Sometime late in 1306, Robert the Bruce landed on Rathin Island, a tiny speck of land off the Irish coast. Barren and windswept, the island was as bleak as his political prospects. A fugitive in his own land, a declared traitor to the king of England, he recently had been defeated in battle and ousted from a precarious throne.
Only a few months before, on March 25, he had been crowned King Robert I of Scotland, at that northern realm’s traditional place of coronation, Scone. Unfortunately for him, that event sparked the ire of King Edward I of England. Called ‘Longshanks’ for his exceptional stature, Edward, one of the mightiest monarchs of the Middle Ages, was bent on making Scotland an appendage of England. He had spent more than eight years trying to crush the last Scot who opposed that plan — finally seeing Sir William Wallace drawn and quartered in London on August 23, 1305 — and he was not about to let another upstart Scottish knight get in his way now.
Edward invaded Scotland, smashed all resistance and executed as many of Bruce’s followers as he could find, including two of Robert’s own brothers. And Bruce was double damned, having been excommunicated by Pope Clement V for the sacrilege of killing a political rival, John Comyn the Red, on the consecrated ground of Greyfriars Church on February 10, 1306. With church and state united against him, Bruce seemed a poor standard-bearer for Scottish independence.
Against all logic, though, Bruce began a single-minded campaign to win back his throne. And his seemingly quixotic quest appealed to a nascent Scots nationalism. After harsh English rule won many converts to his cause, Bruce and his armed bands began a series of guerrilla actions against the occupying English.
Edward I, warrior and lawgiver, could defeat every enemy but time. In 1307 he was old and ailing, having attained the then advanced age of 68. The ‘Leopard of England’ still had sharp claws — his feudal hosts — but he lacked the strength to use them effectively, as of yore.
On July 7, 1307, Edward died at Burgh-on-the-Sands, Cumberland, while en route to yet another Scottish campaign. His mind and will strong to the end, he had ordered that after his death his bones should be carried in front of his troops, as a kind of talisman to victory, while his heart be buried in the Holy Land. His wishes were not obeyed — he was buried at Westminster Abbey in a plain black marble tomb, later marked with the Latin words, Scottorum malleus (‘Hammer of the Scots’) and Pactum serva (‘Keep troth’).
Edward Longshanks’ son and successor, Edward II, inherited little from his royal sire save his name and great height. The new king was a dilettante and suspected homosexual, more interested in revels and male favorites than in the arts of government. Among his first acts after being crowned was to invite Piers Gaveston, an exiled Gascon knight suspected of being his lover, back to England. Although he was not a coward, Edward II had no stomach for the martial arts or active campaigning — a fatal flaw for a monarch in the hard-fighting Middle Ages. Edward’s favorite pastimes were fancy clothes and such odd hobbies as digging ditches. Even so, if would fall to the new king to take over where his formidable father had left matters undone — as in the case of a restive Scotland.
A series of English-held castles dominated Scotland, each fortress a link in the chain that held the country captive — Edinburgh, Berwich, Perth, Stirling, Linlithgow and a host of smaller strongholds. The rebellious Bruce knew he must take those castles, but their strength posed a problem. The accepted method of seizing castles was the siege, but Bruce lacked the resources for such costly affairs. Siege engines were expensive, sophisticated machines and required skilled men to operate them. Penurious but proud, Bruce was forced to rely on his own native intelligence for an alternative solution.
Partly through Bruce’s use of the blockade and partly through unorthodox tactics such as stealth and surprise, the English castles began to fall like ripe fruit. King Robert personally directed a blockade of Perth for six weeks, then broke camp and made a great show of retreating, with the jeering catcalls of the castle’s garrison ringing in his ears. On the dark night of January 7, 1313, however, Bruce stole back with a large force of knights and men-at-arms. In a scenario worthy of a Walter Scott novel, the fully armored Scottish king lowered himself into Perth’s moat, spear in one hand, ladder in the other. The nearly freezing water almost reached to his neck, but Bruce waded on until, by sheer grit and determination, he reached the far bank and managed to secure his latter against Perth’s brooding walls. Following his example, other Scots waded the moat and hooked ladders against the battlements. Robert and his men were over the walls in a twinkling, well before the slumbering garrison knew what was afoot. By sunrise, Perth was in Scottish hands.
