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The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314

© Marilyn Roberts 2014

What can you do when you want to recreate an event that happened 700 years ago, involved thousands of soldiers, took two days to settle and was spread out in the boggy land adjacent to the Bannock Burn within sight of the mighty Stirling Castle, which was the cause of the conflict in the first place?

 Well, with a cast of 200, an arena smaller than a football pitch and only one hour in which to fight it out, the answer is: present the main facts to the audience – and don’t take yourselves too seriously. The Bannockburn re-enactment of June 2014 was a hugely entertaining affair, and full of fun. Congratulations to all involved, and, although I am English, I do concede that the best man won - again!

Adapted from The Mowbray Legacy

The Battle of Bannockburn, June 1314

Robert Bruce was a man of quite different calibre and abilities from Edward II of England. Driven by the desire to be rid of the English once and for all, he had had himself crowned King of Scotland at Scone on Palm Sunday 1306 with a golden circlet run up by the local blacksmith, a month after he had murdered his rival aspirant to the throne, John Comyn, in a church in Dumfries.      

   Throughout 1312-13 Bruce had great success in taking and reducing those great Scottish castles in English hands from the time of Edward I, and the English castellan of Stirling, Sir Philip Mowbray, realising that he could not hold out for much longer, got himself some breathing space by reaching the compromise with Edward Bruce, the King’s brother, that if the English had not relieved the castle by the feast of St. John the Baptist on 24th June 1314, a year hence, he would surrender it.

   The inevitable confrontation that would follow this truce did not suit the plans of the leaders of either side at that particular time, but Edward II could not lose face and was determined to relieve the castle and go on to subjugate the whole of Scotland. The story is taken up by the ‘Monk of Malmesbury’, writer of the Life of Edward II, who gives a fine account of the chaos of medieval warfare that could hardly be bettered, and of how a king’s arrogance, stupidity and refusal to consider sound advice can lead to ignominious defeat, near ruin and the deaths of good and loyal men.

About the beginning of Lent messengers came to the King with news of the destruction of the Scottish cities, the capture of castles, and the breaching of the surrounding walls.  The constable of Stirling [Sir Philip Mowbray] came too, and pointed out to the King how he had been compelled by necessity to enter upon the truce.  When the King heard the news he was very much grieved, and for the capture of his castles could scarcely restrain his tears.

   When the plans for the call-up were announced, some of the more prudent of the barons, probably John de Mowbray was amongst them, advised the King that according to the Ordinances he must have the consent of Parliament before proceeding further. The Ordinances were regulations drawn up by a group of magnates in 1310 to prevent Edward going to war or leaving the country without Parliament’s consent. Others urged him to assert his authority and proceed as he pleased, and, of course, this was the advice he followed. Using money once belonging to the now disbanded Templars, he was able to furnish an army at least four times greater than that of the Scots and appears to have been in no doubt that an easy victory would be his. Bruce, for his part, was far from intimidated; he might have had only a quarter of the manpower, but he was a natural leader and had recruited and trained his soldiers himself. Burdened with all the necessary trappings, the English set out from Wark in Northumberland on 17th June, rather late considering that their very latest deadline for arriving at Stirling, or within a distance of three leagues of it, was only a week away.

When all the necessaries had been collected, the King and the other magnates of the land with a great multitude of carts and baggage-wagons set out for Scotland.  …  Indeed, 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.…Brief were halts for sleep, briefer still for food; hence horses, horsemen and infantry were worn out with toil and hunger, and if they did not bear themselves well it was hardly their fault.

   They reached Falkirk on the evening of 22nd June, having done a hundred miles in six days; a further twenty miles brought them to the boggy wetland of the Bannock Burn within three miles of Stirling the following afternoon. The battle-experienced amongst the leaders begged for a rest period for their men and Sir Philip Mowbray himself came out of the castle to advise King Edward that by the laws of chivalry a castle was deemed to have been relieved once the relieving army was within three leagues, and therefore an engagement between the forces was unnecessary as far as the future of Stirling Castle was concerned. Sir Philip warned Edward that the Scots were well prepared, had dug pits and set up metal spikes, and would not be an easy adversary; much less would they be intimidated by the large numbers of English and the rich apparel and expensive armour of the great lords. He was ignored.

   Things went badly from the start. All were exhausted and it was late in the day to be thinking about engaging the enemy, but Edward was anxious to get on with the job; his leaders could not believe that their men were to fight without having had food and rest. The plan was for the earls of Hereford and Gloucester to drive the Scots into the arms of Clifford and Beaumont and their men, who had crept up from behind. It did not go unnoticed, and was frowned upon by some battle veterans, that Hereford’s nephew, Sir Henry de Bohun, was, somewhat unconventionally, riding ahead of the commanders, he and his great steed decked out in the richest, most colourful battledress of the day.

