Edward I is considered by many to be the mightiest warrior and most formidable leader of the Plantagenet kings; which, considering the competition, is an impressive feat. So, the question has to be asked: with such a formidable background, how on earth was his son so utterly dreadful at both kingship, and warfare? Did he simply not care? Was he distracted? Did he lack the support of his lords and nobles? Is his opposition not given enough credit? Or was he simply weak and incompetent? Now, rather than attempting to directly answer all of these questions, this article endeavours to provide an overview of the situation in Scotland, and of the Battle of Bannockburn, and in doing so, will leave the decision up to you.
A Little Background
Bannockburn is to the Scots what Agincourt is to the English, just a mention of the name is enough to bring a rare smile to even the most stoic Scot. But, what was the cause of the battle? The simple answer is, the English king, Edward II, needed to raise the Scottish siege of his last remaining outpost in Scotland, Stirling Castle. His hand was forced by the mid-summer deadline for relieving the castle that was agreed upon in November 1313 by the English constable in charge at Stirling, Sir Philip de Mowbray, and Edward, the younger brother of the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce.
Now, the much more considered answer involves two decades of conflict between the nations in what became known as the Wars of Scottish Independence. The fighting was sparked by the previous English king, Edward I, and his claim to the Scottish crown in 1296. Edward had previously displayed a strong interest in Scottish affairs after the death of Alexander III in 1286, but pushed for total control after Scotland aligned with arguably England’s greatest rival, the French. The resulting conflict saw the defeat of the Scots at Dunbar in 1296, and the subsequent humiliation and abdication of the then King of Scotland, John Balliol, setting the scene for full invasion. Edward sought to conquer Scotland, as he had already done with Wales, and by 1304 he had taken effective control of the land and returned home to England. In doing so, the English king believed that, on top of taking all of the castles of the land, he had crushed the Scottish resolve. This turned out to anything but true and Edward was forced to return only a few years later. The king was however unable to see out the trip, dying en route to Scotland in July 1307; his death gave new rise to rebellion in Scotland.
Robert the Bruce, who had himself proclaimed King of Scotland prior to Edward I’s death, used the succession of Edward II and the distraction this caused to embark on his pursuit to remove the English presence, and regain Scottish control of the land. He was extremely successful in his quest, and by June 1314 essentially all that was left to recapture was Stirling Castle. The Battle of Bannockburn followed a number of other infamous clashes that saw both sides achieve memorable victories, and take heavy losses, and led to a showdown between the newly proclaimed Scottish king, and the less than impressive son of Edward I. However, this is a topic that has taken multi volume book series to explain, so let’s refocus this article on the Battle of Bannockburn itself…
A bit of a preview
As discussed in my article looking at the Battle of Auberoche, the events at Bannockburn had a big part to play in the changing nature of English military tactics over the ensuing two centuries. The reason for this was the tactical breakdown of the previously dominant English heavy cavalry by the Scottish and their schiltrons. Up to this point, Bruce had been extremely successful by employing a number of different tactics against the English, especially guerrilla warfare, and would continue to teach the English a lesson with the clever use of: the men at his disposal, the available weaponry, and the terrain his chosen battlefield.
It was once believed that Bruce and the Scots made camp in a wooded area known as the New Park, north of the Bannockburn. The purpose of which was to use the forest as cover to hide from Edward II’s advancing English army, or at least this is what the contemporary sources would have us believe. Investigations by both historians, and recently by environmental scientists, have not only let to an enduring debate over the precise location of the battlefield, but have questioned the existence of a dense enough wooded area in which to conceal an army; even one as small as the Bruce’s. Instead, the Scots must have been positioned on a hill, likely to be either the one now known as Monument Hill where the statue of the Bruce stands, or a similar position in full sight of the English advance. The position blocks not only the direct approach to the castle, but the most appropriate one as well; with paths to both the left and the right leading into boggy and uneven ground, which would significantly delay Edward’s baggage train and leave the English exposed. Bruce was either forcing Edward into battle where it suited the Scots, or forcing him into difficult ground; between a pike and a wet place if you will…
Further improving the situation for the Scots, the Bruce had a number of tricks prepared to give his men the edge. When you get to choose the battlefield, you do so to put your own men at a distinct advantage, and this is exactly what Bruce did. As Barbour (one of the contemporary sources) tells us, ‘in an open field, where he thought the English must needs pass if they held their way through the Park to the castle, he caused many pits to be dug, of a foot’s breadth and the depth of a man’s knee. So thickly were they dug that they might be likened to the wax comb of a hive. He toiled all that night, so that before day he had made these pits, and covered them with sticks and green grass, that they might not easily see them’.
