The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314
The Wars of Independence
Scotland and England are two
nations divided by their experience of history. That divide was
never wider than during the Wars of Independence in the 13th and
14th centuries when a chance event brought an era of relative
friendship to an end in violent conflict.
The crisis began in
1286 when Alexander III fell from his horse on the sands of Kinghorn
and broke his neck. After Alexander’s death, Scotland was governed
by the premier nobles and bishops of Scotland, known collectively as
the Guardians of Scotland. In 1286 Alexander’s heir to the throne
was Margaret, the Maid of Norway, but her death in 1290 brought
Scotland to the brink of civil war as two claimants emerged for the
vacant throne, John Balliol and Robert Bruce (grandfather of the
more famous Robert Bruce who fought at Bannockburn).
civil war someone would have to mediate and make a decision, and
soon the Guardians turned to Edward I of England as a respected king
and neighbour to adjudicate the contest. In 1292 John Balliol was
judged to be the winner and was proclaimed King of Scots at Berwick.
No sooner was Balliol crowned than Edward began active interference
in Scottish affairs, intervening in legal cases, keeping taxes and
demanding Scottish troops to fight in France. Rapidly the Scots
realised they would have to fight Edward - not a task undertaken
lightly as Edward had one of the most formidable military machines
in Europe at the time.
Rapidly the Scots realised they would
have to fight Edward - not a task undertaken lightly as Edward had
one of the most formidable military machines in Europe at the time.
In 1295-6 the Scots declared their intentions to Edward I, signing
the Auld Alliance with England’s enemy, France. It was a declaration
of war. Over the next decade, Edward attempted to sudue the Scots.
In 1307, luck was on their side when a furious Edward I, died on his
way north to crush Bruce’s rising, who was by now he King of the
Scots. The ‘Hammer of the Scots’ died a failure in his own eyes,
having failed to bring Scotland to heel. Edward was so obsessed with
the Scottish wars he ordered that he should not be buried properly
until the Scots were conquered. So he remains to this day, entombed
in a plain lead casket in Westminster Abbey.
By 1313 Bruce
had taken back most of Scotland by force. In England the new king
Edward II had to react. He led a massive invasion force into
Scotland, which met Bruce’s army at the Battle of Bannockburn - the
Bruce’s finest hour and a humiliating defeat for Edward’s army, who
arrived with a vastly superior force.
As every Scot knows, the Battle of Bannockburn was fought and
won in 1314; although it did not bring outright victory in the war,
which lay 14 years in the future and would only be won at the
The victory was a combination of Bruce’s
demand of 1313: that all of the remaining Balliol supporters
acknowledge his kingship or forfeit their estates, and the imminent
surrender of the English garrison encircled in Stirling castle -
which spurred Edward II to invade Scotland. He mobilised a massive
military machine: summoning 2,000 horse and 25,000 infantry from
England, Ireland and Wales. Although probably only half the infantry
turned up, it was by far the largest English army ever to invade
The Scots common army numbered around 6000, with a
small contingent on horseback. It was divided into three ‘divisions’
or schiltroms (massive spear formations), led by King Robert Bruce,
his brother, Edward, and his nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of
Moray. After eight years of successful guerrilla warfare and
plundering the north of England for booty, the Scots had created an
experienced battle-hardened army.
In June 1314, Edward II
crossed the border only to find the road to Stirling blocked by the
Scots army. Bruce had carefully chosen his ground to the south of
the castle, where the road ran through the New Park, a royal hunting
park. To his east lay the natural obstacles of the Bannock and
Pelstream burns, along with soft, boggy ground. It seems Bruce
planned only to risk a defensive encounter, digging pots (small
hidden pits designed to break up a cavalry charge) along the
roadway, and keeping the Torwood behind him for easier withdrawal.
The First Day, Sunday 23rd June, 1314
opened with one of the most celebrated individual contests in
Scottish history. Sighting a group of Scots withdrawing into the
wood, the English vanguard, made up of heavy cavalry, charged. As
they clashed with the Scots, an English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun,
spotted Robert Bruce. If de Bohun had killed or captured Bruce, he
would have become a chivalric hero. So, spurring his warhorse to the
charge, he lowered his lance and bared down on the king. Bruce, an
experienced warrior, didn’t panic, but mounted ‘ane palfray, litil
and joly’ and met the charge. Dodging the lance, he brought his
battle axe down on de Bohun’s helmet, striking him dead. Elated, the
Scots forced the English cavalry to withdraw.
Edward’s experienced commanders, Sir Henry Beaumont and Sir Robert
Clifford, attempted to outflank the Scots and cut off their escape
route - very nearly surprising the Scots. At the last moment,
however, Thomas Randolph’s schiltrom dashed out of the wood and
caught the English cavalry by surprise. A ferocious melee ensued.