Inspired by their leader, Bruce’s followers used trickery of their own to eliminate enemy fortresses with astonishing results. Linlithgow was taken when a hay cart was jammed against a portcullis gate to prevent it from lowering. Then, in an even stranger incident more than a year later, James Douglas’ men donned cowhides and crawling on all fours, pretended to be cattle roaming around Roxburgh Castle at night. When they came close enough, they threw grapnelled scaling ladders over the battlements and overpowered the startled English garrison.
By the summer of 1313, the only castle of any real consequence still in English hands was Stirling. With its lofty towers perched on a craggy hill, that fortress seemed impregnable, yet its strategic position made it the key to Scotland. Edward Bruce, the king’s last surviving sibling, invested the castle, but to no avail.
Restless and bored with the static nature of siege warfare, Edward struck a deal with the constable of Stirling, Sir Philip Mowbray. A year-long truce would be declared. The Scots would not try to take Stirling, but if the king of England did not relieve it by midsummer of 1314 — June 24, which was also the day of the Feast of St. John the Baptist — the garrison must surrender.
King Robert was not at all pleased when he learned of his brother’s negotiations. Edward II might be indolent, but if he failed to respond to this challenge, power could be snatched form his feeble hands. The English would try to relieve Stirling with all the might they could muster.
The Bruce’s concerns proved all too accurate. The king of England issued a royal writ ordering an army to gather at Newcastle. Nearly 100 barons were summoned, to be accompanied by all the men-at-arms and retainers they could muster.
It was a measure of his growing unpopularity that Edward had to issue two more such summons — each more urgent than the last — before his tardy nobility answered his call. Although they despised their monarch, a number of great feudal magnates finally presented themselves. After all, fighting was their business and Scots-baiting their stock in trade. The English army grew into a mighty host, which contemporary chroniclers put at 100,000, but was probably more like 25,000. There might have been thousands more, but those were peasant conscripts of little use in a pitched battle.
When all had assembled, the English headed north along dust-choked roads toward Scotland. The knights and feudal barons took the van, perhaps two or three thousand mounted warriors. Though it is not recorded, the knights probably rode palfreys on their journey, smaller than the huge, muscular destriers they used in battle. Their warhorses were bred to carry an armored man into battle and provide the brute force necessary to smash an enemy line, but they were not noted for their comfortable ride.After the mounted noblemen came the infantry, including Welsh and English bowmen. Their weapons, reputedly of Welsh origin, had been readily and widely adopted by their English overlords. Rumor had it that a skilled bowman could keep five arrows airborne at once, so rapid was his rate of fire.
On June 21, 1314, the English army marched into Edinburgh, where it procured much-needed supplies. Scarcely pausing to fill their bellies, the English pressed on through the heat of early summer.
As the English juggernaut drew nearer, Robert the Bruce made what preparations he could, his forces meager at best. The approaching enemy warriors might be tired, but they outnumbered his army by 3-to-1 or more. More important, the English had a psychological advantage. In the past 30 years, they had rarely tasted defeat in open battle.
King Robert had perhaps 6,000 peasant infantry. Some of his men were highlanders, whose fierce battle cries could freeze the blood of the stoutest foe….but could not stop the English. He also had a few short-bow archers — hardly rivals to the English and Welsh longbowmen — and perhaps 700 cavalry.
Bruce excelled in what would later be called guerrilla tactics, hit-and-run raids that left his enemies reeling. He was also a master of scorched-earth policy, of removing or destroying all food and shelter in the enemy’s path. Many of his men probably expected him to fall back on those tactics now, but on this occasion the wily Scots king had other ideas. He would risk all in one pitched battle. Bruce was canny enough to realize that Edward II was not the man his father was. Though formidable, the English army needed resolute leadership, the very quality that Longshanks’ son lacked.
Even so, the risks remained great. The coming contest would decide not only Bruce’s fate, but also the fate of Scotland for years to come.
