Bannockburn, Day II: The Great Battle

Today we celebrate the 700th anniversary of the pivotal battle of the Bannockburn. It turned the course of the Scottish War of Independence against the English for a generation, and set the stage for Robert the Bruce to bring the Scots to full independence before his death. Out of this war would come the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the first times that a people asserted to the Pope that they would insist upon a right of elective kingship: to support the man God sent to be king only so long as he did his duty in protecting their liberty and rights, and to drive him out and choose another if he failed this duty.

The short version of this story is as follows: the English army under Edward II had to relieve Stirling Castle by a certain deadline, or the castle would surrender to the Scottish King, Robert the Bruce. This was not because the castle was starving, or being ravaged by disease. It was a gentleman's agreement to avoid the slaughter associated either with reducing the place by storm, or starving the troops. The keeper of the fortress was a gentleman, and Edward knew he was going to keep his word and surrender if not relieved. So the English army was in a hurry.

Robert the Bruce was there in force, so Edward brought heavy cavalry in large numbers, as well as infantry and longbowmen. The Scottish cavalry was not in any sense the equal to the English cavalry, as you know if you followed last night's link and read Froissart's account of the Scottish way of warfare in the period. The English army was far larger, perhaps as many as ten thousand men larger. Edward intended to force his way to the castle's relief by main strength.

Now Edward I had been a very great king, not just cunning but wise in the ways of strategy and propaganda. His son, Edward II, was not the man his father was. Robert the Bruce had been in this fight since the days of the father, and had developed a keen sense for both strategy and tactics. In addition, as last night's story of his personal combat shows, he was a knight of great personal prowess.

Yesterday's story was about how the English sought to slip a vanguard past the Scottish lines, which would have allowed them to fix the Scottish position so as to allow the English army to cross in safety, and engage the Scots in good order at a place of their choice. The vanguard was repulsed, killed, or captured. The English thus had to try to cross the Bannock Burn without that security. They were fearful about this, because it was in the midst of just such a maneuver that William Wallace had destroyed their army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Edward elected to cross at night, in the hopes that the crossing might be effected before the Scots knew of it. In this he was successful, but a consequence of his success was that his army had to encamp against the river as it crossed. If they had pushed further in, to secure better ground for a stand, they might have alerted Scottish scouts.

Thus on the morning of the 24th of June, 1314, word came to Robert the Bruce that the English had crossed the river and were tightly encamped among the wetlands on the shore. The Scottish King knew his cavalry could not stand against them, but he recognized he had a substantial advantage if he could trap them in that boggy ground. So he ordered the cavalry to find and disperse the English archers, in order to cover the approach of his foot. These were arranged in a kind of infantry formation known as a schiltron, similar in concept to the later Spanish tercio but oval: a formation chiefly of spearmen, to repel cavalry in the way we saw in last night's story, but with some axemen and others who could rush out of the formation and kill downed men.

Advancing these formations to pin the English in the muck, Robert the Bruce was successfully covered in his approach by his cavalry's action against the English archers. The Scots advanced on the English camp, and it was then that Edward saw the formations suddenly stop and kneel. A friar went among them.
"Think you, will these Scots fight?" Edward had asked one of his knights a short time before.

"Ay, that will they," was the reply, "to the last."

But now, seeing them kneel, Edward cried out, "They kneel, they kneel; they ask for mercy."

"They do, my liege," was the answer, "but it is from God, and not from us."
The king ordered one of his Earls, a man he had recently accused of cowardice, to lead a charge to disperse the Scottish formations. The charge ended in the slaughter of the Earl's forces, and the Scots came on against the camp. Edward tried to deploy his longbowmen, which would have allowed him much the same effects we hope to get out of artillery today: to damage the Scottish formations' structure, but also to deny them the ability to advance over certain parts of the terrain that were under the danger of the longbows. Once more the Scottish cavalry, led by Sir Robert Keith, recognized the danger and dispersed the archers before they could form up to take action.

