This, in itself, was generous
on Douglas's part considering his uncle the 'Good Sir James' Douglas had a
policy of giving captive archers a choice, lose their right hand or their
right eye for their freedom. While debating what to do, a French Knight
approached Douglas, buying most of these captives for a sum of gold. He then
took them to a nearby hill, known as 'slaughter hill' where he
systematically killed them one by one as retribution for the murder of his
father in France by the English. A sad end to what could have been an
honorable day of fighting.