Two of Bruce’s captains, Sir James Douglas and Sir Robert Keith, decided to go on a pre0dawn raid to check the English army’s progress. Sir James, also known as ‘Black Douglas,’ was a veteran warrior who feared nothing, and Keith, who was constable and commander of Bruce’s meager cavalry, was another tough campaigner. The king could count on both men to exaggerate anything they saw.
For a time they rode through spectral mists, until dawn dissipated the ghostly white tendrils. As the sun rose over the hills, Douglas and Keith caught sight of the English host and were awestruck. A forest of pennons, flapping and bobbing with each caressing breeze, filled the horizon. Sunbeams caught and burnished thousands of helmets, a river of molten silver flooding into Scotland.
In the van were the barons and knights, each now mounted on a powerful steed. Each wore chain mail hauberks for their basic protection, with a chain mail hood or coif protecting the heads of the poorer knights, while the wealthier cavaliers wore basinet helmets, with a fringe of mail called an aventail. These proud paladins were a colorful lot, bedecked in multi-color tunics called surcoats that displayed their coats of arms. Their shields also bore heraldric colors, as did the cloth coverings, called trappers, that enveloped their horses, leaving only the tail, snout, ears and eyes uncovered. In theory, those horse skirts deflected or trapped sword or spear thrusts, thus protecting the animals.
Douglas and Keith had to rouse themselves from the mesmerizing spectacle even as English trumpet blasts broke the still of the Scottish morning. Galloping back to Bruce, they reported all they had seen. The Scots king reflected; he then bade the pair keep their information to themselves. If Bruce’s men realized what they were up against, they might lose heart and scatter to the four winds. In the meantime, it was his duty to select the best positions available.
King Robert chose a site some two miles from the still-invested Stirling Castle. To the right, the River Forth snaked across the landscape, at one point joined by a smaller waterway called Bannock Stream. To the left, there were the heavily wooded Gillies Hill and Coxtet Hill. Bannock Stream (or Bannock Burn in the Scots tongue) threaded in front of the Scottish positions, its banks marshy in places and treacherous in others, with stunted trees and tangles of underbrush clinging to yellowish, sodden soil. Such a morass was hardly the perfect place for heavily armored knights. It was a place where massed cavalry charges — always a favorite English ploy — could be blunted, if not stopped altogether.
Although the watery finer and it spongy soil afforded good protection, Bruce still had to prepare the few stretches of solid ground in the area. Pits were dug, and sharpened stakes placed in them. The Scots covered those lethal holes with brush to conceal the traps. A Scottish contingent led by Sir Malcolm Drummond also sowed large numbers of caltrops — four-pronged metal devices arranged in such a way that one spike was always pointed upward. If stepped upon, those wicked inventions could cripple man and horse alike.
The best Scots soldiers were the spearmen, trained in formations called schiltrons. The schiltrons were latter-day phalanx formations, packed bodies of warriors wielding 12-foot pikes. These prickly bodies were designed to protect the Scots from their deadliest enemies, the English mounted knights. The schiltrons were essentially defensive formations, passive masses of men waiting to be attacked. They had little mobility and were vulnerable to enemy archers.
The late Edward Longshanks had grasped those weaknesses and exploited them to the full. At Falkirk, on July 22, 1298, his bowmen had decimated the stoic schiltrons, then swiftly followed up with a devastating mounted charge to avenge the rare defeat that Wallace had inflicted on his men the previous September at Stirling Bridge. Bruce could do little to counter the English archers, but would Edward II have the foresight to use them in the same way? The Scots king could do nothing about that potential threat, but he would make his schiltrons less passive and more mobile. He spent hours training his spearmen to move and march in unison, hoping that in so doing their schiltrons might perhaps serve as an offensive as well as a defensive weapon.
The Scottish spearmen wore little more armor than leather jerkins over crude homespun shirts that reached to their knees. Many had conical helmets of a type that would have been familiar to Bruce’s Norman ancestors some 250 years earlier. In addition to their pikes, the sturdy Scots peasant soldiers carried simple swords or long knives that doubled as eating utensils. As few men sewed chains to their jerkins as protections against sword cuts. Many did not have shoes.
