Bannockburn. If there is a fact every Scot knows, it is who won the Battle of Bannockburn 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 negotiating table.
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 Scotland.
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 the 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 battle 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.
Two of 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 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.
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 dawn.”
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 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 de facto 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.