Scottish Independence: The Battle of Bannockburn Pt 4

by JoHarrington

The final day at Bannockburn is the one that's gone down in history. 700 years ago, Robert the Bruce cried 'Freedom' for his Scots on that famous battlefield.

It was nominally a battle over control of Stirling Castle. In reality, it was much, much more.

Robert the Bruce was determined to free his country from English control. Edward II was equally prepared to fight for the right to keep Scotland as a vassal state.

As the two armies faced each other across the Bannock Burn, a gambling person might have seen the odds and put money on England to win. But as any Scot can tell you, this was to become their nation's biggest, most significant and unlikely victory in history.

Edward II's Dodgy Decisions at the Battle of Bannockburn

For most of the English, the second day of Bannockburn was actually their first. That did not make it any better in terms of physical comfort and freshness.

The main bulk of the English army had arrived overnight. They were greeted with the news of two major defeats in the preliminary battles, and the loss of much of their vanguard cavalry.

English bodies littered the pass before Stirling Castle, and still lay before the Scots on the New Park. It was a major blow to morale, even as it had the opposite effect upon the rebels.

Edward II and his sixteen thousand strong entourage of warriors spent a miserable night huddled just inside the carseway, placed precisely where Robert the Bruce would have them.

Nor was that fact lost on them.

The English had very little sleep that night, if any at all. Edward II had been apprised of the booby-trapped areas, funneling them into positions favorable to the Scots. He surveyed the terrain himself and made a terrible decision.

He ordered his knights, with the archers and infantry behind them, to make their way around the east side of the New Park. His hope was that the woodland would cover their movements, until they'd out-flanked the Scots and made it to Stirling Castle.

What his intelligence had plainly missed was that that same woodland was where the main bulk of the Scottish army had their camps.

Read the History So Far

The Battle of Bannockburn marked a key turning point in Scottish history. Its 700th anniversary is in 2014. Robert the Bruce forged freedom for Scotland.
The Fate of a nation was decided at Bannockburn. Yet 700 years ago, Scotland's most famous battle for freedom nearly wasn't fought at all.
At Midsummer 1314, the scene was set for one of Britain's most historic clashes. The English fatally under-estimated the Scots, in their struggle for independence.

Robert the Bruce's Bannockburn Address

Around 3.30am, on June 24th 1314, Robert the Bruce addressed his amassed army. Bernard de Linton, Abbot of Arbroath and acting Chancellor of Scotland, noted down the words that he said:

'For eight years or more I have struggled with much labor for my right to the kingdom and for honorable liberty.

I have lost brothers, friends and kinsmen. Your own kinsmen have been made captive; and bishops and priests are locked in prison.

Our country's nobility has poured forth its blood in war. These barons you see before you, clad in armor, are bent upon destroying us and obliterating the kingdom, nay, our whole nation.

They do not believe that we can resist.'

Then he gave the order to attack.

The English and Scots Lines Drawn at Bannockburn

Edward II's forces greatly out-numbered the Scots by at least three to one. It was a statistic that would end up being a disadvantage.

The Scottish army at Bannockburn was largely split into thirds.  Robert, his brother Edward and Sir Thomas Randolph (later Earl of Moray) each controlled a division.

However there was a smaller group too. Headed by Walter the Steward on paper, in reality it had the much more experienced Sir James Douglas at its helm. Walter might have out-ranked him, but he was also only seventeen years old.

Upon Robert's order, the divisions belonging to Edward, Thomas and James each began to edge east through the woodland. Edward the Bruce's men were in the vanguard and, as they reached the tree-line, they all knelt down to pray.

Edward II is said to have exclaimed, "They pray for mercy!"

"For mercy, yes." One of his antagonistic nobles responded, "But from God, not from you."

Meanwhile the Earl of Gloucester had fully grasped the danger approaching. He harangued his king to quickly give his orders, but Edward II still seemed under the impression that his 'loyal' Scots were on the verge of surrendering out of sheer fear.

While Edward prepared himself to be suitably magnanimous - accusing his counselor of cowardice for urging speed - the Earl of Gloucester lost his temper.

Without even bothering to finish putting on his armor, the knight yelled at his own men to assemble and they hurtled headlong towards the Scots. 

Even having been warned about the heavy casualties of the previous day, Gloucester seems to have under-estimated the discipline amongst the Scottish schiltrons. 

His cavalry rushed towards the highly mobile cluster of pikemen, and were quickly skewered.

With daybreak only just dawning, the first victory of the day had gone to Edward Bruce.

Books About Bannockburn

Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce's great victory (Campaign)

Osprey's study of the Battle of Bannockburn, which was part of the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328) and the climax of the career of King Robert the Bruce. In 1307 ...