Although they would be deadly for any who failed to see them, the pits were unlikely to actually catch out any of the English due to their exemplary training and significant experience. As such, the primary function of the pits was not offensive, but defensive; their location forced the English cavalry charge to both significantly narrow, and to hold a line that suited the Scots. As the power of a cavalry charge resides in the synchronised arrival of massive numbers of heavily armoured horses and heavily armed knights, the smaller the frontage, the weaker the charge. This forced change to the English tactics fell straight into the hands of the Scots and their fighting style.
The Scottish fighting style was centred around an infantry force, one which the English had encountered earlier in the wars of independence, prior to Edward II’s succession. The key to their strength was the schiltron. This now famous infantry formation consists of multiple lines of spears or pikes, several ranks deep, with the points thrust out in staggered horizontal layers, creating an impressive and intimidating barrier. Just imagine a giant, angry hedgehog. While the ranks hold firm, the schiltron is able to resist the charge of even the likes of the formidable English heavy cavalry. It is believed that the structure was led from a centrally stationed commander, with a reserve force also located within the schiltron. This enabled the formation to replace casualties to prevent the collapse of a section, and additionally, made the schiltron a highly mobile unit, not only capable of defence, but as we will see, capable of moving to attack. In fact, the formation is arguably stronger when mobile, as its one real weakness is ranged attack, such as what Edward I exploited to his significant advantage at Falkirk in 1298. Even though I could happily discuss tactics and formations for a long time, let’s move on to the battle…
At Bannockburn the English lay,
The Scots, they were na far away.
But waited for the break o’ day
That glinted in the east
The Battle: Day One
As touched on earlier, the English were marching north tasked with relieving the garrison of Stirling Castle. Yet, in possibly the first hint of Edward II’s ineptitude, the English would only arrive in the area around Stirling on 23 June 1314; the very brink of mid-summer and the last days before the deadline. Now, not only was Stirling Castle the last stronghold remaining under English control, but it was also considered the key to Scotland due to its location. One would think that this would have prompted a faster response from the English, but this wasn’t the case.
Whilst making their approach, Edward II and his commanders knew that they held a significant advantage with both the size of their army, and the makeup of their troops. At this time in history, the English heavy cavalry was considered one of, if not the, strongest fighting units in the medieval world. The result of this knowledge was an air of arrogance; the English believed that they would march straight through Bruce’s force, and on to Stirling Castle, putting an end to both the siege, and to Bruce’s claim.
Despite the overwhelming confidence of the English, they knew that time was very much against them – but only because they had waited so long to depart Berwick. Only a day before the battle, Edward’s army endured a 20-mile march, and with the deadline fast approaching, could not afford the luxury of a decent rest. On the morning of June 23, as Edward finally approached the Scottish position and the plains near Stirling Castle, de Mowbray rode forth from the safety of the fortification, with a small force of men. He was intent on convincing the English king to hold off his attack in preference of further rest. It becomes evident how dire de Mowbray deemed the situation to be when you consider the risk he took riding around the Scottish position, even more so when I tell you that they were very nearly captured on their return.
Although Edward failed to heed the immediate advice of de Mowbray, it does seem that he took some counsel from his commanders. With what has been described as a ‘hasty council of war’ (not exactly a confidence building portrayal is it), Edward and the English understood the harsh realities of the terrain and the limited options they had before them, and planned accordingly. Determined to mount an immediate, and arguably impulsive, attack, Edward sent forth his cavalry and infantry for a direct assault, along with a flanking force sent through the boggy terrain of the Carse (the location of which can be seen on the maps shown below). The idea was that if the secondary force could slip past Bruce and the Scots, then a technical relief of the castle had taken place. Furthermore, the force could be well positioned for offensive maneuvers. Now, while all of this was taking place, one of the most well-known events in the life of Robert the Bruce was about to occur…
The Bruce and de Bohun
The Scottish king, sat proudly atop his horse, was moseying along the front of the Scottish line, likely both inspecting his troops and inspiring them with his presence. On the opposing side, within the English front line, was a young knight by the name of Sir Henry de Bohun. Now de Bohun did not know this, but his next choice would see his name live on forever, just maybe not how he would have wanted it to do so…
Sensing an opportunity to end the conflict with a single blow of his lance, the young English knight led a brave solo charge at the opposing line. His eyes no doubt fixed on the Scottish king, where he intended to land the finishing blow. The two men could not have looked a less even match; with de Bohun astride a war-horse, or destrier, fully armoured and carrying a lance and shield, while the Bruce was riding a light palfrey, carrying only a short sword and axe, mounted purely to aid his command, unlike de Bohun who was prepared for a heavy cavalry charge.
