Thursday, June 24, 2010

696th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn

696 years ago today, the Scots faced a force of Englishmen nearly three times larger than their own across the expanse at Bannockburn. Outnumbered and inferior in weaponry, after an arduous and bloody battle, they rose against improbable odds to win the day.

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought on June 24th, 1314. It was never in Robert the Bruce's plans to face the English on the battlefield in full force. Guerrilla tactics - ambush, burning crops and driving off livestock so the enemy could not have them, and taking fortresses by surprise and later razing them - had proven highly successful. However, thanks to his impatient brother, Edward Bruce, things fell out a little differently. One year before, Edward Bruce had laid siege to Stirling Castle, but being the restless sort, he quickly struck a deal - that if the castle was not relieved one year from then, it would be handed over to the Scots. Of course, Edward II of England was not going to let it go so easily. He marched north, thinking he only need show up and the castle would be his without question.

Edward II, however, assumed too much - and he was not at all the shrewd commander or the ruthless leader that his father, Longshanks, had been. Supplies and knights were late arriving. The English column that slogged north through the summer heat was large and unwieldy. They arrived only one day before the appointed day.

And Robert the Bruce had been granted a year to prepare for the battle that would determine not only his fate, but that of Scotland's as well.

Pits had been dug across the carse, littered with caltrops - star-like spikes of metal meant to maim horses and render them useless - and covered over with sticks and grass to hide them from charging cavalry. Barriers had been lain across the paths in surrounding woods to slow any English detachment that might dare detour from the main road in an attempt to relieve Stirling Castle. And the Bruce had drilled his men rigorously and plotted his strategy in great detail.

It was on the evening of June 23rd that the Bruce clashed, hand to hand, with the English knight Sir Henry de Bohun. It is said Bruce cleaved his skull with one swipe of his axe. There must have been a moment of terror in Scottish hearts as the enemy charged at their king. And then a whoop of elation as his enemy fell dead in the first pass.

The following morning on the 24th, both sides rose at dawn, took Mass, and prepared for battle. Leadership was lacking on the English side. A small detachment of cavalry advanced, only to be thwarted by the Scottish schiltrons - a hedgehog-like formation of pikemen. The Welsh archers - that terror of the English army that had on so many occasions been used to such devastating effect - were deployed too late. The English were now sandwiched between the rising waters of the Bannock Burn and the advancing Scottish forces. Some of them began to flee - back, into the burn. Those that were not lucky enough to escape to the other side, drowned in the burn or died at Scottish hands.

King Edward II was one of those who managed to escape. But when he and his small party reached Stirling Castle, Sir Philip Mowbray refused to allow him entrance, stating that judging by the turn of events the castle was not relieved. Edward fled on horse all the way to Dunbar Castle, pursued by none other than James Douglas.

For more information on the Battle of Bannockburn, including site maps and a sequence of events, check Lin Anderson's MacBraveheart page.

Here's a wonderful little YouTube overview for those of you who like a visual.

If you're feeling really academic and would like to learn more in depth, I recommend Peter Reese's book, Bannockburn.

And this is when I slip in a plug for my favorite Celtic band EVER: Old Blind Dogs!

Happy reading,


Undine said...

After Philip of France tried to exterminate the Knights Templars, many of them found refuge in Scotland. There is a claim--legend?--that it was a large band of Templars, fighting incognito you might say, that won the battle for the Scots.

I wonder if anyone has ever been able to confirm or refute that one?

Lisa Yarde said...

Hi Gemi, great post and thanks for the links.

Jack Ramsay said...

OBD? Impeccable taste, Gemi :)

Great post.