Battle of Byland: building up the evidence

Graham Lee – Senior Archaeological Conservation Officer

Sutton Bank areaThis story of mounting evidence starts in 1996 when a survey was commissioned of the east end of a boundary earthwork known as the Casten Dyke North, to the east of the Hambleton Inn at the top of Sutton Bank. Long thought to be prehistoric, probably Iron Age, in date, the Casten Dyke North runs from the escarpment edge above Sutton Bank (north east) into the head of Flassen Gill, a classic cross-ridge type boundary well known for dividing up areas of prehistoric landscape.

The survey results show that the line of the dyke at the eastern end appears to be marked by two shallow ditches and a relatively gentle north-facing break of slope, cut by numerous later hollow-ways. However, running into the steep sides of Flassen Gill itself, is recorded a much more prominent ditch c.4m wide and about 1m deep, flanked by a pair of banks. This latter earthwork boundary, some 100m in length, appears too sharply defined to be prehistoric in origin – it seems much more likely to be historic in date. Defensively, if defence was its purpose, this eastern end of the dyke appears to be facing north, but why had it been added to the line of the earlier boundary?

It was subsequently recorded that the ditch of the main section of the Casten Dyke North (between the escarpment edge and the Hambleton Inn) is also noticeably steep-sided (c.3.5m wide and c.1m deep – with a bank to the north c.6m wide and 1m high – and with a shallow counter-scarp bank to the south). This suggests it was recut in the historic period. The position of the banks and ditch suggest that this south-western half of the dyke faces south.

This raises the question of what could be the reason for adding to or reinforcing this (presumed) prehistoric boundary during the historic period?

The main historic event recorded in this vicinity is the Battle of Byland between the English and Scottish forces on 14 October 1322. Local historian, John McDonnell summarised that Edward II‘s English forces, pursued by the Scottish army, took up a defensive position ‘on a nearby hilltop’, awaiting reinforcements while King Edward rested at the closeby Byland or Rievaulx Abbey. This English force was then routed when the Scots found a way onto the escarpment behind the English, the suggested route still being known today as Scotch Corner.

Could the opposing armies have used existing but presumably modified prehistoric defences to secure their positions, before the English force was eventually routed by a surprise Scottish attack from the rear from the area of Oldstead Bank/Scotch Corner?

The next piece of the puzzle was defined in 2001 by an English Heritage survey of Roulston Scar hillfort, which included part of the Casten Dyke South. This latter earthwork boundary runs from Boar’s Gill in the west to Hell Hole in the east, defining the northern side of a steep-sided promontory of land, c. 28ha in area and with a perimeter of over 2km. The boundary is a flat-topped bank up to 0.9m high with a steep-sided ditch to the north, c.6m wide and up to 1.1m deep. Long thought to be prehistoric in origin, the survey of the adjacent Roulston Scar hillfort recorded the form of the Casten Dyke South as relatively crisp in appearance, suggestive of an origin of historic date, and very similar to the Casten Dyke North – but in this case facing to the north.

Then, in autumn 2013 there was a small-scale research excavation of the defences of 2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations
Roulston Scar hillfort. The excavation was looking for environmental and other dating evidence to help identify a putative relationship with the small nearby promontory fort at Boltby Scar, 4km to the north, where excavations had taken place between 2009 and 2012. The trench across the defences of the Roulston Scar hillfort, carried out by the Landscape Research Centre, indicated that the latest phase of activity represented was a linear trench cut into and along the back of the Iron Age (prehistoric) rampart with associated postholes, probably representing some form of palisade.

Unfortunately, no dating evidence was secured from the trench or postholes but the position of the trench cut (high up at the back of the rampart), the sharpness of remains, and the increased organic nature of the fills, again suggest a short period of use and an historic rather than prehistoric date.

2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations2013 Roulston Scar hillfort excavations

Further work is clearly required to attempt to secure additional dating evidence from all the potential parts of this battlefield landscape but, at present, we have:

  • the northern rampart of Roulston Scar hillfort, reinforced with a sizeable palisade;
  • the Casten Dyke South, perhaps specifically constructed for this encounter;,
  • both these features with their defensive faces to the north, protecting two promontories of land respectively 24 and 28 hectares in extent;
  • and facing south across a gap of between 880 to 1300 metres we have the Casten Dyke North.

Annotated version of map from English Heritage Archaeological Investigations Report AI/11/2001 An Iron Age promontory fort at Roulston Scar, North Yorkshire by Alastair Oswald & Trevor Pearson

Are these the respective positions of the English and Scottish armies in October 1322, before a part of the Scottish army managed to outflank and rout the English forces?

Only further research will be able to tell.

3 thoughts on “Battle of Byland: building up the evidence

  1. Pingback: Battle of Byland: have a look at this… | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

  2. Pingback: Battle of Byland: considering the evidence | The official blog for the North York Moors National Park

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