Medieval  >  First War of Scottish Independence

BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN (1314)

While attempting to lift a siege of Stirling Castle, one of just two Scottish castles left in English hands, the forces of Edward II fought and lost a pitched battle against Robert the Bruce. The Battle of Bannockburn (1314) saw the annihilation of the English army ensuring Scotland's independence for the next twenty years and fatally undermined Edward II.

Historical Background

 

The death of Alexander III in 1286 followed four years later by his only heir, Margaret, left no clear successor to the Scottish throne. In an attempt to avoid civil war between the multiple claimants, Edward I of England was asked to arbitrate ultimately announcing in favour of John Balliol whom he anticipated would be a reliable vassal. However, Edward's excessive demands for men and money to support a war with France placed the new Scottish King in an impossible position. He was left little choice but to rebel and sought to agree a mutual defence pact with France. Outraged Edward raised an army and invaded starting the First War of Scottish Independence.

 

The English attacked Berwick-upon-Tweed and then defeated a Scottish army at the first Battle of Dunbar (1296). Overwhelmed by vastly superior forces, John sued for peace and was deposed with Edward choosing to keep the Scottish throne vacant. This prompted a rebellion led by Sir William Wallace and Sir William Moray who achieved success at the Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297) before being defeated at the first Battle of Falkirk (1298).

 

The Scottish throne remained vacant and in 1306 Robert the Bruce made a bid for the Crown. His rebellion started by murdering a rival claimant, Sir John Comyn, in Greyfriars church in Dumfries. He rushed to Scone to be crowned and was appointed 'Guardian of Scotland', a position previously held by Wallace. Initially though Bruce fared little better on the field against the English and was defeated at the Battle of Methven (1306) prompting him to switch to guerrilla warfare tactics. The same year however Scottish fortunes took a turn for the better; the warrior King of England, Edward I died whilst heading north to deal with the latest Scottish rebellion.

 

The new English King, Edward II, lacked his father's military and political skill. His reliance on favourites and military ineptitude earned him contempt from his leading magnates and this was exploited by Bruce. Edward's failure to bring an army north meant that one by one English held castles, the essential instruments of control in medieval society, were captured by the Scots. By 1313 Stirling Castle was one of just two fortifications left in English hands across the whole of Scotland.

 

Prelude

 

After a protracted siege Stirling Castle’s governor, Sir Philip Mowbray, agreed to surrender if not relieved by Midsummer’s Day 1314. Edward II answered this challenge; he mustered his forces at Wark, on the River Tweed, and by 22 June 1314 he had reached Falkirk.

 

Numbers

 

The English force is estimated to have been around 13,000 strong including 2,000 heavy cavalry and an unknown number of archers. This was a significant force with state-of-the-art equipment but was approximately 7,000 men short of the original summons as some key magnates - most notably Thomas, Earl of Lancaster - had failed to provide their support due to dissatisfaction with Edward's Kingship. Furthermore the force was operating with an extended logistical chain stretching back to Berwick-upon-Tweed. There were also tensions within the army; Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester both believed it was their right to lead the Vanguard. Rather than make a decision, Edward II appointed them joint commanders.

 

By contrast the Scottish army was significantly smaller; estimated to have been circa-6,000 men strong. Divided into three divisions the bulk of the troops were poorly trained militia armed with long spears.  Bruce's division included Walter Stewart and James Douglas. The Scottish army also had a detachment of around 500 cavalry who were lightly armed but highly manoeuvrable in stark contrast to the English equivalent.

The Battle

 

Bruce had deployed his troops 2 miles to the south of Stirling Castle straddling the main road from Falkirk to Stirling at the point it passed through woodland in the New Park. Defensive earthworks were constructed to form a bottleneck along a portion of the road. The English had the choice to launch a frontal attack through this narrow approach or to by-pass the wood and take a boggy route to the east. In either case Bruce hoped the English advantage in heavy cavalry would be neutralised.

 

- Day 1 / Stage 1

The English army advanced along the Stirling road but was inevitably spread out over several miles. In the lead was the Vanguard, which probably accounted for around a third of the entire army (in the region of 4,500 men) and was a self contained fighting force configured for reactive operations as required. The force was under the joint command of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester.

 

Bohun had intelligence that Bruce had established his forces in New Park wood as earlier that day Sir Philip Mowbray had slipped out of Stirling Castle to warn the advancing English forces of their presence. Nevertheless Bohun suspected that the Scots would flee when faced with his formidable force. To prevent any escape Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester flanked around to the rear of the Scottish position beyond St Ninians church.

 

- Day 1 / Stage 2

Bohun led his infantry force along the road into the New Wood timed to coincide with Clare's attack on the rear. Both elements of the English Vanguard met with disaster. The engagement in the south started with the Earl's nephew - Henry de Bohun - sighting Robert the Bruce. Keen to make a name for himself he charged the Scottish King but Robert dodged his attack and cut him down him with his battle-axe. The Scots then attacked Bohun’s infantry who were surrounded and routed. Concurrently the cavalry element under Clare was engaged by Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray who left the cover of New Park wood.

 

- Day 1 / Stage 3

After bitter fighting, Clare's portion of the Vanguard was defeated and the survivors fled to Stirling Castle. Edward II, still to the south advancing along the Stirling Road with the bulk of his forces, now choose to avoid the New Wood and swung his army to the east towards the Bannock Burn. They camped overnight in a deep, wet marsh remaining in arms as a Scottish ambush was expected.

