In the most legendary battle in Scottish history, a mere 7,000 followers of Robert the Bruce defeated over 15,000 of Edward II’s troops at Bannockburn. Fought over two days on June 23 and 24, 1314, the battle of Bannockburn was a decisive victory for Robert the Bruce in the Scottish Wars of Independence against the English. It was the greatest defeat the English would suffer throughout the Middle Ages, and a huge personal humiliation for Edward II. Chris Brown’s startling narrative recreates the battle and challenges our perceptions of what happened and why. In this special, commemorative edition, he also looks back at the legacy of Bannockburn and what it means for Scotland today.
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About the Author
Chris Brown is an acknowledged expert on medieval Scottish history. He has written seven books on the subject, including Knights of the Scottish Wars of Independence, Robert the Bruce: A Life Chronicled, Scottish Battlefields, and The Second Scottish War of Independence.
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The Battle 700 Years On
By Chris Brown
The History PressCopyright © 2015 Chris Brown
All rights reserved.
The Story So Far: The War of Independence, 1296–1313
An extensive body of books, articles and essays on the wars of King John, Robert I, Edward I and Edward II has been published over the last hundred years or so, but the extent to which many of these works has contributed to our understanding of the 1314 campaign is questionable. Even the most cursory survey of the secondary material currently most accessible to the public – entries in encyclopaedias, general histories, Internet sites and dictionaries of battles – shows the enormous influence of the works of S.R. Gardiner and C.W.C. Oman. Both of these men still enjoy very positive reputations for their efforts in different fields; Oman's account of the Peninsular campaigns against Napoleon is still an invaluable piece of work after a century. For Oman and Gardiner the battle took the form of an opposed crossing, one of the most hazardous approaches to battle. The challenge of forcing a passage over the deep muddy-banked stream that divided the armies was further complicated by the fact that the Scots had dug innumerable pits along the bank of the Bannock Burn. These inflicted many casualties on the English cavalry, who exhausted themselves in repeated attacks on the serried ranks of the Scots before eventually giving up the contest and abandoning the field to the enemy. None of this bears very much resemblance to any of the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts, but the fame of the writers has ensured that their interpretations and maps have gained a very real currency – so much so that they still have an influence on academic understanding of the events of June 1314 today.
Undermining the Gardiner/Oman interpretation is not a modernist 'debunking' exercise. In 1913 Rev. MacKenzie published his study of the battle – still one of the better works on the topic. MacKenzie's volume was not simply a counterblast to Oman and Gardiner; it was an attempt to consider all of the sources in relation to one another and in relation to examinations of the terrain. One might make a number of criticisms of MacKenzie's conclusions and of his preference for some medieval writers over others, but he certainly examined all of the significant material from the relevant contemporary accounts – Barbour's Bruce, Thomas Grey's Scalacronica, Fordoun's Chronicle, the Lanercost Chronicle, Bower's Scotichronicon, and Vita Edwardus Secundus.
MacKenzie was not the only Scottish historian of his time to examine Bannockburn in some detail. Evan MacLeod Barron's work, The Scottish War of Independence, still exerts an influence on Scottish medieval history nearly a century after its first publication. There are numerous weaknesses to Barron's understanding of Bannockburn that have been explored in detail by Professor Barrow. Barron's contribution to the topic largely revolved around his conviction that the contribution of Highland communities to the cause of independence had been obscured by a concentration on Lowland magnate politics, and that the viability of the patriotic cause had been continually undermined by the capacity of lowland nobles and gentry to defect to the English. Barron could certainly provide many examples of serial defections among the Scottish magnates – Robert Bruce, for example, changed sides in 1297, 1301–02 and again in 1306. In the view of Barron, the southern nobility were less committed than their northern counterparts, a reflection of differing values between what he saw as two distinct Scottish cultural, social and political entities, the 'Teutonic' (southern/lowland) and the Celtic (Gaelic/northern). This aspect of Barron's interpretation has been thoroughly discredited by Professor Barrow, but continues to exert a considerable influence on the popular perception of the Battle of Bannockburn and of the war in general. Barron's intention was to redress what he saw as a tendency on the part of historians to focus on the activities of the southern magnates. His view was not without validity, but he exaggerated some pieces of evidence and marginalised others to make his case. He was not the first writer to draw attention to this perceived north–south imbalance. In 1909, John Shearer, in his Fact and Fiction in the Story of Bannockburn, wrote:
... there is nothing in Barbour that even gives a hint that the chiefs, with their men, from the hills and glens of Loch Lomond, Loch Katrine, Loch Tay, Loch Ness and Loch Shin, were fighting at the Battle Bannockburn. This is surely a great omission on the part of Barbour, and a terrible injustice to the Celts of Scotland.
Popular perception is one of the barriers to understanding the battle at all. Scottish romantic tradition tends to see the action as a struggle between impoverished Scottish peasants – unarmoured and ill-equipped – against endless hordes of armoured English knights, a triumph of the peasants over the nobility – a myth greatly enhanced by the popularity of the film Braveheart. There is also the question of the extent to which the Wars of Independence can be seen as a 'civil war' between Scottish factions rather than a war of aggression and conquest inaugurated by Edward I. There was certainly an element of domestic political strife before 1291 which revolved around the question of whether Robert Bruce or John Balliol should have inherited the crown – an issue that led to the presence of the Bruces and others in the English camp. The objective of the Bruces was to acquire Scottish kingship, not to subject themselves to the authority of Edward I.
