Following the death of Edward I in July 1307, to which the Scots openly rejoiced, King Robert the Bruce of Scotland continued on his campaign to rid Scotland of the English, and the supporters of his rival John Comyn, whom the Bruce had killed the year before. Edward II had taken up the reins of his father’s campaign to bring Scotland to submission. He was however unlike his father in matters of warfare and politics, and thanks largely in part to his insistence on rewarding his favourites with positions of power within court, and titled lands without, his senior nobles were rapidly losing patience with and slowly removing allegiance to their King.
The King of Scotland, despite losing three brothers to be hung drawn and quartered following their short winter exile of 1306-7, destination unknown, and the capture of his wife, daughter and sister, had proceeded with the help of his brother Edward, son in law Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray and faithful friend James Douglas, and others, to systematically work their way through Scotland laying siege to and then capturing the key castles and strongholds, including Edinburgh, Roxburgh, Dumbarton, Perth and Linlithgow. Following a demand issued to Edward by King Robert that the remaining Balliols swore fealty to him as King and the English accepted his terms as ruler of Scotland in its own right, to include their removal from Scotland in 1313, Edward Bruce laid siege to Stirling Castle, held as a garrison for the English by Philip, Earl of Mowbray.
Mowbray brokered a deal with Edward Bruce, in June 1313 in which terms stated that if the garrison wasn’t relieved by June 24th 1314, Midsummers day, he would hand over the castle to the Bruces and his army would leave. The agreement was documented and signed and a copy sent to Edward II. Whether Mowbray really did believe in the terms of surrender or whether it was a ploy to bring Edward north to engage in battle is unknown, however Edward Bruce must have been aware of the possibility and discussed this with his brother.
Whatever the strategy, the result was Edward’s call to arms for his nobles and their men at the end of 1313. His aim, allegedly to prepare to march on Stirling to relieve the siege, in reality was to take on the Bruce in a decisive battle and reclaim Scotland for the throne of England. Unfortunately for Edward, his muster fell on somewhat deaf ears for a large number of his senior nobles refused to answer the summons. Their allegiance had been pushed too far with their treatment at the hands of their King and his favourite Piers Gaveston, Earl of Cornwall which ended with his sudden demise by their hands in 1312. Among those who refused the summons were the Earls of Warwick, Warenne, Lancaster and Arundel, all powerful landowners with a large retinue. Edward’s somewhat depleted but nonetheless superior force of 16000 men of foot, and a cavalry of some 2000 heavily armed men on heavy warhorses started North and arrived at Berwick in May 1314. Word soon reached Robert that the English were near the border and preparing to invade and relieve Stirling. Having anticipated this, with prior messages, detailing their progress, he had plenty of time to organise his defence, send word to his supporters and discuss tactics, without the lengthy march the English had endured. He knew the terrain around the area well, and used the natural features to his advantage. Having the advance warning gave Robert plenty of time to position his forces accordingly to maximise the advantage and simply await the arrival of the English.
Edward’s defence hinged on superior numbers and force. His infantrymen were led by the highly trained knights of his noblemen, well-armed, many seasoned veterans of conflict. The Foot soldiers with their skimpy armour and modest weapons, were to provide the numbers needed to occupy the enemy force. They were simply regarded as 14th century cannon fodder. Edward firmly believed that his bigger force would over-awe the inferior Scots with their smaller army of untrained savages, armed with whatever improvised weapons they could lay their hands on. Robert spent a few days before hand with his closest commanders, Moray, his brother Edward, Douglas and so on, going over the ground where they anticipated meeting the English in battle. Sloping upwards away from the Forth, to the right flank, faced on by scrubland and with the Bannockburn to the North past which was an area known as Dryfield, a tributary, the Pelstream burn ran west. Beyond the Pelstream was the marshy ground leading to the bank of the Forth. The Bruce carefully laid plans to hem the English in and bog them down in the marshy banks. He divided his forces into four battalions, or Schiltrons each led by one of his commanders.
Robert gambled on an attack through the Newpark, the only clear ground aside the steep boggy banks of the Bannockburn. Strategic shallow pits disguised by scrub and foliage in front of his central force would swallow any cavalry charge, and would then be defended by his lance-men, row upon row of impenetrable sharply pointed staves would face directly the presumed attack by Edward’s forces. Edward Bruce’s Schiltron would be the front line, his own at their rear.
Thomas Randolph lay in defence of the path away from the battlefield to Stirling, ready to ambush should a breakthrough occur. Sir Robert Keith, Marischal of the King, who on the day would command the 600 horse and the small force of men at arms, was sent out to scout the English army after their arrival in Falkirk on the night of the 22nd June, following a 20 mile march through the day. The clan forces had arrived at Bannockburn to join their King, and the stage was set.
On June 23rd, after waking as dawn broke, the Scottish Army received blessings and mass, as they prepared to fight. Each was given the offer to abandon their fight if they had no stomach for it. Each took up their position. The “small folk”, cooks, supplies, livestock and wagon men who supported the army took their position on a hill overlooking the battlefield, and prepared for the action.
At nearby Stirling, Philip de Mowbray led a force of men on horse out of the castle towards the field to rendezvous with Edward II. Having crossed the boggy ground of the Bannockburn and getting an overall view of the terrain and conditions they faced, he met with Edward on their march forth to the field. His man were mustered into ten divisions, each commanded by one of his most senior and trusted nobles. Mowbray had sincere doubts about the confidence of his king and how the battle would play out, and tried to persuade Edward to abandon the fight. Edward refused. Leading a reinforcement of 300 horsemen, led by Sir Robert Clifford and Henry de Beaumont, Mowbray began to retrace his path to Stirling. As they passed unhindered by the hidden Randolph, the Bruce gave a stern reprimand to his son in law, “See Randolph, there is a rose fallen from your chaplet. Thoughtless man. You have permitted the enemy to pass.”
