24 June, 2008


Today is the 694th anniversary of the second day of the battle of Bannockburn, fought near Stirling Castle on 23 and 24 June 1314. I don't have a lot to say on the battle itself - my brain is incapable of understanding military tactics and battles, and besides, there are lots of books and websites about it - so here are some lesser-known facts about the event.

Edward mustered a great army at Berwick, of between 15,000 and 20,000 men. It wasn't entirely an English army - there were archers from Wales, Irish soldiers, and knights from all over Europe. Some of Robert Bruce's Scottish enemies fought for Edward II too, including the young John Comyn, whose father John the Red Comyn had been stabbed to death by Robert Bruce in 1306. Comyn was killed. It's not clear if the earl of Ulster fought at Bannockburn, but he was with Edward II a month before the battle when Edward was mustering his army. Ulster was in a dificult position, as the father-in-law of Bruce, but also of Edward's nephew the earl of Gloucester.

Only three of Edward's earls fought for him at Bannockburn - his brother-in-law Hereford, who had drawn close to the king since his presence at Piers Gaveston's death, his nephew Gloucester, and his cousin Pembroke. Gloucester was killed, as he forgot to put on the surcoat identifying him as an earl. If the Scottish soldiers had known who he was, they would have captured him for ransom. Robert Bruce treated Gloucester's body with the utmost respect, and personally kept an overnight vigil over it. Although the men had never met (as far as I know), they were second cousins - Bruce's grandmother was a de Clare - and were married to sisters, Elizabeth and Maud de Burgh. Bruce sent Gloucester's body back to England with full honours and without demanding payment, as he had every right to do.

Many English barons fought for Edward II, however: Roger Mortimer, twenty-seven, and his uncle Roger Mortimer of Chirk, in his late fifties and a veteran of Edward I's Welsh wars of the late 1270s and early 1280s. Thomas, Lord Berkeley, who was almost seventy (he was born in 1245), his son Maurice, grandsons Thomas and Maurice, and grandson-in-law John Maltravers - yes, the Thomas Berkeley and John Maltravers of 1327 - Edward's French cousin Henry Beaumont, Hugh Despenser the Elder and Younger, Robert Clifford (who had besieged Piers Gaveston at Scarborough Castle in 1312), and Edward's steward Edmund Mauley, were some of the others. Clifford and Mauley were killed, the earls of Hereford and Angus taken prisoner.

Edward marched into Scotland with a baggage train that stretched back twenty leagues, including jewellery, napery, costly plate, and ecclesiastical vestments for celebrating the victory. He also ordered ships to Edinburgh with more things, and the personal possessions of the earl of Hereford alone required an entire ship. Edward, and others, acted as though all they had to do was turn up and they would win. This, of course, was a horrible mistake. The Lanercost Chronicle says that Edward marched with great pomp and elaborate state, purveying goods from monasteries as he passed, and, oddly, that he "did and said things to the prejudice and injury of the saints."

For all Edward's incompetence as a general, his personal courage in the battle is beyond question, and the chronicler Trokelowe says that he fought like a lion. At one point, his horse was killed beneath him, and Scottish soldiers rushed forward to capture him. Edward’s knights surrounded him, beating them off, and Edward managed to mount another horse, from the many running around the battlefield. Again, Scottish soldiers pressed forward to try to capture him, grabbing hold of his horse’s trappings. Edward "struck out so vigorously behind him with his mace there was none whom he touched that he did not fell to the ground" according to the Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray, whose father was captured at the battle.

After some hours, the ground wet with blood, dead bodies of horses and men underfoot, the earl of Pembroke realised the battle was lost. He grabbed Edward's reins and dragged, him, protesting, from the field. 500 knights, including Henry Beaumont and the younger Despenser, surrounded him, their only thought: protect the king. Philip Mowbray, the constable of Stirling Castle (Scottish but on Edward's side) refused to let them enter, sensibly, as Edward would be trapped there, surrounded by the Scottish army. All they could do was gallop the fifty miles to Dunbar, which must have taken many hours. Bruce's friend Sir James Douglas followed them all the way, picking off stragglers, so close that it was said the men had no time even to stop and pass water.

