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Reference group
The Scots and the battle of Bannockburn (act. 1314)
 Robert I (1274–1329) seal Robert I (1274–1329) seal
The battle of Bannockburn, fought near Stirling on 23–4 July 1314, was an overwhelming victory for the forces of Robert I (Robert Bruce) of Scotland over Edward II of England.

Bannockburn in its time: legend and reality

The battle is now inextricably linked with the idea of freedom and Scottish independence, and with having confirmed Bruce's reputation as a great warrior (exemplified by Jackson Pilkington's 1964 battlefield memorial statue of the armoured king on horseback), but the situation in 1314 was not so clear cut. Significant numbers of Scots remained allied to Edward II, and Bruce's right to be king was not accepted by all his compatriots. Although Bannockburn was mainly a matter of English versus Scots, victory secured the throne for Bruce by both removing occupying English forces and defeating Bruce's Scottish opponents. It did not end the war with England, which continued until the peace of 1328, but it did end a war within Scotland. That such a victory was necessary was due to the much-reduced state of Scottish kingship, an invasive English military presence in Scotland for the previous eighteen years, and division among the Scottish nobles.

Following the death in 1286 of Alexander III, king of Scots, without direct male heirs, Scotland entered a period defined by reference to the ‘Great Cause’, the process of 1291–2 whereby Edward I of England decided who among fourteen Competitors for the throne of Scotland should succeed to the Scottish throne. He chose the heir of the senior line, John Balliol, at the expense of the nearest heir by degree, Robert (V) de Brus (King Robert's grandfather), but what Edward had created he now felt he should control. Balliol was removed by a successful English campaign in 1296 and Edward I ruled Scotland himself simply as its lord, reinforcing his rule through an English-run administration based at Berwick-upon-Tweed and backed by numerous garrisons. Scottish resistance came initially from William Wallace and then, after Wallace's defeat at Falkirk in 1298, by a series of noble guardians. These intermittently included Robert Bruce but were increasingly led by John Balliol's main supporter, John Comyn of Badenoch. The two men were already rivals from the Great Cause; relations between them now deteriorated to such an extent that in August 1299 Comyn grabbed Bruce by the throat during a council meeting.

Increasingly predominant, Comyn had some success against the English but negotiated a surrender following extensive English campaigning in northern Scotland in 1304. Until this point the Bruce–Comyn rivalry had been damaging; after Bruce's slaying of John Comyn at the Greyfriars kirk at Dumfries in 1306 it became disastrous. Bruce's actions forced him to make a claim for the Scottish throne, but Comyn's powerful family and baronial supporters refused to recognize him and sided with the English. The result was that a civil war within Scotland became entwined with nationalist resistance, as the Comyn faction was forced into dependence on the English crown. After destroying the Comyn power base by harrying Buchan in 1308, most of Bruce's military activities in the period before Bannockburn were aimed at removing the experienced Comyn campaigners, and at reducing English-controlled garrisons, which often included many Scots. In this he was increasingly successful. By May 1314 Bruce had gained control of most of Scotland, and of the important castles only those of Bothwell, Jedburgh, Berwick, and above all Stirling still held out against him.

Causes of the battle

Military success enabled Bruce to demand, probably in October 1313, that all Scots should come to his allegiance or face the loss of their property. Edward II's response, made in the following month, was to prepare to invade Scotland. The English army was formally summoned in May 1314, and Edward's advance northwards was given extra impetus when he discovered that Stirling had to be relieved by 24 June, following an agreement between Sir Philip Mowbray, the castle's Scottish commander, and King Robert's brother, Edward Bruce. This brought Edward II towards Stirling but did not make a battle inevitable. Mowbray rode out to meet Edward as he approached Stirling on 23 June, and informed the king that by the rules of war he considered himself relieved. Nor were the Scots overly keen for battle. Their record in major pitched battles was poor, and Bruce's position had been built on smaller-scale encounters, raiding, and the destruction of garrisons. Indeed, the Scots considered retreating to the inhospitable lands of Lennox that night, and reports of Edward II's surprise that the Scots were going to fight reflect the reaction of a man accustomed to Scottish withdrawals when faced with numerically superior forces. That the Scots did stay and fight must be put down to a combination of factors: Bruce's successful military record since 1308 and the high morale of his experienced captains; reports of disunity in the English camp; and Scottish success in the initial encounters of 23 June.

