Robert the Bruce & Battle of Bannockburn, pt.2

"The Bruce Bannockburn and Beyond" (excerpt2)

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"The Battle of Bannockburn"

The Battle Begins

On 22 June, Bruce drew up his men on the ridge straddling the old Stirling-Falkirk road. To the south just at the bottom was the winding stream known as the Bannock burn. It joined the Forth River a mile or two north-east across some marshes. There, about 12,000 men waited, ready for battle under their commanders, Thomas Randolph, Bruce's nephew and Earl of Moray, Edward Bruce, James Douglas and Robert Keith. The English, meanwhile, were coming up alongside the the old Roman road from Falkirk towards Bannockburn. Edward II detached a strong force 3,000 of horsemen and infantry under the Earl of Gloucester, and sent it on a head to attack the Scots on their hill. Simultaneously, he sent a smaller force of cavalry round the back of the ridge to wait to deal with the fleeing Scots as they were dislodged from the hill by Gloucester, or so he anticipated.

Charge of English Heavy Horse
[English charge] Led by Gloucester and Hereford, the English vanguard dashed with great bravery or foolishness at the right wing of the Scots, under Edward Bruce. A rivalry between these two Earls made this attack so precipitate as to diminish its effect. Firm stood the Scottish spearmen in their ranks, presenting a serried wall of steel which resisted the enemy. There was a great crash of spears at the first shock, and good many knights were dismounted and slain, while their horses, maddened with wounds, carried confusion to the rear. When the Earl of Moray saw the right wing thus successfully engaged, he brought up the centre to meet the main body of English with such spirit that he began to gain ground upon them and to pierce their masses at push of spear, "so that his men appeared to be lost amid the multitude, as if they had been plunged into the sea."

This initial cavalry "charge" however was repulsed by the steadfast Scottish schiltrons. The charge or rush was a failure. The Earl of Gloucester had been unhorsed, and the Scottish army had not wavered at any point.

In the meantime a small detachment of English cavalry under Clifford and de Beaumont, perhaps some 700 strong, felt their way along the withdrawn Scottish wastern flank, gradually easing themselves into a narrow funnel between Stirling and Bruce's army. Bruce, realising that he could not fill this gap, had left it open to trap this force and destroy them before the main English army could expolit this weakness. Bruce was clever and quick in his military decisions and this action probably saved many Scots from death and turned it into an opportunity for a Scottish rout of the trapped English force. The Scottish troops on the right flank now fell upon the English cavalry. Instead of making a tactical withdrawl, Clifford foolishly engaged two of the waiting Schiltrons. He was killed immediately, and the few survivors of his force were driven off -- some to returned to their positions in the main body of the army, others to take shelter in Stirling Castle.

Randolph Restores the Rose

Edward II ordered a flanking movement to the east, either to reconnoiter the Scots position, or to escort Philip de Mowbray back to his corner in the castle, where he should properly have been by rules of the day. Before they reached the castle, or upon their return, Thomas Randolph's lightning division came out of the Park and attacked them. Randolph, angered or humiliated by Bruce's taunt, that he had let a rose fall from the king's chaplet in allowing Clifford to pass, made up for it his swift attack. The sloping ground was broken, and Clifford drew back to bring the scattered attack further into the open. When he finally charged the spearmen they came together like iron dust to a magnet.

[Bannockburn]There was a bloody melee about the barbed and unbreakable Schiltron with unsaddled knights, skewered horses and masked in dust. As the Scots advanced in slow, pace-by-pace schiltrons, the English were shocked and horrified to see that the immobile schiltron that Wallace had developed was now a moving, offensive unit under Bruce. It came on slowly and unstoppably like a slow moving train. This was a new develoment in the use of the schiltron and the English were totally unprepared to fight against an offensive, mobile, speared unit which previously had been a stationary object.

The circling riders of the English hurled their lances and swords against the crawling schiltron in impotent fury, and then broke off the fight, some riding to the castle and others back across the carse. By the loss of only one man only, it is said, Randolph had restored the rose to Bruce's crown.

