24 June, 2014

23/24 June 1314: 700th Anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn

700 years ago yesterday and today, Edward II and his large army lost the battle of Bannockburn near Stirling to Robert Bruce, king of Scotland.  There's really very little, if anything, that I can contribute to a discussion of events of 23 and 24 June 1314, battles and military tactics definitely not being my thing, but here are a few quotations from chroniclers about Edward's role in the battle and others which I find interesting.  In Edward's time, incidentally, the battle was known as 'the discomfiture at Strivelin', the fourteenth-century spelling of Stirling.  If you're interested in learning more about the battle, check out Sami's guest post, Jules' blog posts, and there are numerous books about it available on Amazon (and, I'm sure, countless other articles and posts online to mark the great anniversary).  Incidentally, the first part of The Quest For Bannockburn documentary, already broadcast in Scotland, will be shown in the rest of the UK on BBC2 on Sunday 29 June from 8pm to 9pm.  I'm not sure yet about the second part, which I'm briefly in - presumably the following Sunday.

It's true that Edward left the field after losing the battle and galloped the many miles to Dunbar to take a boat down the coast to Berwick, for which he has - most unfairly, in my opinion - often been condemned for cowardice.  If he'd been a coward, he'd hardly have been fighting in the thick of the battle in the first place, and I'm not sure what people think he should have done: remain on the battlefield to be killed or captured?  His capture would of course have been catastrophic, the ransom demanded for his release immense, and if he'd been killed, it would have brought his nineteen-month-old son to the throne, with all the perils of a long regency that entailed.

Edward attacked ferociously "like a lioness deprived of her cubs."  (Trokelowe)

He "struck out so vigorously behind him with a mace that there was none whom he touched whom he did not fell to the ground."  (Scalacronica, describing Edward's flight from the battle; the author's namesake father Sir Thomas Gray fought for Edward at Bannockburn and was captured)

On Edward's army: "Never up to that time nor later has been seen so much nobility so nobly equipped or swelled with such arrogance."  (Geoffrey le Baker)

On Edward's army: "too showy and pompous."  (A song written in Latin soon afterwards)

"Marching with great pomp and elaborate state, he [Edward II] took goods from the monasteries on his journey, and, as was reported, did and said things to the prejudice and injury of the saints.  In consequence of this and other things it is not surprising that confusion and everlasting shame overtook him and his army, which was foretold at the time by certain religious men of England."  (O rly?  This is from Lanercost; I'm not sure what the monk slash armchair general was on about here, but the account was written with a good 30 years' hindsight)

"All who were present agreed that never in our time has such an army gone forth from England.  The multitude of wagons, if they had been placed end to end, would have taken up a space of twenty leagues.  The king therefore took confidence from so great and so distinguished a multitude and hastened day by day to the appointed place, not as if he was leading an army to battle but as if he was going to St James's [Santiago de Compostela]."  (Vita Edwardi Secundi)

"O day of vengeance and disaster, day of utter loss and shame, evil and accursed day, not to be reckoned in our calendar, that blemished the reputation of the English...".  (Vita)

17 comments:

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

I'm reading that Edward's defeat at Bannockburn was seen by some as the divine punishment, because he had taken some goods from the monasteries on his way North. Reminds me of Henry the Young King and his divine punishment for doing the very same thing in 1183. I wonder what the chroniclers would have said, had Edward won and Henry not died :-)

Kathryn Warner said...

A messenger of Edward's household was arrested shortly afterwards for saying that Edward lost the battle because he indulged in rustic hobbies when he should have been attending Mass. He was deeply pious, in fact :)

Kathryn Warner said...

Kasia, I've been trying to leave a comment on your great new blog post, but Blogger just won't let me - it disappears every time! :/ I'll try again later!

Kasia Ogrodnik said...

Kathryn, don't worry about the comment! What really matters is that people do read about Henry :-) At least I hope so :-D

I couldn't help smiling at "indulged in rustic hobbies" :-) Edward really must have shocked his contemporaries on a few occasions :-D

Kathryn Warner said...

Ohhhhhh yes :-D

Anonymous said...

Great post. I am curious about one thing, though. I recall reading somewhere that Robert the Bruce had been excommunicated by the Pope for killing someone in a church. If so, how was this reconciled with the Scots' victory?

