Battle Of Bannockburn
Author: Lang, Andrew
Battle Of Bannockburn
After the submission of Scotland in 1303, at the end of Wallace's heroic
struggle, Edward I undertook to complete the union of that kingdom with
England. "But the great difficulty," says a historian, "in dealing with the
Scots was that they never knew when they were conquered; and just when Edward
hoped that his scheme for union was carried out, they rose in arms once more."
The Scottish leader now was Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale and Earl of
Carrick. He had acted with Wallace, but afterward swore fealty to Edward.
Still later he united with William Lamberton, Bishop of St. Andrews, against
the English King. Edward heard of their compact while Bruce was in London,
and the Scot fled to Dumfries. There, 1306, in the Church of the Gray Friars,
he had an interview with John Comyn, called the Red Comyn - Bruce's rival for
the Scottish throne - which ended in a violent altercation and the killing of
Comyn by Bruce with a dagger. Next to the Baliols, Bruce was now nearest heir
to the throne, and March 27, 1306, he was crowned.
Edward now determined to take more vigorous measures than ever against
the Scots. He denounced as traitors all who had participated in the murder of
Comyn, and declared that all persons taken in arms would be put to death. He
made great preparations for subduing Scotland, but while leading his army into
that country, 1307, he died at Burgh-on-the-Sands, near Carlisle.
Meanwhile Bruce, who ranks with Wallace as a Scottish hero, had suffered
some reverses at the hands of the English. Under the Earl of Pembroke, in
1306, they took Perth and drove Bruce into the wilds of Athol. In the same
year, at Dalry, Bruce was defeated by Comyn's uncle, Macdougal, Lord of Lorn,
and escaped to Ireland. But in 1307 Bruce returned to Scotland and carried on
the war against Edward II. The English were driven out of the strong places
one by one; war alternated with diplomacy through several years; and at last
came a crisis which roused the English government to a supreme effort.
Stirling castle still held out, besieged by Edward Bruce, Robert's
brother, 1313, but its surrender was promised by Mowbray, the governor, in the
event of his not being relieved before June 24, 1314. The relieving of
Stirling meant for the English a new invasion of Scotland. On both sides the
strongest efforts were made - on the one side to relieve the castle, on the
other to strengthen its besiegers. The opposing forces met in battle at
Bannockburn, June 24, 1314, an action which has never been better described
than in this characteristic recital by Professor Lang.
Bannockburn, like the relief of Orleans, or Marathon, was one of the
decisive battles of the world. History hinged upon it. If England had won,
Scotland might have dwindled into the condition of Ireland - for Edward II was
not likely to aim at a statemanlike policy of union, in his father's manner.
Could Scotland have accepted union at the first Edward's hands; could he have
refrained from his mistreatment as we must think it of Baliol, the fortunes of
the isle of Britain might have been happier. But had Scotland been trodden
down at Bannockburn, the fortunes of the isle might well have been worse.
The singular and certain fact is that Bannockburn was fought on a point
of chivalry, on a rule in a game. England must "touch bar," relieve Stirling,
as in some child's pastime. To the securing of the castle, the central gate
of Scotland, north and south, England put forth her full strength. Bruce had
no choice but to concentrate all the power of a now, at last, united realm,
and stand just where he did stand. His enemies knew his purpose: by May 27th
writs informed England that the Scots were gathering on heights and morasses
inaccessible to cavalry. If ever Edward showed energy, it was in preparing
for the appointed Midsummer Day of 1314. The Rotuli Scotioe contain several
pages of his demands for men, horses, wines, hay, grain, provisions, and
ships. Endless letters were sent to master mariners and magistrates of towns.
The King appealed to his beloved Irish chiefs, O'Donnells, O'Flyns, O'Hanlens,
MacMahons, M'Carthys, Kellys, O'Reillys, and O'Briens, and to Hiberniae
Magnates, Anglico genere ortos, Butlers, Blounts, De Lacys, Powers, and
Russels. John of Argyll was made admiral of the western fleet, and was asked
to conciliate the Islesmen, who, under Angus Og, were rallying to Bruce. The
numbers of men engaged on either side in this war cannot be ascertained. Each
kingdom had a year within which to muster and arm.
"Then all that worthy were to fight
Of Scotland, set all hale their might;"
while Barbour makes Edward assemble not only
"His own chivalry
That was so great it was ferly,"
but also knights of France and Hainault, Bretagne and Gascony, Wales, Ireland,
and Aquitaine. The whole English force is said to have exceeded one hundred
thousand, forty thousand of whom were cavalry, including three thousand horses
"barded from counter to tail," armed against stroke of sword or point of
spear. The baggage train was endless, bearing tents, harness, "and apparel of
chamber and hall," wine, wax, and all the luxuries of Edward's manner of
campaigning, including animalia, perhaps lions. Thus the English advanced
"Banners rightly fairly flaming,
And pencels to the wind waving."