Edward then attempted to send his heavy cavalry, the knights who had accompanied him for this purpose. But in the narrow neck of land, made of boggy ground, the cavalry could not well come together for a charge, and could not well maneuver their heavy horses. When they came against the schiltrons, their unstable formations broke.

As the Scots advanced toward the English camp, news of the initial victories had spread back to the Scottish camp nearby. There bands of Highlanders -- irregular forces that Robert the Bruce did not wish to employ in the battle, because they would cause confusion and disorder -- heard the news that the English were being defeated, and came rushing in great numbers. The English, already discomfited, heard the warcries and saw the onrushing forces, and broke. But there was nowhere to retreat except through the river.

Edward II escaped, with the help of his picked men. He fled to Dunbar castle, where as quickly as possible he took ship for England. His retreat from the battlefield turned the English retreat into a rout. In the wake of the battle, the destruction of England's army in the north not only allowed Scottish raiders into England, but took so much pressure off Robert the Bruce that he was able to stage an invasion of Ireland, hoping to open a second front in the war on the Anglo-Norman kings.


Joseph W. said...

This book -- the author did sometimes favor poetry over truth -- claimed that the "irregular forces" included camp followers; so that he called the last phase of the battle "The Coup of the Camp Followers."

I'm glad you always give such a prominent place to the Declaration of Arbroath in discussing that period. How ironic that in 1688 it was the English who carried out the promise of the Declaration, and the Scots who kept rebelling in favor of strict primogeniture.

Grim said...

There are two things to say about that.

1) The Scottish nobility of Bruce's period were Scottish-Norman in just the way that the English kings and nobility were Anglo-Norman. After the Conquest William's followers made great strides in extending their domain north, and putting Scottish families under the headship of people who had married into Norman lines. So in a way, it's one group of people -- the Normans -- who intermarried here and there.

2) The Scots had been rebelling against the Stewarts all along, especially during the Covenanter period. Actually this goes back to the Tudor period, but it was really why the Stewarts lost -- they couldn't rely on the support of their homeland, which preferred its Protestantism (Presbyterianism) over its ethnicity. That was standard in the period: religion was much more important than anything else, even blood.

So when you talk about 1688, you are thinking about that rump of Scots who remained Catholic -- just as the Irish also supported James and his Catholicism. The Scots who were Presbyterians were some of the earliest adopters of anti-Stewart warfare. The Catholic political position about kingship was roughly the same at the time of the Declaration of Arbroath as it was in the period of the Covenanters and in the period of the Stewarts. The Declaration was a failure, remember: the Pope didn't accept it. Robert the Bruce had to keep fighting until the English king accepted his sovereignty.

Grim said...

The point about camp followers is probably right; I don't doubt there were some, and they may well have followed the irregulars from the Highlands.

Joseph W. said...

That was standard in the period: religion was much more important than anything else, even blood.

A fascinating observation right now because I've just been reading a few articles arguing that high rates of cousin marriage make the opposite true in Iraq and other Arab countries. What do you think of that?

(The idea being that if your near relatives share more genes with you than the average, your instincts to look out for them will be even stronger...that being the usual explanation for why bees and ants look after their nieces, who by a weird trick of DNA actually share more genes with them than daughters would do. However, I don't know if anyone's really studied such an effect among humans, as opposed to speculating about it.)

Joseph W. said...

The Declaration was a failure, remember: the Pope didn't accept it. Robert the Bruce had to keep fighting until the English king accepted his sovereignty.

Then the Declaration was a failure in exactly the same sense as Magna Carta.

May Providence send us many such failures.

Grim said...

As to the Declaration and Magna Carta, I agree.

As to Iraq, I also agree: religion is not the important factor there. What is important is tribal loyalty. There's enough overlap that you can easily become confused, and think of the war as a Sunni v. Shia war; but it really isn't. There's a substantial amount of intermarriage between Sunnis and Shia Muslims in Iraq.

What's important is bonds of loyalty, which are very often bonds of blood.