The Wars of Independence: Bannockburn, 1314 I

Hassall, John; Bannockburn; Glasgow Museums;

Hassall, John; Bannockburn; Glasgow Museums;


It is generally accepted by those interested in the history of Scotland that the battle of Bannockburn was a mistake, one which Robert the Bruce had not wished to fight, a commitment foisted upon him by his ebullient and chivalrous brother, Edward. In November 1313 Edward Bruce was besieging Stirling Castle, the most important Scottish stronghold in English hands. The Constable of Stirling Castle was a Scot, Sir Philip de Mowbray, in the pay of Edward II; he commanded a garrison of about 100 men. Mowbray had fought against Bruce at Methven in 1306 and was appointed governor of Stirling Castle in 1311. At the outset of the siege, Bruce invited de Mowbray to surrender the castle. De Mowbray refused. When Edward Bruce assumed command of the siege, he entered negotiations with de Mowbray, after which the two men concluded an agreement for the conditional surrender of Stirling. De Mowbray had intelligence that Edward II was raising an army to invade Scotland in 1314, so he proposed that he would surrender to Edward Bruce if the English army failed to be within three leagues (nine miles) of Stirling Castle on Midsummer’s Day, on the Feast of John the Baptist, 24 June 1314.

To understand Edward II’s mindset in the autumn of 1313, we must briefly revisit the events which occurred between 1304 and 1313, the focus being on the largely English-held south-east of Scotland, with particular emphasis on the earldom of Dunbar. Patrick, 8th Earl of Dunbar was one of the few staunch supporters of Edward I – more, it has to be said out of fear than love of the ruthless Hammer of the Scots. When Edward I appointed Dunbar as governor of Ayr Castle in 1304 many questioned the king’s judgement. Ayr Castle was a strategically important base. Dunbar had proved himself to be nothing short of incompetent, indecisive and something of a liability; for example, he was criticized by the pro-English garrison of Ayr who went to the trouble of sending Edward I a petition suggesting Dunbar be relieved of his command. The soldiers at Ayr complained of Dunbar’s lack of military skills and that he was doing nothing to counter the threat from nearby Turnberry Castle, held by Scottish forces. The Ayr petition does not mince words:

[The men at Ayr] have heard nothing from Earl Patrick whom the king has given the keeping of the country, at which they wonder much.

Despite Patrick Dunbar’s lamentable performance, Edward seems to have developed a fondness for his son and heir, also called Patrick. He sent a cask of wine to the young man’s wife Ermigarda and other gifts to the earl-in-waiting. When the 8th Earl died in 1308, his son Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and 2nd of March, swore fealty to Edward II who ascended the throne of England when his father died at Burgh-on-Sands in 1307, leading yet another army against Scotland. By 1308 many of Dunbar’s knight-tenants had loosened their ties with England, declaring for Bruce. Those who remained loyal to ‘the King’s peace’ – meaning Edward II’s – began to pay heavily as a result of Edward’s ineffective ‘immunity’ which he declared would protect them from Bruce’s men foraging for food in the rich agricultural earldom of Dunbar which covered a fair portion of East Lothian and the Merse (Berwickshire). By 1313 only Patrick, 9th Earl of Dunbar and Sir Adam de Gordon supported Edward and even by then Gordon was beginning to waver. The Chronicle of Lanercost accused those Scots who remained loyal to Edward of doing so ‘insincerely’ and only to safeguard the lands they held of Edward in England. Despite their continuing presence in the south-east, with its castles of Jedburgh, Selkirk, Berwick, Dunbar and Yester, the English were sorely tried in their attempts to maintain order and offer protection from Bruce’s roving war-bands, which constantly plundered farms and carried off food and livestock. By autumn 1313 East Lothian and Berwickshire were close to exhaustion. The 9th Earl of Dunbar’s lands were not only being plundered by Bruce but were also at the mercy of the Berwick and Roxburgh garrisons – Dunbar’s supposed allies – whose rascally leaders demanded ransom money and food in return for their ‘protection’ from Bruce. By September 1313 Dunbar was a man at the end of his tether. In desperation he wrote an impassioned letter to Edward II, complaining bitterly about the blackmail and robbery suffered by his tenants. His letter is quoted in part:

Petition to the king by the people of Scotland [sic] by their envoys, Sir Patrick Dunbar, earl of March and Sir Adam de Gordon … Matters are daily getting worse, as for the ‘suffraunce’ [protection from molestation] they [Dunbar and Gordon] have [been granted] till this Martinmas [11 November] they had to give 1,000 qrs. [quarters, or about thirteen tons] of corn yet their livestock is plundered, partly by the enemy [Bruce] and partly by the garrisons of Berwick and Roxburgh, especially by Gilbert de Medilton [Middleton] and Thomas de Pencaitlande and their company at Berwick … when ‘upplaunde’ [people living in the hills] go to buy their vivers [provisions] in Berwick, the garrison spy out and seize them, Confining them in houses and carrying off others to Northumberland, holding them in concealment and ‘duresce’ [restraint] there till they get a ransom – and the Scots in Northumberland for resettling them … some of them at the end of their ‘suffraunce’ at Midsummer purchase from Sir Robert de Bruys [Dunbar refuses to acknowledge Bruce as king of Scotland] at his late coming, a truce of fifteen days, and on his [Bruce’s] retreat, after they had returned to their houses, the next morning the warden and the whole garrison of Berwick came and took the people in their beds, carrying them off dead and alive to Berwick, and held them to ransom viz. on their foray within the bounds of the earldom of Dunbar, both gentlemen and others, to the number of 30. Also 300 fat beasts, 4,000 sheep besides horses and dead stock [i.e. beef salted for the winter] … some of the Berwick garrison, with Thomas de Pencaitlande as ‘Guyde’ [i.e. leader] carried of [sic] some of the poor people to Berwick. Those who had wherewithal were ransomed; those who had nothing were killed and thrown into the Water of the Tweed.

A sorry tale indeed. But was it enough to bring Edward to Scotland with an army? Edward responded to Dunbar on 29 November 1313, promising that an English army would come to Scotland in the summer of 1314. We know that Edward was determined to engage Bruce in open battle and thus rid himself of the troublesome Scot. What is perhaps astonishing about Edward’s decision was that he had no intelligence of the deal struck between Sir Philip de Mowbray and Edward Bruce to relieve Stirling Castle by Midsummer’s Day 1314. It is certain that Edward knew of the siege of the castle but Dunbar’s letter surely played an important part in his decision and which, excepting two recent accounts, most historians have chosen to ignore. Of course it is true that Edward’s subsequent invasion was a matter of chivalry; he was only apprised of the de Mowbray-Edward Bruce arrangement less than four weeks before he took the field at Bannockburn. As to the troubles caused by his garrisons in southern Scotland, these were caused by Edward’s failure to pay or provision them, so they resorted to preying on their own allies to feed themselves.

It seems incredible that Edward contemplated an invasion of Scotland in 1314, particularly after Bruce’s capture of the castles of Roxburgh, Edinburgh and other lesser fortresses early in 1314. In February, Roxburgh fell to Sir James Douglas and Randolph, Earl of Moray, took Edinburgh the following month. With only the relatively strong castles of Berwick and Dunbar in English hands, why did Edward attempt a major invasion of Scotland, the first for several years? It was not solely to lift the siege of Stirling; he was determined to draw Bruce into a set-piece battle and settle the future of Scotland once and for all. But he was not the man his father had been …

Many English knights and pro-English Scots in the south-east of Scotland were growing weary and disillusioned (‘many say openly victory will go to Bruce’)6 defending a country where Bruce’s guerrilla form of waging war brought sudden – and bloody – attacks. When the English parliament met that autumn of 1313 Edward was granted a subsidy to finance his campaign. On 23 December summons were issued to the English magnates, minor officials and clergy to organize forces and muster at Berwick on 10 June 1314.

When Bruce learnt of his brother’s pact with Sir Philip de Mowbray, he was devastated. Bruce knew he had neither the manpower nor the weaponry to engage the might of England in a set-piece battle, particularly in defence of a castle he would have simply dismantled on its surrender. Bruce, the guerrilla leader par excellence knew that, realistically, he was unlikely to raise an army capable of engaging, let alone defeating, Edward in the open field. Edward Bruce had forced him into a corner and he was apprehensive at the prospect of meeting Edward on his terms rather than his own. A defeat in 1314 could easily topple him from his still shaky throne. At least he was consoled by the fact that, in addition to Roxburgh and Edinburgh, Linlithgow Castle had fallen to his forces. Now only a handful of minor castles held out for England, the only formidable strongholds being Berwick and Dunbar; these would be vital to Edward on his march north in the summer of 1314, acting as provisioning bases for his supply ships.