Edward and his men reached Dunbar, where his ally Patrick, earl of Dunbar, opened up the castle drawbridge for them. Edward and his knights jumped off their horses, leaving them outside, and ran inside the castle. Earl Patrick found a fishing boat, and Edward made his way to Bamburgh with a handful of attendants. From there, he made his way to Berwick overland. His remaining knights were forced to ride to Berwick, with James Douglas and his men close behind them, shedding their armour to speed their way. Edward was incredibly lucky to escape capture by Douglas, and in gratitude, founded Oriel College at Oxford some years later, according to Geoffrey le Baker.

And so the king returned to Berwick not at the head of a victorious army, but in flight, forced to travel by fishing boat. Queen Isabella supported Edward with her usual loyalty, and lent him her seal so that government business could continue, Edward's having been lost on the battlefield (Bruce returned it). She tended to his wounds herself, and even cleaned his armour.

The Vita says this about the defeat of Bannockburn: "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."

As utterly humiliating as Edward's flight from the battlefield was, it was infinitely preferable to the two alternatives, his capture or his death. Being captured would have meant a cripplingly huge ransom, and the commentators who castigate him for his lack of military ability and cowardice would instead castigate him for his lack of military ability and his reckless stupidity. In fact, accusations of cowardice are grossly unfair, as even men who had no reason to like Edward admitted his bravery during the battle.

Edward's death in battle would have brought his nineteen-month-old son to the throne, which meant a regency of many years standing. And as events were shortly to prove, the men who replaced Edward in power were not one whit more competent than he was. A regency would have meant struggles for power, jockeying for position, while Bruce took advantage of the chaos.

Still, for the king of England, galloping away in ignominious flight from a battle he fully expected to win, the realisation that he had at least spared his country a crippling ransom or the perils of a long regency was probably no consolation whatsoever.


Gabriele Campbell said...

Knowing Edward, the fishing boat trip was the fun part of the whole mess. :)

He definitely was not a coward or a whimp. Fighting for several hours and then riding 50 miles, wounded, is no mean feast. But could they change horses? Because the men might endure, but a horse won't be able to gallop 50 miles.

Brian Wainwright said...

Maybe Edward II was a brave knight, but not an effective commanding general. One can think of some of his descendants to whom this would apply - Edmund of Langley, Humphrey of Gloucester, Richard III...

Actually it might be interesting to review his military career, to test whether in fact it was as inept as is commonly thought. I suspect that (Boroughbridge apart) he may have led one or two successful ventures in Scotland.

I suspect that the main problem with Edward was not that he was cowardly, or weak, or (in our terms) gay or bi. It was more that he simply did not share the world view of the bulk of the nobility. Plus he was too lazy to be an effective medieval ruler - being king was not a sinecure, it was a full time, demanding job!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Edward wasn't much of a general, but I wonder if it wasn't so much his being a bad general, as Robert the Bruce being a great one? Perhaps too there was a psychological aspect to it--the English were still in disarray from Gaveston's death a couple of years earlier, whereas I picture the Scottish as being more united behind a common cause.

Kathryn Warner said...

the fishing boat trip was the fun part of the whole mess. :)

*Grins*. I'm not sure where they might have changed horses, or if they would have had the time, but 50 miles and many hours galloping on the same horses does seem unlikely, doesn't it?

Brian: I tend to see Edward as not so much a lazy king as a very reluctant one. I think he just wasn't interested! The Vita Edwardi Secundi points out that if Ed had expended the same energy on fighting as he did on hedging and ditching, 'he would have raised England aloft' (to confirm what you say about Ed being out of step with the world view of his nobility!)

What's interesting is that Edward was obviously trying to find other ways to defeat Bruce, rather than militarily - he recalled Edward Balliol (son of King John I of Scotland, removed from the throne in 1296) from Picardy, to challenge Bruce's legitimacy as king.

Susan: that's a good point, and I wonder if anyone in England at the time was capable of defeating Bruce. Edward I didn't in 1306/07 (OK, he was pretty old by then) and the campaign of 1327, led by Roger Mortimer, was an utter disaster too, even though Bruce was desperately ill and nearing the end of his life by then.

Carla said...

"a baggage train that stretched back twenty leagues, including jewellery, napery, costly plate, and ecclesiastical vestments for celebrating the victory"
That probably sums up the whole debacle. Over-confidence and not taking the job seriously enough. Edward II wouldn't be the first or the last monarch to fancy the luxury lifestyle but not the unremitting work required to earn it.

