While attempting to lift a siege of Stirling Castle, one of just two Scottish castles left in English hands, the forces of Edward II fought and lost a pitched battle against Robert the Bruce. Bannockburn saw the annihilation of the English army ensuring the countries independence for the next twenty years and fatally undermined Edward II.
BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN (1314)
The First War of Scottish Independence had started in 1296 after Scottish resistance to attempts by Edward I to establish himself as overlord. Although the English had suffered some setbacks, the campaign of Sir William Wallace in 1297 being a key example, the war was generally going in their favour. Wallace was roundly defeated at the first Battle of Falkirk (1298) and was replaced as 'Guardian of Scotland' by Sir Robert Bruce. Initially he faired little better on the field against the English and was defeated at the Battle of Methvan (1306) prompting him to switch to guerrilla warfare tactics. The same year however Scottish fortunes took a turn for the better; the warrior King of England, Edward I died whilst heading north to deal with the latest Scottish rebellion.
The new English King, Edward II, lacked his father's military and political skill. His reliance on favourites and military ineptitude earned him contempt from his leading magnates and this was exploited by Bruce. Edward's failure to bring an army north meant that by 1313 Stirling Castle was one of just two left in English hands. After a protracted siege the castle’s governor agreed to surrender if not relieved by Midsummer’s Day 1314. Edward II answered this challenge; by May 1314 he marched north from Berwick-upon-Tweed and by 22 June 1314 he had reached Falkirk.
The Scottish army is estimated to have been circa-6,000 men strong including a detachment of around 500 cavalry. Bruce deployed his troops 2 kilometres to the south west of Stirling Castle where the Falkirk to Stirling road passed through woodland of the New Park. This position would force the English to either take the marshy route, in vicinity of the Bannock burn, or to by-pass the wood; in either case the English advantage in heavy cavalry would be neutralised. Defensive earthworks were constructed to further strengthen the position of the Scottish forces.
The English force is estimated to have been around 13,000 soldiers with around 2,000 heavy cavalry. The force was well equipped with state-of-the-art equipment but was also operating with an extended logistical chain extending back to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Furthermore the army itself would have been spread out over several miles. To compensate the vanguard, which probably accounting for around a third of the entire army (in the region of 4,500 men) and being a self contained balanced fighting force, was configured for reactive operations as required.
The Battle (Day One)
The first day of the battle saw the English vanguard engage Scottish forces. Despite having intelligence that Bruce had established his forces in New Park wood the vanguard commander, the Earl of Bohun, suspected that the enemy force would flee when faced with his formidable army. He led his infantry force into the wood whilst concurrently the Earl of Gloucester led the mounted component around to the far side of the wood beyond St Ninians church to prevent enemy forces escaping. Both elements of the English vanguard met with disaster. Bohun’s infantry was ambushed by Bruce within New Park wood – he was killed and his troops were surrounded and routed. Concurrently the cavalry element were engaged by the Scottish commander, the Earl of Moray, who left the cover of New Park wood and fought a sharp action defeating Gloucester; the English survivors retreated to Stirling Castle. Meanwhile the main English army, having seen the engagement of the vanguard, had bypassed the woodland and instead took the eastern route into the marshy plain in vicinity of the Bannock burn. They camped overnight in a deep, wet marsh remaining in arms as a Scottish ambush was expected.
The Battle (Day Two)
No overnight attack was made on the main body of the English and the next morning Edward deployed his forces ready for battle which the Scottish answered; Bruce deployed his men in three tightly packed formations (schiltrons) of spearmen. The precise location of this second day of the battle is unknown but the English had their backs to the Bannock burn and the width and depth of the battlefield was insufficient for their purposes. In the first instance this impacted upon initial deployment; whilst the preferred option would have been archers on the flanks of the infantry, the lack of space meant they had to be deployed in the front rank. This initially suited the English purpose – they commenced the fighting around 9am with their archers striking the three Scottish schiltrons. Bruce countered this with a cavalry charge from his small mounted force. Whether his force ever made it to the English archers is unknown but it seems to have prompted the English cavalry to counter-charge.
The English heavy cavalry, the medieval equivalent of a tank, was at its best when there was sufficient time for it to build up speed and was fighting a force that had either broken or was loosely configured. With the English archers being quickly neutralised, the Scottish schiltrons were still tightly packed whilst the depth of the field was insufficient for the cavalry to get to full speed. The result was the attack stalled unable to break the schiltons. Attempts by the archers to fire over the heads of the cavalry were ineffective.
Bruce, sensing victory, ordered his infantry to advance pushing the cavalry and then the English archers and infantry back and into the ditch of the Bannock burn. With many trapped in the ditch by the weight of their armour, the nobles were captured for later ransom whilst the English soldiery was slaughtered. Edward II fled from the scene first towards Stirling Castle, where the Governor wisely refused him access, and then onto Dunbar where he escaped in a fishing boat back to England.
The Battle of Bannockburn saw the English army as an organised fighting force annihilated. Stirling Castle, with now no prospect of relief, surrendered. But worse was to come for England as Bruce, keen to move the war out of Scotland and to force Edward II to terms, invaded Northumberland. The invading Scottish forces brought years of misery to the populace there as the weak and ineffectual government of Edward II proved unable to counter him whilst concurrently refusing to negotiate. The battle also fundamentally undermined the government of Edward II; twelve years after the battle, key magnates of England deposed the King. However, despite its huge short term significance, Bannockburn merely led to a respite for Scotland – at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333), Edward III resumed the Scottish war with vigour.