Bannockburn: Robert Bruce's fight for freedom

Fiona Watson reveals how the battle of Bannockburn, the climax of a brutal civil war, was recast as an epic struggle for liberation...

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

There are only about four hours of proper darkness at midsummer in Scotland. For the English army crossing the boggy ground beneath the town of Stirling, that was just enough time to feed and water horses and men, clean equipment and wonder what lay ahead of them once the sun rose. Morale was low. The foot soldiers were exhausted, having been forced to march as quickly as they could from Edinburgh 30 miles away in order to meet the midsummer deadline agreed for the relief of Stirling Castle. And they had failed to best their Scottish enemies earlier the previous day, 23 June 1314, in a series of encounters including the infamous attempt by Sir Henry de Bohun to kill the Scottish king in single combat, only to be felled by one mighty blow of Robert Bruce’s battle-axe.

Nevertheless, Edward II was prepared. What he did not expect was the Scots to fight, for it was their habit to disappear into the hills when confronted by an English army. But now, as dawn crept into the sky, Edward could see the Scots advancing in three brigades of spearmen before kneeling before him. The English king was exultant, believing that this was a prelude to surrender – until it was pointed out to him that, though the Scots sought mercy, it was from God rather than the English.

If, as appeared to be the case, the Scottish king had decided to fight, it would be the seventh engagement between the two kingdoms in the 18 years since Edward’s father, Edward I, had (temporarily) conquered his northern neighbour in 1296.

The prelude to what was a shockingly dramatic change in the relationship between Scotland and England was the death a decade earlier of the Scottish king, Alexander III, without any surviving male heirs. This had prompted Edward I – Alexander’s former brother-in-law – to begin interfering in the northern kingdom’s affairs.

Edward insisted on presiding over a court looking into the claims of 14 candidates to be king, though the choice was really between John Balliol, Lord of Galloway in Scotland and Barnard Castle (in what is now County Durham), and Robert Bruce of Annandale in Scotland (grandfather of the victor of Bannockburn). Balliol won – a decision that most Scots thought was right – and was crowned King John in 1292. But the Bruces never gave up their royal ambitions.

 

The verge of war

Edward, meanwhile, was biding his time. Having forced all the candidates for King Alexander’s vacant throne to acknowledge his claims to overlordship over Scotland – claims based on past but equivocal precedent and categorically denied by previous kings of Scots – he made increasing demands on King John. These included an expectation that the latter would send men to fight with Edward against France, with whom England was on the verge of war. The Scots, led by their king’s relatives, the powerful Comyn family, realised that they were losing their independence and negotiated a treaty of mutual defence with France.

Suspecting this, Edward I invaded Scotland in 1296, defeating a Scottish army at Dunbar, deposing and imprisoning Balliol, and setting up his own government. The following year the Scots resumed the war, appointing William Wallace as the first of a series of guardians to rule the kingdom in King John’s absence. Robert Bruce, the future king, spent several years fighting the English, even acting briefly as guardian for Balliol, his family’s rival as monarch, presumably in order to boost his own credentials to lead the Scots.

In 1302, however, Bruce submitted to the English king, having been ousted as guardian by his other great rivals, the Comyns, and having proved to be unable to swallow the prospect of King John’s return with French support after the latter’s release from English prison. However, the French king, Philip IV, soon needed the friendship of Edward I for his own reasons and hopes of King John’s return were extinguished. In 1304, most Scots, led by the current guardian, John Comyn of Badenoch, submitted to Edward I.

By 1306 Edward I was known to be very ill, so Robert Bruce began canvassing for support to reactivate his grandfather’s claim to the throne. This, however, completely ignored the fact that John Balliol had been king. If John and his son were unable to return to Scotland (Edward Balliol was still in English custody), then the Scottish king’s nephew, John Comyn of Badenoch, was next in line. He was also a tried and tested war leader, a guardian for most of the period between 1298 and 1304 and the head of a great family with lands and followers across the kingdom.

There may have been an innocuous reason – perhaps associated with a land dispute – why Robert Bruce and John Comyn met at Greyfriars Church in the south-western Scottish town of Dumfries on 10 February 1306. But they probably soon moved onto the inflammatory subject of who might take Scotland’s empty throne to rejuvenate the war effort once Edward was dead, for the meeting ended with Bruce murdering Comyn. Six weeks later, Bruce had himself inaugurated as king – an act that effectively split Scotland in two, as well as unleashing the wrath of Edward I.

 

Profitable raiding

Though Bannockburn has always been portrayed as England versus Scotland, it was the element of civil war that really caused it to be fought. In October 1313, having spent the previous six years conquering his kingdom from his own people as much as the English, King Robert felt confident enough to issue an ultimatum to all those holding land in Scotland that they should swear homage and fealty to him within a year. And even though a line of castles, from Berwick on the eastern border up to Stirling in the middle of the country, was still held against him, Bruce and his men could pass beneath them at will, en route to some extremely profitable and destructive raiding in northern England.


