The English and the battle of Bannockburn (act. 1314)
Edward II (12841327) manuscript painting [kneeling before his father, Edward I]
On 17 or 18 June 1314, King Edward II
marched into Scotland at the head of a large army. A week later, at the hands of the Scottish king Robert I, also known to history as Robert Bruce, he suffered one of the worst battlefield defeats ever inflicted on English forces.
The context of the battle
This expedition was played out against a background of political discord in England. Perhaps as interesting as who was at the battle, is who was not. One of the prime duties of the nobility, indeed, perhaps their raison d'être
, was to serve their king under arms in the defence of his realm. Yet of nine adult English earls, four refused point blank to go. It was not that there was great antipathy to the war against Scotland per se
. From the English viewpoint, England's claims to the overlordship of Scotland had been definitively established in 1292, when John Balliol, newly enthroned as the first and only Scottish King John, did homage to Edward I. Robert Bruce's seizure of the Scottish kingship in 1306 therefore made him a rebel in English eyes, and few disputed that his rebellion was a threat to Edward II's authority in Scotland which needed to be crushed. Rather, the objection was to Edward's government of England. Almost from his succession, his reign had been marked by political upheaval. In 1310 a committee of leading magnates, the lords ordainer, had attempted to impose on the king a programme of reforms, the ordinances; and the unrest had culminated in a rising and the killing of Edward's unpopular favourite, Piers Gaveston, in 1312. It was only after prolonged and fractious negotiations that a sufficient peace was established between the king and his opponents to enable Edward to lead an expedition to Scotland, where, meanwhile, Bruce had been able to establish his rule, and also to begin a series of damaging raids over the border, with little English interference.
One of those conspicuous by his absence was Thomas, earl of Lancaster, Edward II's cousin, and the wealthiest magnate in England. As one who held extensive estates in northern England, Lancaster had a direct personal interest in any campaign which would reduce the threat of Scottish cross-border raiding. However, the earl was one of the leading ordainers, and had played a leading role in the campaign against Gaveston; he now refused to serve on the grounds that the summons for the campaign had not been agreed by parliament, as the ordinances prescribed. Absent on similar grounds were fellow-ordainers Guy de Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, and Edmund Fitzalan, earl of Arundel. Another who refused to serve was John de Warenne, earl of Surreythough Warenne's disaffection may have been personal rather than political, for the king had not supported his efforts to obtain an annulment of his unhappy marriage. On the other hand, Aymer de Valence, earl of Pembroke
, Gilbert de Clare, eighth earl of Gloucester
, and Humphrey de Bohun, fourth earl of Hereford
, were also ordainers, and all three accompanied Edward to Scotland.
The English army
The exact size of Edward's army is not known. It is usually possible to gauge the size of English armies quite precisely from crown records covering payments made to troops. However, the records for the 1314 expedition have not survivedindeed, they may well never have been drawn up, as the necessary documentation was probably lost in the headlong flight after the battle. We do know that writs were sent out ordering the arraying, or conscription, of over 20,000 footmen. But how many of these men actually turned up is a very different matter. Nevertheless, despite the absence of Lancaster and his allies, it is clear that it was one of the largest armies recruited during Edward's reign. Although this was an English army, it was by no means composed exclusively of Englishmen. There were several large contingents from the king's dominions in Wales, including a force of 2263 foot soldiers led by John Charlton, Lord Charlton
of Powys, and possibly also from Ireland, as well as some men from Gascony (held by kings of England since the reign of Henry II), and a few mercenaries from the continent.
There were also a significant number of Scots. Bruce had made his bid for the Scottish kingship after stabbing to death the prominent Scottish magnate John Comyn. Although Comyn had been a leading figure in resisting Edward I, his many supporters now regarded Bruce as a murderous usurper, and preferred English overlordship to Bruce's kingship. Comyn's son and heir, another John, accompanied Edward II's expedition; other Scots present included Sir Ingram de Umfraville
, along with his English relative, Robert de Umfraville
[see under Umfraville, Gilbert de
], lord of the Northumberland barony of Prudhoe and Redesdale, who also held the Scottish earldom of Angus.