 

- Day 2 / Stage 1

No overnight attack was made on the main body of the English and the next morning Edward deployed his forces for battle. Bolstered by a high profile defection overnight - Alexander Seton had crossed over to the Scottish camp overnight and told the Scots of the poor morale in the English army - Bruce answered the challenge and moved his entire force out of the New Wood deploying them in three tightly packed formations (schiltrons) of spearmen.

 

- Day 2 / Stage 2

Almost immediately it became apparent to the English that the battlefield was too small as they were squeezed between the Pelstream Burn in the north and Bannock Burn in the south. This impacted upon initial deployment; whilst the preferred option would have been archers on the flanks of the infantry, the lack of space meant they had to be deployed in the front rank - a particularly exposed position. Nevertheless it gave them a clear field of fire and the battle started around 9am with the longbowmen striking at the three Scottish schiltrons.

 

- Day 2 / Stage 3

Bruce now countered the English longbowmen by sending his small cavalry detachment, led by Sir Robert Keith, to attack them. Whether this force ever made it to the English archers is unknown but it prompted the English cavalry to counter-charge the Scottish lines which in itself would have blocked the arrow storm.

 

- Day 2 / Stage 4

The English heavy cavalry, the medieval equivalent of a tank, was at its best when there was sufficient time for it to build up speed and was fighting a force that had either broken or was loosely configured. Neither of those conditions were met at Bannockburn. With the attack by the English archers being quickly neutralised, the Scottish schiltrons were still tightly packed and able to present a wall of spears against the cavalry attack. It is possible a full speed charge may have broken through but the distance between English and Scottish lines was insufficient to gain momentum. The combined effect was a stalled attack with the English cavalry impotent against the Scottish schiltrons. Attempts by the archers to fire over the heads of the cavalry were ineffective.

 

- Day 2 / Stage 5

Bruce, sensing victory, ordered his infantry to advance pushing the cavalry and then the English infantry back and into the ditch of the Bannock burn. Whilst not particularly deep, this was surrounded by steep banks and many of the soldiers were trapped by the weight of their armour. The nobles were captured for later ransom whilst the English soldiery was slaughtered. Edward II fled from the scene first towards Stirling Castle, where the Governor wisely refused him access lest he be captured, and then onto Dunbar where he escaped in a fishing boat back to England. Stirling Castle, with no prospect of relief, surrendered.

 

Aftermath

 

English casualties at Bannockburn are unknown but were significant - it is likely the greater part of Edward's army did not survive. However, of particular note was the large number of nobles taken prisoner and subsequently ransomed; at least 154 but perhaps significantly more. The vast financial cost to the families of these important men, would have placed significant strain on their resources and their subsequent dissatisfaction helped to weaken Edward II's regime.

 

With the English expelled from Scotland, Bruce started raids deep into Northern England aiming to bring Edward II to terms. The invading Scottish forces brought years of misery to the populace as the weakened government of Edward II proved unable to counter him whilst concurrently refusing to negotiate. In no small part due to the defeat at Bannockburn, Edward II became the first King since 1066 to be deposed; twelve years after the battle, Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, Earl of March overthrew him and compelled Edward III to make terms ending the First War of Scottish Independence. However, despite its huge short term significance, Bannockburn merely led to a respite for Scotland – once Edward III had deposed Mortimer, he resumed the war with vigour achieving an important victory at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333).

Bibliography

 

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What's There?

A monument, statute of Robert the Bruce and a substantial visitor centre (National Trust for Scotland) are on the site with the latter recently upgraded following the 700th anniversary. However the battlefield itself is very different from 1314. A significant portion has been buried under modern housing most notably Glasgow Road, which follows the route of the original Roman road, and along which the Earl of Gloucester advanced and died. The western portion of the battlefield is undeveloped but significantly dryer than in the fourteenth century with the moorland having been drained and the area deforested. The Bannock Burn itself can be seen in a few locations but Chartershall Road offers a decent view.

Rotunda. The rotunda was designed by Robert Matthew and is intended to focus visitors attention on Stirling Castle.

Bruce Statue. The statue was commissioned by the National Trust in 1964.

Cairn. The cairn was erected in 1957 when financial austerity made the Bruce statue look unlikely. The wording on the plaque is drawn from the Declaration of Arbroath.

River Forth. A view south towards Stirling Castle. The Bannockburn battlefield is located in the distance on the centre-left of the photo.

Stirling Castle. Situated upon a volcanic crag, Stirling Castle dominated the road north. Other than the North Gate none of the remains visible today are contemporary with Robert the Bruce. Nevertheless the site offers superb views of the wider area.

Battlefield. A view of the terrain to the south of the visitor centre. The fighting on the first day was to the left of the photo where the buildings mark the line of Glasgow Road (which follows the original Roman route). The Bannock Burn runs across the photo in the midfield.

The Bannock Burn. Modern drainage means the Bannock Burn is shallower than in 1314 but the steep banks make it clear how difficult it would have been for heavily armoured troops to escape the battlefield.

Bothwell Castle. Following the defeat the Earl of Hereford and Earl of Angus fled to Bothwell Castle where they were welcomed in by the formerly pro-English Walter FitzGilbert. Once they told the story of their defeat however he changed sides and imprisoned them. Hereford was eventually exchanged for key prisoners held by the English - most notably Bruce's wife, Elizabeth de Burgh.

Getting There

The visitor centre is well sign-posted and has ample parking. The monument and Robert the Bruce statue are just a short walk from the car park along paved paths. The wider battlefield can be explored on foot.

Visitor Centre / Car Park

FK7 0LL

56.092451N 3.934382W

Monument and Bruce Statue

FK7 0PL

56.093330N 3.937783W

View of the Bannock Burn

FK7 8HF

56.089677N 3.942315W

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