The Battle of Bannockburn: Part 1 of 3 – To Fell a Titan

 

Bruce Statue

 

The destrier, bred for battle, thundered across the ford with the stab of a spur. A missile made of horseflesh, it shot towards its target with furious momentum. The wearer of the spur, a young knight clad with mail and lance and all the accoutrements of war, had seen his chance for immortality and would not miss it. For it was no fox or mere bandit that his sight was fixed upon, but a crown – a crown forged in sweat and blood resting atop the head of the rebel lord, this usurper, this traitor, this Robert Bruce.

 

The fool king charged back at him. Who was the bearer of this false crown to meet the very portrait of a knight in battle alone, with but a small horse and axe between him and certain death at lance’s end? The two warriors closed in, and for a moment the king’s fate seemed sealed. But a lot can change in a moment. Suddenly the crown was not in front of the young knight but over him, and he felt an awful ache in his skull. Then he felt nothing at all.

 

Bruce axe

 

The knight would have his immortality after all, for seven hundred and one years later, we still tell of how King Robert, underequipped, outweighed, and with everything at stake, rode out and struck Henry de Bohun dead with a single stroke of his battle-axe. It was the first drop of blood shed at the start of two red days, days we now know as the Battle of Bannockburn, over which the Scots – outnumbered three to one and armed with spears against the cold steel of the English army – would prove that it truly is our wits that make us men.

 

How had it come to this? The year was 1314, and one by one Robert Bruce had retaken the castles of his Scots and English enemies until but three remained to stand against him – Bothwell Castle, south of Glasgow; Dunbar Castle in East Lothian; and Stirling Castle, the key to Scotland and sentinel of Stirling Bridge. The gains of The Longshanks, Edward I of England, had been undone, and in his place his kingdom of England had begun dividing against itself under the reckless and arrogant rule of his son, Edward II. In contrast, the personal leadership of Bruce and his indomitable captains, men such as Thomas Randolph and James ‘the Black’ Douglas, had united a great many Scots in the common cause of reclaiming their country.

 

In the spring of 1313 Robert Bruce’s brother, Edward, besieged Stirling Castle and issued an ultimatum: if the English king did not arrive to relieve the castle by Midsummer’s Day (June 24th), 1314, the castle would surrender itself to the Scots. Most recount how this above all else forced Edward II’s hand to commit to battle, but the truth is not so simple. Edward II was facing bitter dissension at home, and the relief of one castle, no matter how important, did not justify the expense of mustering and marching an army into the heart of hostile Scotland. Also compelling Edward was King Robert’s notice to all Scots nobles, some of whom remained loyal to the English, that if they did not support his cause their lands would be forfeit. If Edward II did not act he would be seen as abandoning his lords in Scotland and would almost certainly face open revolt from already his chagrined nobility. Edward had to relieve Stirling, or else his crown would not be worth its weight in dirt.

 

Stirling Castle

 

Bruce was not one to stay idle while the largest English army to march north in a decade advanced towards him. He and many others would have remembered how thousands of Scots fell like blossoms from a tree under the deadly rain of the English and Welsh longbowmen at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. This could not happen again. So Bruce trained his men in massive formations known as schiltroms, wielding spears four metres or more in length. These formations were not new, but what they could do was – they could advance, like a steamroller with spikes, in disciplined ranks and take the fight to the enemy. rather than sit back and wait for the arrows to fall.

 

But would they dare? The morning of June 23rd, 1314, brought grave news. Robert Keith’s cavalry, accompanied by James Douglas, had scouted the English advance and found them to number 20,000 or more. The English war machine brought with it perhaps 2,500 heavy cavalry, 4,000 longbowmen, and a sea of dismounted men-at-arms. All this against a Scots army of no more than 8,000, of which only 500 were mounted and 500 held bows, the rest grasping their spears in both hands and wearing little by way of armour. This was not David versus Goliath; David’s odds were far better than Bruce’s.

 
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Bruce led from the front. He would ask no peril of his men that he himself was not willing to accept, and this endeared him to his brothers in arms like no other king they had ever known. This did not mean, however, that he was reckless. He knew that the English army, like all armies for the past thousand years, would advance along the ancient Roman Road to where it crossed the Bannock Burn. So there he placed traps, pits with wooden spikes dug in the earth so densely that they made the ground resemble a honeycomb. He rallied his men around him in the New Park, planted his standard in the Borestone, and waited.

 

He would not have to wait long. While delivering a speech to his men, English soldiers under Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, picked their way across the ford. From this group Humphrey’s hot-headed nephew, Henry, broke off to make his fateful charge. Bruce had a choice, and it was one whose echo would be heard across the centuries. Should he do the prudent thing and withdraw behind his lines? Or, harnessing the pain of losing all but one of his brothers to the axe and gallows, the anger of knowing his wife, sisters, and daughter were locked away in cages, and the fortitude of a lifetime living by the blade, should ride and meet his enemy head on? With the eyes of his army upon him, this was no true dilemma at all.

 

Bruce rode. When de Bohun’s lifeless body hit the ground, the Scots, with bated breath, would have had but one thought in their minds – maybe, just maybe, we can do this after all. Maybe this day, a titan would fall.

 

Bruce v de Bohun

 

If you enjoyed this entry on the prelude to the Battle of Bannockburn, stay tuned for ‘Part 2 of 3: At the Spear’s Head’ and be sure to sign up to my blog, No Ruined Stones, for automatic alerts for new posts. If you want to read more about the individuals, weapons & armour, key locations, and strategies involved in the battle, I recommend the ‘Battlepedia’ on the Battle of Bannockburn Visitor Centre’s website.