June 24, 1314. It doesn’t look good for Scotland. William Wallace is dead, the English have ruled in Scotland for almost 20 years, and now they’ve invaded with the largest army ever seen in Britain – and the Scots are outnumbered three to one. But they will fight. The clans have rallied around King Robert the Bruce, and his boldness and leadership may yet turn the tide. For today is the Battle of Bannockburn.
Fear not: I will talk about William Wallace and the Battle of Stirling in September, if only so I can complain about “Braveheart.” So I won’t spend too much time on buildup today.
In 1296, King Edward I of England used a succession crisis in Scotland as an opportunity to try and achieve his long dream of uniting Great Britain under a single ruler. After the defiance of John Balliol, King of Scots, Edward invaded with a large and veteran army and trounced any Scottish force that crossed his path. After subduing most of the country, Edward confiscated the Stone of Scone – the Scottish coronation stone – and transported it to London. He forced all the Scottish nobles to pay homage to him as King of England, not Scotland, which signified the virtual annexation of the country.
It’s important to note here that Edward I of England might be one of the villains of this story, but he was a Grade-A badass and outstanding military commander, and in general one of England’s most intimidating kings. More on him in August.
The Scots weren’t about to take this humiliation lying down, though, and in 1297 sprang up in revolt under William Wallace. Edward was campaigning in France at the time, but had to send more troops back to put out the fire in his backyard. Wallace managed to defeat the English at Stirling Bridge and, having been appointed Guardian of Scotland by the nobility, launched raids into northern England itself. Edward, deciding that if you want to do something right you’d better do it yourself, returned to Scotland in 1298 and stomped Wallace into the ground at the Battle of Falkirk. This put the Scots on the backfoot for years.
While Wallace himself journeyed to France and Rome to try and rally support for the Rebellion, the Guardianship of Scotland fell to two men – Robert Bruce and “Red John” Comyn. Both men had a legitimate claim to the Scottish throne, but those issues were supposed to be worked out in the future. They soon developed into rivals, however, which didn’t help as King Edward I kept attacking Scotland. By 1304, Stirling Castle – the last major strong point held by the Scots – fell to the English. Almost all the nobles were once again forced to bend the knee to Edward, and with the capture and execution of Wallace himself in 1305, it looked to the English like the rebellion was finally snuffed out. It had only taken nine years, but they had conquered Scotland! Right?
It looked that way to John Comyn. Sensing that further resistance was futile, he decided to turn in his Co-Guardian Robert Bruce to the English in exchange for lands and rewards. At least, that was Robert’s version of the story; his men captured messengers that carried letters from Comyn to Edward offering to surrender the last resistance in Scotland. Robert Bruce confronted Comyn and killed him in Dumfries, as vengeance for his betrayal (and, probably, because Comyn was the only other claimant to the throne).
Robert Bruce was now the only remaining leader of the Scottish resistance to the English: John Balliol was imprisoned, Wallace was dead, Red John was a traitor and also dead. In April 1306, Robert rallied the Scottish lairds to rejoin him at Scone, where they crowned him King of Scots. This was a direct challenge to the English, and it was not going to go unanswered.
Unfortunately for Robert Bruce, his new campaign got off to a very bad start. Edward I was furious that he was dealing with Scottish problems for a third time, and sent an army to confront Bruce. The Scottish army was surprised and routed by the Earl of Pembroke at Methven, and Bruce himself was forced to flee the scene. Edward was merciless: anyone who supported or hid Robert the Bruce would be executed. Bruce had to flee the Scottish mainland entirely, hiding in the Isles for the rest of the year.
It got worse for Robert. His wife, brothers and sisters were all captured by the English heir – the future Edward II - when he took Kildrummy Castle. Bruce’s brothers were hanged, drawn, and quartered, and his wife and sisters imprisoned in England.