View on Amazon

Bannockburn: The Triumph of Robert the Bruce

Few battles resonate through British history as strongly as Bannockburn. On June 24, 1314, the Scots under the leadership of Robert the Bruce unexpectedly trounced the English, ...

View on Amazon

A Douglas! A Douglas!

A Douglas! A Douglas! is a romantic, action packed and emotionally inspiring novel based on the true story of Sir James Douglas, a gallant and fearless Scottish knight of mediev...

View on Amazon

Poster Map of the Battle of Bannockburn

Plan to Illustrate the Battle of Bannockburn

Enter the Deadly Arrows of Bannockburn's Welsh Archers

Dawn was just rising, as most of the Scottish army charged out of the New Park woodland. The English were not prepared.

The English were barely given time to draw breath, before Douglas and Randolph both gave the order for their infantry to join those led by Edward Bruce.  All three divisions charged down the escarpment, heading straight for the front lines of the English army.

Exhausted, stiff and some quite soggy from wading through the Bannock Burn to get there, the English weren't exactly quick on the uptake. The Scots plowed into them, coming dangerously close to Edward II himself.

As was the norm, the lethal Welsh archers began unleashing a volley of arrows onto their fellow Celts. But the bottle-neck configuration of the English front line - forced into being by the 'pots' lining the wayside - meant that their own side couldn't get out of the way fast enough.

The Welsh killed more English at Bannockburn, than they ever did Scots. Which has given more than one historian some pause for thought.

Nor could the English infantry make it through to relieve the knights fighting in brutal hand to hand combat. There was very little room to maneuver. For those trapped at the front, it was fight until death with no other possible recourse.

Map of the Battle of Bannockburn
Map of the Battle of Bannockburn

The order went out for the Welsh long-bowmen to head north.  Scouts had found slightly higher ground, where those famed arrows could sight the Scots without risking an English human shield.

The Cymru duly took up this position, but it too had been anticipated by Robert the Bruce. He had kept back a small detachment of horsemen against this very eventuality.  Now Sir Robert Keith, the Earl Marischal of Scotland, rode out of the woods straight towards the Welshmen.

Naturally those archers fled back towards the safety of their own camp. Their shouts alerted the waiting English infantry, who panicked and began to race south themselves, fleeing for the relative safety of the other side of the Bannock Burn.

That was when Robert the Bruce deployed his own division, which had been waiting in reserve.

"Lay On! Lay On! They Fail!"

The situation was already extremely dire for the English, when fresh Scottish infantry charged into the fray.

The average Medieval knight could only fight for around twenty minutes in full armor.

Any longer than that and it was dehydration, rather than pounding Lochaber axes, which became the real killer.

Though, in fairness, the axes weren't helping.

Until now, those already exhausted knights had been unable to retreat because of their own ranks hemming them in. The solid mounds of fallen comrades also made the ground underfoot all the more treacherous.

Now the flight of the infantry, and archers behind them, were thinning the press somewhat. But Bruce's division had been placed at the southernmost part of the battlefield, adjacent to the Bannock Burn itself. This was the perfect position to intercept any who would attempt to flee.

Most of Bruce's men were highlanders, brought to Bannockburn by Angus Og MacDonald of Islay. Their centuries old Gaelic style of fighting had been tempered by Bruce's Anglo-Norman training during the previous two months. But the battle cries they screamed, as they began their charge, owed much more to the Celts than their king.

Even those English knights who could physically stand to be fighting were disturbed by this. Many more immediately began to attempt the retreat themselves.

"Lay on!  Lay on!" The Gaelic resounded through the woodland. "They fail!"

It was heard by the camp followers back in the woods. The women, children and elderly, who had accompanied their men to battle, suddenly appeared racing through the tree-line, looking to witness the final routing of the English.

They did too. Because those knights still left assumed that this was yet another fresh Scottish division being called onto the field. As one, they all sounded the retreat and fled.

The Lethal Flight of the English from Bannockburn

Their environment had been used against the invaders since before they arrived. It turned out to be deadly as they tried to leave.

It was not a simple matter for the English to leave the battle of Bannockburn. This was not an open countryside, where all sides of a field provided escape routes.  In order to be where they were, the English had been forced to wade through the burn itself upon arrival.

The terrain took thousands more lives during that terrible flight. 

Eye-witnesses later told of the Bannock Burn being so filled with crushed and drowned bodies, that the last to rush across it could do so 'dry-shod'. They merely clambered over the corpses, which now constituted a bridge.

Meanwhile, the water rising against that grisly dam had turned blood red.

To the north and west, boggy ground trapped many more English, as they became sitting ducks in the swamps for the pursuing Scots. Those who made it through found themselves confronted with the River Forth. Drowned bodies dotted it by mid-morning.