   Another lone rider was then spotted on the scene, much less flamboyant, mounted on a ‘litill and joly’ grey palfrey, and making an inspection of the lie of the land at the edge of the woods. Sir Henry would have paid him little heed, until suddenly his heart must have nearly leapt out of his chest as the summer sunlight glanced off the rider’s headgear betraying the golden circlet Robert Bruce wore around his helmet. De Bohun, overcome by what he saw as his chance of everlasting fame and glory, rushed at him with his lance. Bruce’s pretty little grey horse was easily manoeuvrable and Sir Henry missed, but Robert Bruce’s own aim was true, and raising himself in the stirrups, he swung his battleaxe so that instead of becoming the stuff of legend and romantic ballads, the reckless de Bohun was “cleft to the brisket”.

At the end of the day’s engagement between the two armies the English were much the worse for wear and,

 The day being spent, the whole army met at the place where it was to bivouac that night.  But there was no rest, for they spent it sleepless, expecting the Scots rather to attack by night than to await battle by day.  When day came it was abundantly clear that the Scots were prepared for the conflict with a great force of armed men.  Wherefore our men, the veterans that is, and the more experienced, advised that we should not fight that day, but rather await the morrow both on account of the importance of the feast [of St. John the Baptist] and the toil that they had already undergone.  This practical and honourable advice was rejected by the younger men as idle and cowardly.

     Meanwhile, Robert Bruce marshalled and equipped his allies, gave them bread and wine, and cheered them as best he could; when he learned that the English line had occupied the field he led his whole army out from the wood.  About forty thousand men he brought with him [a massive exaggeration], and split them into three divisions; and not one of them was on horseback, but each was furnished with light armour, not easily penetrable by a sword.  They had axes at their sides and carried lances in their hands.  They advanced like a thick-set hedge, and such a phalanx could not easily be broken.

    What followed was an unmitigated disaster bemoaned by the writer, with the English running for their lives and many drowning in the marshy land or in trying to cross the Bannock Burn,

O famous race unconquered through the ages, why do you, who used to conquer knights, flee from mere footmen?           

When it was over, Sir Philip Mowbray, wisely perhaps, refused the King entry to Stirling Castle, where he would surely have been taken prisoner, surrendered it, and thereafter sided with the Scots. The Lanercost Chronicle tells us that Edward and his favourite Hugh le Despenser “who after Piers Gaveston was as his right eye” to their perpetual shame fled like miserable wretches to Dunbar Castle, from where they managed to get a ship to England, and left the cream of the English nobility to the vengeance of the Scots. Many of lesser importance were killed, but the Scots were more interested in securing the valuable baggage train, and again we allow the writer of the Life of Edward II to take up the story

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, despoiled them and enriched the Scots, in which our belongings were ravished to the value of £200,000! So many fine noblemen and valiant youth, so many horses, so much military equipment, costly garments and gold plate - all lost in one unfortunate day, one fleeting hour.

From The Life of Edward the Second (Vita Edwardi Secundi)   

Adapted from The Mowbray Legacy (Chapter III): 1216-1327: The Great Medieval Magnates

© Marilyn Roberts 2014

The Battle of Bannockburn 2014 Style!

Robert the Bruce, on his ‘litill and joly’ steed, makes an inspection of the terrain © Marilyn Roberts 2014

Sir Henry de Bohun spots Bruce and his little horse and seizes his once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win spectacular glory and reward. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

Bruce has trained his men well: the ‘schiltron’ formation is particularly effective. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

A crafty new tactic by the English here - recruiting the local police (do the rules of chivalry allow for this?) © Marilyn Roberts 2014

The English are rather snappy dressers…

... but the Scots appear to know what they are doing. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

Presenting King Edward II. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

No use hiding your face and lurking in your tent, Edward. Sir Philip Mowbray warned you what would happen, so now he is going to deny you refuge in Stirling Castle and hand it over to King Robert. Why not run away and abandon your men…

...oh, I see you already have! © Marilyn Roberts 2014

Robert the Bruce (1274-1329), King of Scots, destroyed much of Stirling Castle to prevent further occupation by the English. However, the Stewart kings rebuilt it and it became a royal palace. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

The castle glimpsed through the trees from Bannockburn today is, for the most part, of later construction than that over which the 1314 battle was fought. © Marilyn Roberts 2014

Looking in the opposite direction – Stirling Castle to Bannockburn, just below the horizon, centre of photograph.© Marilyn Roberts 2014

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