Sources for the battle

There are numerous accounts of the battle in contemporary English chronicles but they focus on English arrogance and the moral lessons to be learned from defeat. In their pages the Scots provide a literally sober example of piety and self-restraint of a kind lacking among the English, making it unnecessary to name any of them apart from Bruce himself (the sole exception is the Vita Edwardi Secundi, which mentions Sir James Douglas). Fuller accounts are found in somewhat later sources, in the Scalacronica of Sir Thomas Gray (whose father was captured by the Scots on the eve of the battle), the so-called Lanercost chronicle (plausibly attributed to a Carlisle Franciscan named Thomas Otterbourne), and the fifteenth-century Scotichronicon, in which Walter Bower continued and expanded upon the earlier writings of John Fordun. But the most important source is John Barbour's The Bruce. Written in Scots verse by the archdeacon of Aberdeen in the 1370s, and probably intended for a courtly audience, Barbour's tale is an epic struggle of Robert Bruce's fall and rise. Fascinated by the ‘chivalry’ (great deeds) of the times, Barbour can be prone to embellishment, most notably with regard to the career of Sir James Douglas (whose descendants were major nobles by the 1370s), but it remains the principal account of the battle and later Scottish chronicles refer their reader to it. While the narrative sources tell us Bruce's main captains, the crucial second rank of commanders can also be suggested, thanks to English and Scottish government records.

The battle

Divided into a likely three divisions of outward facing spearmen drawn up in schiltroms (a formation compared to a hedgehog by Barbour) commanded by the king, Edward Bruce, and Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, and the king's nephew, the Scottish army positioned itself between their opponents and Stirling. Crucially they got the better of two encounters with English cavalry late on the first day. First, the English vanguard rushed the royal division but was beaten back in an encounter memorable for Bruce cleaving open the head of an English knight, Sir Henry Bohun, with an axe. Second, a further cavalry force led by Sir Robert Clifford, which may have aimed to cut off any Scottish retreat, was forced back by Randolph. Such was the level of disenchantment in the English camp that Sir Alexander Seton [see under Seton family], a Scottish knight who had arrived in Edward II's company, abandoned his allegiance overnight and came to Bruce telling him ‘now is the time if ever you thought to try your hand at reconquering Scotland’ (Gray, 75), saying the English had lost heart and would be easily defeated. While the story might seem fanciful it was recorded by an informed source and Seton came to be highly regarded by Bruce. Not only was he a consistent beneficiary of royal grants and frequently in the king's presence after 1314, he also acquired stewardship of the king's household and, subsequently, that of Bruce's son, both positions of trust. Such rewards suggest a gratitude best explained by Seton's intelligence making a crucial contribution to the decision to stay and fight. On the next morning, after the king's confession had been heard by Abbot Maurice of Inchaffray, the Scottish schiltroms, led by Edward Bruce and Moray, advanced and engaged with the English host. Repeating the events of the day before, the English mounted knights were unable to break the close-knit formation of spears, though many died trying, while the archers who could have won the day against the slow-moving Scottish divisions were scattered by the small Scottish cavalry force led by Sir Robert Keith [see under Keith family], the hereditary marischal or marshal. The English were increasingly forced into a single mass and pushed back towards the gorge of the Bannock Burn, Edward II's own safety was jeopardized, and he was led from the field, fleeing to Stirling, then Dunbar and Berwick. There was then a general flight by the English forces.

Scottish participants—Bruce's army

The size of Bruce's army is unknown, but informed estimates suggest a fighting force of around 6000 men, one that was undoubtedly smaller than the opposing English army. Usefully Barbour tells us that the king's division contained men from Carrick, Argyll, Kintyre, the Hebrides (a force from the Isles was probably led by Angus Macdonald, the king of the Hebrides [see under Macdonald family]), and the central lowlands. Other contributions remain guesswork, but Moray's division was presumably drawn from his province of the same name, while Edward Bruce's third division probably included whatever support he could gather from his own lordship of Galloway, along with the men of the southern uplands and Clydesdale, under the command of James Douglas and the young Walter Stewart [see under Stewart family], the two principal lords from those regions. Barbour's claim that Douglas commanded a division is not supported by other sources and should be discounted. Indeed, since Douglas can be found on horseback at the start of the battle, and also at its end, when he harried Edward II on his retreat back to Dunbar, he was probably in charge of a small cavalry detachment like that commanded by Robert Keith. At the command level these men should also have been joined by David Strathbogie, earl of Atholl. A man whose flexible loyalties were typical of those of a number of Scottish lords in the years before the battle, Strathbogie had left the English allegiance to join Bruce by late 1312. Reinstated in his hereditary office of constable, and in that capacity responsible for the king's personal safety, Strathbogie would have been on the field had he not switched sides again on the eve of the battle and ransacked the king's provisions stored at nearby Cambuskenneth. During the ensuring altercation Sir William Airth was killed and Strathbogie's treachery ensured that he remained an irreconcilable opponent of Bruce thereafter.

