Bannockburn


By D Furius Venator


The Background

This battle was fought in 1314 between the English under their king, Edward II and the Scots under Robert Bruce. The English were attempting to relieve the siege of Stirling Castle and left Berwick on the Scottish border on 17th June 1314 - they had a week to reach Stirling before its garrison would surrender according to a previous agreement. 'Brief were the halts for sleep, briefer still for food; hence horsemen and foot were worn out with toil and hunger'. Contemporary accounts put the English at as many as 100 000 men, a ludicrous figure. Fortunately though they also tell us how many wagons they brought along, which allows a much better estimate of the size of their army. The English host required 110 ox drawn wagons and 106 horse drawn wagons, a total of 880 oxen and 424 draft horses. Eighty of these wagons were filled with food (enough for a two days); the rest carried the accoutrements of the knights. Eighty wagons can carry enough food for about 6000 men consumed over two days. That gives us a good idea of the size of the English army. The Scots who scouted the host said that is was full of 'the stoutest men in Christendom'. On the 19th, the English were resupplied by sea at Edinburgh and waited two more days for stragglers to catch up. They covered the remaining 34 miles to Stirling in two days. By the rules of war, the castle was now relieved. Bruce would have none of that and decided to contest the English advance to the castle. He had spent the entire summer training his men.

The Armies

The English comprised three elements. The mounted men-at-arms, longbowmen and spear armed infantry from the Shires. The men-at-arms were formed in three 'battles' or divisions, the largest under the King, the vanguard under Gloucester and the third battle under Clifford. These groups of knights probably numbered between 300 and 600 men. A best guess is that Gloucester commanded 500, Clifford 300 and the King 600 for a total of 1400 knights in all. We have simply no idea how many of the infantry were longbowmen, Edward had summoned 5000 to muster but medieval musters usually fell far short of their totals. For the Bannockburn campaign, Edward had called for 21540 footmen men to assemble. We've seen that he probably had no more than 6000 men with him when he crossed the border, of whom 1400 were horsemen, so probably something like 20% of the footmen called for actually turned up. That would give him about 1000 longbowmen and so about 3500 would have been spearmen from Wales and the English Shires.

1400 mounted men-at-arms, 1000 longbowmen, 3500 spearmen.

Bruce had dismounted his few available men-at-arms to stiffen his spearmen, who were the main part of his force. These spearmen were formed in three 'battles', the vanguard under Randolph, the rear under Robert Bruce and a third under Edward Bruce. These bodies of spearmen likely numbered no more than 1000 men each as it is extremely difficult to manoeuver bigger bodies of spear armed troops. 500 light horse were also present under Keith. There were also perhaps 2-3000 'small folk', local people who had joined late full of enthusiasm but badly equipped and untrained. There were also a small number of Ettrick archers present.

3000 spearmen, 500 light horse, perhaps 2-3000 'small folk'.

The Eve of Battle

Bruce had assembled his army just two miles form Stirling Castle in the woods of New Park. They dug concealed pits and scattered caltrops to prevent the English horse from easily entering the woods and prepared to defend the road that led to the castle. The English arrived late in the afternoon on 23rd June. They could see the Scots busy in the woods and Gloucester's vanguard crossed the Bannock Burn. Bruce led his battle out to meet them; conspicuous by the gold crown he wore over his helmet.

The sight of the Scots King advancing ahead of his men was too much for Sir Henry Bohun who abandoned the Welsh spearmen he was leading in support of Gloucester and charged Robert Bruce. Bohun was fully armoured on a large destrier, the finest warhorse of the day, and had his lance couched. Bruce was mounted on 'a litill palfrey grey and joly'. Waiting until the last moment, Bruce swerved his horse so Bohun missed, then stood up in his stirrups and brought his axe down on Bohun's head, shattering his helmet and leaving the head of the axe buried in Bohun's skull.

Inspired by this wonderful display of martial competence, the Scots swept forward, driving the English back across the burn, in the process killing Bohun's plucky squire who had dismounted to protect his master's body. Gloucester had his horse killed under him during the English retreat and nearly taken prisoner. Bruce did not let them pursue the retreating English vanguard but led them back to the woods.

Edward now sent Clifford's battle to try to break through to the castle by another route. Randolph moved his men to intercept them and the English, rather than press on to the castle chose to turn and fight Randolph's men on open ground. The Scots formed in a tight circle that the English knights could not break. The English were reduced to throwing their weapons at the Scots, hoping to force a breach. While the English indulged in these futile attempts to break the cohesion of Randolph's men, Douglas led his spearmen out the woods to come to Randolph's aid. This caused the English to break off before they were trapped between two bodies of spearmen, some galloping for the castle, most slinking back to rejoin Edward's army.

As dusk was now gathering, Edward decided against further frontal attacks and decided to cross the Bannock Burn away from the Scots, probably to the north-east at the Carse of Balquihiderock, an area of marshy ground where the English army would be out of sight of the Scots. This took most of the night and taking into account the fact that the English had just force marched for two days under a hot June sun, they must have been very tired when the morning of the 24th June dawned.

The Battle

And as dawn broke (about 4 a.m.) Bruce led his men out of the woods and drew up in line of battle very close to the English camp. The English were disorganised. Either to buy time for the army to get ready for battle or in petulance because of a dispute over the command of his battle Gloucester led the vanguard against the Scots battle under Edward Bruce. Barbour describes this with typical flowery language 'The great horse of the English charged the pikes of the Scots, as it were a dense forest, there arose a great and terrible crash of spears broken and of destriers wounded to death.'

The charge failed. Men at arms were knocked from their horses by the pikes and were killed by Scots sallying from the schiltrom. But the Gloucester's battle stubbornly refused to withdraw to allow a fresh assault. Randolph had led his Scots spearmen forward to engage the rest of the English knights under Clifford and King Edward who do not seem to have been organised enough to charge. The English longbowmen tried to fire into the Scots over the heads of the knights but they were disorganised by riderless horses fleeing the melee and their fire 'hit few Scots in the breast but many English in the back.' Before their fire could become more effective the Scots horse under Keith rode them down.

Bruce now brought up the Scots reserve and the English began to give way. A cry of 'On them! On them! On them! They fail!' went up from the Scots. The 'small folk' heard the cry and joined the pursuit with shouts of 'Slay! Slay!' The English foot fled, their spearmen not waiting to trade blows with the now jubilant Scots. King Edward narrowly escaped capture, his horse was killed under him and he was forced to defend himself with a mace. His household fought free and a total of about 500 men-at-arms escaped with him as a body. A number of Welsh footmen managed to keep together and escape in reasonably good order. The rest were scattered, captured or killed.

Aftermath

The Scots crossed the border and devastated northern England. The war dragged on for many years until eventually the English were forced to The Shameful Peace of Northampton. It was nearly twenty years, Bruce was dead and a new English king crowned before Scotland was threatened by the English again.