A Dark Wet Night

It was the only major action of the day, now dying in a sultry summer dusk. Before nightfall the English army began to move on to the carse, making camp three miles or less from the New Park on a narrow ground between the Bannock and a bend of the River Forth. Edward needed water for his parched men and horses, but it was an insane choice for a camp. Almost an island, the Forth to its right and rear, and the deep-sided burn on its left. The earth was marshy, veined by tiny streams and each a hazard to heavy cavalry.

During that short simmer night the English nobles had taken what they saw as the best of the terrible ground around Bannockburn for their brief rest. The archers and foot-soldiers had been forced to lie on soggy, marshy land near the stream.

The cavalry were forced back even farther into the deep waters of the burn as the press of the infantry had left no room and dry ground was nowhere to be found. The knights were forced to either stand and sleep against their horses. Several men drowned that night in the black cool burn and stream. That night, according to their own chroniclers, many of the English foot-soldiers were drunk, but others made fascines of wood and brush to fill the brooks in the morning. On their front to the south-west, the dark rise of the New Park was highlighted by Scottish campfires. During the dark hours before dawn, Airth, another Scots commander, and his men at Cambuskenneth were attacked and killed by the Earl of Atholl, who thought this a favourable moment to gratify his family's quarrel with Bruce.

The night for the English army was a disaster as was the battle of the previous day. According to English chroniclers, foot-soldiers were drunk and morale was low. The entire army had been forced back by the Scots, and now had to camp in the chilly wet burn and many English lost their lives in the crush of horses and men being pushed into the burn where many drowned. The knights, having no where to rest tried vainly to get sleep by leaning against the weary and startled horses. Others simply climbed onto the backs of their mounts and tried to sleep sitting up, further stressing the nearly panicked beasts in the foot deep marsh and bog.

The English chronicler, Sir Thomas Gray, said that Bruce was doubtful of the next day's fight and talked of retiring southward, over the Campsie Fells and into the strong ground of Lennox. He decided to stay after he had spoken with a deserter from Edward's camp. This man was a Scottish knight, Sir Alexander Seton, who sweetened his shameful arrival with news that although the English were demoralized they could not believe that Bruce would leave his postions in the Park, to come against them. He offered his head if this were not so. "If you attack them in the morning you will defeat them easily and without loss." I've not been able to confirm it.

That account comes from Gray's 'Scalachronia'. He had heard the story from his father, who was taken prisoner in Clifford's fight. No other chroniclers mention it. Moray McLaren, who wrote "If Freedom Fail", suggests that Bruce had already made up his mind to attack and what Gray's father heard was a discussion on a possible line of retreat in the event of disaster. Again, this is somewhat speculative.

The English army, its nose bloodied and its morale shaken, sheltered for the night in the marshy ground around the Bannock. The following morning after a miserable and exhausting night, Sunday 24 June, Midsummer Day, the Scottish priests said mass before each of the Scots schiltons. The English also prepared themselves in prayer. Despite the difficulties of the previous day, the English thought it was possible that Bruce would withdraw his army and surrender his position before Stirling. But Bruce had decided to risk all in one battle, and as the English took their positions they found the three Scottish divisions advancing towards them.

June 24, The Next Morning

The Scots rose early on the day, the Feast of St. John the Baptist, another day of sun and heat. They took an early Mass then broke their fast with bread and water. When Bruce had knighted the Steward, James Douglas, and others, he ordered his army forward on the carse. Edward Bruce's division led the advance, followed on his left by Randolph and the Steward, with Bruce and his Gaels closely in the rear. They formed a staggered line, scracely a mile across, approaching the narrow neck of marshy ground where the English stood between the River Forth and the burn.

In the dawn light, the English knights impatiently mounted their horses, keen to avenge the humiliation they suffered the previous day. They expected Robert to remain in his defensive position, awaiting their attack. They would be surprised.

