BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN

BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN

23-24 June 1314

The famous battle in June 1314 at the small river of Bannock Burn, near Stirling in Scotland, was fought between two leaders whose presence on the day made all the difference between victory and defeat. The English army, large and well-trained, should have defeated a Scottish force less than half its size, but its commander-in-chief, King Edward II, chose to flee the field. His opponent, Robert Bruce, who had declared himself King of Scotland in 1306, knew he was at a disadvantage fighting his powerful neighbour in open battle, but he stayed, rallied his men and won a victory that opened the way to full Scottish independence fourteen years later, with a treaty that acknowledged Robert as Scotland’s true king.

 

This nineteenth-century engraving shows the Scottish king, Robert Bruce, at the moment when he brought his axe crashing down on the head of the English knight Henry de Bohun at the start of the Battle of Bannockburn, which secured his rule in Scotland.

The battle came at the end of a long period of almost twenty years of violence between the two kingdoms following the death of the last heir to the Scottish throne in 1290. By the early fourteenth century, the English king, Edward I – ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ – had forced Scotland to submit to English government, but in 1306 Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, supported by defiant Scottish noblemen, was chosen as the new King of Scotland and crowned at Scone.

He was almost immediately defeated by Edward I. Legend has it that he hid in a cave, where he watched a spider struggling to climb its gossamer thread until it finally reached its goal; this, so it is said, inspired Bruce to return to the fight for a free Scotland. Whether the story is true or not, Bruce was a remarkable military commander and over the seven years that followed Edward I’s death in 1307, he succeeded in retaking many of the English strongholds, including Edinburgh Castle. In the summer of 1313, Bruce’s brother, Edward, agreed with the English commander of Stirling Castle, Sir Philip Mowbray, that if no English army had come to rescue him after exactly one year, the castle would be surrendered to the Scots. This was a challenge the new English king, Edward II, could not ignore. He gathered together a large army, numbering an estimated 18,000 cavalry, archers and foot soldiers, and marched north to restore English rule.

The English army arrived near Berwick-upon-Tweed on 10 June 1314. Edward was an unpopular king, famous for his male favourites, and five of the eight English earls failed to join him. He nevertheless mustered an impressive military force, led by around 2,500 heavily armed and armoured knights, whose giant warhorses, the destriers, acted like tanks on a modern battlefield. Bruce summoned his supporters to the forest of Tor Wood, close by Stirling Castle; they included perhaps 1,000 men from Argyll and the Scottish islands under Angus Óg MacDonald, and a further 6-7,000 foot soldiers. Bruce had only 500 light cavalry under Sir Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland, and a body of archers.

The Scottish army generally avoided pitched battles against a larger enemy, but on this occasion Bruce, warmly supported by his other commanders and his men, decided that a stand had to be made. The battle tactic of the Scots was simple and thoroughly rehearsed. In front of where Bruce expected the battle to take place, the soldiers dug deep pits almost half a metre in diameter, close together and concealed with grass and twigs. Behind the traps, the army relied on the shield ring or ‘schiltron’, 500 men formed in a tight circle, several deep, with long 16-foot (5-metre) iron-tipped spears pointing outwards and upwards to ward off attacking horsemen. These human fortresses were carefully constructed, the outer ring kneeling, the ring behind with spears at chest height, both designed to stop oncoming horses.

The problem for the Scots was the sheer number of the enemy. On 23 June, one day before Stirling Castle was to be surrendered, Edward moved his vast force north from Falkirk. They arrived at the small river, Bannock Burn, where the Scottish army had been drawn up for battle on New Park, a slope of land beyond the river, which dominated the road to Stirling.The Park had forest behind, through which the Scots could escape, and swampy ground to both the south and east, making a flanking attack by the English difficult. Bruce’s army might nevertheless have succumbed to a frontal assault. Instead the English attacked in the order they arrived, without waiting to assemble a full field of battle.

The vanguard under the Earl of Gloucester, seeing what they mistakenly thought was a Scots army withdrawing from an encounter, charged across the pits and swamp. Among those who succeeded in getting across was the young Sir Henry de Bohun. He made straight for Bruce, who was clearly marked out by his golden coronet. Bruce in turn charged on his small grey horse at de Bohun, dodged the lance, and in a deft movement split open de Bohun’s skull with his axe. The vanguard hesitated and withdrew. Another 300 horsemen under Sir Robert Clifford attempted to break through to Stirling Castle, but they were obstructed by a schiltron led by the Earl of Moray. After a vicious engagement, the English again fell back. As dusk fell, Edward ordered his army to set camp.

There was now a marked contrast between the two forces. Bruce’s single-handed combat had inspired his men, who were now eager for the battle. Edward had misjudged the day and among his commanders there was a despondent expectation that their king lacked the flair or will for the contest. A Scottish knight, fighting with Edward, defected to Bruce that night with news that the English were demoralised by what had happened and the king uncertain of his support. On the morning of 24 June, Edward decided to avoid a fight and to move on to Stirling. The way was blocked by the Scots, who marched in formation down New Park to obstruct the only way through. Edward’s commander, the Earl of Gloucester, again preferred battle and charged at the first schiltron before the army was ready. He was among the first unseated and killed. Edward had to turn his army to face the Scots, and as he did so, the other schiltrons entered the fray.

The English archers found it difficult to concentrate their fire, and feared by this time hitting their own knights in the back. Bruce ordered Keith to take his 500 horses and disperse the archers while the English knights were locked in combat. He did so effectively, pursuing them into the marshland. The schiltrons held, partly because the swampy ground hemmed in the English and made it difficult to deploy the foot soldiers behind. Then suddenly, at the height of the battle, Bruce led the islanders of Angus Óg MacDonald in a famous charge down the slope towards the English, screaming and waving their iron axes. Edward fled the field of battle to avoid capture, leaving a leaderless army which, scenting disaster, finally turned and ran, whereupon they were hunted down or drowned in the marshy ground. Bannock Burn was awash with the corpses of horses and men, many of them the noblemen who had rallied to Edward’s cause. Bruce and his commanders survived. No accurate account of the numbers killed on either side can be made.

The battle proved decisive. Edward returned several times but was unable to overturn the rule of King Robert Bruce, now firmly ensconced as Scotland’s monarch. Edward II was murdered by his opponents in 1327, and the following year Edward III reached agreement with King Robert confirming Scotland’s independence. The Battle of Bannockburn could so nearly have been an English triumph; but Edward II could not inspire or command his army with the same energy, sympathy and tactical imagination displayed by Robert Bruce.