A silver penny bearing the portrait of John Balliol, who became Scottish king in 1292, only to be imprisoned by Edward I in 1296. © SCRAN

Even the inept Edward II, who inherited his father’s bankrupt throne in 1307, realised that this ultimatum would force many Scots still prepared to fight against Bruce to change sides if he did nothing to help them. In November 1313, therefore, he ordered an army to muster the following June. Then, in May 1314, it was agreed between the Scots and Stirling’s commander, Sir Philip Moubray, that the castle would be handed over to Bruce unless relieved by 24 June. With that agreement, King Robert had effectively decided where Edward II’s army would march and where, therefore, any battle might be fought.

This time Bruce faced the tantalising prospect that, if he fought and won, he might effectively end the war in Scotland. But if he did not, his ultimatum might well be ignored.

The stakes were high. Should Bruce lose, the military reputation that sustained his kingship, given his dubious accession, would crumble. He needed to fight somewhere that cavalry were at a disadvantage. Even Edward II knew that the ground around Stirling was such a place.

And so Bruce worked with his men to transform the Scottish schiltrom – groups of around a thousand men carrying long spears bristling like a hedgehog – from the stationary unit employed previously. Instead of merely repelling Edward’s cavalry, they would move together on the offensive, allowing the Scots to control the design and tempo of the battle.

Edward arrived the day before the deadline with an army of around 7,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Bruce’s army was probably 5,000–6,000-strong, which meant that the opposing sides at Bannockburn were far more evenly matched than the hyperbole of Scottish chroniclers has since suggested.

The Scots were drawn up in the hunting forest south-east of Stirling, blocking Edward’s route to the castle. When the English failed to make any headway on the first day, they crossed the Bannockburn to the north, seeking the protection of the floodplain of the river Forth before taking the field in the early hours of 24 June. Few got more than a wink of sleep during that brief midsummer night. 

Meanwhile, morale was already high among the Scots when Sir Alexander Seton arrived in the Scottish camp and was brought before King Robert. Seton was a Scot, one of many who had found Bruce’s murder of Comyn and seizure of the throne abhorrent. Yet he now considered the squabbling and lack of leadership among the English commanders even more problematic and decided to defect. Bruce asked his nobles if they should fight. The response was unanimous: “As you devise, all shall be done.”

The next morning, Bruce addressed his men again in terms that went on to immortalise the ensuing battle. “You could have lived in serfdom, but because you yearned to have freedom, you are gathered here with me.” The Scots then advanced to meet an English charge led by the Earl of Gloucester, who was still reeling from accusations of cowardice that greeted his sensible suggestion that the English should wait for the footsoldiers to recover before engaging. Bruce had ordered his men not to take either prisoners or booty until the battle was won, and so Gloucester and other high-ranking nobles, including the murdered John Comyn’s son and the veteran soldier Sir Robert Clifford, were killed.

As the front line of the English cavalry disintegrated, the English infantry behind began to run away, while the English bowmen were kept at bay by the Scottish cavalry. Then, as more Scots appeared, the English king was forced to flee too, leaving the rest of his army to escape, be captured or killed. Many died in the ‘great ditch’ of the Bannockburn, which stood between them and the road home, those that came behind running ‘dry-shod’ across their compatriots’ bodies.

Edward II had taken the field and God had found him wanting, while King Robert had been granted victory despite having murdered Comyn on the high altar of a church. As a result, the legitimate grievances of those Scots who fought against Bruce have long been consigned to history’s landfill.

 

Eternally glorified

It is difficult to pinpoint the long-term benefits that Bannockburn brought to Bruce. What’s more, the assumption that there was a direct connection between the battle and a 1328 peace treaty concluded in the aftermath of Edward II’s deposition is misplaced. But, in articulating a rhetoric of freedom, the Scottish king won an even greater battle, one that has eternally glorified the name of Bruce and Bannockburn by transforming what was predominantly a brutal civil war into an epic national struggle.

Most crucial to that image is John Barbour’s highly influential poem, The Bruce, written in the 1370s, where the future of Scotland itself was explicitly deemed to hinge on Bannockburn’s outcome. Barbour portrays the Scottish nobles’ determination to pay the ultimate price, if necessary, to liberate Scotland after their king reminded them of English tyranny and injustice.


The King Robert the Bruce Monument and the National Wallace Monument (in the background) tower over the city of Stirling, epicentre of the Scottish Wars of Independence. © Alamy

Here we supposedly have the crux of the matter, explaining why they resolved to fight and why they won. Many Scots today also know the stirring lines of the Declaration of Arbroath, a letter sent to the pope in 1320, arguing why Scotland should be independent of England and why Bruce should be its king: “It is not for glory, riches or honour that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man loses but with his life.” Stirring words indeed, but ones that would have stuck in the throats of the family of the murdered Comyn.