The Scottish army was composed of three units or battles, each of which had two schiltrons. The recently knighted Sir James Douglas and Sir Walter Stewart commanded the left battle, primarily men from Clydesdale and the western corner of the kingdom. At center, Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, led the formations from Ross, Moray and Inverness; and Bruce’s brother Edward led the right battle, harboring contingent from Buchan, Angus, Menteith and Lennox. King Robert placed himself with the Scottish reserves commanded by Sir Robert Keith, where he could control his army’s movements.
It was not until late afternoon on Saturday, June 23, 1314, that the English army made a belated appearance at Bannockburn. Exhausted and hungry, the bedraggled invaders seemed in no condition to fight a major battle. Yet the very sight of the Scots army seemed to galvanize the young English knights, eager to win their spurs against the traditional foe.
Without orders or much reflection, a body of those young knights spurred their weary mounts into an impetuous charge, only to be met by Scottish skirmishers and quickly repulsed. The ground was too marshy and uneven, their steeds were too tired and their charge too wild to have any real effect. Perhaps, too, they noticed, the Scots were not so easy to break, after all.
About that same time, in another part of the field, King Robert was scouting the no-man’s land areas between the two rival armies. He was dressed for the occasion, with the latest basinet topped by a golden crown. It is not known if he wore a decorated surcoat, but if he died, it would probably have borne the arms of Scotland, a red lion rampant on a yellow field. Such splendor would mark him as king and make him the target for any Englishman.
Sir Henry de Bohun, a nephew of Sir Humphrey de Bohun, 4th Earl of Herefored, spied and recognized the Scottish king and saw it as an irresistible opportunity to engage him in single combat. Couching his lance, the young knight pressed his horse’s flanks and galloped forward at full tilt.
Robert, a highly skilled warrior, was riding a nimble pony, not the usual warhorse. Single combat was a kind of bloody pas de deux, and this was not the Bruce’s first ‘ballet.’ The king waited until the last moment, neatly dodged the oncoming lance and then brought his battle-ax down with all his bear-like strength. The ax head bit through the knight’s helmet as if it was butter, splitting both the ax handle and de Bohun’s skull. The grisly task done in a moment’s time, Bruce rode back to his own lines and safety. In a way, Henry de Bohun achieved the immortality he was seeking that afternoon. For centuries thereafter he would be drawn and painted on numerous illustrations of the combat — as the loser.
Shortly thereafter, some 700 English cavalry led by Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry de Beaumont, swung around the Scottish right. The idea was to drive a wedge between Bruce’s army and Stirling Castle, opening what seemed to be a vulnerable flank. The vulnerability was more apparent than real, however. Bruce was ready to trap those impudent Englishmen. The Scottish king ordered attacks, which were driven home with great courage.
Largely unsupported, Clifford’s band was too few in number to make a difference, so military logic demanded a withdrawal. Clifford, however, seemingly seized with a kind of martial frenzy, ordered his men to advance. The English knights obeyed, trying to hack a path into the forest of schiltron spears, but many ended up impaled on the deadly points. Clifford himself fell — though some accounts place his death later in the battle — and the survivors of his force scattered. Some managed to make their way back to the English lines and others took refuge in Stirling. Some were taken prisoner, including Sir Thomas Gray, whose son later wrote an account of the battle based on his father’s recollections.
The gathering darkness brought an end to hostilities. Scots resolve had taken much of the wind from the English sails, and a sense of depression hung over the English camp, darker than the night that enveloped the invaders. Still, they held high hopes of prevailing the next day — after all, the Scots were still outnumbered and they had yet to engage the main English army. In any case, time had run out — according to the deal struck a year before, the next day, June 24, was the one on which Stirling Castle’s garrison had agreed to surrender if they failed to defeat the Bruce’s army.
The next morning, Midsummer Day, King Edward II mounted a noble steed to inspect his lines. He was a good six feet tall, a giant for those days. Sparkling with jewels, magnificent in shining chain mail, he must have inspired the English host, at least from a distance. His barons, however, knew how weak and indecisive the inner man really was.