On June 23rd Bruce heard that the English host had streamed out of
Edinburgh, where the dismantled castle was no safe hold, and were advancing on
Falkirk. Bruce had summoned Scotland to tryst in Torwood, whence he could
retreat at pleasure, if, after all, retreat he must. The Fiery Cross, red
with blood of a sacrificed goat, must have flown through the whole of the
Celticland. Lanarkshire, Douglasdale, and Ettrick Forest were mustered under
the banner of Douglas, the mullets not yet enriched with the royal heart. The
men of Moray followed their new earl, Randolph, the adventurous knight who
scaled the rock of the castle of the Maidens. Renfrewshire, Bute, and Ayr
were under the fesse chequy of young Walter Stewart. Bruce had gathered his
own Carrick men, and Angus Og led the wild levies of the Isles. Of stout
spearmen and fleet-footed clansmen Bruce had abundance; but what were his
archers to the archers of England, or his five hundred horse under Keith the
mareschal, to the rival knights of England, Hainault, Guienne, and Almayne?
Battles, however, are won by heads, as well as by hearts and hands. The
victor of Glen Trool and Cruachen and London Hill knew every move in the game,
while Randolph and Douglas were experts in making one man do the work of five.
Bruce, too, had choice of ground, and the ground suited him well.
To reach Stirling the English must advance by their left, along the
so-called German way, through the village of St. Nian's, or by their right,
through the Carse, partly enclosed, and much broken, in drainless days, by
reedy lochans. Bruce did not make his final dispositions till he learned that
the English meant to march by the former route. He then chose ground where
his front was defended, first by the little burn of Bannock, which at one
point winds through a cleugh with steep banks, and next by two morasses,
Halbert's bog and Milton bog. What is now arable ground may have been a loch
in old days, and these two marshes were then impassable by a column of attack.
Between Charter's Hall - where Edward had his head-quarters - and Park's
Mill was a marge of firm soil, along which a column could pass, in scrubby
country, and between the bogs was a sort of bridge of dry land. By these two
avenues the English might assail the Scottish lines. These approaches Bruce
is said to have rendered difficult by pitfalls, and even by caltrops to maim
the horses. He determined to fight on foot, the wooded country being
difficult for horsemen, and the foe being infinitely superior in cavalry. His
army was arranged in four "battles," with Randolph to lead the vaward and
watch against any attempt to throw cavalry into Stirling. Edward Bruce
commanded the division on the right, next the Torwood. Walter Stewart, a lad,
with Douglas led the third division. Bruce himself and Angus Og, with the men
of Carrick and the Celts, were in the rear. Bruce had no mind to take the
offensive, and as at the Battle of the Standard, to open the fight with a
charge of impetuous mountaineers. On Sunday morning mass was said, and men
"They thought to die in the melee,
Or else to set their country free."
They ate but bread and water, for it was the vigil of St. John. News
came that the English had moved out of Falkirk, and Douglas and the Steward
brought tidings of the great and splendid host that was rolling north. Bruce
bade them make little of it in the hearing of the army.
Meanwhile Philip de Mowbray, who commanded in Stirling, had ridden forth
to meet and counsel Edward. His advice was to come no nearer; perhaps a
technical relief was held to have already been secured by the presence of the
Mowbray was not heard - "the young men" would not listen. Gloucester,
with the van, entered the park, where he was met, as we shall see, and
Clifford, Beaumont, and Sir Thomas Grey, with three hundred horsemen, skirted
the wood where Randolph was posted, a clear way lying before them to the
castle of Stirling. Bruce had seen this movement, and told Randolph that "a
rose of his chaplet was fallen," the phrase attesting the King's love of
chivalrous romance. To pursue horsemen with infantry seemed vain enough; but
Randolph moved out of cover, thinking perhaps that knights adventurous would
refuse no chance to fight. If this was his thought, he reckoned well.
Beaumont cried to his knights, "Give ground, leave them fair field." Grey
hinted that the Scots were in too great force, and Beaumont answered, "If you
fear, fly!" "Sir," said Sir Thomas, "for fear I fly not this day!" and so
spurred in between Beaumont and D'Eyncourt and galloped on the spears.
D'Eyncourt was slain, Grey was unhorsed and taken. The three hundred lances
of Beaumont then circled Randolph's spearmen round about on every side, but
the spears kept back the horses. Swords, maces, and knives were thrown; all
was done as by the French cavalry against the British squares at Waterloo, and
all as vainly. The hedge of steel was unbroken, and, in the hot sun of June,
a mist of dust and heat brooded over the battle.
In the air above them was"
as when the sons of Thetis and the Dawn fought under the walls of windy Troy.