The Scots arrived on the carse with four coloured divisions with banners and steady spears, marching upon armoured cavalry, the heavy horse of the English. Edward II was rightly astonished. "Will they fight?" he asked.

"They will fight", said Ingram de Umfraville, once the guardian of Scotland and now its enemy. The king could not believe it, and was soon sure the Scots were yielding. Some distance across the carse they halted, probably to tighten their formation. With good discipline they crouched or knelt with spears thrust into the earth to take a sudden charge. "They kneel!" said Edward. "They ask for mercy!" Not from you, he was told by de Umfraville.

"To God they pray, for them it's death or victory." So be it then, said Edward, and ordered his trumpets to sound.

According to author John Prebble, Barbour started this unlikely story that the Scots knelt to pray halfway across the carse, and it was believed for centuries and by generations who liked to think that the courage of their ancestors had been well laced with piety. Clearly, Bruce's men had made already their peace with God at the morning Mass, and to make it again at this moment, at this place, would have been dangerous as well as superflous.

The Forces Clash Again

The English had been expecting the Scots and their schiltron to make a defensive stand. But the Scots had been well prepared by Bruce to use the once stationary schiltron as a mobile unit and he led them in the offensive, rolling down the hillside in three densly-packed schiltrons. Robert Keith's 500 light horse cavalry was waiting behind the schiltrons for instructions from Bruce. Foot-soldiers daring to attack horsemen! The English could not believe their luck. This, they must have thought, would be an easy victory.

English Meet the schiltrons
[Front lines at Bannockburn]
The Earl of Gloucester was among the first of the knights to charge upon the Scots. Spears cracked and splintered showering down a rain of dangerous wood fragments and splinters as the forces clashed.The Scots held firm. No matter how may knights hurled themselves on the forest of points, the schiltrons rolled on. Bruce had trained his schiltrons well in mobility, and the English were totally unprepared for this new tactic. It had been thought impossible to get a body of foot-soldiers to march into heavy cavalry without loosing unity and organisation.

But the Scots had drilled hard under Bruce's careful eye and it was now paying off in victories.

Edward recklessly ordered the Earl of Gloucester to lead his cavalry forward. This was a pointless attack: the Scottish schiltrons stood their ground, and soon Gloucester and much of the best blood of English chivalry were impaled on the hedge of the 12-foot spears. The Welsh and English archers, whom Edward's father used so skillfully, and with deadly results against the Scots at Falkirk, were still in their night position. At best they could only fire over the heads of the charging English knights. At worst, they shot into their backs.

Gloucester died at once, thrust from the chair of his saddle, and his vengeful knights splintered the Scottish spears with their own eager bodies, "till through their armour burst the blood, and streamed to the earth in growing flood". In the clashing of metal, the terrible cries from dust-dry throats, Randolph and the Steward came up on the left to support Edward Bruce, and the English van withdrew for a brief and sweaty respite. The Scots line did not halt, but rolled onward like an unstoppable boulder of spikes. Bridging the neck of land between river and burn, it marched slowly on with lowered spears. Edward's army was contained where it could not deploy, his over twenty thousand infantry held uselessly behind the wall of his cavalry. The ground in between was now too soggy, and a great cavalry charge was no longer possible. When the spear-hedge reached them, the knights threw their lances like javelins and drew their swords.

"A mighty struggle then was seen,
And many fighters bold and keen
With spears, with maces and with knives,
And other weapons, braved their lives,
And many of them there fell dead.
With blood the grass became all red.

It was horrible to see and hear, said Barbour, seeing it and hearing it years later in the fireside tales of old men. "For men of valour and of might did many deeds of courage."

Click on this link to see the battlefield map of Bannockburn !

Map of Bannockburn battlefield and troop positions.