The final tally reckoned that only a third of the 16,000 strong English Army made it home. The majority of them were lone individuals, who'd somehow managed to survive long enough to reach the border.

The only large group to arrive home safely were Welsh spear-men, under the command of Sir Maurice de Berkeley. It was his experiences at Bannockburn, which were to cause Berkeley to eventually rebel against Edward II. Though he was captured and executed, it was his castle to which the usurped Edward was eventually brought, and killed.

Documentary about Bannockburn

Discovery Knowledge featured the Battle of Bannockburn in its Great Battles series.
The War File: The Battle of Bannockburn 1314 - The Lion Rampant

In a mighty attempt to crush the Scots, King Edward II placed himself at the head of the invasion of Scotland. In their desperate hour of need came Scotland's greatest medieval ...

View on Amazon

The Heroes of Scotland: The Bruce of Bannockburn

In a mighty attempt to crush the Scots, King Edward II placed himself at the head of the invasion of Scotland. In their desperate hour of need came Scotland's greatest medieval ...

View on Amazon

Edward II Fights for his Freedom After Bannockburn

If the Scots had captured the English king, then their victory would have been absolute. The price of his ransom would have been recognition of Scottish Independence.

For now though, Edward II was still on the battlefield of Bannockburn.  As the tide had seriously begun to turn against the English, their priority was to save their monarch. 

A detachment of fifty knights acted as his personal bodyguard, as they fought their way through Sir Robert Keith's small cavalry and made it to Stirling Castle.

Sir Philip Mowbray, the garrison commander there, refused to lower the drawbridge, in order to allow access for his king.

This wasn't quite the rebellion that it seemed.  Under the terms that had led to the battle, Mowbray knew that he would have to surrender the castle later in the day. If Edward II was inside at the time, then he would also have to hand him to the Scots.

Nor was there much opportunity to argue about it.

A group of Scottish cavalry were hurtling towards them intent upon seizing the English king. Edward II and his cohort fought fiercely in order to escape. It was a close thing. Edward II was unhorsed during the skirmish and only his own swordsmanship saved him long enough to mount again.

At each turn, they expected more Scots to realize what was occurring and overwhelm them, but finally luck was on the English side. They managed to flee north, then wheel around to the west. Finally they were cut off by the River Forth.

A Scottish fisherman was persuaded - with a king's ransom in wealth - to sail them down the Forth and around the coastline to the safety of Berwick. 

His personal safety must have been very cold comfort to Edward II, who knew that he had failed so badly in his father's shadow, and had sown the seeds that made an English uprising against their monarch now inevitable.

Robert the Bruce: Scottish Hero

For Robert the Bruce, the victory was outstanding. He had doubted from the beginning that it could be achieved, but here he was, triumphant on the battlefield.

Thousands more Scots now flocked to his banner, finally convinced that this was the man who could bring Scottish independence from England.  That wasn't the spoils of Bannockburn itself, but the battle was most certainly an important stepping stone towards it.

It would take six more years before the Declaration of Arbroath sealed the deal, and another four after that before the English deigned to recognize Scotland as an independent sovereign state.

On a more personal level, Bannockburn had led to the capture of the Earl of Hereford. The terms of his ransom included the return of Bruce's wife, daughter and sisters. He had his remaining family home again.

More Articles about the Fight for Scottish Independence

England has ever been wary of Scotland being outside its imperial control. The battle for sovereignty goes on to this day.
The popular response would be Robert the Bruce and Scottish independence. As the 700th anniversary approaches, we can take a much wider view than that.
From the Romans to the English, the Scots had managed to repel every threat from south of its border. Until the conquerors came, not with swords, but with a crown.
It was the largest battle ever fought between Scotland and England. Yet it was chivalry which condemned the Scots to their heaviest loss of life in a single day.
The Union Jack, as it's commonly known, was meant to represent the United Kingdom. It says more about England as a superpower.
Updated: 12/30/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

You've just aptly summarized, in two sentences, what it's taken me four articles to describe! LOL Good fight.

Yes, it did all come together brilliantly for the Scots. You can be quite suspect about Robert the Bruce's motives, but there's no doubt that his strategy was genius out there. The Scottish fought to win, and they succeeded.

Ember on 12/19/2013

"He had doubted from the beginning that it could be achieved," with the English army size I'd have felt the same!

I think the Scottish had a good bit of wit in their fighting, and the English a good bit of arrogance going in, they probably thought it was impossible that they'd lose. Seems those bits came together nicely for the Scottish.

JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

Wow! Now that's what I call a good reaction. I'm glad that my Bannockburn series has been this... is 'enjoyable' appropriate in the circumstances?

Ember on 12/19/2013

Woot! Read all the rest last night and now the last bit has arrived! *goes to read*

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