This week in history: Robert the Bruce defeats the English at Bannockburn
“First, he chose a position where his flanks were secured by impenetrable woods; secondly, he dug upon his front a large number of small round holes ... and covered them with branches and turfs as a trap for charging enemy cavalry; thirdly, he kept in his own hand his small but highly trained force of mounted knights to break up any attempt at planting archers upon his flank to derange his (formations). These dispositions made, he awaited the English onslaught.”
Because of its size, it took several days for Edward to maneuver his army into position. On June 23, Henry de Bohun, a knight fighting for Edward, moved his Welsh infantry forward to take Stirling by surprise. As he advanced he saw Robert, not on his great warhorse, but rather on a small hack. Bohun lowered his lance and rode directly at Robert. Rather than attempting to flee, Robert held his position. A moment before Bohun's lance struck, Robert moved the horse aside, and brought down his battle-axe upon the knight's head, killing him.
The next day, June 24, saw the English assault the Scots in earnest. The English knights descended into the Bannock Burn, then emerged upon the far side, climbing the swampy slope. Uphill, the Scottish formations awaited the English charge. The holes that had been dug before hand felled many horsemen, though a number made it through. The knights soon crashed into the Scottish spearmen, who did not give way. Both sides were locked in battle, and the English across the stream little used their archers, who too often hit their own men with their volleys.
Edward ordered his archers to move around the Scots' left flank. Robert's provisions paid off and he sent his small cavalry force to disrupt their movements, sending them back to their lines in disarray. The compact fighting area meant that Robert could bring more and more men to bear easily even as the English had to continue to move across the stream, through the swamp, and up the hill to give battle. English exhaustion soon gave way to confusion and uncertainty, Churchill wrote.
“At length the appearance on the hills to the English right of the camp-followers of Bruce's army, waving flags and raising loud cries, was sufficient to induce a general retreat, which the King himself, with his numerous personal guards, was not slow to head. The retreat speedily became a rout. The Scottish (formations) hurled themselves forward down the slope, inflicting immense carnage upon the English even before they could re-cross the Bannock Burn. No more grievous slaughter of English chivalry ever took place in a single day.”
Destroying an army of English knights and archers with only spearmen was an amazing feat. The Scots claimed that 30,000 Englishmen had been slain or captured, an impossibly high number. Still, Robert's foresight, organization and use of terrain led to one of the most impressive victories of the later Middle Ages.
The English lost their enthusiasm for putting down the Scottish rebellion after that, and Robert's power grew in the following years. Berwick, the last English stronghold in Scotland, fell in 1318, and Robert began another series of raids against England, visiting upon Edward's realms a taste of the brutality that the English had dolled out in Scotland for years. On April 6, 1320, Scottish nobles sent a letter to Pope John XXII asking for papal support for an independent Scotland.
“We fight,” the nobles wrote, “not for glory, nor riches, nor honour, but only for that liberty which no true man relinquishes but with his life. ... By the Providence of God, by right of succession, by those laws and customs which we are resolved to defend even with our lives, and by our own just consent, (Robert) is our King.”
The pope was sympathetic to the Declaration of Arbroath, as it was named, though he had reservations about consenting to Robert as king of the Scots. The Scottish king had been excommunicated years before as a result of his violence while trying to solidify his claim. Eventually, the pope annulled the excommunication, a sign of support for Robert and the Scots. It has been suggested that the Declaration of Arbroath influenced another young revolutionary and another declaration centuries later: Thomas Jefferson and the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
The war between Robert and the English ended with the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton, signed in 1328. The peace did not last, however, and only a few years later another round of fighting between the English and the Scots broke out.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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