Scottish Independence: The Battle of Bannockburn Pt 3

by JoHarrington

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.

The first day of Bannockburn was June 23rd 1314. In the shadow of Stirling Castle, the Scots were ready to fight for independence; and the English to deny them.

Robert the Bruce was still wracked with nerves, unsure that his Scots could ever succeed in an open pitched battle.

King Edward II wasn't even there. As his English war train completed its slow progress from Berwick to Stirling, he was in its midst. Much further back than the vanguard, arriving under the auspices of two Anglo-Norman nobles.

But the Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Hereford, arriving with their men, were not prepared to wait.

June 23rd 1314: The First Day of the Battle of Bannockburn

Most of the English army was still winding its way towards the battle site. But the vanguard decided to start anyway.

After two months of preparations and a whole lot of waiting, the battle of Bannockburn began extremely swiftly.

Almost as soon as the vanguard - led by the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford - arrived, they were ready to charge into the attack. Not swayed one iota by the warnings of Sir Philip Mowbray, the commander of the English garrison at Stirling Castle, the generals ordered the English onto the Bannock Burn.

There was a certain arrogance in the fact that they did not even wait for the main body of men.

Mowbray had told them that 'pots' had been dug to effectively booby-trap the area. The majority of the English vanguard cavalry instantly rued ignoring that intelligence, as their horses became stuck and/or crippled in the brush covered holes. Others merely came to a frozen halt, observing the trouble of their fellows, and carefully attempted to pick a safe retreat.

A smaller number than anticipated made it onto the Bannock Burn. They had accidentally found the 'pots' free passage through the carseway, which would place the English precisely where Robert the Bruce planned for them to be.

As soon as they were through, these English knights didn't check that they were covered on their flanks and side. They simply thundered up the New Park to where the Bruce was still marshaling his spearmen. They couldn't even see the bulk of the Scottish army, concealed further along the ridge.

The plan was as easy as it was ill-considered. Each knight counted upon killing the Bruce before the battle even began. Then everyone could go home with Scotland safely held in English hands.

And Robert the Bruce waited.

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.

Novels about Bannockburn

A Christian romance, an historical novel and a story about time-travelling vampires have all touched upon the Battle of Bannockburn.

Henry de Bohun and Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

One of Bannockburn's most legendary moments came right at the start.

As the nephew of Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, the young knight was in the vanguard of the English army at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Sir Henry de Bohun was amongst those who heard the call to charge. He successfully aimed his horse towards the clear passage onto the Bannock Burn and galloped towards the Scots army.

The knight was just one of a group of heavy cavalry, but he spotted an opportunity. Something which would have made his fortune and placed himself firmly into the king's favor. 

He saw Robert the Bruce, mounted on a small palfrey, but otherwise isolated from the main body of men. The leader of the Scots had been directing his spear-men until he'd been surprised by the English cavalry charge. Now he looked very vulnerable indeed.

Sir Henry fixed his lance in position and thundered towards the pretender to the Scottish throne. His confidence must have been immense.

The Bruce didn't even have a sword. He was merely brandishing an old-fashioned war axe, perched upon his insubstantial, little horse. Henry, himself, was mounted on a seasoned, large warhorse, and he was heavily armed.

From the periphery of their vision, both men must have seen the other Scottish generals screaming at their leader to take cover.  But Sir Henry de Bohun was gaining ground way too fast for that.

Robert the Bruce calmed his palfrey and sat still. Even as the English knight closed in, the Bruce did not shift an inch.

Then, at the last possible moment, when it seemed that the lance would skewer him into oblivion, the Bruce's palfrey moved aside.  The lance's deadly point penetrated thin air and unbalanced Sir Henry in his seat.

But the knight was a professional and experienced in both tourney and war.  He recovered swiftly.

Not fast enough. In those seconds of confusion, Robert the Bruce brought his war-axe down, with such a force that it cut through Sir Henry's helmet like a knife in butter. Nor did it stop at his skull.

Sir Henry de Bohun was dead before he hit the ground.

The Battle of Bannockburn by Ron Embleton

This canvas art depicts the moment when Sir Henry de Bohun reached Robert the Bruce on the Bannockburn battle site.

Carnage for The English Cavalry at Bannockburn

Sir Henry de Bohun was dead, but he hadn't galloped down that field alone.

As the drama was playing out between the Bruce and de Bohun, the rest of the vanguard cavalry were hurtling towards the Scottish front line.

In the focus of war, many of them wouldn't have even realized that their numbers were much reduced. They wouldn't have seen how many comrades had fallen back, entrenched in the booby-trapped edges of the carseway.

Another terrible reality was just about to dawn upon them. The main bulk of the Scots had been concealed by the terrain. But they charged into view now.