The expedition's initial goal was the relief of Stirling castle, besieged by the Scots, and held for the English by Sir Phillip Mowbray, whose familylike many othersheld lands on both sides of the Anglo-Scottish border. As was customary in medieval sieges, the English defenders had reached an agreement to surrender if they were not relieved by a certain datein this case midsummer (24 June). The English army reached the vicinity of Stirling on the 23rd, to find a Scottish army barring their way. A force of mounted men-at-arms was sent towards the castle, led by Robert Clifford, Lord Clifford
, an experienced soldier and as lord of Westmorland a northern magnate, and Sir Henry Beaumont
, a French favourite of King Edward, and husband of Alice Comyn, niece and heiress of the Scottish John Comyn, earl of Buchan (a cousin of the John Comyn killed by Bruce in 1306). In a foretaste of the main battle, they were driven back by Scottish spearmen formed up in a schiltrom
, a close-order formation described by one English chronicler as like a thick set hedge (Vita Edwardi Secundi
, 91). The English were thoroughly demoralized by this setback and spent an uncomfortable night under arms. According to the Northumberland chronicler Sir Thomas Gray
(who could draw on first-hand information since his father spent that night as a prisoner in the Scottish camp), Sir Alexander Seton
[see under Seton family
], one of the Scots in the English allegiance, deserted and went over to Bruce, telling him that the English had lost heart and are defeated (Gray, 75). Bruce had intended to withdraw across the Forth, but now determined to stand and fight.
There was also some debate in the English camp; at dawn, when it became clear that the Scots were not going to retreat, the veterans in the army suggested that Edward should wait a day, to allow his army to recover from their long march north. But this practical and honourable advice was rejected by the younger men as lethargic and cowardly (Vita Edwardi Secundi
, 91), and Edward agreed with them, and ordered an advance. However, Bruce made his move first. The battle is best summed up from the English viewpoint in the words of the Scalacronica
[The English] mounted on horseback in great consternation, for they were not at all used to dismounting to fight on foot, while the Scots had taken the example of the Flemings, who had previously defeated on foot the forces of France, at Courtrai. The Scots … lined in schiltroms … attacked the English battles, which were crushed together so that they could not move against them, whilst their horses were being disembowelled by spears. (Gray, 75)
Edward II was personally brave, but he was an ineffective commander. He failed to deploy his archers to good effect (though it should be noted that chronicle accounts of the battle are particularly contradictory when it comes to the role of the English archers), and he was unable to keep proper control of his own nobility. After a quarrel over precedence between the earls of Hereford and Gloucester, the latter charged upon the Scots and was killed, unprotected by the contingent of 500 knights he had brought to the campaigntheir leader, Sir Bartholomew Badlesmere
, was subsequently heavily criticized for failing to save the earl. Pushed back against the Bannock Burn (the stream after which the battle is named), where hundreds were drowned, the English army rapidly disintegrated. As Gray's reference to Courtrai (1302) suggests, Bannockburn was just one of a series of battles across western Christendom in the early fourteenth century where armies of lowly spearmen fighting on foot were able to defeat mounted men-at-arms.
The most prominent casualty of the battle was the earl of Gloucester. He was both brother-in-law and second cousin to Robert Bruce (both were married to daughters of Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster, and Robert's grandmother was the daughter of Gilbert's great-grandfather), a relationship typical of the links which united the nobilities of England and Scotland until the outbreak of war in 1296. After the battle Robert returned his body for burial among his ancestors at Tewkesbury Abbey. The corpse of Lord Clifford, who seems to have fallen in the same stage of the battle, was likewise returned. Other notable fatalities on the English side included the Yorkshire baron Miles Stapleton, Lord Stapleton
, William de Vescy, Lord Vescy
[see under Vescy, William de
], who had accompanied the earl of Pembroke to Scotland, and Edmund Hastings, Lord Hastings
of Inchmahome, an Englishman who became a Scottish landowner through marriage, as well as John Comyn, Sir Edmund Mauley, steward of the king's household, and Sir Henry de Bohun, a nephew of the earl of Hereford, who was killed in a personal combat with Bruce himself, during the skirmishing on the day before the battle. Another English casualty was Sir Giles de Argentine, later hailed by Scottish chroniclers as the third best knight in Christendomthe first, of course, being none other than Bruceon account of his crusading exploits. When the expedition was first planned, he was languishing in captivity in Greece, having been seized by pirates while on pilgrimage. Edward II personally intervened to secure his release, and appointed him his personal escort. When it was clear that the battle was lost, he led Edward to safety, and then, refusing to flee himself, returned to the field where he was killed. His honourable conduct was lauded by English and Scottish chroniclers alike.