Esther

Kathryn Warner said...

Yes, he was excommunicated for killing John the Red Comyn in church in 1306, and for many years the popes refused to recognise him as king of Scotland.

Anerje said...

In recent History magazines it's refreshing to read about Edward's bravery. Can't wait for the documentary:)

Jerry Bennett said...

Can I make a couple of observations on Bannockburn, which I hope will not confuse matters too much. I watched the I-player version of the TV programme on a lap top, and wonder if I missed anything, so I look forward to seeing it on a full sized screen.

Was the English army too large to camp on the piece of land between the Bannockburn and the Pellstream? Looking at it on an ordnance survey map, it seems a bit small for that size of army plus 2,000 war horses and presumably many more pack animals, wagons and so on. I looked long and hard at the map on Jules's website as well, and if the latter part of the army followed "The Way" did they camp east of the Bannock Burn? This site for the English camp had previously been suggested in other histories, with the steep banks of the Bannock Burn itself disrupting English attacks.

If the Scots descended through the woods to the edge of the carse, they would have to reform their schiltrons at that point. My own experience from Mountain Rescue (many years ago) was that even a simple line search can be easily disrupted by broken or wooded ground, so what would it do to a schiltron? If they had to reform within comparatively easy charging distance of a mounted knight, wouldn't that have been too tempting a target for those English knights that were mounted and ready to fight? Gloucester's charge seems to have taken place once they were fully reformed.

Jules's comment about Barbour and the role of the Scottish horsemen may actually have some relevance. If the main battle was taking place between the Bannock Burn and the Pellstream, did some enterprising English commander lead a group of archers onto the north bank of the Pellstream to shoot at the Scottish schiltrons from the flank, only to be dispersed by Sir William Kieth and the Scottish horse? This would place Keith's attack on the archers at the height of the battle rather than the start of it.

But I could be wrong on all three points, as it is only speculation on my part.

Sami Parkkonen said...

Edward was not a coward personally, he proved that in Bannockburn. He fought like any warrior, lost his horse from under him once during the fight. But as a king he should have been directing the battle instead of rushing into the melée. But then again, none of the noble more experienced lords did not avert the disaster either.

The immense size of the englihs army must have convinced all the english nobility that the scotts can not do anything for them, and I guess that none of them realised that if and when the scotts contain them in a restricted area, the numbers will actually work against them.

As for Robert the Bruce, he was a stone cold guy when he wanted to be as it is shown for his attitude towards the church. He just decided that the church in Scotland supports him with or without the pope and did not let that bother him on daily bases or influence his actions. He however was trying to patch things up with the pope diplomatically. Once the pope was firmly on the french corner in power politics, the french used their influence because they needed Scotland as an allie against England. So it was very much about the power politics and Bruce must have known this. Thus, he was not too worried about the excommunication.

Sami Parkkonen said...

@Jerry: As the english moved across the Bannockburn it became dark. It is almost certain that the carse was the area between Bannockburn and Pellstream and yes, it was too small and thus, the main reason why the english archers could not be brought to the front, only some of them were in action that morning. Also the area became backed with men so when the scotts, rightly so, pushed on, less and less english could join the battle and this was the terrible crush and din which the chronicles speak of.

As fro the formation of the schiltrons: I think theres couple things here working in favor of the scotts. 1. They had, in my account at least, five schiltrons, each roughly one thousand men strong. If they came down to fight, which it seems they did, they came as units, not in formation but as troops. Each schiltron was formed by the men of same families, villages, towns and areas and most of them new each other. They had also been together for a while by now, unlike the english army. So I would imagine that on the order they came down in loose groups, and once they came down to the edge of the forest, they formed up. We must remember that this happened at dawn, the english were still at sleep, and also the scotts were used to move quickly and un noticed. Guerilla style warfare was their style.

it is also good tp remember that nobody in english army sounded alarm, the king was woken up by telling him that the enemy had shown up, and it was the king himself who saounded the alarm and woke up the army. Why it went like this, I can not understand but so happened according to the sources.

The english also didn't think much of the rag tag appearing scotts. They marched on now in lines, not as a round formations, and their line was propably three four men deep, which was thin indeed. So from the english noble camp it looked like suicidal attack.