Suddenly it was the English who were out-numbered, and largely leaderless. Too committed to retreat, they rushed into certain carnage.

Those at the forefront quickly discovered that their hulking war-horses put them at a disadvantage, when there was little room for maneuver and hardly anyone to watch their backs. These English knights were massacred within seconds.

Survivors amongst the heavy cavalry soon determined that withdrawing was the only option. Where they could escape, they did, and galloped for their lives back across the New Park.

But they were pursued by the ranks of the swelled Scottish infantry, and many fleeing English knights didn't make it.

However, by now, Robert the Bruce was back in the fray and he signaled for a Scottish retreat too. His rationale was that a much larger English army was on the other side of the Bannock. Pursuing them there would undo the great work of all those placement 'pots'. The Scots could only have a chance to win, if they kept the battle site contained within the carseway and the New Park.

To the huge shock of the watching English army, the Scots obeyed the order to withdraw. Those two months of drilling had paid off.  The Celts were disciplined within the rules of Anglo-Norman warfare.

The opening skirmish was an unbridled victory to Robert the Bruce's Scottish Army of Independence.

Bannockburn T-Shirts | Scottish Independence T-Shirts

The English Attempt to Force a Passage to Stirling Castle

On the surface, this was what Bannockburn was all about. The English came to supply their besieged garrison holding Stirling Castle.

The vanguard might have been - quite naturally - the first to arrive.  But the ranks of the English army were being swelled by the minute, as more of the convoy reached its destination.

Those who came second had the benefit of hindsight. They witnessed their cavalry torn to shreds by the Scots. They could also see quite clearly those knights stuck in the booby-trapped terrain.

In consequence, they were more willing to hear the intelligence divulged by Sir Philip Mowbray.

Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont were more inclined to respond to Mowbray's plan - take Stirling Castle - than their predecessors on the field. The problem was - how?

The two English nobles gathered together a force of over five hundred mounted knights. Their goal was to find a way through the 'pots', thus forging a way to relieve the Stirling Castle garrison. Their route would by-pass the New Park above the Bannock Burn entirely, thus out-flanking the Scots.

This took a fair amount of time. The going was perilously slow, as each section of the roadway had to be checked for brush-covered holes. It was not at all conducive to their habitual cavalry charges.

Back in the New Park, the Scottish scouts didn't notice it occurring. There Robert the Bruce was being harangued by his generals, who were not at all impressed with how vulnerable his position had been at the out-set.

If the Bruce was killed, then the whole cause was lost. It was his head that wore the crown.

The Importance of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn

Though history remembers Bannockburn as a battle for Scottish Independence, those on the field weren't looking at it quite so romantically. They were there to stop the English supplying Stirling Castle. That was all.

Bannockburn was merely the latest struggle to secure the crown of Scotland for King Robert. That was what the whole Scottish War of Independence aimed to achieve.

Without Robert the Bruce, the country would once again be embroiled in a succession crisis, which the English would exploit to the utmost.

In short, he should not be sitting around on palfreys, without a guard, presenting himself as tourney target practice for English knights.

Of course, there's another school of thought which says that Robert and his generals should have been watching the English, instead of arguing amongst themselves.

Robert the Bruce: King of the Scots

Historical Novels about Robert the Bruce

As one of the most legendary figures in Scottish (and British) history, Robert the Bruce is the hero of many dramatic retellings.

Bannockburn's Deadly Skirmish Outside Stirling Castle

Five hundred English cavalrymen had made it through the booby-trapped terrain. The passage to their beleaguered garrison was clear.

Sir Thomas Randolph was later to become the 1st Earl of Moray.  This was the moment when he earned that accolade.

Already important to the Scottish cause by the time of Bannockburn, he was in charge of a third of the Scots army there.  (The other two led by Robert the Bruce and his brother Edward the Bruce.)

However, he wasn't entirely distracted by the war council's wrangling over the safety of his monarch.

Shortly before Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont finally led their cavalry clear of the carseway traps, Sir Thomas Randolph noticed what they were up to.

He didn't have time to raise a general alarm, but ordered his men into an immediate intervention. It wasn't a cavalry, but a schiltrom of infantry which charged down the escarpment to block the road towards Stirling Castle.

His troops formed a massive shield wall, bristling with spears and pikes, all pointing towards the oncoming English.

It must have been a frightening prospect for those standing there, to see hundreds of horses thundering towards them, knights in full armor riding down upon them.  But Sir Thomas Randolph ordered his Scots to stand firm, and they did.

The English might have been mounted on huge war-horses, but they were still only five hundred men. Nor did they have an easy route to retreat.

