Sunday, June 1, 2014

Road to Bannockburn: 1st June 1314- Bannockburn Beckons


The Battle of Bannockburn is Scotland's Waterloo. It shaped the relationship between Scotland and England for many years, and allowed peace between the two countries for decades. I was born in Edinburgh on the same date as the battle, 23rd June, and as the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn nears, (and my 55th birthday) it seems as if both myself and the Battle collide once more. It made me wonder what was happening seven hundred years ago, how the battle was shaped, how the armies prepared. So we look back into a dark and primitive time, and I embraced my Scottish roots once more.


The scene...
The English King Edward’s plan was simple, take his English army, march north, and relieve Stirling Castle, which was under siege in lowland Scotland. But Robert Burns, writing ‘To a Mouse’ almost five hundred years later knew that even the simplest plans can often crumble or go awry; The best laid plans o’ Mice an’ men Gang aft agley. Under the agreement by King Robert Bruce’s brother, King Edward had until the 24th June to reach the castle to stop it falling into Scottish hands. Supposedly an easy task when you outnumber the enemy by four to one. Supposedly.

On the English side…
Seven Hundred Years Ago on This Day… on June 1st, 1314, King Edward rode at the head of a huge English army, his men marching slowly over the moors near the English border. They probably advanced up Dere Street, a still-existing road built by the Romans more than a thousand years before. English armies had used this route in the past, and they would use it many times again. With between 2000 and 3000 mounted knights, the procession would have looked impressive. With an accompanying force of 16,000 foot soldiers, consisting of pikemen, archers, crossbowmen and common soldiers, at around 19,000 men it was the largest force to advance north into Scotland for many years. The army had been preparing and assembling for almost three months, they were superior in every way to their waiting Scottish counterparts, and they knew it. And all they had to do was get to Stirling Castle, touch the walls, and the siege would be over, the result of a two year gentleman’s agreement.

On the Scottish side…
Seven Hundred Years Ago on This Day… on June 1st, 1314, King Robert Bruce held camp in the Tor woods near Stirling Castle. His army knew that a force to relieve the castle was already on its way. Gradually, in ones and twos his army grew, but he knew the significance of a small well-trained and equipped army, so sent home those who presented themselves with little arms or armour. Robert Bruce had the advantage of picking the terrain, and he chose the marshy land where the Bannock burn (stream) meets the much larger river Forth. Bruce knew the force had to come by 24th June, and used his time to prepare small pits in the battlefield, three feet deep, spiked at the base, and covered in dry straw. Through the strategic positioning of these holes, he could funnel Edward’s army through a small bottlenecks. Bruce had far fewer men at his disposal, no more than 6000 or 7000 foot soldiers and perhaps 500 mounted knights. He needed every advantage he could draw from the ground, and he meant to use it.

Seven Hundred Years Ago on This Day… on June 1st, 1314, neither the men marching north, nor the men digging pits knew the significance of their actions. No one knew the carnage that would befell them just 23 days later.

Part 1 of 7 in my Road to Bannockburn series

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