Jules Frusher said...

I can't believe I missed bannockburn yesterday - heads all full of other (work) stuff at the mo!

Anyway, GREAT post!And I agree that whatever else can be thrown at Ed over Bannockburn - he was no coward. I'm wondering - didn't he have any advisors who should have helped him - perhaps men who had fought with his father? Or do you think he would have ignored them?

In any other circumstances, that 50 mile ride would have been an epic feat remembered for years around hearths. It's a shame that it happened in such ignominious circumstances.

I didn't realise that he took 500 knights with him off the field though. To me that seems rather alot.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Carla, all the way back to the Romans. :) There were several reasons for Varus' defeat in the Teutoburg Forest, but the overlong, overstuffed bagage train they had to haul through muddy, root-grown pathes definitely didn't help.

Kathryn Warner said...

Carla: re over-confidence - that's true, though in Ed II's defence, he did have good reason to be confident, given that his army was much bigger, Bruce had always previously avoided pitched battles with English armies (which was because he couldn't match them in equipment and numbers, but maybe Ed thought it was because Bruce was too frightened to meet his army in battle), and that Bruce did not exactly enjoy universal support in Scotland. With hindsight, Ed's confidence looks pretty foolish, but then, hindsight is always 20-20! Of course, Bruce had home advantage, and chose ground that suited his tactics, not Edward's.

Gabriele: thanks for the reminder that Ed II wasn't the only man who did that. ;)

Thanks, Lady D! There were plenty of men to advise Ed - for example, his cousin Pembroke, who actually defeated Bruce in 1306, Mortimer of Chirk, a veteran of Ed I's Welsh wars, the veeeeerrrry experienced soldiers Lord Berkeley and his son, Robert Clifford, and more...

I can't remember offhand the primary source for the 500 knights, but the figure appears in a few modern works on the battle.

Jules Frusher said...

Hmmmm.... with all that experienced advice then surely the full blame should not rest on Ed's shoulders alone for the defeat. If it had been Hugh Jnr advising him then he would certainly have been accused of giving bad counsel and putting the king in danger (as he was for the later campaign). However I see no blame attached to anyone here.

It's like you said - hindsight is 20/20. We can see factors which helped in the defeat now that Ed and his men couldn't have foreseen then. But once again it's all too easy to blame Ed for everything.

Anonymous said...

And yet Edward III was a hero when he walked away from a battle that was not going to be won!

You are right Alianore, Edward II did the right thing by NOT dying in battle. Unfortunately, unlike Ed III who had 50 years of his reign in which to prove himself, Ed II had no such benefits of time.

He would probably have been much happier had his older brothers lived. Perhaps he was never groomed to be King in the first place?

Kathryn Warner said...

Lady D: true - Ed was surrounded by men with decades of military experience between them, but he shoulders all the blame for the defeat. I bet if he'd won, commentators would say 'ah, but it was all his experienced commanders who won it for him!'

Kate: Ed became heir to the throne at the age of 4 months, but the odd thing is, Ed I doesn't seem to have cared too much about his education, in military and government matters, and allowed him to pursue his 'improper hobbies' - digging, hedging, shoeing horses etc.

Gabriele Campbell said...

Well, at least he could have shod his horse had it lost an iron during that mad flight. :)

I wonder, do we know anything about Ed's education at all? The chroniclers obviously concentrated on his un-kingly hobbies because the wanted to find fault with him and maybe forgot to mention a few facts in his favour?
You know, a bit like the sources that, instead of blaming Teutoburg Forest on Varus' bad generalship, blame it on Arminius who was 'sneaky and quite clever for a barbarian.' *grin*

Anerje said...

Hmm, after the death of Piers, and then Bannockburn, I'm sure Edward heartily disliked the month of June. Undoubtedly a disaster, it could have been worse, as Alianore says, if Edward had been captured or killed. I also think it is so well-remembered because it was one of the few battles won by the Scots. You only have to compare it with the battle of Flodden in 1514, when the Scottish king was killed by an army led by the Duke of Norfolk.

Anonymous said...

Don't shoot me, I'm only the piano player. Have you read the Wikipedia article on Robert Brus I? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_I_of_Scotland The article's author calls Edward II "feeble." (Ducking for cover, even though I had nothing to do with that article.)

