23rd June 1314: A Very Special Day...This blog was written on the days preceding 23rd June, 2014.
My birthday on that date, falling on the anniversary of the first day of Bannockburn, has kept the conflict special to me. It's more than just a landmark, more than a defeat; it's a historical Rubicon that sent ripples of change throughout Europe. The same army that defeated the French at Agincourt one hundred years later met their nemesis on a boggy piece of land near Stirling Castle.
In the words of Scotland's National Anthem, we sent them homeward, tae think again...
The Road To Bannockburn
1st June 1314: Scotland's Waterloo 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 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.
The Road to Bannockburn
7th June, 1314; The New King is No Longshanks...
In the lead up to the historic commemoration of the landmark Scottish Battle of Bannockburn lets travel back in time ...700 years ago today, 7th June 1314:
The English King:
Edward II was no Longshanks like his father, but he was tall, athletic and good-looking, and had been king for seven years. Born in 1284, he was thirty years old when he invaded Scotland, heading for Stirling Castle and Bannockburn. It was not his first trip north. From the age of sixteen, he had accompanied his father, Edward I (of Braveheart fame), many times as he ‘hammered’ the Scots. This did not endear the king to the Scottish people.
When Longshanks died, the English nobles bustled for power, and unfortunately the new King did not quite have the strong grip of his father. Edward II’s relationship with his nobles were like a wealthy boarding school lad warily staring down a bunch of bullies. He controls them with his rank and money, but they run around him doing whatever they please most of the time. From the age of sixteen, Edward had a special ‘friend’, Piers Gaveston, and many historians have placed various suggestions as to the depth of their ‘relationship’. Suffice to say, the man held so much power over the king that the English nobles captured him and executed him in 1312. Not the best way to endear yourself with your king, but it does illustrate the nobles’ disdain of the king’s power over them.
As Edward II marches north his nobles do join the crusade, one by one, but each want the highest rank, and are prepared to fight for it. If we think of a canine analogy, the king would be best served by a team of eight huskies (the nobles) in a dog sled race... each pulling, each sharing the strain, each working in harness with each other, pulling the sled towards Stirling Castle.
In reality it is far more like the king is standing with eight pit-bulls on separate leashes, each trying hard to pull the king off his feet and use the excuse to fall on his neck, in for the kill. They pull at their leashes, while biting and snarling at each other, none of them co-operate, and the only way the king can get them to move in one direction is to throw them a bone. The bone being Stirling Castle.
From the outset, Edward has a difficult job on his hands. And he has to liberate the castle before 24th June, less than three weeks away.
The Road to Bannockburn
15th June, 1314: Bruce prepares the Battlefield...
Seven hundred years ago today-15th June, 1314- as King Robert the Bruce prepared the battlefield at Bannockburn, the possibility of defeat lay heavily on his mind. At forty years old, he was a seasoned campaigner, and his motto of “live to fight another day” had served him well in his eight year reign. He had faced defeat at English hands, but had also a victory at Lowden Hill under his belt, and seven years of a successful guerilla campaign.
Robert the Bruce Sculpture via sculpturewalksiouxfalls.com
King Edward II of England had until 24th June to touch the walls of Stirling, and relieve the castle’s siege. The long truce had given the English King sufficient time to gather a strong army and lead it northwards, the largest to invade Scotland in many years. But the Scottish king had not been idle; he had used time to his own advantage. The truce had allowed him to choose the field of battle, the confluence of the Bannock burn and the mighty River Forth, the main route to the castle.
As his army grew the Bruce had them dig thousands of small pits in the ground- most with wooden spikes and covered in grass- but not in any haphazard arrangement. The canny king ensured that the pits were strategically placed like a modern minefield, guiding the enemy into 'safe' channels, thus directing the flow of the English attack. Not only had he chosen the battlefield, he had also dictated the route of the English charge. He had laid his ‘mines’ in the better, firmer areas, and left the attacking channels in the marshier, heavier ground.
It is said that he turned away volunteers that were not well equipped, and that he did this out of a kind, kingly disposition. This may not be so. The king wanted well equipped men, yes, but he also wanted highly maneuverable, highly trained forces, arrow shaped groups of men called ‘chiltrons’, who carried long sharp pikes. He formed them into groups of a thousand strong, and drilled them every day. After weeks of practice, as they advanced and turned they were like a well-rehearsed porcupine; ready to spear unwary cavalry and infantry alike. The fore-runner of the infantry squares at Waterloo.
Battle of Bannockburn Day 1 by John Fawkes (Click to purchase)
These lightly armored, mobile troops had one other advantage; they could run away quicker than the English could follow. If Robert lost Stirling Castle, he was determined not to also lose his army. As King Robert gazed south on this day, he knew that his destiny approached. As he thought of the thousands of Englishmen, marching towards the Scottish border, perhaps he composed the address to his troops on the day of battle…
“Scots, wha hae wi Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome tae yer gory bed,
Or tae victorie…”
The Road to Bannockburn
20th June, 1314: Edward leaves Edinburgh...
