The Battle of Bannockburn

   

The Scottish Independence Referendum was held in the same year as the 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. Unfortunately, the people of Scotland failed to win the victory we deserved.

Cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn
Cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn (Blàr Allt a’ Bhonnaich in Gaelic) took place on 24 June 1314. It was the battle which effectively ended the First Scottish War of Independence in Scotland’s favor, although the English throne did not finally ratify Scotland’s independence until 1328 in the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton.

The war started with the invasion of Scotland by the English in 1296. The king of Scotland, John Balliol abdicated his throne to the English in July 1296, but in 1297 Andrew de Moray and William Wallace led revolts, attacking and overcoming many English castles in what is now Aberdeenshire and Highland. By September 1297, de Moray and Wallace were in joint command of the Scottish forces, leading them in battle against the Earl of Surrey at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Andrew de Moray was killed at Stirling, although it was otherwise a decisive victory for the Scots.

The following year, Wallace led the Scottish forces against the English (led by Edward I) at the Battle of Falkirk where the English won, as a result of which Wallace resigned his position as Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland. The English, however, failed to consolidate their position, and no further significant battles took place until 1304 when they laid siege to Stirling Castle for some three months before it finally fell. The English believed that this left Scotland undefended, and their confidence increased after the capture and execution of William Wallace in 1305.

However, Robert the Bruce, heir to the Scottish throne was crowned King Robert I of Scotland at Scone Abbey on 25 March 1306 and in June he rode to Perth where he intended to take to the field against the Earl of Pembroke. When the Earl refused to engage with him, he withdrew to camp with his army at Methven, where the English ambushed them as they slept, achieving a significant victory.

Having switched tactics and had a first small victory at Glen Trool in April, 1307, Bruce got his own back on the Earl of Pembridge at the Battle of Loudoun Hill in May of that year. By digging parallel ditches between a bog and the highway down which the English must approach, constricting their front flank, his smaller army was able to cut them down as they filtered down the highway towards them.

Edward Longshanks, the English king, died in early July 1307, succeeded by his son, Edward II. From this point on, though he continued the war in Scotland, successes mostly fell to Robert the Bruce, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn when Scotland won its independence. King Robert held Edward II in such low esteem that he was reported to say that he feared the dead king’s bones more than his living heir. As his father had instructed Edward II to boil his bones and carry them with the army in Scotland, it seems he may have missed a trick by disobeying and burying his father in Westminster Abbey!

In an attempt to defend Stirling Castle on 23 June 1314, an army of 20,000 foot and 3,000 horse was led by Edward II at Bannockburn against the much smaller force of Robert the Bruce. Sir Philip de Mowbray, who commanded the castle, had threatened to surrender to the Scots if the king and his forces had not arrived by the 24th.

Knowing that Edward must come to defend his castle, Robert the Bruce laid a trap. He instructed his soldiers to dig potholes in the road and cover them with bracken to break any cavalry charge, placed his army in concealment on either side of the road and laid in wait. Edward’s army had been called late and was ill-prepared, undisciplined and lacking in confidence due to the continual losses of the previous 7 years. Their faith in their leader was almost certainly also affected by rumours about his sexuality. He was known to have at least two male favorites who could ask anything of him, and this wasn’t a confidence booster in the 14th century.

Even though he received a direct warning from his commander that he should not advance but wait for the battle to come to him, since he had little or no control over his forces Edward was not able to act on this advice. The Earls of Gloucester and Hereford were already charging to battle, meeting the Scots at the entrance to New Park.

The Earl of Hereford’s nephew Henry de Bohun was ahead of the field, and catching sight of King Robert unarmored and seemingly alone and unprotected, decided to charge him with a lance. Robert the Bruce stood his ground until the last moment, then stepped aside, cleaving Henry’s head almost in two with his battle axe. The Scots piled in and forced a retreat, but King Robert did not allow them to continue their pursuit.

Meanwhile, another part of the English army tried to reach Stirling by going around the Scottish army to the east, but were easily warded off by spearmen, since they had no archers to provide cover. The English squadron broke ranks and fled either towards the castle or back to the main body of men.

The following day, Edward ordered his troops to cross the Bannockburn. The Scots advanced towards them, stopping first to pray. When Edward saw this, he was surprised and said, “They pray for mercy!” But his attendant said, “For mercy, yes. But from God, not you. These men will conquer or die!”

As the English army drove forward the Scots fought with them closely, making it impossible for the bowmen on the English side to get a clear shot. When they moved to one side in an attempt to make their presence felt, they were dispersed by the Scottish cavalry and as they fled, first the English infantry and then the knights were spooked and also started to run away.

Seeing this, the Scots cried out “Lay on! Lay on! Lay on! They fail!” The Scottish camp followers took up banners and weapons and joined the fight, so that the remaining English still fighting thought that reinforcements had arrived and gave up, running headlong to get across the Bannockburn, most drowning in the attempt.

The Battle of Bannockburn is considered to be the worst defeat for the English since the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

The picture on this page shows a cairn at the site of the Battle of Bannockburn. The inscription on it reads:

For God and St Andrew Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, planted his Standard near this spot when the Scottish Patriots under his command vanquished the Army of Edward II of England at the Battle of Bannockburn, 24th June 1314.

We fight not for glory, nor for wealth, nor honour but only and alone we fight for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.

 

The Herald, 5 June 2014: Items dropped by English reveal site of Bannockburn battlefield

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