Now, the response of Bruce to de Bohun’s attack differs depending on where you read it. Some say he turned at the last moment, some say he turned and waited for de Bohun, and some say that he turned and charged in response; but the one thing they all have in common, is what happened next… As the two men came close, the Scottish king avoided the thrust of the English lance, and in a display of both power and skill, struck at the head of de Bohun with his axe, killing him with a single blow. The action has been described rather poetically, and likely highly excessively as, ‘cleaving his head in two’. Barbour wrote that ‘the heavy stroke that he gave clove skull and brain; the axe-handle shivered in two; and de Bohun crashed helpless to the earth’. The battle had undeniably begun, and with it, the first victory to the Scots.
But soon the sun broke through the heath,
And lighted up that field o’ death.
When Bruce, wi’ saul-inspiring breath,
His heralds thus addressed: –
“Scots, wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce often led.
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to glorious victory !
It is important to note at this stage that the main body of the English army had yet to cross the Bannockburn, a significant choke point for such a substantial force. With the obvious enthusiasm gained from witnessing their king strike down a powerful foe with a single swing of his axe, the Scots pushed forward. This resulted in a crush for the English vanguard, between the pits, the boggy terrain, the spikes of the schiltrons, and the advance of rest of their own army. With the ford on the Bannockburn both slowing and narrowing the English line, and the pits maintaining that press, the English heavy cavalry lacked its usual impetus. The result was a slaughter. The harsh realities that the English commanders had reported to their king rang true, and the English were pushed back south of the Bannockburn. Edward’s desire for an immediate attack had cost him a number of troops, the life of de Bohun among others, and no doubt the morale and confidence of his men.
The triumphant Scots had to now decide the best response to their initial success. The commanders of Bruce’s army, filled with confidence, urged him to press home his advantage and continue the fight the next day. At the same time, the English were again meeting for a council of war; likely with much less enthusiasm and much more caution than the previous assembly. It was in this meeting that Edward decided to change tact, and move his entire force away from the main route to the castle, onto the more open ground to the north. The movement is not shown on the maps, but the new location is to the right of the English position as shown in Figure 1 above, between Bannock and Balquiderock. The English believed that the same difficulties they faced in attacking the Scottish position, would prevent the Scots from attacking their position whilst relocating; the Bannockburn was now their protector. Edward was reminded, either by memory or a commander, that the primary purpose of their being in Scotland was the relief of Stirling Castle, and as such, victory in the field was of less importance, arguably not even necessary.
After being pushed back by Bruce and his men, the English army was forced to spend a restless night on the Carse. It is vital to note that not only was the Carse boggy terrain, but it was riddled with small streams and drainage ditches, as the low-lying land was used primarily for agricultural purposes, and it was traversed by the flow of both the Bannockburn, and the other nearby water source, the Pelstream (I know, why on earth did Edward move his army here…). The already soft ground was no doubt trampled into a muddy disaster very quickly by the large English force. Furthermore, it would have been almost impossible for the supply train to make its way down to the site of the camp, and as such the majority of Edward’s men would have gone hungry, and slept rough. It is not difficult to imagine the dire state of morale; the word through the English camp was that God was not on their side, that the fight was unjust and unrighteous, and the result of this was a night of drowned sorrows and drunken soldiers.
The factor that would finally convince the Bruce to commit to a second day of fighting was the word of Sir Alexander Seton, a Scotsman who had fought on the English side on the first day. Oh yeah, Bruce was not only significantly outnumbered, but he was yet to gain the full support of Scotland and so in addition to Edward’s Englishmen, he faced Scots that remained loyal to Edward. Seton informed the Scottish king of the true nature of morale in the English camp, and along with Bruce’s commanders, encouraged him that the time had come. Bruce was convinced. The Scots would fight on.
“Now’s the day, and now’s the hour;
See the front o’ battle lour.
See approach proud Edward’s power, –
Edward ! Chains and slavery !”
The Battle: Day Two
The English decided that their next attack should take place early on the second day, with a crossing of the Bannockburn nearer the River Forth, avoiding the pits that the Scottish had dug prior to the battle. This new position would allow for both an easier crossing, and more importantly, a full charge of the heavy cavalry. Both the Scots and the English rose early, or for the English maybe it was more that they barely slept, either way the day started at dawn and troop movement began. The English movement is shown on the Figure 2 below.
The English crossed the Bannockburn as planned and the Scots were too far removed to prevent them from doing so, or at least that’s how it would have seemed to the English. The Scots meanwhile held mass, as they had done prior to the first day of the battle. Upon noticing the kneeling soldiers opposing him, Edward made comment that they were clearly craving his forgiveness for opposing him. Little was he to know that the same feeling of pride and confidence that the Scots ended with on day one, remained as powerful as ever, while Bruce was knighting the men in his army whom he believed had distinguished themselves on the previous day.