Seven hundred years ago on this very day, June 20th, 1314, King Edward of England’s trumpeters roused the weary English army. They had crossed the Scottish border at Wark on the old Roman road called Dere Street, just three days ago, fording the river Tweed, and marched at breakneck speed to reach Edinburgh, Scotland’s magnificent walled city.
Edinburgh Castle, an imposing structure in any age
For a medieval army to march ninety miles in three days is a particularly arduous task. The daily structure for an army on the move was regimented and disciplined. Around 5 a.m. in the first rays of the morning sun the men must first be roused from sleep, and prepare and eat breakfast. They then strike camp; tents are collapsed, horses groomed and fed, and knights carefully armored. Coals from the campfires would be carefully preserved in iron pots for easy lighting the next evening, then the army would form up in columns, ready to march. Scouts would be sent north, both to look for possible ambushes and new sources of food. Trumpets would sound, and the long caterpillar of men would commence their march. Sometime around midday the army would stop and feed again, eating cold meats and dry bread, before returning to the march, where they trudged onward. Even at a walking speed of three miles per hour, the English army would still have needed to march ten hours per day to accomplish the task. King Edward was determined to reach Stirling Castle by the 24th June, and lift the Scottish siege.
Earliest known illustration of Battle of Bannockburn
On the morning of 20th June, 1314, after marching north for many weeks, the English Army turned abruptly to their left, and departed from the outskirts of Edinburgh, with its castle high on the grey volcanic rock, and headed eastwards for Stirling. The Lothians, the land surrounding Edinburgh, is an area of good arable farming land, and after pushing through rough moors for many days, the English army would have eaten well, finding easy pickings of sheep, poultry and cattle. The populace would have either fled into the hills, into the walled city of Edinburgh, or just hid as well as they could, as an army of 20,000 men rampaged through their lands.
Leaving an angry populace at their backs, the army marched away regardless. It would be a mistake many would rue to their dying day.
The Road to Bannockburn
23rd June, 1314: My birthday, and 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.
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...
The Road to Bannockburn
24th June 1314: The Second Day of Battle...
In the darkness of the night between 23rd and 24th of June 1314, the English army moved into position. Scotland's own mosquito-like insects from hell (midges) plagued the 20,000 men as they moved half a mile north-east to the far side of the waters of the Bannock Burn. The troops made ready to attack from the east instead of the south, where they’d had so little success the day before. Weeks of forced marching, followed by a dismal first day of battle had already sapped the English morale. Add the sleepless night and the ever-present midges bombardment and they were hardly at the top of their game. Most slept in position on the battlefield, hoping the Scots would rise late, giving them some much-needed rest.
Now aware of the English army’s low morale, the Scottish army emerged from Balquihidderock wood at the first light of dawn. Forming quickly into their hedgehog-like schiltrons, the closely packed spearmen marched onto the battlefield. Then as one ten thousand Scots fell to one knee and bowed their heads, praying to almighty God for a swift victory. To the English king and his troops it appeared that they were offering themselves for surrender. Edward's cry of victory quickly changed to dismay as the Scots rose and trumpeted their readiness to fight.
The Battle Rages
King Edward's nephew- Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester- was just 23 years old and had been fighting in the Scottish wars since he was 15. He held the reigns of the biggest section of Edward's Cavalry, and ranked first amongst the nobles. He argued that they army needed rest, but King Edward would have nothing of it. Because of the rules of siege, Stirling Castle must be reached today if it were to be rescued. An argument ensued leading to Gloucester’s charge against the Scots.
It mattered little. The Scottish schiltrons had advanced far onto the field to stop the English cavalry from reaching any momentum in their charge. At the edge of the concentrated spears, Gloucester and his men died in their hundreds. Buoyed by their victory, the schiltrons closed on the English lines where they met the rest of the English knights with their cavalry. Trapped between the advancing spears and their own army behind them, the advantage of the knights on horseback was lost. In minutes, the English vanguard fell all along the front line, it became clear that the day was lost. Then the rest of the weary English army came under the Scot's determined assault. Trapped in boggy land, and unable to flee quickly because of the number of men and the river behind them, the men soon were cut to pieces.
The English army stood in chaos. King Edward was dragged from the field and rode eastward with his personal bodyguard for 65 miles until they reached Dunbar castle, where he boarded a ship to England. Leaving his ‘superior force’ to be cut to pieces in their thousands on the field of Bannockburn, his campaign was over, and Stirling Castle given to the Scots.