Douglas beheld the distant cloud, and rode to Bruce, imploring leave to hurry
to Randolph's aid. "I will not break my ranks for him," said Bruce; yet
Douglas had his will. But the English wavered, seeing his line advance, and
thereon Douglas halted his men, lest Randolph should lose renown. Beholding
this the spearmen of Randolph, in their turn, charged and drove the weary
English horse and their disheartened riders.
Meanwhile Edward had halted his main force to consider whether they
should fight or rest. But Gloucester's party, knowing nothing of his halt,
had advanced into the wooded park; and Bruce rode down to the right in his
armor, and with a gold coronal on his basnet, but mounted on a mere palfrey.
To the front of the English van, under Gloucester and Hereford, rode Sir Henry
Bohun, a bow-shot beyond his company. Recognizing the King, who was arraying
his ranks, Bohun sped down upon him, apparently hoping to take him."
He thought that he should dwell lightly,
Win him, and have him at his will."
But Bruce, in this fatal movement, when history hung on his hand and eye,
uprose in his stirrups and clove Bohun's helmet, the axe breaking in that
stroke. It was a desperate but a winning blow: Bruce's spears advanced, and
the English van withdrew in half superstitious fear of the omen. His lords
blamed Bruce, but
"The King has answer made them none,
But turned upon the axe-shaft, wha
Was with the stroke broken in twa,"
"Initium malorum hoc" ("This was the beginning of evil"), says the English
After this double success in the Quatre Bras of the Scottish Waterloo,
Bruce, according to Barbour, offered to his men their choice of withdrawal or
of standing it out. The great general might well be of doubtful mind - was
to-morrow to bring a second and a more fatal Falkirk? The army of Scotland
was protected, as Wallace's army at Falkirk had been, by difficult ground. But
the English archers might again rain their blinding showers of shafts into the
broad mark offered by the clumps of spears, and again the English knights
might break through the shaken ranks. Bruce had but a few squadrons of horse
- could they be trusted to scatter the bowmen of the English forests, and to
escape a flank charge from the far heavier cavalry of Edward? On the whole,
was not the old strategy best, the strategy of retreat? So Bruce may have
pondered. He had brought his men to the ring, and they voted for dancing.
Meanwhile the English rested on a marshy plain "outre-Bannockburn" in sore
discomfiture, says Gray. He must mean south of Bannockburn, taking the point
of view of his father, at that hour captive in Bruce's camp. He tells us that
the Scots meant to retire "into the Lennox, a right strong country" - this
confirms, in a way, Barbour's tale of Bruce suggesting retreat - when Sir
Alexander Seton, deserting Edward's camp, advised Bruce of the English lack of
spirit, and bade him face the foe next day. To retire, indeed, was Bruce's,
as it had been Wallace's, natural policy. The English would soon be
distressed for want of supplies; on the other hand, they had clearly made no
arrangements for an orderly retreat if they lost the day; with Bruce this was
a motive for fighting them. The advice of Seton prevailed; the Scots would
stand their ground.
The sun of Midsummer Day rose on the rite of the mass done in front of
the Scottish lines. Men breakfasted, and Bruce knighted Douglas, the Steward,
and other of his nobles. The host then moved out of the wood, and the
standards rose above the spears of the soldiers. Edward Bruce held the right
wing; Randolph the centre; the left, under Douglas and the Steward, rested of
St. Ninian's. Bruce, as he had arranged, was in reserve with Carrick and the
Isles. "Will these men fight?" asked Edward, and Sir Ingram assured him that
such was their intent. He advised that the English should make a feigned
retreat, when the Scots would certainly break their ranks -
"Then prick we on them hardily."
Edward rejected his old ruse, which probably would not have beguiled the
Scottish leader. The Scots then knelt for a moment of prayer, as the Abbot of
Inchafray bore the crucifix along the line; but they did not kneel to Edward.
His van, under Gloucester, fell on Edward Bruce's division, where there was
hand-to-hand fighting, broken lances, dying chargers, the rear ranks of
Gloucester pressing vainly on the front ranks, unable to deploy for the
straitness of the ground.
Meanwhile, Randolph's men moved forward slowly with extended spears, "as
they were plunged in the sea" of charging knights. Douglas and the Steward
were also engaged, and the "hideous shower" of arrows was ever raining from
the bows of England. This must have been the crisis of the fight, according
to Barbour, and Bruce bade Keith with his five hundred horse charge the
English archers on the flank. The bowmen do not seem to have been defended by
pikes; they fell beneath the lances of the mareschal, as the archers of
Ettrick had fallen at Falkirk. The Scottish archers now took heart, and
loosed into the crowded and reeling ranks of England, while the flying bowmen
of the south clashed against and confused the English charge. Then Scottish
archers took to their steel sparths - who ever loved to come to hand strokes -
and hewed into the mass of the English, so that the field, whither Bruce
brought up his reserves to support Edward Bruce on the right, was a mass of
wild, confused fighting. In this mellay the great body of the English army
could deal no stroke, swaying helplessly as southern knights or northern
spears won some feet of ground. So, in the space between Halbert's bog and
the burn, the mellay rang and wavered, the long spears of the Scottish ranks
unbroken and pushing forward, the ground before them so covered with fallen
men and horses that the English advance was clogged and crushed between the
resistance in front and the pressure behind.