The Battle Becomes Hand to Hand Combat

Close combat at Bannockburn
[Bannockburn] Now on came the Scottish left wing, under Walter the Steward, and Sir James Douglas, so that the whole line was engaged in a desperate hand to hand conflict with the enemy. Again and again the English cavalry strove by desperate and futile charges to break the columns of the magnificent Scottish shiltrons, and every attack was repelled, for horse and man went down before them.

Bruce's spearmen advanced steadily, gradually pressing the English army into the marshy ground where they could not maneuver. With superb generalship he brought his right flank forward and turned it north-east to force its way along the banks of the burn. Archers in the English army began to assemble at last on the Scots right flank, their lethal torrents of steel tipped arrows falling on the advancing Scots, seriously endangering the Scots schiltrons. Bruce ordered his cavalry, under Robert Keith, to disperse the archers. The valiant Keith took his 500 lightly horsed soldiers into the mass of English heavy cavalry and sought out the Welsh/English archers.

With their knights already immersed in the melee, the Welsh and English archer had little opportunity to break the Scots with their arrow storm. The battle was now a hand-to-hand struggle. Axe against sword, spears thrust through visors, maces and flails bashing skulls. The lightly-armoured Scots leaped among the fallen mail-clad knights, hammering them mercilessly.

Too late Edward tried to use the archers whose whispering arrows and long white bows had won Falkirk for his father. A company or two of archers slipped along the bank of the Forth and thumbed their cloth-yards into the dense flank of the Steward division, before the arrival of Keith's horsemen.

Keith's Cavalry Called into Action

[English Archers] The Scots infantry crushed the English towards the marshy river bank. Despite the chaos of the crowded fighting, English and Welsh arrows still fell hard and these Robert feared most. He therefore called for a counter-attack on the archers. He sent Robert Keith's 500 lightly armoured horsemen to scatter or destroy the archers hampering the right flank. Keith and his 500 light horsemen, came swiftly round the flank of the morass, and as the archers had only small swords to defend themselves, especially against cavalry, they were almost immedietely overthrown, huddled together, cut down, or dispersed in all directions, thus spreading even more confusion and disorder throughout the whole English army. Part fled to their main body and could not be induced to rally. Now some Scottish Ettrick shortbow archers, inferior in number and equipment to the English opponents, came into action, and, after galling the cavalry without opposition, made havoc among them with the short heavy axes which Bruce had ordered them to carry.

The Gillie Reserves Called In

A Scottish schiltron in battle.
[Bannockburn's final moments]The schiltron pressed on. Robert then called for his reserve of Highlanders on Coxet Hill, often misidentified as "camp followers" they were actually a large reserve of "Gillies" or Highlands clansmen who had been waiting for this signal. The wild Highlanders charged down from the hill on Bruce's command and in typical Highland fashion went headlong at full running speed into the clash of arms and armour of the English forces, fighting alonside their Lowland and other Highland neighbours. The very sight of these reserves, these wild "Irish" as the English often called them, sent the already hapless English army into a full scale, disorganised retreat. Scotsmen leaned on their comrades in front, pushing and heaving forward. English knights trampled their fellow warriors into the mud in desperation to escape. Horses and men fell into the stream, drowning.

Realising the battle was lost, English noblemen grabbed the reins of their king and led him away.

The English Break and Run

The English King, Edward II, had already had a 15 minute head start on his departure before any of the other of his nobles were able to attempt to retreat. The Scots, gaining ground and pressing on the wavering masses of the English, were shouting from wing to wing. "On them! On them! They fail -- they fail!". The Ghillies or Gillies, Highland reserves, were now pushing the remaining English into the marsh, burn and river and to certain death. The Highlander was considered a fighter without equal on his own, but was an undisciplined fighter. It had served the Gaels well in the past, the famous Highland charge, but was to later be part of their downfall when superior tactic were employed against it. But not on this day, as this type of battle, a clash of bodies, allowed the Highlander to use this superior fighting skill to his best advantage. The normal organised English discipline had been lost and all that was left for them was to wait to die at the hands of the Highland reserves who were tearing enormous holes through all the English lines. Bruce, seeing this effect upon the enemy put himself at the head of the reserve and raising his war-cry, fell on the recoiling enemy, who gave way in all directions, and then the slaughter became terrible.