The archers moved on the north side of the Pellstream only after the battle was began and their arrows harmed the scottish left wing, but Keith attacked on them and drove them away, some back across the Pellstream. After that there was no attempt to bring in the archers to the battle and I can only assume that it was because all the english commanders were fighting at this point onwards. Pretty chaotic situation.

Sorry abput the lenght of this rambling.

Anonymous said...

Dear Kathryn,
Just out of interest, did Edward and Robert the Bruce ever actually meet? I was just reading that a letter from Robert to Edward came to light recently, and I wondered what their relationship (if you can use that word) might have been like. Thanks for the interesting posts as always, Best wishes, Henry

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi Henry, great question! I'm not entirely sure. I have a feeling Robert's brother Edward (killed in 1318) was part of Edward of Caernarfon's household for a while before he was king, but I don't know exactly about Robert and Edward.

chris y said...

Half formed thoughts about this...

The Scottish tactics, advancing in line, forming schiltrons, ould have required an enormous amount of discipline and training, which aren't things we commonly associate with mediaeval armies, apart from English archers and Swiss crossbowmen. Comparable tactics at later dates, French and British infantry moving from line to square in the long 18th century, or the Swedish use of pike and musketry in the 30 years war, required professional armies drilling for months to perfect. Bruce didn't have those, but he must have done some pretty intensive training. So where did he find men who could take time away from their land to train? Where did he find the money to supply them? It strikes me he must have had a considerable infrastructure to support the army that won Bannockburn, very much more developed than the sort of sketchy guerrilla force we usually read about.

Am I making too much of this?

Carla said...

A very large army can be as much hindrance as help, unless the commander is very skilled at managing it. There's a tale (possibly apocryphal) about a famous Roman general (can't remember who) who is supposed to have responded, on being told that the enemy army was 20,000 strong, 'Excellent news! There are few generals who can control 20,000 soldiers', and later, when told that reinforcements had arrived and the enemy army was now 50,000 strong, 'Even better! There are even fewer generals who can control 50,000 soldiers'. Also the logistics of managing supplies for people and animals, camping places, even moving around on poor-quality roads and tracks, multiply as the army gets bigger. It's quite possible that the size of Edward's army was actually one of his problems, especially if it was composed of lots of disparate groups who weren't accustomed to fighting together.

Sami Parkkonen said...

@Chris:
Good points!

Scottish armies consisted clans, families etc. One schitron was commanded by one local lord, who was the lord of the men in his schiltron.

In schiltron, which was not so incredible invention as we assume (nothing like the greek falangs or roman legion formations), the men knew each other, spoke the same dialect, were from the same villages, families etc. So the unit identity was given.

As for the guerilla tactics vs. schiltrons: let us assume that one schiltron is around one thousand men. This could and did split into smaller groups of families, clans etc. when in need. These men moved on foot, quite long distances, and very quickly, pretty much like the native warriors in the eastern USA in the 1700's, and pretty much like these native groups, the scotts could come together and form bigger units quickly.

This is also the reason why the english could not find the army of the Bruce even when they roamed around the land. That army had split into small units and vanished into the hills and fells.

It is also good to remember that many of these men had been fighting for the Bruce for years by this time, some of them over a decade, so there was no need for extensive training. They knew what they were supposed to do.

As for the english achers, even they did not train as units. They simply came together for war and formed units only then. They trained once a week locally and sometimes formed units of 10 to 100 men locally, but usually there might be men from different parts of the realm in the same archery unit.

It is good to remember that a yorkshire man would have had great difficulties to even understand a cornish one, where as the scotts always fought among their kin and clans men, speaking the same dialect etc.

Sorry about the lenght of this.

chris y said...

@Sami Parkkonen
Thanks for that detailed reply. Yes, that would work, I suppose, although it would restrict the size of Bruce's divisions to the number from a single lordship. But a skillful commander could find ways around that if necessary.

The mutual incomprehensibility of English dialects is something I knew about. There's a well known anecdote in Chaucer about a sailor from Yorkshire trying to buy eggs in Kent:

‘And specyally he axyed after eggys. And the good wyf answerde that she coude speke no frenshe. And the marchaunt was angry for he also coude speke no frenshe but wold haue hadde egges and she vnderstode hym not. And thenne at laste a nother sayd that he wolde haue eyren. Then the good wyf sayd that she vnderstood hym wel’