The 'civil war' theory, however, does have some validity in the sense that many Scots, for a variety of reasons and at different times, did align themselves with the Plantagenet cause, but that in itself is a long way short of proving that the War of Independence was a 'civil' war as such. There was no sense in the entirety of a series of conflicts – which lasted intermittently from 1296 to 1328 (and resumed in 1332) – when the war was exclusively, or even primarily, a conflict between Scottish political factions. Even Edward Balliol's invasion depended on the resources of English lords with Scottish ambitions. The presence of English garrisons and field armies was always the most significant aspect of the military dimension of the struggle and, with the exception of the period between the death of Wallace and the inauguration of Robert I, there was always a part of Scottish society, from the labourers to the great lords, which was prepared to unite across barriers of class and culture in defence of the independence of their country. As the chronicler Guisborough wrote of the Scottish aristocracy, their bodies might be with the King of England, but 'their hearts were always with their own people'.
Despite assertions such as –
the misery and bloodshed in the wars between England and Scotland lies at the door of those rebellious Scots who adhered neither to their King, nor to their oaths of fealty to their supreme overlord, Edward
– the basic cause of the Wars of Independence was the ambition of Edward I. It is of course true that without Edward's involvement in the period after the death of the young Queen Margaret on her voyage from Norway, there would almost certainly have been a genuine civil war in Scotland between the Bruce and Balliol parties. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that both Robert Bruce and John Comyn were prepared to join forces against Edward in a joint Guardianship despite their very real political differences.
Although the two men were far from being happy allies, it was not the prospect of military defeat at the hands of the English that made Robert Bruce defect to Edward I, but the increasingly strong possibility that King John might be restored to his throne, thus compromising any possibility that Robert might eventually become king himself. Again, this was a matter of domestic Scottish politics, but the key issue which had united Bruce and Comyn in the first place was that of political independence.
It is also true that Robert had to wage campaigns against powerful Scottish interests in the early part of his reign, primarily against the Comyn and MacDougal families, but it is misleading to see these campaigns simply as aspects of 'civil' war. After 1304 each of these groups had been drawn into an English administration of Scotland; they were not assets of an alternative Scottish government acting in opposition to the Bruce party.
This, however, does not mean that either the MacDougals or the Comyns would necessarily have remained in English allegiance regardless of political developments. King Philip of France had been forced to abandon the Scots in the wake of the Battle of Courtrai, but circumstances do change. If Philip had felt that it was in his interests (and within his capabilities) to deploy a significant force to Scotland in an attempt to restore King John after the collapse of the Balliol party in 1304, it is quite possible, even probable, that the Comyns would have reverted to their traditional role of supporters to the Scottish crown, a role from which they – and the crown – had profited greatly over a period of more than 100 years. In practice, of course, this was not an option that the French could pursue; they had problems enough already. Diplomatically it suited Edward I and Edward II to depict their Scottish campaigns as a purely domestic matter; lawful kings exercising their right to discipline recalcitrant subjects in rebellion against their liege-lord. That they enjoyed some success is apparent from the tendency for English – and sometimes Scottish – historians to describe men like Comyn and Bruce as 'rebels'.
Naturally, the commitment of the Comyns to the Plantagenet cause was enhanced by their opposition to the Bruce party – hardly surprising given Robert's murder of John Comyn of Badenoch in February 1306. But it was also encouraged by their defeat at Robert's hands in his Buchan campaign of 1308. Once they had been driven out of the northeast, their only hope of recovering their property and, with it, their position of political power, was the hope that Edward II might defeat and destroy the Bruce party. By the close of 1313, this must have seemed increasingly unlikely, unless Bruce could be brought to battle on a grand scale. In terms of territorial control, King Robert was close to winning his war. He had gained control of all Scotland north of the Forth and Clyde, his armies were able to pass through those areas which were still in Plantagenet hands in order to mount operations in England, and the remaining assets of Edward II's administration were increasingly isolated and vulnerable – even Berwick had nearly fallen in 1312. The commitment of a field army does not seem to have brought much progress. The campaign of 1310–11 had achieved little in the way of recovered ground for the expenditure of a very considerable sum – essentially a failure for the English and therefore a major propaganda coup for King Robert. The position of the Comyn family, and others who had remained in Plantagenet allegiance, became precarious throughout the military successes of a Scottish rival – Robert Bruce – however the Comyns were fighting not for an alternative Scottish kingship, but for the King of England. This is also true of Robert's western enemies, the MacDougalls and McCans. Their rivalry with the MacDonalds gave Robert an ally, but the MacDougalls – like the Comyns – were fighting to preserve Plantagenet kingship, not to bring back King John. Their conflict with the Bruce party had a 'civil' element, but was still the operational expression of a war between English and Scottish kings.