The deep ravine of Bannockburn, to the south of the field, lying in the direction taken by most of the fugitives, was literally choked and bridged over by the slain, the difficult nature of the soggy ground retarding the English horsemen till the Scottish spears and Highlanders were upon them.

Many rushed into the river Forth and drowned. In an futlie attempt to restore the fight, the young Earl of Gloucester rode back upon the Scottish infantry, but was immediately unhorsed and slain, without being recognised, at a place still called the Bloody Faulds (fields).

Earlier, seeing all was lost, the Earl of Pembroke (Aymer de Valence) and Sir Giles de Argentine seized Edwards reigns, who had been trying desperately to flee, and took him off the field. As soon as he was safely on his way back to England with Pembroke, Sir Giles bade him farewell; an adding, "It is not my wont to fly," he raised his war-cry of "Argentine!" and rushing back upon the Scottish spears was quickly slain.

The Toll on The English

Spoils of War
[Spoils of war]The Earl of Gloucester, thirty-four barons, over two-hundered of Englands best knights; over 700 esquires of high birth and blood, of the noblest names in England, along with more than 30,000 soldiers were slain. The Earl of Hereford and Angus and some 70-100 other knights were captured, and ransom negotiations for their release went on for a year after the battle. The "Battle of the Pools", as the English called it, completely destroyed England's claim to the Scottish throne. The two countires would not be united for nearly four more centuries.The English castles now surrendered, and finally, after years of struggle and hardship, Robert the Bruce was the undisputed King of Scotland and ruler of all land beyond the Tweed.

After the battle of Hastings in 1066, when William the Conqueror of Normandy invaded and destroyed the Saxon English army, Bannockburn was the greatest and most humiliating defeat the English had in medieval history.

Conversely, this was the single biggest, most grand victory the Scots had ever had over anyone, especially the English. This would prove to be Scotlands most important victory for it assured, in time, the independence and freedom of Scotland, even if only for a while. Never again would the Scots achieve such a victory despite resisting the English attempts at domination for the next 431 years. Scotland was free, thanks to Robert the Bruce, warrior and hero king of Scotland.

Edwards Flight, and Douglas's Pursuit

Edward II of England
[Edward II]
After fleeing the battlefield with assistance, Edward in his confusion, after making a great circuit, rode to Stirling, where he sought admittance to the castle. But Mowbray was true to his pledge, and refused to open the gates. The king was then compelled to take the road for England, pursued all the while by Sir James "the Black" Douglas, with sixty horse. At length the worn fugitive reached the castle Dunbar, where he was hospitably received by the Earl of March, who sent him in a fishing skiff to Berwick. The castle of Stirling capitulated on the day after the battle.

Scottish Gain and Loss

The Scottish loss was surprisingly small; the quantity of spoil gained by the victors was inestimate, while the ransoms for life and liberty paid by the prisoners added to the treasury of the long-impoverished Scots.

Two hundred pairs of gilded spurs were found on the English dead; many knights lay long unburied, especially at a place called Polmaise, which signifies "the pool of rotting". Vessels of gold and silver, splendid armour, rich apparel from Edwards baggage trains, sumptuous horse and tent furniture, and, though last but not least, the chest of money for paying the English troops, were taken.

One result of the battle of Bannockburn was that Edward lost all control over England.

"Lancaster [the Earl who refused to join Edward in his mission to Scotland on the grounds that a parliament must be called before the King could lawfully make war] was practically supreme; he and his fellows put the King on an allowance and removed his personal friends (favourites) and attendents as they chose." (Stubbs)

Next: The Aftermath of Bannockburn & the Bruce's in Ireland. A Celtic unfication? The Bruces made an effort for it.

  • The Bruces in Ireland - Post Bannockburn, pt.3

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