The Battle of Bannockburn is one of the most celebrated in Scottish history. The battle is fortunately well-documented and involved a dramatic series of interesting encounters. It is widely considered to be the decisive action of the whole First War of Scottish Independence. In its legacy, the incredible victory King Robert the Bruce’s small army achieved over its vastly superior English foes at the Battle of Bannockburn, is something Scottish nationalists are still proud of to this day.
On 20th November 1272, Edward ‘Longshanks’ took power as the Edward I of England at a mature age of 33. However, Edward was a very ambitious and youthful man and moved his island country into an expansionist direction, a policy which would stay with the United Kingdom for seven centuries until the Nuclear Era in the twentieth century. Much to his annoyance, however, his only land neighbour, Alexander III of Scotland was a very popular king and led a stable reign until his death in 1286. The ensuing dispute over succession gave Edward the opportunity he desired, and when asked for arbitration, he chose John Balliol, a weak Scottish noble whom Edward could easily manipulate as a pawn. When the Scottish court eventually removed Balliol from his duties and sought alliance with Edward’s arch-nemesis France, he used this as a pretext for invasion in 1296, thus beginning the centuries-long era of Anglo-Scottish wars.
Lead-up to Bannockburn
After shocking victories in his first campaign, Edward lost all his Scottish territories in 1297 at the hands of the new Protector of Scotland, Sir William Wallace. Despite a setback at Falkirk next summer, Scotland managed to hold its autonomy for quite some time, before collapsing to relentless English offensives in 1303. By this time, many Scottish nobles had defected to Edward, one of them being the future king Robert de Bruce. In 1305, Sir William Wallace, now a regular soldier but still a national icon, was found and executed, severely weakening the Scottish cause. Although Robert the Bruce had ostensibly pledged his allegiance to Edward and had become a close confidant, he had not yet give up on the dream of freeing his homeland and defected again in February 1306. The defection of such a high figure was greeted with enthusiasm by the Scottish resistance leaders, who soon crowned him as King Robert I of Scotland. Despite initial defeat at Methven in June, after which he famously saw a spider in a cave, Bruce speedily recovered his status following the death of Edward Longshanks in 1307. His son, Edward II, followed almost the opposite foreign policy of his father, and King Robert Bruce gradually conquered much of the Scottish territory over the course of the next seven years.
The Giant Wakes Up
By the summer of 1314, Bruce had snatched back almost all of the English-occupied areas of Scotland in a very thoughtful and gradual way, without provoking Edward II to respond with a full-scale invasion. Few Scottish nobles were still loyal to the slothful English king, and the only English stronghold still standing in the Central Belt was Stirling Castle, which was also now under siege by Edward Bruce, Earl of Carrick and Robert’s brother. Edward II finally realised the gravity of the situation and ordered unprecedented preparations for counterattack. The resulting call was answered enthusiastically and Edward marched towards the Scottish Lowlands with as many as 2,000 knights and probably over 10,000 archers and militiamen.
The Battle of Bannockburn
Edward’s immediate concern was to relieve the garrison of Stirling Castle, which was led by a Scots noble named Philip Mowbray. However, he was blocked within sight of the castle by a smaller but still formidable army of about 500 Scottish knights and over 5,000 infantry, led personally by King Robert. The bulk of the Scottish army consisted of recruits armed with long pikes, who were deployed in the notorious shiltron formations. At Falkirk, Edward II’s father had defeated precisely this kind of formation deployed by William Wallace some sixteen years ago with intense archery. Robert Bruce, however, had changed his tactics accordingly and decided to aggressively engage the English cavalry, instead of waiting to be destroyed by the Welsh longbowmen.
Battle began on the 23rd June 1314 near the modern town of Bannockburn. After a failed attempt at circumventing the Scottish position, Edward was forced to order a frontal charge in vain. During the resulting stalemate between the two forces, an English knight Henry de Bohun challenged Robert Bruce to individual combat. The resulting duel was short, but would become one of the most famed ones of Medieval Europe. Bohun charged Bruce with a lance, but the latter successfully dodged his attack, before thrusting an axe into his helmet and crushing his skull. This single duel did an enormous job in demoralising the otherwise-superior English army. Edward did not dare to try another assault on that day.
Bruce knew there was much work to be done, and what truly shows his brilliant military skills is his decision to exploit the nominal victory of the previous day to earn a real victory over Edward II; he formed a shiltron and suddenly appeared in front of the English camp at dawn. Although panicked, Edward managed to deploy his forces in formation in time, but the low morale meant that the English knights could not stand their ground and dozens were killed in the ensuing action. The English king was utterly stunned and had to be dragged out of the battlefield by his personal guards. Ironically, this time Edward did manage to reach Stirling Castle to seek refuge, but was betrayed by Mowbray. In fact, Mowbray had made a pact with the Scots that in case he was not relieved before the 24th, he would surrender and join their side. In keeping with the terms, Mowbray refused to let Edward in and he was forced to retreat to England in humiliation. The last English stronghold in Scotland (apart from a few border fortresses) had fallen to Robert Bruce.
Although defeated decisively, England still would not recognise Scotland’s independence until the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328. The Scottish victory at the Battle of Bannockburn became a legend almost immediately after the fact. In the twentieth century, a statue of Robert the Bruce riding a horse was erected near the site of the battle by the sculptor Pilkington Jackson. Today, the monument has become one of the best known national icons of the Kingdom of Scotland.
Image: Battle of Bannockburn Monument