Edward was jubilant, confident of victory. If, as is certain, he knew of Bruce’s siege of Stirling Castle, at least he knew where to find the elusive Scottish army and smash it with his heavy cavalry, archers and foot soldiers, many of whom were veterans who had served under his father in Wales and France.

As the summer drew near Bruce intensified his preparations for a battle he was reluctant to fight. At least on this occasion, his peasant army possessed more than the crude farm implements many of the Scottish host army of John Comyn had to fight with against Edward I’s army at Dunbar in 1296. Also, the hard-won victories – albeit minor – at Glen Trool and Loudon Hill had forged a new fighting spirit in his men; a combination of experience, better weapons and armour, intensive training and, above all, the choice of favourable ground, would stand the Scottish army in good stead on the days of the fight at the Bannock Burn in Stirlingshire.

By 27 May Edward II and his vast army had reached the small Northumberland village of Newminster. It was there that he learnt of the compact signed by Sir Philip de Mowbray and Edward Bruce for the relief of Stirling Castle. Mowbray, given a safe-conduct from Bruce, appeared in person before the English king to deliver the news. Edward was delighted; now he knew precisely where Bruce’s army would be on 24 June, the day of the deadline for the relief of Stirling. At last he would be able to confront his elusive enemy and destroy him.

The sizes of the English and Scottish armies at Bannockburn have never been satisfactorily computed. English estimates are as low as 1,300 cavalry and 7,000 foot soldiers; other accounts give 3,000 cavalry and 15,000 foot8 and 2,000 cavalry with 15,000 – 20,000 foot. The latter figures are modern estimates and are probably more accurate than those given by near contemporary accounts which range from 60,000 to 100,000. A clearer estimate is given in the English Patent Rolls of the time which record 6,000 cavalry and 21,540 infantry – more realistic figures. The English baggage train was certainly impressive in size, giving an indication of Edward’s strength; the train was loaded with equipment, tents, weapons and provisions, some 160 wagons alone containing live poultry to feed his men.

The Scottish figures at Bannockburn are equally in doubt; some estimates are ridiculous at worst and dubious at best. Barbour’s The Brus gives 30,000, others nearer our time give 20,000. Modern estimates favour 500 light cavalry and 8,000 foot or between 4,500 and 6,000 in all. So, given the more realistic of both sets of figures, at Bannockburn Bruce was outnumbered by about three to one.

As mentioned earlier, Edward’s army contained many veterans from earlier Anglo-Scottish conflicts as well as those his father had fought in the process of subduing Wales. Among his prominentes were Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and hereditary High Constable of England, Henry de Beaumont, Earl of Buchan (a title given by Edward as Beaumont had married a sister of John Comyn of Buchan), Aymer de Valence who had fought and decisively beaten Bruce at Methven in 1306, Edmund de Mauley, steward of the royal household and, most importantly, the young Sir Henry de Bohun, Hereford’s nephew and cousin of the Earl of Gloucester. Others present in Edward’s army and veterans of encounters with Wallace and Bruce were Sir Robert de Umfraville, Earl of Angus, Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Thomas Gray of Heton. Hereford, Beaumont, Clifford and Valence had all been present on the field of Falkirk against Wallace in 1298.

Sadly, there are few contemporary accounts of what took place at Bannockburn. For much of the information, we have to rely on fourteenth century accounts written several years after the battle. Both Scottish and English chronicles are brief, often vague, contradictory and misleading. The main sources from the Scottish perspective are found in John Barbour’s The Brus, written about sixty years after the battle. (Barbour was only two years old when Bannockburn took place but he was fortunate to have met some of the veterans who were present on the field.) Barbour’s account is romantic and dramatic and, it has to be said, untrustworthy in many respects, on a par with Blind Harry’s account of William Wallace which is also full of romance and untruths. The English version of Bannockburn is recorded in Vita Edwardi Secundi (Life of Edward the Second) which was reputedly written by an anonymous author thought to be a secular clerk in Edward’s household, given his lofty style. Another fairly accurate account can be found in the Chronicle of Lanercost Priory in northern England; its unknown author(s) cover the period 1201 to 1346. Yet another reliable account is Scalacronica, written by Sir Thomas Gray of Heton, whose father was taken prisoner at Bannockburn. Thomas Gray junior was taken prisoner by the Scots in 1355 at the battle of Nesbit Moor; during his years in captivity in Edinburgh Castle he whiled away the hours writing a history of England and Scotland from the Norman Conquest in 1066 to 1362.