The customary laws of war allowed for the capture and ransoming of prisonersalways providing they were wealthy enough to afford a ransomand many Englishman ended up in Scottish captivity. The costs of ransoms are revealed by petitions to the king for aid in paying them. Sir Robert Clifford, lord of Ellingham in Northumberland (no relation of Robert, Lord Clifford), claimed to have paid a ransom of £100, and to have lost horses and armour to the value of 100 marks (£66 13s
.); and the Northumbrian barons Sir William Muschamp and Sir Robert Delaval were worth £200 and 500 marks (£333 6s
.) respectively. However, none of them was reduced to penury by this forced expenditure. Others got off more lightly. The earl of Hereford was exchanged for Robert Bruce's wife, Elizabeth, who had been captured and imprisoned by Edward I in 1306. Sir Ralph Monthermer
, the earl of Gloucester's stepfather, was freed without ransom, while the Carmelite friar and poet Robert Baston
bought his freedom with a poem. Having being brought on the expedition to compose verses celebrating Edward's triumph over the Scots, he was captured and forced instead to compose verses celebrating Robert's triumph over the English. Roger Northburgh
, the keeper of the privy seal, who was captured together with that seal in the closing stages of the battle, had been released by November 1314, while William Latimer, Lord Latimer
, who was also taken prisoner, was at liberty by the following February. One way or another, it seems that most English prisoners were able to obtain their freedom within a yeara comparatively quick release by contemporary standards.
Those who were too poor to be worth the trouble of ransoming were not, however, treated so leniently, and thousands of the English foot were slaughtered as they attempted to flee. Nevertheless, one contemporary English chronicle reported that through God's protection, of the English footmen and archers, the greatest part were not killed (Annales Londonienses, 231). This may have been partly because, according to the Scottish chronicler John Barbour, the Scots fell to plundering the English baggage train as soon as the battle had been won. Certainly, many of the English were able to escape. Edward himself fought his way to safety, and fled to the coastal castle of Dunbar, from where he took ship for England. The earl of Pembroke had to make his way back on foot, protected by a large company of Welshmen. The earl of Hereford was less fortunate. He did manage to get away from the battlefield with a large company, including Robert and Ingram de Umfraville, and also the prominent Cumberland knight Sir Anthony Lucy
. Fleeing towards Carlisle, they took shelter in Bothwell castle, which was in the English allegiancebut not for long, for its captain, the Scotsman Walter fitz Gilbert, handed the castle over to Bruce, along with his guests.
The aftermath of the battle
The next few years saw northern England being devastated by a series of Scottish incursions. These brought plenty of plunder for the Scots, and untold misery for northern Englishmen, but the defeat at Bannockburn did little to persuade Edward to modify his stance on Scotland; he was no more inclined to recognize Bruce's kingship after the battle than he had been before it. In one respect though, the battle had considerable political repercussions in England. The earl of Gloucester was childless, and his death on the battlefield left his three sistersand their husbandsto inherit the vast Clare estates across England, Ireland, and the Welsh marches. The eldest sister, Eleanor, had been married in 1306 to Hugh Despenser the younger (who did not fight at Bannockburn, although his father, Hugh Despenser
the elder, a prominent courtier, was present in attendance on the king). After Gilbert's death, his younger sisters, Margaret and Elizabeth, were married to the current royal favourites Hugh Audley and Roger Damory
(the latter fought at Bannockburn, possibly in Gilbert's retinue). Despenser's determined campaign to acquire a larger share of the Clare inheritance, at the expense of Audley and Damory and their wives, employing legal chicanery and downright extortion, was a primary cause of the civil war which broke out in England in 13212, and had effects which continued to be felt until the end of Edward II's reign.
The English did learn from their experiences at Bannockburn. In particular, their men-at-arms soon took to fighting on foot. Sir Andrew Harclay
, the most successful English commander against the Scots in this period, was not at Bannockburn himself; nevertheless he drew up his army in schiltroms
, after the Scottish fashion, when he crushed the rebellious Thomas of Lancaster at Boroughbridge in 1322 (Chronicon de Lanercost
, 243). Similarly, Sir Henry Beaumont went on to lead a tiny army of Anglo-Scottish adventurers, fighting on foot, to a shattering victory over the Scots at Dupplin Moor in 1332. Many other veterans of Bannockburn were with the army which Edward III led to victory over the Scots at Halidon Hill in the following year. In the 1360s, the Italian poet and humanist Petrarch commented that the English, who in his youth were so timid that they could not even conquer the vile Scots, had now laid waste to France with fire and sword (Petrarch
, 1845). It was partly the bitter lessons learned in defeat at Bannockburn that paved the way for the spectacular victories over the French, which made the English under Edward III the most feared warriors in western Christendom.