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Scotland Fights Its Way to Freedom, 700 Years Ago

By Jesse Greenspan
During eight previous years of warfare with the English, Scottish King Robert the Bruce had never engaged his numerically superior foes in a major pitched battle. But on June 24, 1314, he finally stood his ground near the present-day town of Bannockburn, using tightly packed formations of pikemen to send the English into a wild retreat. From that point forward, Scotland was on the offensive, and in 1328 it officially won its independence.
Robert the Bruce, leader of Scottish forces at the Battle of Bannockburn (Credit: Getty Images)

Robert the Bruce, leader of Scottish forces at the Battle of Bannockburn (Credit: Getty Images)

In 1291, following a century of peace between the two kingdoms, English King Edward I pronounced himself the feudal overlord of Scotland, and he cemented his authority five years later with a successful invasion. Although a Scottish rebellion then broke out led by William Wallace, Edward I once again emerged victorious. He let most of the Scottish leaders opposed to him off the hook with little punishment, except for Wallace, who was captured and tortured to death.

Robert the Bruce, a noble who believed himself the heir to the Scottish throne, sat out much of this fighting. But in 1306 he stabbed a political rival inside a church and left him bleeding at the high altar for two of his men to finish off. Subsequently declared an outlaw by Edward I and excommunicated by the pope, Robert crowned himself king of the Scots in a desperate bid to take power. Immediate defeats at the hands of his English and Scottish enemies forced him to take refuge on a small island near Ireland. His wife was placed under house arrest, three of his brothers were captured and brutally executed, his sister was displayed in a cage like an animal at the zoo and his daughter was sent off to a nunnery.

Nonetheless, Robert gained a toehold on the mainland through the use of guerilla warfare and then gradually extended his dominion, making new allies, holding a series of parliaments and even raiding northern England. By 1314 every province in Scotland had accepted him as king, and English forces essentially all had disappeared with the exception of a garrison at Stirling Castle. Early that year, England’s Edward II, who had succeeded his father, began mobilizing a massive army to put down the uprising. Historians roughly estimate that he had about 15,000 infantrymen and archers and at least 2,000 heavily armed cavalry at his disposal when he crossed into Scotland on June 17, 1314. By comparison, Robert’s army consisted of approximately 6,000 poorly equipped troops, including perhaps 500 on horseback.

After a couple of days of hard marching, Edward II’s troops reached the city of Edinburgh, from where they followed an ancient Roman road northwest toward Stirling Castle. They soon found themselves blocked by Robert’s men, who had positioned themselves along a section of the road surrounded by nearly impenetrable bogs, thickly wooded hills and tidal streams. To make the terrain even more difficult to navigate, the Scots dug small hidden pits and built barricades out of felled trees. Meeting with Edward II, the English governor of Stirling Castle warned that a direct attack would be difficult. Yet the king decided to press ahead anyway.

On June 23, front-line English knights came across a group of Scots withdrawing into the woods. Recognizing one of the Scots as Robert the Bruce himself, Sir Henry de Bohun charged with his lance extended. Rather than flee, Robert turned his horse to meet the challenge, swerved to avoid Bohun’s lance, raised himself up on his stirrups and then cleaved Bohun’s head in two with a powerful swing of his axe. Having witnessed this duel, the rest of the Scots rushed out and forced the English to retreat. Later that day, on a different section of the battlefield, other English knights were similarly unsuccessful. Unable to penetrate the tightly packed formation of pikemen known as a schiltron, some ended up fleeing toward Stirling Castle, whereas others galloped in the opposite direction toward the main body of English soldiers.

That evening, Robert is believed to have considered withdrawing until a defector appeared in his camp. In addition to relaying tactical information about the English, he told Robert that Edward II’s men had lost heart. “Sir, if you ever intend to reconquer Scotland now is the time,” the defector purportedly said before pledging his life that Robert would win the battle easily. Meanwhile, many English troops spent a largely sleepless night moving across the Bannock Burn, a stream that shares a name with the town and battle, so that their horses could be watered.

As the opposing armies assembled on the morning of June 24, Robert told his men that they had right on their side. “Our enemies are moved only by desire for dominion, but we are fighting for our lives, our children, our wives and the freedom of our country,” he said, according to a 14th century Scottish poet who chronicled the battle. After archers briefly exchanged fire, the English cavalry charged, only to be repulsed. The Scottish schiltrons then went on the attack, penning the English cavalry into a cramped space surrounded by water on three sides. English archers, so devastating in the defeat of William Wallace’s schiltrons at the 1298 Battle of Falkirk, this time had trouble getting into position. And when they finally did start shooting arrows into the Scottish flanks, Robert’s 500 or so cavalrymen drove them off. Trapped in the rear, the large English infantry played almost no role in the fighting at all.

At first, the English fell back slowly. But when Edward II was coaxed into leaving along with his 500 bodyguards, the orderly retreat turned into a panicked rout. “On them! On them! They fail!” the Scots yelled as lightly armed camp followers jumped into the fray, possibly prompting the English to believe a second Scottish army had arrived. Hundreds of English soldiers either drowned or were trampled to death in the Bannock Burn and the River Forth, and others fled to Stirling Castle, which would surrender hours later. In addition to capturing numerous English nobles, who were ransomed back for a price, the Scots seized a huge cache of supplies, weapons and food. They even chased Edward II for about 60 miles, killing one of his horses and capturing his royal shield.

Though Scotland was now entirely outside of his control, Edward II refused to make peace, even after Robert launched invasions into both northern England and Ireland (controlled by the English at the time.) Finally, after Edward II’s deposal and the renewal of a Scottish-French alliance, England agreed to the 1328 Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, which recognized Scotland’s independence and Robert’s claim to the throne. Despite periodic fighting between the two sides, Scotland would retain its independence until 1707, when it combined with England to form Great Britain. This September, Scottish residents will vote in a referendum on whether the country should once again be independent.

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Categories: British History, Scotland