To be honest, if you were a betting man, you wouldn’t be betting on Robert the Bruce right about now. He’d seen Scotland conquered twice, first as Guardian then as King. It would be hard convincing anyone to back you up when it meant almost certain death, especially as the English had an almost perfect record over the Scots in battle. Finally, he was hiding out on the islands with no army and no allies. Robert the Bruce’s great quality, though, was not courage or leadership, even though he had both in abundance. His great quality was resilience. He always bounced back.
In 1307, Robert the Bruce returned to mainland Scotland to continue his resistance. He was the “Outlaw King,” crossing the Highlands one step ahead of English knights and soldiers to raise money and troops for his resistance. His success was due to his leadership and charisma, the cruelty of the English, and one major stroke of luck – Edward I had died in July 1307, leaving his weak and unpopular son Edward II as King.
Bruce gathered an army under his command, and was soon winning victories over the English. He got revenge for Methven by defeating the Earl of Pembroke’s 3,000 men with only 600 Scots at Loudoun Hill, and began to break the English grip on Scotland. He captured Aberdeen in 1308 and defeated his last Scottish rivals in 1309. Edward II tried to invade Scotland several times with large armies, but Bruce wasn’t dumb enough to try another stand-up battle against a larger army – the Scots melted away into the hills whenever the younger Edward tried to force battle. They even carried out scorched-earth tactics to force the hungry and tired English to withdraw.
Soon Edward was running out of money for his wars and angering his nobles back home, while one English castle after another fell into Scottish hands. Bruce destroyed the castles rather than occupy them; he didn’t have the manpower to hold them, but he would deny their value to the English.
Soon Bruce was raiding into northern England itself, and in March 1314 finally took Edinburgh. The English had only one major castle left in Scotland – Stirling Castle. It sat at the junction of the Highlands and Lowlands, making it the most important strategic point in the whole kingdom, and by summer 1314 Bruce had almost starved it out. Edward II decided to gather the strongest army in English history to invade, pin down, and annihilate the Scottish resistance once and for all. Bruce had to die, the Scots had to surrender for good, and then the war would finally be over.
Edward clearly wanted a battle, but Bruce wasn’t sure if he wanted to oblige him. The tactics of guerrilla warfare and scorched earth had worked before, and every time the Scots had fought a major English army they had been thoroughly trounced. But Bruce was probably tired of running. His wife and sisters were still in an English prison, if the English kept Stirling they had a direct invasion route into the Highlands, and if the Scots wanted to have their country back they would have to win a battle. Robert the Bruce was making a gamble, but he had a veteran army at his back, confidence in his alliance of clans and lairds, and Edward II was not his father.
It was time to make a stand. The Scots were ready and eager for battle, and Robert the Bruce was ready to fight the decisive battle for Scotland’s freedom.
Edward’s army was marching for Stirling, and Robert’s Scots decided to intercept them on the boggy ground near the Bannoch Burn, a stream that ran directly south of the castle. Edward may have had as many as 15,000 infantry and 2,000 heavy knights, while Robert had only around 6,000 men, but they were highly motivated and prepared to defend their homeland. The Scots largely fought as pike-armed infantry in large, compact masses known as the “schiltron,” a great formation for fighting off cavalry and staying calm in the heat of battle. The English infantry were mostly the famous longbowmen, well-trained archers that had defeated the Scots time and again.
Early on Sunday morning, June 23, the Scots took Mass and waited for the English attack. Robert soon got his first reports of the much larger size of the English army, but ordered this news to be hidden from the troops. Edward sent out a force of knights under the Earl of Hereford to find out where the Scottish army was hiding. Hereford took his nephew, the great tournament fighter and hot-headed young man Henry de Bohun, along on the trip. This group came upon the Scottish army drawn up for battle behind the Bannoch Burn, and were about to turn around when the young De Bohun spotted a crown on one of the mounted leaders.
