Bannockburn: the fight for Scotland’s freedom

A pivotal victory in the Scottish fight for independence from English rule, the battle of Bannockburn was a classic case of wit over superior numbers and weaponry, says Julian Humphrys

Bannockburn: the fight for Scotland’s freedom © Getty Images

Robert the Bruce had carefully chosen the ground on which he would fight King Edward II’s English troops. He had drawn up his forces where the Stirling road passed through the woodland of the New Park, because he knew the English cavalry would find it difficult to operate effectively in such terrain. The Scots further strengthened their position by scattering pointed caltrops and digging small pits filled with sharpened stakes in front of their lines.

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On the afternoon of Sunday 23 June, the English vanguard, jointly led by the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford after a dispute over who should have precedence, crossed Bannock Burn and tried to force their way through the New Park to Stirling. They charged the Scottish lines, probably after seeing Hereford’s nephew Henry de Bohun slain in single combat by Robert the Bruce, but were unable to break through. Gloucester was unhorsed and the English were forced to retreat.

Meanwhile, a detachment of English cavalry under Sir Robert Clifford and Henry de Beaumont attempted to reach Stirling Castle by skirting the high ground to the east of the New Park, only to be intercepted by a schiltron (tightly packed formation) of spearmen under the Earl of Moray, and driven off with heavy losses. Some headed for Stirling Castle, the rest returned to the main English army, which by now had also crossed the Bannock Burn and moved onto the Carse of Stirling – marshland to the east of the New Park – where it camped for the night.

Strike two

The following morning, the English were astonished to see three Scottish schiltrons advancing. Gloucester led the English vanguard in a charge against Edward Bruce’s spearmen, only to be unhorsed again and, this time, killed.

The charge was a bloody failure, the English cavalry fell back in confusion and the Scottish spearmen, who had learned to advance without losing formation, closed in on the disorganised English line. For once, the English archers seem to have had little impact. One source suggests they were dispersed by the Scottish cavalry under Sir William Keith before they could do serious damage to the Scots, though it’s just as likely they were jammed in behind the English cavalry and unable to shoot effectively.

The Scottish schiltrons continued to advance, thrusting with their deadly spears. They pushed the English cavalry back onto their own infantry, who were unable to deploy because of the woods, streams and bogs to their flanks and the mass of horsemen to their front. Eventually the English line collapsed and the defeated English ran.

Abandoning his baggage, Edward II fled with his bodyguard, eventually reaching Dunbar where he took a boat for England. With the English border 90 miles away, many of his troops were not so fortunate. Some headed for Stirling Castle only to be denied access and taken prisoner, many drowned as they tried to cross the Forth, others headed south, but were killed either by pursuing Scottish soldiers or by a vengeful local populace.

How it all began…

In 1290, Edward I of England saw an opportunity to extend his power northwards when he was asked to judge between 13 rival claimants for the vacant Scottish throne.

Edward chose John Balliol as the new King of Scotland, but it soon became clear that Edward regarded Balliol as little more than a vassal. When the Scottish King tried to assert his independence by signing a treaty with France, Edward rallied a large army and, in 1296, invaded Scotland and overthrew him, ushering in a bloody period of 40 years of near-continuous warfare.

Who fought?

Edward II had greater resources and a larger population to draw on than Bruce. He was therefore able to assemble a considerably larger force including a substantial contingent of mounted knights. These could be devastating when working closely with archers. However, Edward’s army lacked cohesion, was beset by rivalries among its commanders, and many of its infantry were reluctant levies.

Bruce’s army may have been smaller than the English force, but the spearmen who made up the bulk of it were well-trained and well-led. Furthermore, as they were defending their country against a foreign invader, they had a much greater motivation to fight.

