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Why did the Scots win the Battle of Bannockburn?

Why did the Scots win the Battle of Bannockburn?

A depiction of the Battle of Bannockburn from a 1440s manuscript of Walter Bower‘s Scotichronicon. Earliest known depiction of the battle.

Two prominent figures stand out in Scottish history as symbols of resistance and freedom.

Robert the Bruce, a fierce leader, challenged the rule of both Edward I and Edward II of England. Moreover, instrumental in uniting Scotland’s Highlands and Lowlands in a passionate fight for independence. Alongside him in history is Sir William Wallace, a lesser-known Lowland knight who became immortalized by books and Mel Gibson’s major motion picture, ‘Braveheart’. However, today we will look at Bruce, not Wallace’s glory at Bannockburn.

Robert the Bruce (1274 – 1329)

Robert the Bruce and his first wife Isabella of Mar, as depicted in the 1562 Forman Armorial

Renowned in history and folklore, Robert the Bruce often stands remembered through the tale of a spider’s perseverance. Initially, Bruce paid homage to Edward I of England, but his reasons for shifting loyalty to the Scottish cause are speculative. It might have been ambition or a genuine aspiration for Scotland’s independence.

Bruce’s journey to kingship was tumultuous. In 1306, he assassinated John Comyn, his rival for the Scottish throne, in the Greyfriars Church at Dumfries, an act that led to his excommunication. Nonetheless, he became crowned King of Scotland soon after.

Bruce experienced early defeats against the English and was forced into a life on the run. During this time, a story tells of his observation of a spider attempting to anchor its web, failing six times but succeeding on the seventh try. This incident reportedly inspired Bruce to persist in his struggle.

The Battle of Bannockburn: A Turning Point in Scottish History

On the 23rd and 24th of June, 1314, a significant chapter in the Scottish War of Independence unfolded near Stirling in Central Scotland. The Battle of Bannockburn, a fierce confrontation between the armies of King Edward II of England and Robert the Bruce of Scotland, became a pivotal moment in Scottish history.

Prelude To A Fight

Edward I of England, having previously conquered Scotland, established a network of stone castles, manned by English and loyal Scottish knights, to maintain control. His death in 1307 saw his son, Edward II, ascend the throne, facing internal conflicts and a less cohesive English nobility.

Meanwhile, Robert the Bruce embarked on a campaign to expel the English and assert his rule. Using guile and military acumen, the Scots, adept in siege warfare, captured English strongholds one by one, often through surprise attacks and scaling ladders.

Stirling Castle and the Promise

A key moment came with the siege of Stirling Castle by Edward Bruce, Robert’s brother. Sir Philip de Mowbray, the castle’s governor, promised to surrender if the castle was not relieved by Midsummer’s Day, 1314. This agreement inadvertently compelled Edward II to mount a significant campaign to relieve the castle.

Edward II’s Feudal Army

Edward II amassed a large feudal army, with estimates suggesting around 16,000 men, including 3,000 cavalry and 13,000 infantry, which featured Welsh archers. The English knights were heavily armored, carrying lances, swords, and other weapons, and rode powerful destriers. In addition, the foot soldiers, less equipped, were armed with various weapons, including spears and swords.

The Scottish Forces

Robert the Bruce’s army, primarily foot soldiers armed with spears, numbered around 7,000, including a small cavalry unit led by Sir Robert Keith. Lacking the heavy cavalry of their English counterparts, the Scots relied on their spearmen and strategic battlefield positioning.

The Battle Begins

The battle commenced on the 23rd of June. The Scots, formed into schiltrons (dense spear formations), prepared to repel the English cavalry. A significant moment occurred when Robert the Bruce killed Sir Henry de Bohun in single combat, boosting Scottish morale.

The First Day’s Clash

Holkham Bible, c. 1330: Depiction of a biblical battle, giving an impression of how soldiers were equipped at Bannockburn.

The English cavalry struggled against the disciplined Scottish schiltrons and the terrain, which included pits and bogs. The Scots’ defensive tactics effectively neutralized the English advantage in cavalry.

An interpretation of the battle of Bannockburn – first day

The Second Day: A Turn of Events

On the 24th, the English attempted a renewed assault, crossing the Bannockburn to engage the Scots. However, the narrow battlefield and the defensive formations of the Scottish army blunted the English charge. The appearance of Scottish camp followers, mistaken for reinforcements, caused panic among the English, leading to a disorderly retreat and heavy casualties.

An interpretation of the battle of Bannockburn – second day

Aftermath and Significance

Edward II fled to England, and the battle marked a decisive Scottish victory. It significantly bolstered Scottish morale and Robert the Bruce’s position. The battle illustrated the limitations of heavy cavalry and the effectiveness of well-disciplined infantry formations.

Bruce’s perseverance paid off with the decisive victory over Edward II’s army at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, securing Scotland’s independence. Bruce reigned as king until his death in 1329.

Robert the Bruce’s remains are interred in Dunfermline Abbey, and a cast of his skull is displayed in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, serving as a tangible reminder of his legacy in Scottish history.

So why did the Scots win the Battle of Bannockburn?

The Scots’ victory in the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, a pivotal moment in the Scottish War of Independence, was the result of a confluence of strategic, tactical, and psychological factors, underpinned by the profound motivation of a nation striving for freedom.

Central to the Scottish triumph was the strategic acumen of Robert the Bruce, King of Scots. His leadership skills shone not only in the heat of battle but also in the preparations leading up to it. Bruce’s choice of the battlefield near Stirling Castle was deliberate, selecting a location that would neutralize the English army’s numerical superiority. His understanding of the terrain and ability to predict and manipulate the movements of his opponent played a crucial role in shaping the battle.

The terrain itself became a critical factor!

The battle took place in an area bordered by the Bannockburn stream and marshy grounds, restricting the movement of the English cavalry, which was a cornerstone of their military might. Moreover, Bruce’s forces dug pits in front of their positions, cleverly concealed, which effectively disrupted the cavalry charges of the English army, causing confusion and disorder in their ranks.

Tactically, the Scots’ use of the schiltron formation, a dense array of spearmen, was a masterstroke. This formation proved highly effective against the cavalry charges that were a staple of medieval warfare, especially that of the English knights. The tightly packed spears of the schiltrons presented an impenetrable forest of blades, against which the English cavalry floundered.

On the other side, Edward II of England, unlike his father Edward I, was less adept in military leadership. His command during the battle was marked by poor decision-making and strategic blunders. The morale among his troops was not at its peak, partly due to internal conflicts and divisions within the English nobility. Several key English nobles even refused to participate in Edward’s campaign, reflecting a lack of unity and commitment to the cause.

A pivotal psychological moment occurred at the onset of the battle when Robert the Bruce engaged in single combat with Sir Henry de Bohun, whom he killed.

Illustration of the parry between Robert the Bruce and Sir Henry de Bohun

This act was not just a physical elimination of an enemy but a significant psychological blow to the English and a massive morale booster for the Scots. It symbolized Bruce’s bravery and determination, rallying his troops around him.

The English perhaps also fell victim to their own complacency. There was possibly an underestimation of the Scottish fighting capabilities and an expectation of an easy victory. Furthermore, this attitude likely led to a lack of tactical vigilance and a diminished readiness for the tough battle that unfolded.

Above all, the Scottish forces were driven by a deep-seated desire for independence. This battle was more than a mere military engagement; it was a fight for their nation’s freedom. Lastly, such a powerful motivating factor deeply inspired the Scottish soldiers, imbuing them with a fierce determination that was palpable on the battlefield.