Battle of Clitheroe

Edisford Bridge in Clitheroe is a rather lovely picnic site. In the summer months it is awash with bickering families, squealing children and ice cream-licking pensioners. The large pay-and-display carpark allows easy access to the beauty spot, where one can walk along the banks of the River Ribble. As soon as the sun comes out, it is bustling and busy. In June, 1138, it bustled not with Lancastrian families but Scottish invaders. Sent by King David I of Scotland, a large part of his army came through the Trough of Bowland from having laid waste the Furness peninsular and Yorkshire’s Craven district. As well as looting for silver and slaves, the Scots king was seeking to enlarge his kingdom. Carlisle was then in Scotland, and may even have functioned as his capital. England was suffering from a protracted civil war between King Stephen and Matilda, and David sensed an opportunity for advantage. So little is known of the fight that Jennie Cobban, a local historian, calls it ‘the forgotten battle’.

That June day, the Scots won. It must have been a nightmarish period for the people of Clitheroe, with the Galwegian crack troops fanning out across the river to ravage and pillage. I suspect it was during this period that the castle at Gisburn was destroyed and abandoned. Many will have fled to the hills rather than be killed or worse, captured. I dare say the hill upon which our chapel sits was one such refuge. This Scots’ victory was just one calamity among many others to have afflicted our country that time. The civil war raging was known as The Anarchy, eliciting this description from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

In the days of this king there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes.  And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept.

With at least three armies roving the land (Stephen’s, Matilda’s and David’s), there is little wonder that ordinary folk wondered if God and angels alike were deep in slumber, with seemingly few restraints imposed on evil and violence. Few rulers of that period could be described as kind and good-humoured, so it is ironic that Stephen’s reign should be characterised by such suffering. Most historians agree than the man was genial and pious, while offering varying assessments of his regnal abilities. Had he been more vicious and brutal, he might have sooner concluded his war and persuaded David to mind his own affairs and be content with his borders. I was reminded here of the situation in early twenty-first century Iraq. Law and order were maintained by the strong man and thug, Saddam Hussain, but his more benevolent successors presided over seemingly interminable bloodshed and chaos. Human government is God’s concession to fallen humanity; it limits sinful natures and their worst outworkings. Although strong government threatens the individual and his liberties, no government threatens everything. Only King Jesus beautifully combines a gentleness, love and benevolence with justice, ferocity and awesome power. He is the Lion and the Lamb, who neither slumbers nor sleeps. 

Thankfully, that battle site, from a bloody, chaotic age is now a pleasant place of recreation. The only battles you’ll see are queues at the ice cream van and the some ill-tempered motorists getting upset on Edisford Bridge’s narrow width. Whatever faults our government has, we may still rejoice we are kept free from utter lawlessness and invasion. It behoves us to be grateful for good things before they are taken away from us.