This week in history: Robert the Bruce defeats the English at Bannockburn

By Cody K. Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, June 25 2014 4:54 p.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, June 25 2014 4:54 p.m. MDT

King Robert the Bruce

Shutterstock

On June 24, 1314 — 700 years ago this week — an English army under King Edward II was decisively beaten by Robert the Bruce and his army of Scots at Bannockburn. The battle proved a pivotal event in the wars for Scottish independence.

The last decade of the 13th century saw the rise of the Scottish movement for independence, which led to a series of battles and skirmishes against the English. The rebellion began in earnest in 1297, with Andrew de Moray leading Scottish forces against the English king, Edward I. Moray died at the Battle of Stirling Bridge, though his co-commander, William Wallace, continued the fight.

Leading his army against the English at Falkirk the following year, Wallace was soundly defeated. Never again did the Scottish warlord lead his army into battle. Avoiding capture for seven years, the English finally caught up with the elusive Wallace in 1305. He was executed that August, and the Scottish movement for independence seemed to die with him. Since Falkirk, the English army had brutally stamped out the fires of resistance wherever they appeared, and with the death of their hero Wallace, it appeared that Scotland had at last been pacified.

One Scottish noble, who had fought for a free Scottish nation but who bended the knee to Edward when expedient, was Robert the Bruce. Descended from the Normans who invaded England in 1066, and the eighth to hold the name, Robert's family made a claim upon the Scottish throne, which often led him into conflict with other supporters of Scottish independence who held their own claims.

In his book “A Concise History of Scotland,” the late Scottish soldier and politician Fitzroy Maclean wrote: “Bruce went to Scone and on Palm Sunday, the 27th of March 1306, raised the Royal Standard and had himself crowned King of Scots. … Edward's reply was to send a strong English army to Scotland under Aymer de Valence. On 26 June Bruce was heavily defeated at Methven. His troops were scattered and he himself became overnight a hunted outlaw.”

Robert spent the next year in hiding in the Hebrides, in Orkney, and, as some have speculated, in Ireland and Norway. Returning in early 1307, Robert began another guerrilla war against the English. Despite failing health, Edward led another army north to crush the rebellious Scots. Succumbing to sickness in July, Edward ordered that his bones remain with the army until the rebellion was crushed. The new king, his son Edward II, declined the request.

Edward II lacked his father's interest in crushing the Scottish rebellion and left the job to existing English forces in Scotland. Given a reprieve, Robert launched wars against the other claimants to the Scottish throne. In 1311, with his claim secure, he began invading the north of England as well as driving the English from their strongholds in Scotland. By 1314, Stirling Castle remained one of the only strongholds in Scotland still in English hands. Finally, Edward II decided to act. To that end he led an army north, determined to relieve Stirling.

Edward took his army of 25,000 men across the Rivet Tweed in the early summer. His force included roughly 3,000 mounted knights and men-at-arms. Robert's army of 10,000 differed little from Wallace's force at Falkirk 16 years earlier. The bulk of the force consisted of spearmen. Robert positioned his men on the swampy high ground along the Bannock Burn, a small stream, blocking the road to Stirling Castle. In “The Birth of Britain,” volume I of his magisterial work, “A History of the English Speaking Peoples,” Sir Winston Churchill noted three precautions that Robert took while positioning his army against the superior enemy:

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