French Troops at Wark by Alan Gault

Wark Castle sits on the south bank of the river Tweed towering over the small village that had grown up around it. It was originally a ‘motte and bailie’ design built by Walter Espec in the 12th Century and was first called Carham. It featured in many of the forays across the border as it guarded one on the main crossing points of the river Tweed. It was besieged in 1126, 1138 and 1139 all of which eventually led to it being reconstructed in 1157. However all this work was in vain as again Wark was burnt by the Scots in 1399. In 1513, prior to Flodden, James IV had bombarded Wark into submission along with Norham, Etal and Ford. After Flodden, Henry commissioned Lord Dacre to redesign the castle in line with the latest defences against modern artillery in acknowledgement of its strategic importance.

The keep was designed to an unusual hexagonal plan with five storeys and as the Duke of Norfolk described:

‘in each of which there were five great murder holes, shot with great vaults of stone except one stage which is timber, so great that bombards can be shot from each of them’.

The top floor was strong enough to withstand the use of artillery and the rooms underneath housed  provided lodgings for 40 men. A series of trapdoors allowed for the raising of powder and ammunition from the stores in the basements. The main keep was surrounded by a curtain wall or ‘The Ring’, some 7m broad flat hard standing and whose wall was broken by 12 ‘embrasures’ capable of taking cannons. The ‘Ring’ was entered by means of a steep staircase leading to an inner ward. This in turn led to an outer ward, the walls of which lay along the bank of the Tweed. Two gatehouses in this outer defence allowed for the traffic to pass along a trackway which ran parallel to the riverbank, which leddown to theford. The gatehouses in turn were three storeys high with a porter’s lodge in each and a vaulted entrance. The wards were designed as sanctuary for the local population when Scottish raiders were at hand and could hold numerous wagons and up to 1000 horses. The improvements of 1517 also included new stables, a bakehouse, kitchens and the constable’s lodgings within the inner ward. The castle was far from pretty but a great example of the new style of fortification springing up in the advent of gunpowder.

The defence of the castle was entrusted to Sir William Lisle and some hundred men. He was effectively cut off from Surrey’s reinforcements in Berwick and Alnwick by the poor roads and dreadful weather. But they were well supplied and adequately armed, and no doubt took some succour from the knowledge that the weather would hamper the Scots as much as it would them.

Albany’s task force appeared on the Scottish bank of the Tweed on 29th October. They spent the Saturday through to the following Monday preparing for an assault and bombarding the outer defences. Lisle’s men kept their heads down, conserving their ammunition and awaited the assault. News of the attack reached the Earl of Surrey on Holy Island on the Sunday evening and he immediately despatched messengers to the Earls Of Northumberland and Westmorland at St Cuthbert’s and Lord Dacre based in Alnwick telling them to meet him at Barmoor Wood some five miles from Wark.

Whilst the Scottish artillerists kept up their bombardment, the French troops commandeered and made boats and rafts. The Tweed, although fordable at Wark for most parts of the year, was now in flood and the Scots were forced to undertake an amphibious assault. At around 3.00 pm on the Monday the 2000 Frenchman led the waterborne assault on the outer ward. Paddling furiously against the strong current and disembarking on the muddy foreshore, the assault teams scrabbled to the walls with ladders and powder charges. They assailed the outer ward and the fosse bray with little opposition and then threw themselves into the more stoutly defended inner ward. The Earl of Surrey takes up the account in a letter to Henry after the event:

 ‘And by Sir William Lisle captain of the castle without with him were right manfully defended by the space of one hour and a half without suffering them to enter the inner ward but finally the said French men entered the inner ward which by the said Sir William and his company freely set upon them’

Lisle was not the kind of man to give up without a fight, declaring:

 ‘ the more shall our honour be to dye in the fight , than to be murthered with gunnes ’

And with that he led the surviving defenders back into the inner ward. In a vicious hard fought fight the French, tired after the assault, hemmed in the confines of the ward and hampered by the smoke from the burning buildings in the outer ward, gave way and fled to the boats.

Leslie suggests the withdrawal was more down to the weather than the bravery of the defenders:

‘ the affault leffit quhill within the nycht that they wor constraint be mirkiness to retire thair in, prrpofeing the nixt day being the fird of Novemenber to hauf affenyeit the fame of new, bot thair wes that nycht fic are vehement storm of tempestuous woodar quhairby thay weir constrainit to leif thair interprise at that tyme and return thame to thair army left be the ryfeing of the watter of Tweid that mychit haif bere cutt if be thair enemies’

The Scottish artillery may have been in a position to stem the flight but they had got word of Surrey’s rendezvous at Barmoor Wood some five miles away and his imminent arrival with over 5000 horsemen . By the time the French retreated the Scottish artillery had already harnessed their oxen and were hauling their guns back to Albany’s main army in Eccles. At 12.30 on the Tuesday the army lost its nerve altogether and headed home.

Surrey arrived to find over 300 dead Frenchmen in and around the wards, but he was unable to pursue Albany’s men, shielded as they were by border horsemen. Furthermore, his force was in no fit state to pursue in such foul weather conditions, lacking supplies, and more importantly, wages.
Surrey’s letter goes on to plead for more money to keep his army together offering to pay some of the wages himself before the King’s money should arrive:

‘And if the army should be discharged tomorrow next I think 10,000 marks will not pay that is owing and conduit money home. ’

Instead of pursuit Surrey had his men reinforce the broken defences of the castle with earthworks and temporary defences. Certainly Wark had survived yet another turbulent assault but it had the scars to prove it. But Surrey had little cause to worry. Albany’s army was in a very much worse state. The French had lost all credibility despite their gallant assault and heavy casualties. The Scottish lairds had had enough, and remembering how they had been let down by the French advisors at Flodden, now marched their men away. A force of nearly 40,000 survivors disintegrated into a rabble for the retreat north as the winter’s snow covered their tracks. The French were placed on ships and sent home, 500 being ship wrecked on the Western Isles in the winter storms, where those not murdered by the locals starved to death.