Randolph hastily roused his men who rushed forward to block the path of the Englishmen. A fierce skirmish ensued, with the mounted Englishmen unable to break the speared defences of the Earl’s defence. James Douglas looked on from his position in anguish, moving to reinforce, but then saw the English line break and scatter, many running for the castle, the rest attempting to re-join the main force. During the melee, Sir Thomas Grey was taken prisoner and Sir William D’Eyncourt killed.
Meanwhile on the main field, the Earls of Hereford and Gloucester, leading their divisions across the Bannockburn and towards the forest in which the Scots waited, still blithely expected the Scots to retreat or surrender faced by an obviously superior army. They were wrong. Suddenly breaking rank, Hereford’s nephew, the apparently impetuous and definitely intellectually challenged Henry de Bohun charged on the Bruce, laying a challenge of one to one combat with the Scottish King. Robert armed with just a sword and a short axe, rode out on his little palfrey, fearless against the imposing sight of the young knight on his immense war horse, armed with lance and shield. As they clashed, Robert dodged the thrusting lance, stood up in his stirrups and swung his battle-axe over the young man’s helmet which sliced like butter, and cleaved his head in two. Roused into action by their King’s bravery, the Scots rushed on the English who were bottle-necked on horseback down by the ford of the Bannockburn and prevented from advancing by the hidden pits into which they stumbled, they were trapped and unable to proceed. A slaughter ensued until the remaining English gave up their attack and retreated.
The victorious Scots returned to their positions higher up within the forest, and proceeded to remonstrate with their King for his foolish engagement with de Bohun. Robert’s only response was to lament the demise of his axe which had broken over Henry’s head. A discussion followed regarding the next stage of the battle. Although Edward’s forces had retreated, it was firmly believed he would resume his attempts at conquest. The choice was to withdraw and allow Edward to continue in the hope that he would run out of supplies and retire, or to re-commence the battle the next day. A Scottish knight, sworn to the English helped to make the decision. Sir Alexander Seton, crossed camps and requested to swear to the Scottish. He brought with him the news that morale in the English force was low, and that the men felt that God had been on the side of the Scots, and therefore they were to have no success in the battle. Instead they had raided the supply wagons and were consoling themselves in the bottom of the bottle.
The next morning, Edward and his commanders made the tactically inane decision to avoid the devastating pits which had caused so much chaos the day before, and instead cross the Bannockburn further down towards the Forth, before attack towards the Newpark. It was a stupid move, the crossing was too narrow and the English faced being hemmed in on the left flank by the Bannockburn and the right, by the Pelstream. Another bottle-neck was inevitable. You could say Edward was stupid, but he was consistently stupid.
Again that morning, the Scots received their blessing and then the knighting of Walter Stewart and James Douglas took place in recognition for their efforts the previous day. The English King away in the distance witnessed the bended knees of the praying Scots and mistakenly believed they were bowing for allegiance to him. He was soon corrected. The only forgiveness they were requesting said a nearby Earl, was the divine kind.
Following their absolution, the Scots rose, faced their enemy and to the astonishment of the English force, charged on foot, the mounted opposition. The English, spurred into action by the sound of the bugle, charged forward, straight onto the waiting spears of the Schiltron of Edward Bruce. Immediate losses were huge and included Gloucester, De Clifford, and Comyn the Younger. From the left flank appeared Randolph and Douglas, to take down the unengaged cavalry, standing in line. On the right flank of the English, the Welsh bowmen took position. Their response was sharp but short-lived as they were ambushed by Keith and his tiny band of mounted horsemen, causing them to flee.
The Scottish forces congregated and forced the English back, the small folk cheering from the hill were suddenly inspired to join their King and Kin rushed down the hill armed with whatever makeshift weapon was close to hand. The depleted and struggling English forces remaining within the battle mistakenly took this fresh wave of Scots as reinforcements, and fearing others panicked and started a retreat, yet cut off further by the waters of the Bannockburn and the steep bank they had to climb, many of the English, both foot and mounted struggled and tired, unable to cross, pushed down by the weight of numbers. Many drowned, many more succumbed to exhaustion. The gleeful small folk and their short knives took care of the remainder who fell.
The Earl of Pembroke, at the side of the shocked King, took Edward’s bridle and swiftly led him away from the battlefield. All around him thousands of his men lay dead or dying. As he reached safety, his retainers took him to Stirling, under the impression that their King would be safe within the castle walls. Mowbray explained that the castle would be the next place to fall to the Scots, and Edward safety was not guaranteed. Instead he made his way via Linlithgow and Dunbar pursued by James Douglas, to catch a boat and make his escape to Berwick.
Many of the surviving English nobles made their way to Bothwell, where the Constable of the castle Sir Walter FitzGilbert gave them rest until he could hand them over to the Scots. They were subsequently bartered in exchange for prisoners of the English, in particular, Robert’s wife, daughter and sister. The Earl of Pembroke broke for Carlisle with his archers, and made it successfully back to Wales where it is believed one of them chronicled the battle. Following a personal vigil over the slain Earl of Gloucester, his kinsman, Robert the Bruce returned his body and that of Clifford to Berwick for burial by their families.
Although the heavily outnumbered Scots achieved a resounding and well-deserved victory in the Battle of Bannockburn, it sadly did little for the continued conflict between the nations of Scotland and England. A struggle which continued for several more years before the semblance of a lasting peace was reached. In the days of the short sharp one-day only event of medieval battle, Bannockburn stands out as being the exception to that rule, lasting two days. It also serves to define the measure of how having more men does not have to equal having greater strength.