Victory belonged to Robert the Bruce, King of Scotland. Nine English knights, earls and barons met their end at Bannockburn, with another nine captured and held for ransom. With their leaders gone, the army splintered. For the first time in all the wars between Scotland and England, thousands of English were caught behind enemy lines in complete disorder. It would be a difficult journey home.
The words of our National Anthem, Flower of Scotland, written by Roy Williamson of the Corries, recounts this day with a passion that still stirs the hearts of Scots the world over...
O flower of ScotlandWhen will we see your like againThat fought and died forYour wee bit hill and glenAnd stood against himProud Edward's armyAnd sent him homewardTae think again
The hills are bare nowAnd autumn leaves lie thick and stillO'er land that is lost nowWhich those so dearly heldAnd stood against himProud Edward's armyAnd sent him homewardTae think again
Those days are passed nowAnd in the past they must remainBut we can still rise nowAnd be the nation againThat stood against himProud Edward's armyAnd sent him homewardTae think again
The Road to Bannockburn
25th June 1314: The Long Journey Home...
To the rulers of the day, wars are little more than statistics-not so to the common man.
Photo by David Robertson Photography
In the aftermath of the Battle of Bannockburn, King Edward’s only thought was to reach Dunbar Castle, and find some safety in this suddenly dangerous land. He fled with his personal bodyguard of mounted knights and came to no menace on the journey east. The rest of his army found the retreat a little more perilous.
For hundreds of years the Kings of Scotland had bowed to their southern cousins, and for much of that time English Barons held positions of power in Scotland. The Earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare, so recently cut to pieces at Bannockburn, had been “Warden of Scotland” and “Captain of Scotland and the Northern Marches” in 1308 and 1309. The Scottish people had already endured much suffering at English hands. But with the English army in such complete disarray, the statistics of war were now firmly on the Scottish side.
It is estimated that 10,000 Englishmen died or were captured at the field of Bannockburn, or in the immediate vicinity. That leaves a schism of another 10,000 men scattering all over lowland Scotland, leaderless and frightened, all trying vainly to reach the English border and escape this wild and vengeful land. In their eagerness to flee, some men would band together, taking refuge in large numbers, knowing that the lowly Scottish farmer could not attack such a force. Some would run in pairs or alone, seeking safety in guile and cunning to sneak southwards.
Historian Peter Reece has given us a very frightening statistic. After the battle of Bannockburn only one group of men is recorded to have reached England in safety; a bunch of Welsh spearmen under the command of Sir Maurice de Berkeley arrived at Carlisle Castle many days later. In Reece’s opinion, less than a third of the survivors from Bannockburn ever got home. Cutting the refugees down singly or in small groups, the people of Scotland wreaked their own bloody vengeance for centuries of English oppression. The name Bannockburn would be spoken of proudly for 700 years and more.
Ultimately, the events of these ‘border wars’ so long ago still undermine a curious relationship between two countries now at peace and allies for many hundreds of years. While we Scots shake hands with our southern neighbors, it seems that even today we do so somewhat grudgingly. Scotland votes on independence this year, hoping to finally cutting the ties that the Union of the Crowns achieved in 1707. We live in historical times again.
I am a historian, writer and folk singer, so have sung and written about the cause of Scottish Freedom for many years. I was a member of the SNP and campaigned vigorously for the first bid for a Scottish Parliament years ago. I love my country and insults to her honor run deep, as illustrated vividly by this personal story:
On 15 June, 2012, England played Sweden in the group stages of the European Championship. I drove to a local "pub" in my new home town of Topeka, Kansas, where I knew I’d find huge screens to watch. Scotland hadn’t qualified, so I was here to support a Scot's next favorite team; “anyone who’s playing against England”.
In the huge bar, there were only four of us watching the game, and it became quickly clear that the two men at the next table were actually English, with the accompanying English accents. To be honest, they didn’t really converse with us much and we all watched the match with interest. Then Sweden scored, and I jumped out of my seat in exclamation. “Yes!” I punched the air. When the euphoria had died down, the nearest Englishman leaned over.
“’S’cuse me, mate?” he began in a very London accent. “You’re Scottish, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” I proudly declared, wishing I’d bought a Sweden shirt for the game.
“Then why are you supporting Sweden?” he asked.
“Seven hundred years of oppression, mate.” I crisply answered.
My wife cringed in her seat as I turned back to watch the television screen oblivious to her fears. Perhaps luckily for me England won, but when she questioned me later as to why I’d said such a cruel thing to my ‘fellow countryman’, I realized that I had not considered the snub for one second. The words had been so natural, so quickly out of my mouth, that I never gave it a second thought. Yes, to "the punters" wars are much more than mere statistics...
PHOTO CREDIT: David Robertson Photography