De Bohun galloped forward, shouting arrogant taunts at King Robert the Bruce. He spurred towards Robert and levelled his lance in open challenge. Bruce rode right out to meet him, and both riders bore full tilt at each other as their armies watched in amazement. As they closed Bruce suddenly swerved, narrowly dodging the point of Bohun’s lance and, standing in his stirrups, brought his war axe down so hard on the English knight that it cleaved through his helmet and bit deep into his brain. The axe shaft shattered from the impact and De Bohun was dead before he hit the ground.
With a motivated shout, the Scottish infantry surged forward, and the English knights foundered in bloody confusion, beating a hasty retreat. Several more English cavalry attacks were beaten off throughout the day with severe loss. Bruce’s unplanned duel, and the defeat of the English vanguard, were a huge morale boost to the Scottish army and demoralized the English, who saw many gallant knights killed by the Scottish pikemen.
Edward II didn’t know what to do as night fell on the 23rd of June. He had expected the Scots to retreat in front of his larger army as they had every time before, and wanted to spend the night in Stirling. Instead, the King of Scots had killed one of his best knights in front of everyone, his cavalry had been mauled, and his men had to camp in a deep marsh with their backs to the Bannoch Burn. Edward pouted. If his father had been here…
Bruce was not pouting. He held a council of war. His cautious nature encouraged him to take the win and fall back, since fighting the English army in a full-bore struggle was likely to end badly, and his subordinates agreed. He was just about to order the withdrawal when the Scots received a visitor: the Scots knight Sir Alexander Seton, who had been serving the English but slipped away in the night to join the Bruce. Seton told him that the English were disorganized, discouraged and lacking strong leadership, and that the battle was winnable.
Robert the Bruce steeled himself. They would not just fight – they would attack an army three times their size. The Scots were confident, full of fight, and ready to take back their country. They could do it. For once, Bruce threw caution to the wind, and addressed his officers. The speech was bold but somber. This was their only chance.
At dawn on June 24, 1314, the Scottish army burst from the trees in open challenge to the English army. Edward was surprised, and even more puzzled when the Scots knelt to pray as one before they advanced any farther. He scoffed, “They pray for mercy!”, but one of his servants disagreed. “For mercy, yes, but from God, not you. These men will conquer or die.”
The English nobles, enraged by their humiliation the previous day, led a reckless charge right into the Scottish pikes. Unsupported by the infantry, they ran into trouble against the schiltron formation, and soon ground to a standstill. The English longbowmen began to fire, but the Scots and English were so close that soon their arrows were plunging into the backs of their own knights. When the English tried to push their archers out to the flanks, the Scottish cavalry burst from behind the pike squares to hack them to bits.
Bruce rode around the battlefield, directing the fight and encouraging his pikemen as they drove the English knights back against the Bannoch Burn. Soon the knights had no room to mount another charge, and the archers had no room to escape. Bruce’s Scots slowly pushed the English line back into the marshes, and the English morale began to fracture.
Giles d’Argentan, one of Edward II’s knights, soon realized that they had lost the battle and insisted that his king flee. He got him across the Bannoch Burn, but then d’Argentan turned to the King and said “Sire, your protection was committed to me, but since you are safely on your way, I will bid you farewell for never yet have I fled from a battle, nor will I now.” He returned to the battle, and to his death.
Robert the Bruce, King of Scots, had crushed an English army three times his size. Only a handful of the English soldiers survived, and so many nobles and knights were taken captive that the English army had no leadership for years. Robert was able to trade the captive nobles for his wife, sisters, and the daughter he had never seen, ending their 8-year imprisonment in England.
Bannockburn was the crowning Scottish victory in a long and difficult war of independence. Though the English refused to admit defeat for years to come, Robert’s smashing of the English army and his capture of Stirling Castle made what the English did irrelevant. Scotland was free and whole again for the first time since 1296. The Scots had taken back their freedom and fulfilled the dream of William Wallace.
I’m just glad Mel Gibson didn’t try to play Robert the Bruce. We got 2009 James Kirk, instead, for some reason. (2018’s Outlaw King is pretty good.)