the Battle of Bannockburn

in 1314, one of the most remembered battles in Scotland’s history was concluded at the Battle of Bannockburn.

For over a millennia, the region of Scotland had a rich history of being independent from foreign rule. Throughout the centuries, no matter who the invaders, the Scots always fought fiercely in their Highlands.In the decades before 1314, the newest struggle over Scotland emerged. In 1296 the Scots signed an alliance with France, immediately threatening the English state. In response, the English invaded Scotland and caused the King of Scotland to abdicate his throne.

A resistance immediately emerged, led by the Scottish nobleman William Wallace. After stunningly defeating the English initially, William Wallace’s rebellion was crushed by 1298. That same year, Robert the Bruce took the title of ‘Guardian of Scotland’ and immediately became a frontrunner for the vacant throne. Seeing to the murder of his only rival 8 years later, Robert moved quickly to press his claim in 1306. On March 25th that year, Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scotland. Labeling him a traitor, English forces moved swiftly to defeat King Robert. After initial defeats, Robert spent a short exile on a small island off the Irish coast. It was here he allegedly regained his determination for the cause after watching a spider slowly build its web. Returning to Scotland shortly thereafter, Robert and his supporters won multiple victories. Eventually laying siege to an English garrison occupying the strategically important Sterling Castle in 1313.

King Robert and the garrison of the castle agreed that if reinforcements did not arrive to lift the siege by mid-summer 1314, the garrison would surrender. These terms rallied King Edward II of England to act. He raised a feudal army, likely numbering somewhere near 20,000 men. Split between a few thousand knights and over 10,000 foot-soldiers (bowmen and men-at-arms). With an almost 2 to 1 numerical advantage, King Edward proceeded to march his army north and confront King Robert and his rebellious Scots.

On Sunday, June 23rd Edward’s army began its final march up to the Bannockburn (also spelt Bannock Burn), a river near the castle. The English were confident to the point of arrogance that victory was assured. When a nobleman used an unguarded path out of the castle to warn his English countrymen to abandon their plans, he was rebuked as a coward. That morning, the Abbot of Inchaffray blessed the Scottish army as he delivered mass. King Robert challenged his army to leave the field if they did not wish to fight. The Scottish army replied to their king with rousing cheers, reassuring King Robert of victory.

The more poorly-equipped Scots had deployed themselves in defensive positions on the northern side of the Bannockburn, opposite the English. As the English advanced across the river, a nephew of the Earl of Hereford named Henry de Bohun saw King Robert in front of his soldiers and sought individual combat with the Scotsman. King Robert rode out to confront his challenger. Facing King Robert, Henry lowered his lance, charging the Scottish king. Robert dodged the attack before striking a blow to Henry’s head so fierce, that it proved fatal to both Englishman and the king’s axe.

When questioned by his lieutenants about the risk he took in fighting a lesser English knight, Robert remarked that his only regret was breaking his axe. Incited by such a display of bravery by their king, the Scots charged the English fording across the Bannockburn. The Scottish soldiers fell upon the English, who were in a precarious position. The accounts of what carnage ensued describe the scene as nothing less than a chaotic bloodletting. The English in the river were slaughtered, prompting a retreat to their side of the river. The English army was halted, but not defeated.

In the fighting’s aftermath, both sides were uncertain of how to proceed. The Scots were outnumbered but their morale was high, and they still held the field. The English, despite taking a loss in the fighting, still held a significant advantage in not just numbers but in arms. Having that in mind, King Edward decided to resume hostilities the following day. That evening, a Scottish knight in English service defected to his countrymen and proclaimed to King Robert:
“Sir, if you wish to take all of Scotland, now is the time. Edward’s army is grievously discouraged. You may beat them on the morrow with little loss and great glory.”
The Scots would hold their position, if the English wanted Scotland, they would have to cross the Bannockburn once more.

In the early morning of June 24th, the English army strategically moved north, around the Scottish position. The Scots were in no position to impede this maneuver and the English crossed the Bannockburn unabated. Unlike the previous day, the English were afforded the time to set up in full battle array in front of the Scots. To King Robert’s advantage, the English chose to cross at a location that forced their army to squeeze between the Bannockburn and a tributary of that same river. This tactical error hindered the ability of the English to take full advantage of their numerical superiority.

Across the field, King Robert ‘knighted’ men that had fought with valor on the previous day. Not one to wait, King Robert and his men advanced on their enemies thereafter, much to English astonishment. The English were flustered that common foot soldiers would dare attack English knights, who were positioned in front of their army. Seeing his enemy attempt to seize the initiative, King Edward of England turned to a nearby knight and asked:

“Will these Scotsmen fight?”

The knight replied: “These men will gain all or die in the trying.”

“So be it” retorted King Edward as he signaled for his trumpets to sound the charge.

Suddenly, the battlefield roared as the English knights, armored head-to-toe, charged on horseback towards the densely packed Scottish formations. In a tremendous crash, the English noblemen smashed into the spear-armed Scots and failed to break the Scottish ranks. As the second wave of English cavalry prepared to reinforce the offensive, another formation of Scots rushed to engage them. On the farthest flank from this action, Welsh longbowmen were scattered by the Scottish light cavalry, preventing their devasting volleys from turning the tide of battle.

Incapable of resisting the Scottish spearmen, the knights started losing ground. Seeing the best in their army giving way to the enemy, the bulk of the English army soon started to panic. At this point the Scottish camp followers appeared, waving banners and cheering their countrymen on. Complete disorder soon spread across the English army. The English hastily tried to scramble back across the Bannockburn, many drowning in the process.

The Battle of Bannockburn was a crushing victory for the Scots and gave the nation de-facto independence. Despite that fact, England would not recognize Scottish independence until Treaty of Northampton 14 years after. The number of casualties on both sides is very much disputed, but the fact remains that on those two summer days undermanned and poorly equipped Scotsmen embarrassed one of medieval Europe’s preeminent powers.

[Online References]

Authored by C S & R.E Foy

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