The road to Bannockburn…

With the Scot King Robert the Bruce forced into hiding, guerrilla warfare was the order of the day until a weaker leader took the English throne. After John Balliol was overthrown from the Scottish throne in 1296, resistance to the English King, Edward I, was driven by two knights – William Wallace and Andrew Moray. In 1297, they defeated an overconfident English army at Stirling, prompting Edward to return and invade with an even larger force.

The following July, a lethal combination of archers and cavalry destroyed Wallace’s army at Falkirk, and over the next six years Edward crushed nearly all Scottish resistance. In 1305, Wallace was captured and sent to London where he was brutally executed.

Edward was soon faced with a new challenge in the shape of Robert the Bruce, who had murdered his chief rival for the Scottish throne, John Comyn, in a church in 1306 and had himself crowned King. Edward immediately ordered yet another invasion and in June his advance guard defeated Bruce at Methven in Perth and Kinross.

The Scottish King went into hiding while Edward mercilessly hunted down his family and supporters, capturing his wife, daughter and sisters, among others. Over the next few years Bruce fought a guerrilla war, normally avoiding battle and destroying or capturing the isolated English strongholds in Scotland one by one.

Edward II, who succeeded his father in 1307, allowed Bruce to seize the initiative and, by 1314 only two major fortresses remained in English hands: Berwick and Stirling. Besieged by the Scots, the Stirling garrison agreed to surrender if a relieving force did not arrive by 24 June 1314. To prevent this, Edward II assembled an army of about 15,000 men at Berwick and marched north to relieve Stirling. On 23 June he encountered Robert the Bruce’s small but well-trained Scottish army about two miles south of Stirling Castle.

An equestrian statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, Scotland © Getty Images
An equestrian statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn, Scotland © Getty Images

Weaponry and armour

The soldiers who fought at Bannockburn wore a variety of protective equipment and carried a multitude of weapons. At one end of the scale were the mounted knights, chiefly English, clad in mail and equipped with lances, swords, axes and maces. At the other end were foot soldiers, often archers, who wore little or no armour. In between were infantrymen, many equipped with spears and sometimes wearing iron helmets and padded jackets for protection.

Bruce vs de Bohun

Riding with the vanguard of the English army on the first day of the battle, Henry de Bohun, a young English knight, spotted Robert the Bruce, who was mounted on a small horse and armed with just a battle-axe. Lowering his lance, de Bohun charged at the Scottish King, who spurned flight and stood his ground. At the last minute, Bruce swerved aside to avoid de Bohun’s lance and, standing up in his stirrups, brought his battle-axe crashing down on the young knight’s head, splitting his helmet and killing him instantly. Bruce’s lieutenants upbraided him for exposing himself to such a risk, but the King merely expressed regret for having broken the shaft of his favourite axe.

Bruce’s legacy

Although Scottish independence was a long time coming after Bruce’s glory at Bannockburn, he was eventually recognised as King of Scotland. Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn secured his grip on the Scottish throne, expelled the English from Scotland and seriously undermined Edward II’s authority in England. But a bitter and lengthy struggle for independence still lay ahead.

In a bid to force Edward to accept Scotland’s status as a separate nation, Bruce began sending raids into England. Over the next few years, the Scots laid waste to Tynedale, burned Hartlepool, sacked Durham and, in 1318, his army captured the crucial border town of Berwick. English attempts to take back Berwick in 1319 were abandoned after Scottish raiders penetrated deep into England and defeated a scratch English force at Myton, in North Yorkshire.

Two years later, Edward II was nearly captured when an English army, returning from another unsuccessful invasion of Scotland, was surprised and routed at Byland near Helmsley.

In 1320, Bruce appealed to the Pope for support, notably through the Declaration of Arbroath, a document that famously asserted Scottish independence. In 1324, he finally gained papal recognition as King of Scotland.

In 1327, Edward II was deposed by his Queen, Isabella of France, and replaced by his 14-year-old son. In the following year, Isabella and her lover Roger Mortimer officially recognised Bruce’s kingship and Scotland’s independence.

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This content first published in the June 2014 issue of History Revealed