Monday, June 23, 2014

Road to Bannockburn ~ Battle is Joined

It's June 23rd! Happy Birthday to me, a Scot born on the anniversary of the greatest battle in Scottish history. Here follows my account of day one of the Battle of Bannockburn, a story that has fired my imagination since I was a wee lad...


23 June 1314

This morning 700 years ago today brought close to 30,000 men together on the boggy land around the stream called the Bannock Burn. With dew thick and heavy on the grass, like chess pieces arriving on the board to start a new game, the two armies arrived on the chosen field and began to move into position. Across the few hundred yards between the armies, trumpets sounded, cheers roused, and tension built.

With their shining armor glinting in the morning sun, the English army under Edward II slowly moved into sight. They had marched for weeks to arrive just one day before the deadline to lift the Scottish siege of Stirling Castle. Edward had almost 20,000 men, which included almost 3000 mounted, heavily armored cavalry, easily sufficient to deal with the much smaller Scottish force before them.

Although 16,000 pikemen, archers and crossbowmen had marched hard to reach the castle in time, and were weary from the last march from Edinburgh, the English were in confident mood. But Edward’s scouts had disturbing news for their sovereign. In the weeks that they had moved north, King Robert Bruce of Scotland had carefully mined the battlefield. Deep pits covered with grass littered the area in front of the Scottish position, and the only clear routes for a charge had been left in marshy areas of deep, cloying mud. A straightforward cavalry charge would be fraught with danger.

Perhaps reticent to launch a full attack, the English cavalry advanced and in the face of the Scottish chiltrons, they could not press to sufficient advantage. As the English cavalry withdrew and regrouped, the most celebrated single combat in Scottish history took pace.

The Solitary Charge

Henry de Bohun was the nephew of the Earl of Hereford, an English knight in full heavy plate armor, armed with a long lance. With an armored heavy horse under him, the partnership weighed more than a ton. Perhaps frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the first English charge, he lingered on the battlefield. Then he spotted an opportunity far too good to pass up.

King Robert Bruce had no such protection. Mounted on a light horse, he rode in front of the Scottish lines in light armor, rousing his troops. Armed with only an axe, he wore his golden crown on top of his helmet to identify him in the midst of battle. His tabard would have shown the single red rampant lion against a shining yellow background.

With the crown of Scotland for his prize, Henry de Bohun spurred his horse into a canter, heading straight for the Scottish king. There was little time to act, and although shouts of warning reached the king’s ears, he held his position facing the Englishman, and slipped the axe into his hand, ready for the strike.

This was all or nothing.

As the thundering of the charge neared, de Bohun’s lance lowered, ready to skewer Bruce and win the day in a single action. Behind him, Bruce heard the cheer fade, every eye on the battlefield on the two men, one charging, one standing ready. The only sound under the afternoon sun - the heavy hooves of de Bohun’s horse.

Silence.

As it seemed that victory could only fall to the charge of sinew and steel, as Henry de Bohun  reached King Robert, the scot spurred his horse a few steps to one side. At such speed, and such momentum, you cannot change the direction of charge quickly. As Henry de Bohun tried in vain to alter his aim, the lance passed uselessly along King Robert Bruce’s side. The scot stood high in the stirrups of the light horse, and as Henry rode past, he swung his axe at the knight’s helmet.

The sound rang around the battlefield like a bell.

Bruce’s axe clove the helmet in two, and also the head of Henry de Bohun. The man was dead before his body fell from his horse. And as the scots cheered their king, Edward of England knew the day’s fighting was over. Battle would begin again tomorrow, on the last day to lift the siege...



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