Now, it is at this time that a closer inspection of the map as shown in Figure 2 is warranted. As it stood, the Scottish had moved slightly towards the English position, and had paused to hold mass. Meanwhile, the English had forded the Bannockburn, and amassed on the Carse, ready for their charge. Edward had successfully avoided the pits, had moved his entire army, was protected from a potential flanking move on all sides, and believed he was facing an enemy that was remorseful and as a result lacking in confidence. In reality, he could not have been more wrong.
As noted earlier, the strength of the heavy cavalry charge is in the width of its frontage. So, although Edward had avoided the pits, he had chosen a position that not only pinned his troops in on all sides, but prevented the spread of his cavalry. Although the English had the might and power of the destrier at their disposal, the ground was boggy and their speed was significantly reduced as a result. Although Edward had his entire army at his disposal, he was lacking in room and as a result the lines were overcrowded. Finally, although he believed his enemy regretful and apprehensive, they were in fact hardened and optimistic; and so, to Edward’s sheer astonishment, the Scottish advanced.
To add to the drama of the story, a knight by the name of Gilbert de Clare, the Earl of Gloucester, was at this time still reeling from a slur of cowardice stemming from King Edward II himself. When the English king had been advised to rest prior to the battle, de Clare had agreed with the notion, and had joined in counselling Edward to be cautious. The advice was deemed unnecessary from de Mowbray, but utterly cowardly from de Clare. In a manner similar to the actions of de Bohun the previous day, de Clare, along with a number of other English knights, launched himself at the Scottish advance, desperate to regain his honour in the eyes of his king. Many of the men in the charge died when confronted by the schiltron of Edward the Bruce, including Gilbert de Clare.
The attack of the Scottish demonstrated not just their immense confidence, but also great unity and discipline. They moved in a systematic fashion, advancing on the left flank of the English and preventing the waiting cavalry from gaining speed. At the same time, a small number of archers on the English side, the like that would make themselves famous at battles like Crécy throughout the Hundred Years’ War, gained sufficient room to begin bombarding the unprotected Scottish schiltrons. Although this caused a break in the advance of Bruce’s men, the arrows were halted by the Scottish light cavalry, who unlike the English horse, were able to move swiftly in the boggy terrain, and as such were able to ride down the now unprotected archers. The Scots own archers now rained down missiles of their own on the jam-packed English lines, all the while, the mobile schiltrons continued their disciplined drive forward. The Scottish began to shout cries of victory, as the English trampled their own in their desperate attempts to escape. Hemmed in by water on all sides, the reality would have been atrocious, as many of the English who escaped the fight, would have likely drowned in the crush over the Forth, the Pelstream, and the Bannockburn, no matter which direction they fled.
Once it was clear that the battle was lost, King Edward’s men safely escorted him from the field, but the damage was done. Edward was taken to the gates of Stirling Castle, but was refused entry; de Mowbray urged his king to leave, fearing that he would be taken prisoner as the Scots would inevitably overrun the castle. Edward finally heeded sound advice and fled to Dunbar before returning to safety in Berwick. The Wars of Scottish Independence raged on as a result of the renewed confidence of the Scots under their now proven king, Robert the Bruce. Edward II would eventually be disposed by his nobles, losing the English throne to his son, who would become King Edward III; a welcome return to a strong Plantagenet king.
– Jamie Gatehouse
- Feature image:earliest extant illustration of the Battle of Bannockburn. Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 171B, f. 275r. Scotichronicon. c. 1440.
- John Barbour and George Eyre-Todd, The Bruce, being the metrical history of Robert the Bruce, king of Scots (London: Gowans and Grey Limited, 1907).
- Wendy R. Childs (trans.) Vita Edwardi Secundi (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- John Sadler, Border Fury (New York: Routledge, 2005).
- Michael Prestwich, Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages: The English Experience (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).
- Robert White, A History of the Battle of Bannockburn Fought A.D. 1314: with notices of the principal warrior who engaged in that conflict (London: Forgotten Books, 2015).
- Henry Gough, Scotland in 1298. Documents Relating to the Campaign of King Edward the First in That Year, and Especially to the Battle of Falkirk (London: A Gardner, 1888).
- Michael Prestwich, Plantagenet England 1225-1360 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)
- William Cullen Bryant, A Library of Poetry and Song: Being Choice Selections from the Best Poets (New York: J. B. Ford and Company, 1872).
Note: the small sections of the poem that feature throughout the article are from ‘Bannockburn’ by Robert Burns, as found in A Library of Poetry and Song, listed in the references.
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