Scottish Independence: Battle of Bannockburn

Armored soldiers fight at the Battle of Bannockburn.
Robert the Bruce leads his men forward at the Battle of Bannockburn.

Public Domain

 

The Battle of Bannockburn was fought June 23-24, 1314, during the First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328). Advancing north to relieve Stirling Castle and reclaim lands in Scotland lost after his father's death, Edward II of England encountered the Scottish army of Robert the Bruce near the castle. In the resulting Battle of Bannockburn, the Scots routed the invaders and drove them from the field. One of the iconic victories in Scottish history, Bannockburn secured Robert's place on the throne and set the stage for his nation's independence.

Background

In the spring of 1314, Edward Bruce, brother of King Robert the Bruce, laid siege to English-held Stirling Castle. Unable to make any significant progress, he struck a deal with the castle's commander, Sir Philip Mowbray, that if the castle was not relieved by Midsummer Day (June 24) it would be surrendered to the Scots. By the terms of the deal a large English force was required to arrive within three miles of the castle by the specified date.

Buildings of Stirling Castle
Great Hall of Stirling Castle from the Nether Bailey. Photo © 2007 Patricia A. Hickman

This arrangement displeased both King Robert, who wished to avoid pitched battles, and King Edward II who viewed the potential loss of the castle as a blow to his prestige. Seeing an opportunity to regain the Scottish lands lost since his father's death in 1307, Edward prepared to march north that summer. Assembling a force numbering around 20,000 men, the army included seasoned veterans of the Scottish campaigns such as the Earl of Pembroke, Henry de Beaumont, and Robert Clifford.

Departing Berwick-upon-Tweed on June 17, it moved north through Edinburgh and arrived south of Stirling on the 23rd. Long aware of Edward's intentions, Bruce was able to assemble 6,000-7,000 skilled troops as well as 500 cavalry, under Sir Robert Keith, and approximately 2,000 "small folk." With the advantage of time, Bruce was able train his soldiers and better prepare them for the coming battle.

The Scots Prepare

The basic Scottish unit, the schiltron (shield-troop) consisted of around 500 spearmen fighting as a cohesive unit. As the immobility of schiltron had been fatal at the Battle of Falkirk, Bruce instructed his soldiers in fighting on the move. As the English marched north, Bruce shifted his army to the New Park, a wooded area overlooking the Falkirk-Stirling road, a low-lying plain known as the Carse, as well as a small stream, the Bannock Burn, and its nearby marshes.

Painting of King Robert the Bruce wearing a helmet.
Robert the Bruce. Public Domain

As the road offered some of the only firm ground on which the English heavy cavalry could operate, it was Bruce's goal to force Edward to move right, over the Carse, in order to reach Stirling. To accomplish this, camouflaged pits, three feet deep were dug on both sides of the road. Once Edward's army was on the Carse, it would be constricted by the Bannock Burn and its wetlands and forced to fight on a narrow front, thus negating its superior numbers. Despite this commanding position, Bruce debated giving battle until the last minute but was swayed by reports that English morale was low.

Battle of Bannockburn

  • Conflict: First War of Scottish Independence (1296-1328)
  • Date: June 23-24, 1314
  • Armies & Commanders:
  • Scotland
  • King Robert the Bruce
  • Edward Bruce, Earl of Carrick
  • Sir Robert Keith
  • Sir James Douglas
  • Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray
  • 6,000-6,500 men
  • England
  • King Edward II
  • Earl of Hereford
  • Earl of Gloucester
  • approximately 20,000 men
  • Casualties:
  • Scots: 400-4,000
  • English: 4,700-11,700

Early Actions

On June 23, Mowbray arrived in Edward's camp and told the king that battle was not necessary as the terms of the bargain had been met. This advice was ignored, as part of the English army, led by the Earls of Gloucester and Hereford, moved to attack Bruce's division at the south end of the New Park. As the English approached, Sir Henry de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford, spotted Bruce riding in front of his troops and charged.

Robert the Bruce strikes Henry de Bohun in the head with an axe.
Robert the Bruce kills Henry de Bohun. Public Domain

The Scottish king, unarmored and armed with only a battle axe, turned and met Bohun's charge. Evading the knight's lance, Bruce cleaved Bohun's head in two with his axe. Chastised by his commanders for taking such a risk, Bruce simply complained that he had broken his axe. The incident helped inspire the Scots and they, with aid of the pits, drove off Gloucester and Hereford's attack.

To the north, a small English force led by Henry de Beaumont and Robert Clifford was also beaten off by the Scottish division of the Earl of Moray. In both cases, the English cavalry was defeated by the solid wall of Scottish spears. Unable to move up the road, Edward's army moved to the right, crossing the Bannock Burn, and camped for the night on the Carse.

Bruce Attacks

At dawn on the 24th, with Edward's army surrounded on three sides by the Bannock Burn, Bruce turned to the offensive. Advancing in four divisions, led by Edward Bruce, James Douglas, the Earl of Moray, and the king, the Scottish army moved towards the English. As they drew near, they paused and knelt in prayer. Seeing this, Edward reportedly exclaimed, "Ha! they kneel for mercy!" To which an aid replied, "Yea sire, they kneel for mercy, but not from you. These men will conqueror or die."

As the Scots resumed their advance, the English rushed to form up, which proved difficult in confined space between the waters. Almost immediately, the Earl of Gloucester charged forward with his men. Colliding with the spears of Edward Bruce's division, Gloucester was killed and his charge broken. The Scottish army then reached the English, engaging them along the entire front.

Scottish soldiers pushing the English into marshes.
Scottish troops drive the English back at the Battle of Bannockburn. Public Domain

Trapped and pressed between the Scots and the waters, the English were unable to assume their battle formations and soon their army became a disorganized mass. Pushing forward, the Scots soon began to gain ground, with the English dead and wounded being trampled. Driving home their assault with cries of "Press on! Press on!" the Scots' attack forced many in the English rear to flee back across the Bannock Burn. Finally, the English were able to deploy their archers to attack the Scottish left.

Seeing this new threat, Bruce ordered Sir Robert Keith to attack them with his light cavalry. Riding forward, Keith's men struck the archers, driving them from the field. As the English lines began to waver, the call went up "On them, on them! They fail!" Surging with renewed strength, the Scots pressed home the attack. They were aided by the arrival of the "small folk" (those lacking training or weapons) who had been held in reserve. Their arrival, coupled with Edward fleeing the field, led to the English army's collapse and a rout ensued.

Aftermath

The Battle of Bannockburn became the greatest victory in the history of Scotland. While full recognition of Scottish independence was still several years off, Bruce had driven the English from Scotland and secured his position as king. While exact numbers of Scottish casualties are not known, they are believed to have been light. English losses are not known with precision but may have ranged from 4,000-11,000 men. Following the battle, Edward raced south and finally found safety at Dunbar Castle. He never again returned to Scotland.