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Bannockburn History

Bannockburn was a key battle in the Scottish War of Independence, taking place in 1314. It was between the Scots, under Robert the Bruce, and the English under Edward II. The Scots had taken control of the land north of the Forth, after many years of fighting, and were keen to expand their territory. Just south of this point lay Stirling Castle which was an extremely strategic place and was occupied by the English under the governor, Sir Philip Mowbray.

The Scottish King’s brother Edward Bruce had laid siege to the castle, attempting to starve the English into surrender. With no sign of an end to the deadlock, he made a pact with Mowbray that if the English reinforcements didn’t arrive by June 24th, the castle would be surrendered. The King was not one for pacts and was livid with his brother for allowing the English the chance to fortify the castle, but Edward had made a similar arrangement in Dundee two years before, which had seen the castle turned over to the Scots. The English hadn’t sent an army up for over two years, so it seemed a fairly safe bet.

The news filtered south and Edward II of England took up the challenge, amassing an army of 25,000 soldiers to crush the Scots. He felt that this was his chance to defeat the Scots once and for all. He recruited an awesome unit, comprising the finest infantry, 2,000 bowmen, 2,500 heavy cavalry and 500 light cavalry. They were supported by an enormous following of weapons and supplies, and they must have been an incredible sight as they travelled north. There were about 10,000 Scots to repel them.

Edward gathered his men together at Berwick two weeks before the deadline, before advancing on to Stirling, where they arrived on 23rd June.

Robert the Bruce had anticipated the road that Edward would arrive by and dug it to the extent that the English army would have no alternative but to deviate onto the ‘carse’, an area of land normally wet in the winter and dry in the summer. At the time it was boggy. Robert chose the battle site before the English arrived, arriving there with his army in May. He used a narrow gap between two forests and through blocking and digging pits to the sides, made the forests impregnable. The English couldn’t now outflank the Scots and couldn’t engage all their troops together as the gap was too narrow.

The Scots were divided into four units. They were respectively led by Robert, his brother Edward, Thomas Randolph and James Douglas. They had men with spears and minimal armour, a small number of archers and a relatively small cavalry unit.

As an aside, Mowbray had come from the castle to ask for relief for his beleaguered troops and Edward obliged by giving him 500 cavalry. On the way to the castle, under Sir Beaumont and Sir Clifford, the cavalry were cut off by unmounted Scots who fought mainly with spears. The cavalry charged, but the Scots held firm, using a defence mechanism called a schiltrom. This involved many men who formed a circle and who held a multitude of sharp 15ft long picts. These spears were held inside the circle, aimed outwards. Done properly, it was an impregnable unit that could even repel mounted cavalry. This they did, to the extent that they ended up charging the cavalry. The English lost 100 men and retreated back to the unit. It had a major psychological effect on both camps.

The main battle lines had been drawn and the situation was tense. What happened next was a bizarre prelude to the main event of the next day. An English knight, Henry De Bohun, nephew of one of the commanders, spotted a lone figure at the head of the Scots lines. He spotted the crown on his head and recognised him as Robert the Bruce, although he wore no armour, was riding a small palfrey and had only an axe as a weapon. Recognising the monumental effect of killing the leader, and quite probably ending the war before it started, he bore down on the king with his charging steed and lance at the ready. Rather than retreat back to his troops, the king stood firm and at the last moment dodged the incoming lance and killed du Bohun with his axe. Whilst his troops were shocked at the risk taken, the result was a second psychological blow by the Scots and spirits then couldn’t have been higher. This episode seemed to epitomise the whole event – as the more heavily equipped Englishman was slain by the guile of the Scot.

Due to the location of the English encampment that night, Robert had to rethink his battlesite plans. It now became obvious that the action would take place on a flat area to the side of his intended forest bottleneck, with the area being much larger than he would have liked. One thing in his favour was the large gorge the English would have to cross to get there, and in particular the steep gorge face they would have to climb up to get to the flat area on top. Robert saw the potential for chaos within the English ranks if he advanced and drove those that had made it up over to the top, back down into the climbing forces behind. Despite the summer conditions, the ground was wet and boggy and ill suited to heavy cavalry.

At first light on June 24th the Scots were in position at the top of the gorge and were given a final address and a church blessing. There were 7,000 of them. Edward spotted them all kneeling and announced to his men that they are ‘praying for mercy’, but one of his attendants remarked that ‘yes, they are, but from God – they’re ready to conquer or die’.

There was a brief argument between Edward and one of his commanders, the Earl of Gloucester. The Earl was rebuked and charged the Scots prematurely in anger, advancing up the gorge. This English disorganisation set the tone for the battle. The schiltroms stood firm and took the force of the cavalry and the English took heavy losses.

The English disorganisation continued, with the archers, waiting across the gorge, being given the order to fire and now doing so indiscriminately into the melee that ensued. They were now hitting many of their own men who were retreating. Robert had 500 cavalry in waiting for when the archers became involved, and summoned them from the forest at this point. The archers scattered.

The Scots, in formation, followed the English retreat and drove them down the gorge. As Robert had planned, the English retreaters were now being driven into the English reinforcements trying to climb the gorge. Chaos evolved in the English ranks. Horses and men were tumbling over each other down into the river and it became one mass crush in the English ranks. The English scattered. Many died in the crush, and of the survivors, many were picked off by the advancing Scots. Others drowned in attempting to cross the forth.

With his bodyguards, Edward escaped, and made for Stirling Castle. Sir James Douglas gave chase. The governor, Sir Philip Mowbray met Edward at the gate, but refused him entry as it would be against the pact that he had made with the Scots. Edward sped off south with Douglas in pursuit and eventually made it to Dunbar Castle, from where a ship took him back to England.

For the Scots this was the culmination of 18 years of warfare to drive the English out. It became a significant point in Scottish history.

 

Bannockburn Visit

The exact location of the battle is a point of much conjecture with scholars divided as to where it lies today. It’s generally believed to have been in the area at the bottom of the hill, to the south of the monument with the monument site being a point where soldiers spent the night before the battle.

The Heritage Centre itself gives a great account of the battle, suggested locations and all manner of items in the gift shop.