As to the site of the battlefield, its precise location has never been satisfactorily identified. As the Bannock Burn from which the battle takes its name runs from west to east to the south of Saint Ninian’s church near Stirling and its castle, it is more than likely that the second day of the battle on 24 June 1314 was fought on the north bank of the Bannock Burn, the Scots emerging from the Torwood woods in the west to confront Edward in the east. Bruce’s position on the second day of the battle was ideal ground for his foot soldiers but bad news for the English horsed knights and men-at-arms on whom Edward II relied to deliver the knockout blow to Bruce. The English foot soldiers were held in reserve to carry out a mopping-up operation of the wounded and disorganized Scottish spearmen. That was the master plan. It went horribly wrong.

The acres of woodland in the Torwood served to mask the strength – or, rather, the weakness of the Scottish army. The Carse of Balquhiderock, a boggy flood plain of the river Forth would also reduce the impact of the English cavalry. The old Roman Road which joined the road to Stirling offered the only dry, firm approach to Bruce’s position, which is why he had his men dig hundreds of metre-deep pits containing sharp stakes and calthrops – four-spiked iron balls intended to maim horses – on either side of it and elsewhere on the field, similar to what he had used at Loudon Hill.

It is nothing short of surprising that Aymer de Valence, whom Bruce had defeated at Loudon, failed to alert Edward II of the possibility of these well-camouflaged obstacles being present at Bannockburn; perhaps he dismissed the idea, thinking that Bruce would not use the same tactics again. This was to prove a grave error which was discovered when it was too late. The English destriers or war-horses came to grief when they encountered the leg-snapping pits hidden by a light covering of loose twigs, grass and turfs.

Let us now consider the formations Bruce employed to meet Edward’s army. He raised his standard at the Borestone, where he divided his force into three divisions, or battles. If we accept that the Scottish army numbered between 6,000 and 8,000, each battle organized in the schiltron formation would have contained between 2,000 – 2,500 spearmen, with a separate force of 500 light cavalry. On 23 June Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, commanded the vanguard, Edward Bruce the middle-guard with Bruce in charge of the rearguard, or reserve. The light cavalry was commanded by Robert Keith the Marischal (marshal) of Scotland and possibly Sir James Douglas. At the outset of hostilities, Randolph took up position with orders to guard the road which led to Saint Ninian’s Church; it is not entirely clear whether this position was in or near the Torwood, south of the Roman Road, or immediately in front of the Church, but either is possible. It could be argued that, in the early stages of 23 June, Randolph was in fact positioned in the Torwood, then made a strategic withdrawal to the second position on the approach of the English cavalry. The drawback to both positions was that Randolph’s schiltrons could be easily outflanked and isolated by the English coming up the road from Falkirk, one which branched off up the old Roman Road, a dry, hard surface ideal for heavy cavalry. Be that as it may, Bruce had set his trap skilfully; he had ordered his men to dig up the pathways through the woods and elsewhere, which would cause difficulties for cavalry and foot alike.

In the knowledge that Edward and his host did not cross the Border until 10 June, Bruce put the intervening weeks to good use, preparing his position and training his men to a peak of fitness. He also practised them in the art of fighting in schiltron formation which had served Wallace well at Stirling Brig and himself at Loudon Hill. The Roman Road was crucial in these operations, being firm and dry and leading to Stirling; Bruce accurately predicted that Edward would use the road to relieve the castle. Bruce’s preparations were designed to limit the use of the 6,000-strong cavalry divisions and prevent an all-out massive charge on his army which would have destroyed it.

One can but speculate what was in the mind of Robert the Bruce on the night of 22/23 June 1314. Was he confident of victory? Did he sleep soundly? He knew in his heart he had chosen good ground for his men, ground that would protect them as much as was possible from the awesome English heavy cavalry. As the hours ticked away, no doubt he held a last council-of-war with his brother Edward, Randolph, Douglas and Keith. Edward Bruce was confident; Randolph was keen to prove his mettle, all thoughts of his earlier criticism of the way his uncle waged war forgotten – or conveniently put aside for the moment.

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