As a conflict between nations, it is hardly a surprise that nationalism – in all its guises – is a factor in itself. As we shall see, both Scottish and English people were perfectly aware of their nationality, but nationalism is also an issue within some of the source material. We need only compare the Lanercost chronicler's generally hostile views of the Scots with those of Sir Thomas Grey, who spent the greater part of his professional life in Scotland. Nationalism and concepts of national destiny were already an important part of English historiography by the time of the Wars of Independence. To a great degree, this was bound up with a view that the King of England was the rightful and acknowledged superior of the whole of the British Isles. One need look no further than Geoffrey of Monmouth's assertion that Scotland was a dependency of England, which Professor Mason calls the 'Brut tradition'. The 'evidence' on which Monmouth's case depended was that Brutus the Trojan, having escaped from the fall of Troy, had travelled to Britain and divided the British Isles between his sons, with the eldest, Locrinus, enjoying the kingship of England and superiority over his brother-kings, Albanactus of Scotland and Kamber of Wales.
The Trojan legend was supported in more recent times (by medieval standards) by the 'fact' that Arthur had been king of all Britain and, more cogently perhaps, the fact that at different times a number of Scottish kings had accepted the superiority of their English counterparts, the most recent being William the Lion in December 1174. In practice, William's acceptance of Henry II's feudal superiority was given under duress and was, in any case, soon traded away by Richard I of England for ready money under the terms of the Quitclaim of Canterbury in 1189. It has been suggested that the terms of the Quitclaim were sufficiently vague to mean anything to anyone, however the key cause is very straightforward:
... We (Richard of England) have freed him (William of Scotland) from all compacts which our good father, Henry, king of the English, extorted from him by new charters and by his capture.
More generally, the popular view of the society and economy of the northern kingdom has been shaped by what Dr Fergusson called:
the peculiarly English Victorian Gothic version of early medieval Scotland in which Gaels and Norse and Anglians and even Britons live in different parts of the country, separated by geography, culture, language and pretty much tribal kingdoms in themselves ... not to mention Northumbrians and Galwegians.
There has also been something of a tendency for English historians to view any action contrary to English interests as being a threat to good practice and desirable outcomes. May McKisack saw the development of a strong political alliance between Scotland and France in 1294–97 as being 'among the most sinister developments of the war of independence', rather than being the only practical response to the ambitions of an aggressive and predatory neighbour. Few reputable English medievalists of recent times would choose to see Edward's behaviour in Scotland as the reasonable and lawful actions of a well-intentioned and benign neighbour, however the prevalence of that attitude in the past still exerts an influence on 'popular' history. One need look no further than John Harvey's book The Plantagenets, which clearly makes the Scots the villains of the piece. According to Harvey, the judicial murder of Sir William Wallace was a fate he brought upon himself:
Had his offences been merely political he would have found the same mercy that Edward's other opponents never sought in vain; but Wallace was not the hero of romantic legend, but a leader of well-organised criminals in an assault upon society. For three hundred years the Borders suffered cruelly for this one man's misdeeds.
In reality, Wallace was executed because his death suited Edward's own political purposes on a number of levels. The high-profile public execution and dismemberment of Wallace did more than provide a spectacle for Londoners, it gave a superficial veneer of 'closure' in the wake of the Strathord armistice. The execution was popular at home and, to some extent anyway, politically practical in Scotland. Edward could not afford to execute any of the men who had until recently been the leaders of the Balliol party since he needed their influence and military power if he was to make his conquest effective. If Wallace had been a great and powerful magnate, Edward would probably not have had him killed, but, since his defeat at Falkirk and his resignation from the Guardianship in 1298, Wallace had ceased to be a figure of any real importance in the Scottish political community. He was, however, very famous, so his capture and execution could be presented – in England at least – as a triumph.
In fact, Wallace's murder was probably a serious mistake on the part of Edward and for the future of his Scottish administration, since it 'raised the political temperature in Scotland'. Wallace may not have been a great favourite of the senior aristocracy in Scotland, but he was still a popular figure in wider society. Wallace is a heroic figure to Scots – and others – and hero-worship can get in the way of a realistic appraisal of his career; the same applies to King Robert and Edward I as a hero to the English. To cite Harvey again:
... it is impossible not to regret that the peace-lover, the arbitrator, the fountain-head of his country's prosperity and justice, should have exhausted himself in constant war.
Excerpted from Bannockburn 1314 by Chris Brown. Copyright © 2015 Chris Brown. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction to the Second Edition,
1 The Story So Far: The War of Independence, 1296–1313,
2 What did the Combatants Fight for?,
3 Lions and Leopards: The Careers of Robert I and Edward II,
4 Sources and Interpretation,
5 Brave Companies: The Armies of the English and the Scots,
6 Going to the War: October 1313–May 1314,
7 Locating the Battle,
8 Muster and March to Battle: 17–18 June 1314 to 22 June 1314,
9 The First Clash: The Entry, Evening of 23 June 1314,
10 The Second Clash: St Ninians and Cambuskenneth Abbey, Evening of 23 June 4,
11 The Night of 23 June 1314,
12 The Great Battle at Stirling: 24 June 1314,
13 After the Fight,