Robert the Bruce had been king of Scotland since March 1306 but his land was still populated by several English garrisons and under constant threat from his southern neighbour and its king, firstly Edward I until his death in 1307, then his son and successor, Edward II. The Scots rallied behind Bruce and between 1306 and 1314 they set about recapturing the castles and towns of Scotland that were still under English control. After eight years of successful guerilla warfare and a number of plundering raids into northern England, Bruce felt ready to meet the mighty English in open battle.
Robert the Bruce prepares
The ground that Robert the Bruce (pictured) chose for the battle, which was to determine the fate of his country and crown, was that which would give him the best advantage against the superior forces he was likely to face.
He took up position just to the north of the Bannock Burn with the thickly wooded New Park giving cover to his rear. The English army, advancing from the south, would have to cross the burn in order to engage the Scots, but with areas of swamp on either flank they would be severely restricted in their movement.
The Scots army was standing directly in the path of the English host, and their goal of saving the garrison at Stirling castle could only be achieved by a frontal assault against Bruce’s well-drilled spearmen.
The Scots were drawn up in three infantry formations, or shiltrons, with a small contingent of cavalry. A large number of camp followers were also nearby, although these were largely unarmed and unsuited for battle. Indeed, King Robert had dismissed many men who were willing to fight for him but, unable to afford suitable weapons or armour, had come ill prepared.
In all, the king had about 6-7,000 men in his army. They faced an English force of at least double the size, possibly greater, and which was better equipped, with a mounted contingent of about 2,000.
But with the ground suiting him and word that the English morale was low, King Robert decided that his army was well placed to give a good account of itself. He did, however, have an escape plan.
Unwilling to gamble everything on one throw of the dice, the king had preparations in hand to allow for his army to withdraw right up to the moment of engagement, should things develop to the advantage of the English. The thickly wooded countryside to his rear would have given his foot soldiers ample cover, and prevented the English horse giving chase.
On Sunday 23 June 1314, Edward’s army faced the Scots for the first time. There are arguments that exist to this day as to whether the battle should have even taken place. Stirling Castle was as good as relieved and it made no sense to be drawn into attacking the well-defended Scottish position.
But again, as at the Battle of Stirling Bridge 17 year’s prior, the English argued amongst themselves as to the best way to proceed. Edward II was not the strong leader that his father had been and this weakness was one of the biggest contributing factors to the ensuing chaos.
An argument between two of his most prominent nobles, the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford, meant that Edward gave them joint command of the vanguard. This cavalry force advanced towards Bruce’s main position, while a second contingent attempted to outflank the Scots.
The Battle commences
Meanwhile, the Scottish monarch was exhorting his men for the coming battle. At that moment a young English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, spotted the Bruce, and seeing a chance for fame and immortality, charged at him with his lance leveled. With split second timing the Scot deftly avoided the charge and landed a blow with his war axe that cut through the helmet of the English knight and split his skull, killing him instantly. (The scene is depicted, right, in this 1864 painting by James Doyle)
With that first blow of the battle struck, the Scots infantry cheered their king and rushed forward to engage the enemy. A fierce melee ensued which resulted in the English cavalry retreating.
Bruce, meanwhile, had spotted the other cavalry force attempting to outflank him and ordered one of his schiltrons to move and intercept them. Without the support of their archers the English knights were unable to penetrate the mass of spears and the attack was thwarted. Many of the knights who managed to escape, did so to the castle at Stirling where they were to be of no use to Edward for the remainder of the battle.
The second day of the battle dawned with Edward ordering his army to cross the Bannock Burn and engage the Scots. As they did so the Scots emerged from the woods of the New Park and advanced in formation.
The size of the English army, and the limited space it was forced to operate in, now worked against them as they became so tightly packed together that their archers could not get a clear shot at the Scots. When the archers were finally moved to a better position, the Bruce ordered his light cavalry to attack.
This lightning move dispersed the bowmen and they turned and fled. The English infantry, seeing the fleeing archers, thought that all was lost and began to panic and also take flight.
The Scots spearmen now pressed their advantage and pushed at the English mass, forcing the escaping soldiers down the banks of the Bannock Burn and into the water where so many of them drowned that it was said a man could walk across the burn, on the backs of the bodies, without getting his feet wet.
The Battle is lost
With the English now in flight the Scottish camp followers joined in, grabbing whatever came to hand and charging into the battle. This was the last straw for the demoralized English – they lost any remaining confidence and fled.
Edward could see that the battle was lost and wasted no time in making good his own escape, fleeing to the south with his bodyguard and embarking for England on a ship from Dunbar.
The remainder of his army was picked off as it tried to reach the safety of the border, turning the victory into a rout. As many as 12,000 English soldiers may have been killed in the battle and many more were captured for ransom, including the garrison at Stirling.
Eventually Robert the Bruce would use these hostages to negotiate the return of his family members who had been imprisoned for years in England.
It would be some time before the English King Edward III would succeed his father and finally recognise Scotland as an independent nation again, and never again would the English gain such a foothold as they had done in the late thirteenth century.
The Battle of Bannockburn was as complete a victory as the Scots could have ever achieved, and was probably better than Robert the Bruce could have ever wished for.