Thomas had brought around two thousand spear and pikes-men to form that schiltrom. As soon as the Scots reacted with discipline, it was largely over for the cavalry approaching.

Their horses were impaled upon the pikes and spears, cut down dead from under their riders. Those knights were dressed for mounted warfare, hot and dehydrated from the long journey through the 'pots'. On the ground, they were pretty much sitting ducks.

Meanwhile, the Scottish infantry were rested and highly mobile. They acted as one cohesive band, under the effective command of Sir Thomas Randolph.

In short, the English suffered extremely heavy losses, with their wealthiest nobles taken as prisoners for ransom. Stirling Castle was not relieved, and Scottish morale reached fever pitch.

The first day of Bannockburn was over, and the Scots had won it all so far.

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.

History Books about the Scottish Wars of Independence

During the 700th anniversary year of Bannockburn, learn how this historic struggle for Scottish independence was won.
The Knights of the Scottish Wars of Independence

This is a detailed study of the lives of the Scottish knights and men-at-arms who fought against - and alongside - the armies of Edward I, Edward II and Edward III for more than...

View on Amazon

The Scottish War of Independence

The Scottish War of Independence claims to be the first "accurate and understandable narrative" of the famous struggle in which Wallace succumbed and Bruce triumphed. Its specia...

View on Amazon

The Second Scottish Wars of Independence

The wars of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce cast a long shadow in Scottish history. The collapse and recovery of the Bruce cause in the reign of his son, David II, has not ...

View on Amazon

Scottish Independence and the Idea of Britain: From the Picts to Alexander III

The answers put forward in this book provide a fresh perspective on Scotland's relationship with Britain. Broun challenges the idea that the Scots were an ancient nation whose B...

View on Amazon

Freedom's Sword: Scottish Wars of Independence

A popular history of the longest period of conflict between Scotland and England. It covers the story of William Wallace and his rebellion (subject of the Mel Gibson movie "Brav...

View on Amazon

Bannockburns: Scottish Independence and the Literary Imagination, 1314-2014

Poet and critic Robert Crawford explores in eloquent detail the literary-cultural background to Scottish nationalism in the lead-up to the referendum on independence for Scotlan...

View on Amazon

Updated: 12/30/2013, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

As a Scot yourself, I take that as high praise indeed!

I've nearly completed the fourth and final installment, but I also have nephews on the way here. It might be tomorrow before that part surfaces. I hope that I've done it justice.

jptanabe on 12/19/2013

Your account of Bannockburn just keeps getting better and better!

JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

Ember - Thus comes a great example of Google cookies tracking your every move. :)

JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

Teresa - Yes, they should have. But the English were being downright arrogant and bull-headed here. They had totally underestimated the Scots. Which was even more silly, when you look at the history of battles between the two countries.

Scottish independence was effectively given away. First in 1603 (nearly 300 years after Bannockburn), when the Scottish king became king of England too - and turned out to be more English than the English.

And secondly in 1706-07, when the Scots were pretty much bribed into an Act of Union with England. For most of the population of Scotland, this also had an element of being sold out by their own leaders.

JoHarrington on 12/19/2013

Ember - Good question! On the whole, the Medieval battlefield was all about two armies coming together, and hitting each other very hard until one side fled or died in too many numbers to go on. There was little there about actual tactics once it was all underway.

But - and there's a big but - it wasn't unknown to use the terrain in this way. There are plenty of examples of the environment being used to win the day. Not least the previous famous battle in defense of Stirling Castle. William Wallace and Andrew Moray had used Stirling Bridge to ensure that the English came across in manageable numbers, then cut them down when they reached them.

Games of chess are pretty much based on these ancient battlefields. They are all about pitting wits against wits.

Also the Celts were great at guerrilla warfare long before the Spanish ever gave that style of fighting a name. An earlier battle - in the Scottish War of Independence - had been fought at Falkirk, along much more Celtic lines. That had very much been about using the terrain to rout the invasion army.

Ember on 12/18/2013

(Unrelated, but I think it is funny- I read all of these and now google is throwing 'independence' themed ads at me. XD)

Teresa on 12/18/2013

They should have listened when they were warned. But then, I suppose it worked out for the best given that Scotland got a sort of independence out of it? At least this time around it can happen more peacefully though.

Speaking of that, what happened? If this battle is essentially what gained Scotland it's independence, how did they lose it so that it is up for a vote now? (Or do I have that wrong?)

Ember on 12/18/2013

Have I got this correct that in a comment on the pt 2 article you said an estimate for the English army was at 16k...and 500 made it through the booby traps? :o

I was going to comment that this was kind of a battle of wits in a sense, when you consider that. Was this the first time these sorts of tactics were used in a battle?

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