Insecure, clutching at straws that might augur victory, Edward peered across the weed-choked burn toward the Scottish army. Scots priests were holding Mass in front of the schiltrons, the doughty spearmen kneeling for the sacred rites. ‘They kneel!’ King Edward exclaimed hopefully, as if it were a token of submission. ‘Aye, sir King,’ retorted Sir Reginald de Umfraville, ‘but to God. Not to us!’
Instead of softening up the schiltrons with his massed English and Welsh bowmen — as his father undoubtedly would have done — Edward ordered a major cavalry assault. Lances couched, the English cavaliers pounded forward in a storm of flailing hooves. Gaudy trapper skirts billowed and rippled, becoming ever more splattered with filth as the great warhorses painfully negotiated the yellow mire.
The ground quaked as the armored horde drew near the waiting schiltrons — and rode right into some of the hidden spiked pits. Knight after knight disappeared, swallowed up buy the earth, as man and beast tumbled headlong into the spikes’ prickly embrace. The caltrops did their wicked work well, laming and wounding horses with horrifying ease.
The knights who avoided the spiked pits and caltrops now smashed into the lowered schiltron pikes. Their impact was terrible, a nightmare of splintering spears, rearing horses and screaming men. Scores of knights tumbled from the saddle, lacerated by terrible wounds. Contemporary chroniclers comments on the screams of wounded men and animals, and the shattering noises of breaking wooden pikes, a din that assaulted the senses as well as the emotions.
The English arches were still in their night positions, too far away to have any impact. In fact, they were so far away that they risked hitting their own knights. With the bowmen neutralized, at least for the moment, Robert the Bruce saw his chance to commit his secret weapon — the mobility of his schiltrons.
Still heavily engaged, the schiltrons marched forward, driving the English back into the marshier banks of the burn. At the same time, Bruce brought his right flank forward and turned it northeast to sweep up the burn and apply even more pressure to the already hard-pressed English knights. Tightly packed, seemingly boxed in on all sides and unable to maneuver due to the boggy soil, the English were in dire straits.
At last, the archers came forward and began to unleash a deadly rain of arrows on the Scottish ranks. Dozens of Scots were hit, thinning the advance schiltrons, and it seemed the English might yet snatch victory from defeat. But the English bowmen were isolated with little protection, and Bruce saw still another chance. Keith’s Scottish cavalry swung wide around, taking the surprised English archers in the rear. Lightly armed and unarmored, the hapless bowmen were slaughtered without mercy, and England’s best hope for victory died with them.
The great mass of English infantry was apparently little used at Bannockburn. The battlefield was too small, the ground too rough and marshy for their numbers to be used effectively. Besides, King Edward and his barons had little use for such common ‘varlets.’ A growing sense of unease had begun to grip the whole English army, peasant and noble alike. If England’s elite mounted warriors were being defeated, would could mere armed peasants do?
Although thousands of English men-at-arms were still unengaged, fear was permeating the ranks. At that critical juncture, the Scots received reinforcements in the form of their own camp followers. These cooks, drivers, women (‘wenches’ in the parlance of the time) and a few roguish hangers-on, had been watching the battle from the safety of a position near the crest of Gillies Hill. From that bird’s-eye perspective, they could see that the English were wavering. Scenting victory — and loot — the camp followers decided to enter the fray.
Stripping leaves from branches, they grabbed pike handles, broomsticks or whatever else they could seize and began attaching cloaks and old rags to these impromptu flagpoles. Waving the banners, screaming horrible oaths and war cries at the tops of their lungs, the camp followers rose from Gillies Hill and swarmed down its slopes. English resolve melted, replaced by confusion, then blind panic and a desire to escape.
A few tried to stem the rout. Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, one of the richest and most powerful magnates in England, died while trying to rally his men. Normally a man of his exalted rank would have been spared for later ransom, but in the heat of battle the Scots cared little for pedigree. Gloucester was a formidable warrior, a man whose word was law on his many vast estates, yet he died miserably like his retainers.
Hemmed in by the exalted Scots, thousands of knights tried to escape across the swampy Bannock Burn, only to be haled fast by its viscous embrace. Scores of men and horses were drowned or crushed in the packed mass of struggling bodies, until it was said, a bridge of corpses was created, choking the boggy waterway. Those in the rear were thus able to cross the burn dry-shod, thanks to the mound of crushed comrades.