Besides being descended from Edward II, Isabella, Roger Mortimer, Hereford's deBohun and others on my mom's side, I recently discovered the direct connection to the Brus and Stewart ancestry on my dad's side. If history was a football game, which side should I cheer for?

Kathryn Warner said...

Gabriele: well, certainly Edward was literate, and taught by Dominican friars, but it's hard to say anything for sure about his education, unfortunately.

Anerje: I wonder if the battle would have gone any differently if Piers had been alive to advise Ed?

Christy: yes, I've read it...hmmmmm.

If history was a football game, which side should I cheer for?

Edward II, of course! :-)

Anerje said...

Oops, originally posted this in th wrong place!

Alianore, yes, Piers being at Ed's side could have made a difference. He was far more of a soldier. It's intersting to think what would have happened. Of course, while Piers lived, the nobles wouldn't engage the Scots - particularly Lancaster. How ironic it would have been if Piers had been a hero at the battle!

And what of the battle had taken place, say 5 years later, Ed had been captured, and the nobles refused to pay the ransom and proclaimed his son king, with the nobles fighting to be protector? I love imagining different scenarios:)

Anonymous said...

No matter how many experienced war veterans in Edward 11 army, I doubt a Plantagenet, would take kindly to being 'told' or advised how to engage in a battle. He seems to have fluctuated between almost totally apathy and high activity - perhaps his bio clock was out of sinc!

Anonymous said...

I know this site is all about lovin' Ed, but Bruce, Douglas, and even Randolph were considered amoung the greatest soldiers of their time. Even the vets who'd faced the three of them hundreds of times, in skirmish and full battle, didn't know what to expect.

Footsoldiers advancing on cavalry was insane! Gloucester tried to warn Ed after the first day, but got called a coward for the attempt. Of course, even the ol' Hammer of the Scots would've laughted his arse off at the idea.

Fairest fight I can think of would be James Douglas v. Robert Bruce, in a fantastic 'What If' world where Edward I actually restored Douglas' lands when the teenaged James shows up in his court. Edward II and Douglas could've gotten along quite well.

Ronnie Soak said...

The Bruce's victory against the English usurpers at Bannockburn was not the Edward or his commander's fault. 1) The Bruce picked the Battle field, and had traps laid to dimish the effectiveness of the English Cavalry. This was made clear to the English by Moubray, who was holding Stirling Castle still. After the first forays and outflanking attempt by the english failed on the sunday, they drew to the marshy area for the night, where they would be protected. Failure to place their Archers on the only HIgh ground, using it instead for Cavalry for most of teh Battle rendered them useless, and Keith took the Hill before the archers could gain it.
The narrow fighting front allowed by the marshland meant that only a few men couldengage the Scot's at one time, but the sheer size of the English Army wore the Scots down. In the end, the Baggage train charge in under to the fray, thinking it reinforcements, the english broke, and Edward II was advised to flee.
Edward was no tactician, no strategist, however, he had around him men that were experienced in Battle, but suffffered from an arrogance instilled by Edward I that the Knightly, Chivalric form of warfare would tell over all - Bruce's Victories up til then had all been guerilla, Wallce style attacks. Bruce made the most of the Terrain to aid his much lesser numbers, and those he had were foot soldiers in the main, or very light cavalry, experienced in fighting in such terrain - the Heavey armour of the Pride of Chivalry was rendered null and void in the marshy bog.
The Biggest fault, the thing that lost England the fight, was the non deployment of the Archers on the hill. Was that Edward or one of his commanders who ordered that?

Kathryn Warner said...

Thanks for the great comment, Ronnie! I thought the non-deployment of the archers had to do with them not being to get into a good position thanks to the nature of the battlefield, and unable to shoot without hitting their own side.

Anonymous said...

Edward's troops did not have access to any high ground - the Scots were already on it.
Traps and boggy ground...not clear where these traps might have been - even Barbour is pretty hazy about them, but it seems that if they existed at all it was in the area of the first action, though archaeology has found no trace.
Bogsd and swamps..the remarkable thing about this battle is that the Scots came down from the high ground to engage on the 'dry' or 'hard' or 'good' ground. The bogs and swamps (and the caltrops too) are the invention of Gardiner and Oman