Without archers the cavalry found they were unable to get through
the dense thicket of Scots spearmen, even resorting to throwing
their swords and maces at them, until the Scots pushed them back and
forced them into flight.
The Night of 23rd/24th June,
The Scots had won the first day. Their morale was high
and Bruce’s new tactic of using the schiltroms offensively rather
than statically, as Wallace had used them at Falkirk, appeared to be
working. Yet Bruce must have been contemplating a strategic
withdrawal before the set piece battle that would inevitably follow
in the morning.
For the English the setbacks of the first day
were disappointing. Fearing Bruce might mount a night attack, they
encamped in the Carse of Balquhiderock. The following day they still
hoped to draw Bruce into a full-scale, set-piece battle where their
decisive Welsh longbowmen could be brought to bear rather than let
Bruce return to guerrilla warfare.
At this critical moment,
Sir Alexander Seton, a Scots noble in the English army, defected to
Bruce bringing him vital intelligence of Edward’s army: its confined
position and the low morale within the English camp. Bruce decided
to risk all in the morning and face Edward in open battle.
The Second Day, Monday 24th June, 1314
At dawn the Scots
ate their breakfast and advanced out of the wood to face the enemy.
Medieval battles were seen as the judgement of God; it was important
to have the saints on your side, and so, in the midst of the Scots
schiltroms, Abbot Bernard of Arbroath carried their ancient lucky
talisman, the Breccbennach (or Monymusk Relquary), which held the
relics of St Columba. Bruce himself made a speech invoking the power
of St Andrew, John the Baptist and Thomas Beckett. Then, according
to the chronicler Walter Bower: ‘At these words, the hammered horns
resounded, and the standards of war were spread out in the golden
Abbot Maurice of Inchaffrey walked out in front
of the army, led mass and blessed the Scots as they knelt in prayer.
On seeing this, Edward II is reputed to have said: ‘Yon folk are
kneeling to ask mercy.’ Sir Ingram de Umfraville, a Balliol
supporter fighting for Edward, is said to have replied: ‘They ask for
mercy, but not from you. They ask God for mercy for their sins. I’ll
tell you something for a fact, that yon men will win all or die.
None will flee for fear of death.’ ‘So be it’, retorted Edward.
An archery duel followed, but the Scots
schiltrom rapidly took the offensive in order to avoid its
inevitable outcome. Edward Bruce’s schiltrom advanced on the English
vanguard, felling the Earl of Gloucester and Sir Robert Clifford,
while Randolph’s schiltrom closed up on their left. The English
knights now found themselves hemmed in between the Scots schiltroms
and the mass of their own army and could bring few of their archers
to bear. Some broke out on the Scots flank and rained arrows into
the Scots ranks, but they were quickly dispersed by Sir Robert
Keith’s Scots cavalry; the rest were badly deployed, their arrows
falling into the backs of their own army.
In the centre
of the field there was ferocious hand to hand combat between knights
and spearmen as the battle hung in the balance. At this crucial
point Bruce committed his own schiltrom, which included the Gaelic
warriors of the Highlands and Islands. Under their fresh onslaught,
the English began to give ground. The cry ‘On them! On them! They
fail!’, arose as the English were driven back into the burn. The
battle’s momentum was obvious. A reluctant Edward II was escorted
away. As his royal standard departed, panic set in. The Scots
schiltroms hacked their way into the disintegrating English army.
Those fleeing caused chaos in the massed infantry behind them. In
the rout that followed hundreds of men and horses were drowned in
the burn desperately trying to escape.
The battle was over.
English casualties were heavy: thousands of infantry, a 100 knights
and one earl lay dead on the field. Some escaped the confusion: the
Earl of Pembroke and his Welsh infantry made it safely to Carlisle,
but many more, including many knights and the Earl of Hereford, were
captured as they fled through the south of Scotland. Edward II with
500 knights was pursued by Sir James ‘the Black’ Douglas
(1) until they
reached Dunbar and the safety of a ship home.
The capture of Edward would have meant instant English recognition
of the Scots demands. As it was, they could absorb such a defeat and
continue the war. For the Scots it was a resounding victory. Bruce
was left in total military control of Scotland, enabling him to
transfer his campaign to the north of England. Politically he had
won Scotland’s defacto independence and consolidated his kingship -
as former supporters of Balliol quickly changed sides. In exchange
for Bruce’s noble captives Edward was forced to release Bruce’s
wife, daughter and the formidable Bishop Wishart, who had been held
in English captivity since 1306. For the Scots soldiers there was
the wealth of booty left in the English baggage train and the
exhilaration of victory.
1. James Douglas was 'The Good Sir James' to
the Scots, and 'The Black Douglas' to his enemies! See
for more on his role leading up to the battle.
2. A re-enactment of the battle was held in June 2014. A gallery of
photgraphs can be seen
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