The Armies and Losses
The primary sources provide only an exaggerated figure of 80,000 men for the Scottish army and describe the English one as ‘a strong force’. A more likely estimate for the Scottish army would be 6,000-8,000 men and perhaps 8,000-10,000 for the English, though with possibly only a few thousand English involved in the main action. Some authors of secondary works suggest the sizes of the armies were smaller still.
According to several of the main sources (including Barbour’s The Bruce, and the Chronicles Scalaronica, and Lanercost), the English army was led by King Edward II with John of Brittany, the Earl of Richmond. Based on orders issued by Edward prior to the battle, other senior commanders included John de Bermingham and Aymer de Valance, Earl of Pembroke.
The English army would have consisted partly of well-trained experienced soldiers, the remnants of the force returning from the abortive invasion of Scotland, including the personal escorts of the King and his great retainers, but likely the majority of it would be made up of the reinforcements that Edward had been urgently summoning over the previous 4 weeks from all over the North of England, as far south as Derbyshire.
An order had been issued from Newcastle on September 20th to the Earl of Richmond and “the like to eight earls and thirty-three others”, to join the king “...with horses and arms and footmen in as much power as possible…against the Scotch rebels who have entered the realm...” Also another sent from Barnard Castle on October 5th - “Order to bring to the king at Blakhoumor (identified by Professor Barrow as being the area in the vicinity of Old Byland). with all speed possible all the horsemen and footmen, suitably armed,….the men between the ages of sixteen and sixty,...”, sent to Andrew de Harcla, Earl of Carlisle, and the Bishop of Durham, and nine others. (The Close Rolls 1318 – 1323).
It would seem likely therefore that by October 14th Edward would have gathered a substantial force at ‘Blakhoumor’ . This is further evidenced by the fact that Edward did not immediately flee when he discovered on the 13th that the Scots were at Northallerton in such force. He must have been confident that he had sufficient numbers to beat the Scots, or he would surely never have risked his fortunes, indeed his life, to the hazard of combat.
As is often the case however, it is quality rather than quantity that determines the outcome of battle. Edward’s reinforcements, the bulk of his army, were most likely not first-rate troops. They were the ones not considered good enough for the army that invaded Scotland two months previously - ‘between the ages of sixteen and sixty’ - and they most likely lacked training, experience, and discipline. Given the circumstances of their recruitment, their morale would also be suspect, and they almost certainly didn’t want to be there.
The main Scottish primary source, Barbour’s The Bruce, identifies King Robert I (the ‘Bruce’), Sir James Douglas (‘Black Douglas’) and Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray as the Scottish commanders.
In contrast to their English counterparts, the Scottish army was a first-class military force, battle-hardened and experienced after many years of raiding the northern counties of England. The core of the army would have been together since before Bannockburn, eight years earlier, and was a tight-knit, cohesive fighting unit. Their confidence and morale were high, having known almost uninterrupted success for over a decade, and were led by capable and trusted commanders in Douglas and Moray, and the King himself.
There is no contemporary evidence for the number of losses suffered in the battle, so estimates of dead and wounded on both sides are speculative. The fighting in the pass was fierce and hotly contested over a period of time, but fought on a narrow front with limited numbers involved.
According to Barbour, once the Scots had gained the high ground - “...you could see men fighting desperately. There was a dangerous combat there, for a knight called Sir John Brittany (the Earl of Richmond)… put up a stout defence with his men… and a great many of his folk were slain.”
The English would have sustained further casualties during the ensuing rout, and in total may have lost several hundred men.
The Scots would have lost some men during the fierce struggle for the pass, as the English - “….defending themselves by fighting stoutly and arrows flying in great numbers, while those who were above tumbled stones down on the Scots from the high ground.” (Barbour), but overall their losses are likely to have been comparatively light.