The English joined the Great North Road at Sunderland Bridge, where they crossed the river Wear. From there they marched north and deployed their forces in the strongest of tactical positions, where the Great North Road ran along a narrow moorland ridge immediately west of the city of Durham. They formed up facing north with their flank protected by steep valley scarps on either side. The Scottish army could only approach from the north because of the steep valleys. As the Scots advanced to engage, their vanguard’s battle array was disrupted by smaller side valleys and the ditches of enclosed ground which further narrowed their room for manoeuvre.
The contemporary accounts conflict as to the time at which the action began, but both give the time in terms of the monastic day. The Lanercost Chronicle says the English attacked at about the third hour (9:00am), whereas the Thomas Sampson letter says the battle took place between noon and vespers (that is late afternoon). If they had marched at sunrise, which will have been at about 6:45am, the English army is unlikely to have fought at Merrington and covered the 9 miles to Neville’s Cross by 9:00am, the time that the Lanercost Chronicle suggests the battle began. 12:00 noon, as indicated by Sampson’s report seems more likely, giving four to five hours for the English army to march and then deploy. If encumbered by a baggage train the army is unlikely to have made more than 2 miles an hour.
Both armies were organised in the standard three ‘battles’. The Scots deployed with the main battle under King David in the centre, the right under William Douglas and Earl Moray, and the left under Robert the High Steward. The English battles were commanded by Neville in the centre, Percy on the right, and Rokeby (with the Archbishop of York) on the left. The English archers were to the fore with the cavalry held in reserve.
The Scottish army were clearly disadvantaged by the terrain, with Moray’s vanguard on the right flank forced to manoeuvre amongst ditches and hedges within steeply sloping ground. When Moray’s troops encountered a small ravine they were forced to veer to the left causing confusion and disruption to the troops of the middle battle. The English archers took full advantage of Moray’s plight, forcing the Scots to pay dearly for the ground gained in their advance to engage.
On the Scottish left the Steward was more successful with the English archers initially pushed back. The English cavalry then charged, effectively halting the Scots and then forcing a retreat. Moray’s troops also broke and fled the field. According to at least one contemporary source, the fighting during these later stages of the battle may have extended as far north as Findon Hill.
David’s main battle was now exposed on both flanks, though for a time they held their ground and fought on. But the increasing pressure from both English wings saw King David deserted by his troops and, although he escaped the field, he was soon captured, later to be imprisoned in London.