But facts are facts and Bruce did bring independence to his kingdom against remarkable odds. As late as the 16th century, the Scots exulted in being “18 hundred years unconquered,” which was more than could be said for England. But this was despite the scarcity of victories against the Auld Enemy after Bannockburn. Otterburn in 1388 and Ancrum Moor in 1545 are the exceptions in a catalogue of defeats, some of them catastrophic – Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill, Neville’s Cross, Homildon Hill, Flodden, Solway Moss and Pinkie.

Bannockburn cast a long shadow over Scottish military strategy, with commanders continuing to rely on spearmen long after weaponry, particularly hand-held firearms, had evolved to render them obsolete.

The Scots remember Bannockburn, then, as an exceptional victory. But that is not why it has proved such a powerful force in Scottish identity. It is the rhetoric of freedom that has chimed throughout the centuries, particularly once the parliaments of England and Scotland were dismantled in 1707 and recreated as the United Kingdom. Now a modified version of that was needed, and the view was taken that Wallace and Bruce saved Scotland from Edward I’s clutches so that it could join the union as an equal partner.

But for others, as the benefits of empire receded and Scotland’s great manufacturing base began to suffer in the 20th century, issues of freedom became bound up with questions over the political status quo. Every year a rally takes place to Bannockburn, and while the Scottish National Party no longer officially attends, their song is still Robert Burns’s Scots Wha’ Hae, inspired by Bruce’s “glorious struggle for freedom”.

The Scots are not alone in subverting the realities of the past to create a powerful and enduring myth – every nation has them. But the right of a nation to determine its own destiny is a concept that appeals across time and geography, and Scotland was one of the first to articulate such a right in medieval Europe. Bannockburn is responsible for that.

 

How the battle played out

From opening exchanges to bloody rout, a quick guide to the clash at Bannockburn

Bannockburn was fought to the south-east of Stirling Castle in central Scotland. The English army numbered roughly 2,000 cavalry and 7,000 infantry commanded by King Edward II. The Scottish army comprised around 5,000–6,000 spearmen with a few hundred cavalry led by King Robert I of Scotland.


Robert Bruce wields an axe and Edward II flees in the earliest-known depiction of the battle of Bannockburn, c1440. © AKG Images 

The English arrived on 23 June to find their way to Stirling Castle, which they were intent on relieving, blocked by the Scots. A series of skirmishes won by the Scots left Edward’s men demoralised, and they camped overnight down on the floodplain of the river Forth.

Early in the morning of 24 June, fully expecting Bruce to retreat as usual, the English were astonished to see the Scots advancing towards them. The English vanguard charged but were overwhelmed and many knights killed. The ground, near or on the floodplain of the river Forth, was difficult for cavalry to negotiate, but it was King Robert’s decision to train his spearmen to march offensively that won the day, along with the lack of leadership in the English army. Thousands of footsoldiers were killed in the bloody aftermath when the Scots were intent on seizing booty and taking noble prisoners.

 

The lead characters in the showdown at Bannockburn

King Robert I was born in 1274. He seized the throne of Scotland in 1306 and ruled for 23 years until his death on 7 June 1329. His first marriage was to Isobel, daughter of the Earl of Mar, by whom he had his daughter, Marjorie. Her son, Robert, became the first of the Stewart kings who would rule Scotland, then England, from 1371 until 1714.


Robert I (left) seized the Scottish throne after murdering his rival, John Comyn. © Topfoto

Edward Bruce, Earl of Carrick, was Bruce’s younger brother. He agreed in May 1314 with Sir Philip Moubray that Stirling Castle would be handed over to the Scots if not relieved by an English army, effectively deciding the site of the battle. He commanded one of Bruce’s divisions on 23/24 June.

Sir John Comyn of Badenoch was nephew of the Scottish king, John Balliol, and therefore a contender for the vacant throne. He was murdered by Bruce in 1306, precipitating a bloody civil war, one which Bannockburn largely brought to an end. His son, another John, was killed in the battle.

Edward II was the only surviving son of Edward I, succeeding his father in 1307.  Inheriting a bankrupt treasury, his tendency to be led by favourites brought England close to civil war on many occasions. Though no coward, at Bannockburn he had no strategy and divided his commanders among themselves.


Edward II put the interests of his favourites before the good of the nation. © AKG Images

Sir Philip Moubray was a Scot who sided against Bruce because of the murder of John Comyn. After Bannockburn, he closed the gates of Stirling Castle against King Edward and joined Bruce. He went with Edward Bruce on campaign in Ireland in 1315–18 and died with him there.

Sir Robert Clifford was a veteran of the wars in Scotland, having fought in most campaigns for nearly 20 years. On 23 June he took a contingent of knights to try to get between the Scots and Stirling Castle but was beaten back by King Robert’s nephew, Sir Thomas Randolph. Clifford was killed along with the Earl of Gloucester in the first wave of fighting on 24 June.

Dr Fiona Watson is a research fellow at the University of Dundee.

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