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King Robert the Bruce

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:

“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.”

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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: ckcarlson76@gmail.com