Battle of Bannockburn
That Bannockburn is a Scottish byword for victory speaks volumes for the battle’s magnitude and significance. In the First War of Scottish Independence Scotland had its triumphs – Stirling Bridge and Loudoun Hill buttressed their resistance – but the Battle of Bannockburn was a truly spectacular success. An army 6,000 strong saw off 20,000 of King Edward II’s men, securing Scotland’s independence under King Robert The Bruce .
The death of King Edward I changed the political landscape. He had forcibly earned the nickname ‘Hammer Of The Scots’ and was a fearsome enemy: his successor and son, King Edward II , was a weaker man. Just as Scotland suffered under the tepid rule of John Balliol, England would be handicapped in battle by a flimsy monarch.
Not that subjugation was a danger for England, but its grip on Scottish sovereignty was loosening. Bruce divided Scotland with his murder of John Comyn, at the altar of Greyfriars church, Dumfries – an act he was excommunicated for – but his war efforts would soon mark him as a patriot of substance. Bannockburn would host the battle that validated his right to rule.
In the months preceding the battle, Bruce was waging a campaign against the Comyns and the English. Bruce was a fugitive in his own land. He was to exert his regal authority by force – castle after castle fell.
Stirling Castle was still in English hands. Strategically important, it was the gateway to the very heart of Scotland. Sir Philip Mowbray, a Scot loyal to Edward II, was under seige from Edward Bruce. Aware of dissent amongst the English nobility, Bruce offered Mowbray a bullish pact: if the English did not send military support to Stirling by the middle of summer the castle would be surrendered.
The English headed north. Edward II would have the chance to follow in his father’s footsteps, his huge army was a statement of intent. But he would soon discover that military nous was not a birthright. England may have supported the king’s sortie, but there were divisions and discontent among their rank. Bruce was less cavalier than the more celebrated William Wallace; he doubted the wisdom to take on a massive English army, a retreat was considered. But crucially, Bruce would learn of the fractious element in the English army. Defections had made the Scots bold: Bruce would go to war. The lessons learned from defeats at Falkirk and Dunbar , aside Bruce’s canny eye for the lie of the land, would evaporate England’s numerical superiority.
The Battle of Bannockburn opened with an iconic vignette: King Robert Bruce’s slaying of Sir Henry de Bohun. Spotting Bruce alone on horseback, shorn of armour, brandishing only an axe, De Bohun charged, lance extended. Though heavily armoured, De Bohun would not prevail. Bruce dodged the lance, bringing his axe down upon his attacker, cleaving De Bohun’s head. The emphatic killing of this most dangerous adversary buoyed the Scottish troops – it set the precedent for the battle.
Scotland’s army was bold and dynamic. The early stages of the battle saw the English repelled by the schil-trons; the heavily armoured cavalry charge found the phalanx of pikestaffs impenetrable. Unlike the Battle of Falkirk, the Scots isolated the English cavalry from the archers. Edward II was falling into the same trap as the Earl of Surrey at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Bruce’s men built pits and trenches, narrowing the English assault. Edward II’s numerical advantage was neutered, the English could only fight on one front. Trapped by the Scots they had no room to manoeuvre, nowhere to run. Edward II would survive the battle, but his tactical naivety was exposed by Bruce who’d given the nation its greatest victory
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