"God will have a stroke in every fight," says the romance of Malory.
While the discipline was lost, and England was trusting to sheer weight and
"who will pound longest," a fresh force, banners displayed, was seen rushing
down the Gillies' Hill, beyond the Scottish right. The English could deem no
less than that this multitude were tardy levies from beyond the Spey, above
all when the slogans rang out from the fresh advancing host. It was a body
yeomen, shepherds, and camp-followers, who could no longer remain and gaze
when fighting and plunder were in sight. With blankets fastened to cut
saplings for banner-poles, they ran down to the conflict. The King saw them,
and well knew that the moment had come: he pealed his ensenye - called his
battle cry faint hearts of England failed; men turned, trampling through the
hardy warriors who still stood and died; the knights who rode at Edward's rein
strove to draw him toward the castle of Stirling. But now the foremost
knights of Edward Bruce's division, charging on foot, had fought their way to
the English King and laid hands on the rich trappings of his horse. Edward
cleared his way with strokes of his mace; his horse was stabbed, but a fresh
mount was found for him. Even Sir Giles de Argentine, the best knight on
ground, bade Edward fly to Stirling castle. "For me, I am not of custom to
fly," he said, "nor shall I do so now. God keep you!" Thereon he spurred into
the press, crying "Argentine!" and died among the spears.
None held his ground for England. The burn was choked with fallen men
and horses, so that folk might pass dry-shod over it. The country people fell
on and slew. If Bruce had possessed more cavalry, not an Englishman would
have reached the Tweed. Edward, as Argentine bade him, rode to Stirling, but
Mowbray told him that there he would be but a captive king. He spurred south,
with five hundred horse, Douglas following with sixty, so close that no
Englishman might alight, but was slain or taken. Laurence de Abernethy, with
eighty horse, was riding to join the English, but turned, and with Douglas,
pursued them. Edward reached Dunbar, whence he took boat for Berwick. In his
terror he vowed to build a college of Carmelites, students in theology. It is
Oriel College to-day, with a Scot for provost. Among those who fell on the
English side were the son of Comyn, Gloucester, Clifford, Harcourt, Courtenay,
and seven hundred other gentlemen of coat-armor were slain. Hereford (later),
with Angus, Umfarville, and Sir Thomas Grey, was among the prisoners.
Stirling, of course, surrendered.
The sun of Midsummer Day set on men wounded and weary, but victorious and
free. The task of Wallace was accomplished. To many of the combatants not
the least agreeable result of Bannockburn was the unprecedented abundance of
the booty. When campaigning Edward denied himself nothing. His wardrobe and
arms; his enormous and apparently well-supplied array of food wagons; his
ecclesiastical vestments for the celebration of victory; his plate; his siege
artillery; his military chests, with all the jewelry of his young minion
knights, fell into the hands of the Scots. Down to Queen Mary's reign we
read, in inventories, about costly vestments "from the fight at Bannockburn."
In Scotland it rained ransoms. The Rotuli Scotiae, in 1314 full of Edward's
preparation for war, in 1315 are rich in safe-conducts for men going into
Scotland to redeem prisoners. One of these, the brave Sir Marmaduke Twenge,
renowned at Stirling bridge, hid in the woods on Midsummer's Night, and
surrendered to Bruce next day. The King gave him gifts and set him free
unransomed. Indeed, the clemency of Bruce after his success is courteously
acknowledged by the English chroniclers.
This victory was due to Edward's incompetence, as well as to the
excellent dispositions and indomitable courage of Bruce, and to "the
intolerable axes" of his men. No measures had been taken by Edward to secure
a retreat. Only one rally, at "the Bloody Fauld," is reported. The English
fought widely, their measures being laid on the strength of a confidence
which, after the skirmishes of Sunday, June 23d, they no longer entertained.
They suffered what, at Agincourt, Crecy, Poitiers, and Verneuil, their
descendants were to inflict. Horses and banners, gay armor and chivalric
trappings, were set at naught by the sperthes and spears of infantry acting on
favorable ground. From the dust and reek of that burning day of June,
Scotland emerged a people, firm in a glorious memory. Out of weakness she was
made strong, being strangely led through paths of little promise since the day
when Bruce's dagger-stroke at Dumfries closed from him the path of returning.