All thoughts of chivalry and honor vanished in the struggle to survive. Edward II watched with fascinated horror as his mighty host dissolved into red ruin. Sir Aymer de Valance, Earl of Pembroke, distinctive in the blue-and-white striped surcoat, seized the reins of his liege’s horse and tried to lead him away. An old campaigner, Valence realized the king was in grave danger of being killed or captured. Even a weak king was better than no king at all, at least by feudal lights.
Edward and his bodyguard made for the nearest local refuge, Stilring Castle. The whole countryside swarmed with victorious Scots, every man eager to capture the fleeing king of England. And as they galloped on, Edward and his tiny knot of determined men managed to fight off several attacks. At one point a Scot, bolder than the rest, actually managed to lay hands on the king, wrestling with him in hopes of unhorsing the elusive prize. But Edward was still a Plantagenet, and strong enough to bring down his mace — some say an ax — on his would be captor again and again until the assailant was reduced to bloody senselessness.
One of Edward’s knights, a Gascon named Giles de Argentan, bought precious time for his liege by sacrificing himself. ‘It is not my custom to fly,’ exclaimed the proud knight as he wheeled his horse around to face the onrushing Scots. Soon in the thick of the enemy, he flailed away like a champion before going down under the Scottish horses. His death was not in vain, for Edward managed to reach the gates of Stirling.
Bloodied, dirty, streaked with sweat, his mace daubed with gore, Edward bore little resemblance to the elegant figure of a few hours earlier. To his initial dismay, the king was refused admittance to the castle. Its Constable Mowbray reasoned — and rightly — that given the battle’s outcome, Stirling must eventually fall. Why trap the king of England needlessly?
Bitter at the exchange but probably realizing the truth of the argument, King Edward rode on to Dunbar, from whence he took ship to England. It was an ignominious end to an inglorious campaign, and somehow typical of this Edward’s efforts.
By the time Edward escaped, there was little left of his army. Hundreds upon hundreds of English soldiers, from mighty baron to humble peasant, had found equality in death along the spongy banks of the Bannock. Casualties may never be fully determined, but the Earl of Gloucester, six barons and about 200 knights had been slain, along with thousands of infantry, any killed in the post-battle rout.
Among the luckier Englishmen to fall into Scottish hands, Sir Ralph de Monthermer, Earl of Gloucester, Herford and Atholl, dined with Robert the Bruce and was subsequently released without ransom. John Comyn, Earl of Angus, son of the Red Comynwho Bruce had murdered in 1306, was also captured, along with some 70 other knights, providing King Robert and his followers with a rich source of ransom revenue for years to come. The beaten army had left most of its equipment behind and much other wealth besides. Bruce achieved his primary goal, of course — Stirling Castle surrendered as agreed, and he proceeded to dismantle its fortifications, though the English would later return and rebuild them.
Bannockburn was the salvation of Scotland, a great victory that soon became a national epic. All sorts of stories and legends embellished the battle. It was said that St. Magnus appeared in shining armor in the clouds above the city of Aberdeen, mounted on a heavenly charger. Crying out in a loud and ringing voice, the saint proclaimed that Robert the Bruce had defeated Edward of England. Heavenly heralds notwithstanding, it was not until the Treaty of Northampton in 1328 that a new English king, Edward III, formally acknowledged Scottish independence and Bruce’s leadership — and the Catholic church lifted its excommunication edit against him. By that time, Bruce was ill with leprosy, and he died of the disease the very next year.
Bannockburn did not end the Anglo-Scottish wars, which continued until King James VI of Scotland became James I of England, uniting the two countries under a single rule. Even then, England and Scotland remained separate, with separate national parliaments and identities. The formal union of England, Scotland and Wales to form Great Britain came in 1707, nearly 400 years after the great battle. Thanks in large part to Bannockburn, however, the Scottish people could enter the union with a sense of national pride that would sustain them to the present day, when their country again enjoys an autonomous domestic parliament within the United Kingdom.
This article was written by Eric Niderost and originally published in the December 1992 issue of Military History magazine.
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