The Battle of Bannockburn

page 1On June 24, 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn brought an end to 18 years of misery and humiliation for the people of Scotland.

Edward I of England – known as “The Hammer of the Scots” – had occupied Scotland in 1296 and unceremoniously stripped King John Baliol of the Scottish crown. All opposition was ruthlessly surpressed and garrisons of English troops occupied all the major castles. By 1304 all resistance had ceased.

Robert the Bruce, Earl of Carrick, had a legal right to the Scottish throne and, in February 1306, he started his campaign for the title and Scottish independence. After initial success in capturing some castles he was heavily defeated in battle at Perth that summer and disappeared into exile.

Edward I died in July, 1307, and his young son, Edward II, had to contend with a revolt among his English barons. Scotland took second place and, over the next six years, Bruce gradually chased the English out of Scotland. By 1313 only Stirling Castle remained in English hands.

Robert’s brother, Edward, had mounted a long siege of Stirling Castle in 1313 and eventually struck a deal with the commander of the Castle, Sir Philip Moubray; if the Castle was not relived by an English army within a year and a day, by midsummer’s day 1314, the Castle would be surrendered.

Robert was furious with Edward! The last thing he wanted was a major battle with the English who were superior in numbers, arms and lethal archers. But Edward had sealed Bruce’s fate. A head-on battle was now inevitable.

Edward sent orders for his nobles to assemble at Berwick, but many refused to join. The English army was close to 18,000 strong, of whom about 3,000 were heavily armed mounted knights. The remainder were men at arms with a strong force of Welsh longbowmen.

Bruce could muster around 6,000 men, of whom 500 were light cavalry. Scottish foot soldiers were mostly armed with 16 foot long spears. They would fight in “schiltrons” comprising about 1,500 men formed into a square or circle, ranked four deep with spears anchored in the ground facing out. Schiltrons were like giant “hedgehogs”, difficult for cavalry to penetrate. From inside the schiltrons small numbers of archers would try to pick off attackers.

The Battle

Bruce’s army was camped in Torwood, near Stirling, and commanding the road from Edinburgh along which the English army would advance. Bruce had pit traps dug alongside the road to try and pen the English cavalry to the road. As the cavalry vanguard approached on Sunday June 23, Bruce moved to open ground in New Park. This was an area festooned with tidal burns and marshes.

The English knights hurried forward in search for glory and encountered Bruce’s schiltron. Bruce, lightly armed, on a mere pony and some distance from his schiltron was exposed. Henry de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford thundered across the field on his warhorse, the size of a shire horse, with his lance leveled for the kill. Bruce, showing great courage, waited until the last possible moment and, with skill, twisted his pony aside. Standing in his stirrups he brought his favourite weapon, the battleaxe, down accurately on de Bohun’s helmet killing him instantly. The story of the feat spread among the Scottish troops, with an immediate effect upon morale. Bruce is said merely to have complained that he had broken his favourite axe!

Bruce’s schiltron attacked the vanguard, encircled them, and inflicted considerable damage before the English knights withdrew. The Earl of Gloucester, commander of the cavalry, was unhorsed and nearly captured in this initial fighting.

Part of the vanguard tried to bypass the Scots and head for Stirling Castle, but were engaged by the Scottish light cavalry and turned back.

That night, the English camped on the Carse of Balquhiderock by the deep tidal waters of the Bannock Burn and the Pelstream. The ground was marshy and there was insufficient space for tents to be pitched. The English army stayed at arms throughout the night fearing an after-hours attack, as Bruce had a fearsome reputation for guerrilla warfare.

English morale was poor; Edward was no hardened general, like his father, and there was disarray in the English camp that night.

Daylight came on the morning of Monday June 24, with the Scots army drawn up three schiltrons forward, with Bruce’s in reserve, across the wide face of a triangle bounded by the tidal waters. The English army was at the restricted base of the triangle with the Bannock Burn to their rear.

The Scots advanced a short distance before stopping for mass conducted by the Abbot of Arbroath. Edward is reported to have said “Yon folk are kneeling to ask for mercy.” Sir Ingram de Umfraville, a Scottish noble fighting for Edward, is said to have replied “They ask for mercy, but not from you. Yon men will win all or die. None will flee for fear of death.”

The English cavalry, led by the Earl of Gloucester, held the Scots in contempt and mounted a furious attack. The fighting was savage but, slowly, the Scottish schiltrons advanced and the width of the battle line reduced. Advance by English men at arms was impeded by the cavalry. Archers, firing over the cavalry, achieved little. A contingent of archers worked their way around the flank of the schiltrons and might have turned the tide of the Battle, but Bruce saw the risk and the archers were dispersed by the Scottish light cavalry.

Suddenly Scottish reinforcements were seen emerging from the wood, although these are now thought to have been camp followers. Panic swept through the English army and their steady retreat turned into a rout. Thousands were driven into the Bannock Burn, now full at high tide, and were sucked under as their quilted coats became waterlogged. The Bannock Burn became filled with the bodies of thousands of men and horses.

The English army had ceased to exist as a fighting force and Bruce ordered a general pursuit with thousands more hunted down.

Edward II fled the battlefield with a bodyguard of 500 knights. Sir Philip Moubray refused them entry to Stirling Castle as he was honour bound shortly to surrender the Castle. Edward and his knights were pursued by the Earl of Douglas – and 80 knights snapping at their heels – to Dunbar. Edward took ship to Berwick and then to London, beaten and humiliated.

Bruce treated his prisoners with great respect and dignity. Some were ransomed and others set free. He was both a fine warrior and statesman, unlike Edward I of England, who lived to become a bitter and twisted old man, and whose use of judicial murder was commonplace.

Edward II was as incompetent a king as he was a general. Eventually he was deposed and met a gruesome death in captivity in Berkeley Castle.

The Battle of Bannockburn is probably the greatest Scottish victory over the English and would secure Scottish independence for a further 400 years. The military might of England had proved no match for a much smaller army of freedom fighters under their heroic and inspirational King Robert the Bruce.

In 1320, the nobility of Scotland asked the Pope to support Scotland’s claim for independence. This letter, known as The Declaration of Arbroath, stated “For so long as one hundred of us remain alive, we shall never in any wise submit to the domination of the English, for it is not for glory we fight, for riches or for honours but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life.”

Finally, in 1328, the English renounced all claims to Scotland.