Important as these men were, victory required the assistance of a number of lesser captains. Alexander Seton fell into this category, as did the only two named knightly fatalities: William Vipont, a Berwickshire baron and staunch fighter against English forces for both Comyn and then Bruce from at least 1309, and Sir Walter Ross, the younger son of William, earl of Ross, who was a close companion of Edward Bruce. Alongside them, no doubt, were a number of barons who regularly appeared with Bruce in the years before 1314 and who were subsequently rewarded after the battle. Paramount in this group was Gilbert Hay [see under Hay family], Bruce's long-standing companion through his years in the wilderness, and royal constable by 1309 when Strathbogie was in the English allegiance. Having resigned the constableship in favour of Strathbogie in 1312, after the earl's treachery at Cambuskenneth, Hay must have been the obvious person to act as constable in the battle. He was confirmed in that office in November 1314. Similar reasoning would also suggest the involvement of Neil Campbell of Argyll [see under Campbell family] who married the king's sister Mary after 1312 and was subsequently granted the Strathbogie earldom of Atholl; Malcolm Lennox, earl of Lennox [see under Lennox family], who took his title from the region to which Bruce's forces considered retreating on the night of 23 June; David Barclay of Fife, a consistent royal companion both before and after the battle; Alexander Fraser [see under Fraser family], who was with the king at the battle of Methven in 1306 and later married Neil Campbell's widow; Alexander Stewart of Berwickshire, who had joined Bruce by May 1314 and was subsequently well rewarded; Andrew Gray, granted lands in Forfarshire in 1315; and the Ayrshire landowner Robert Boyd [see under Boyd family], who had been with Bruce since 1307. Although the presence of these men at Bannockburn is not formally attested, their long-standing bond to the king through collective hardship and martial effort over a number of years means that these men would have formed the core of reliable captains needed to produce the disciplined Scottish schiltroms.

Scottish participants in the English allegiance

Despite Bruce's fairly wide-ranging level of support it is clear that numerous Scots were still committed to the English cause. Alexander Seton had been in the English army, a member of what was probably a small, but significant, Scottish contingent. The most prominent participant was Sir Ingram Umfraville, a long-standing campaigner for Balliol and Comyn, who Barbour has advise Edward II during the battle. More significant was the presence of John Comyn, whose father had been killed by Bruce in 1306. The heir to Badenoch died in the battle along with Edmund Comyn of Kilbride, a consistent English agent in Scotland. Their kinsman Roger Comyn was luckier and escaped with the loss of his horses and armour, but John's death marked the end of Comyn resistance to Bruce. The only other certain fatality was James Torthorald, a tenant of Bruce in Annandale who demonstrates the strains on lordship as well as kingship in this period. He was just one of a group of Scottish knights associated with Edward II around this time, but also possibly present were Thomas Morham jun. of Stirlingshire, the king's ‘familiar knight’; Thomas Pencaitland from East Lothian, who was in the Berwick garrison before the battle and with the king at York after it; and William Francis from Fife. Granted an annuity of 50 marks in April 1315 ‘for his good service in [Edward II's] presence at Dunbar’ (CSP Scot., iii, no. 548), he was probably the ‘certain knight of Scotland’ who guided Edward II to safety after the battle (Chronicle of Lanercost, 209). More unusually Laurence Abernethy and eighty men arrived too late to help the English ‘for he was Inglismen yet then’ (Barbour, 509), and promptly switched sides. The English army doubtless also picked up extra troops from the parts of Scotland it marched through. Robert Blackburn, lord of part of a small village near Berwick, lost his brother and ten friends in the battle, and there must have been others like him who brought their own small followings in King Edward's wake, drawn by a mixture of pay and the loyalties built up serving the English administration in the south of Scotland over a prolonged period of occupation.


One immediate result of the battle of Bannockburn was the release of Scottish prisoners in English hands, usually in return for that of captive Englishmen. Queen Elizabeth, King Robert's wife, and Christian Bruce, his sister, were both freed in this way. Robert Wishart, the long-standing ‘patriot’ bishop of Glasgow, who had been kept out of his diocese even when he was not formally a prisoner, was similarly set free, and it is likely that lesser men like Sir David Lindsay of Crawford [see under Lindsay family] were also exchanged. But the main consequence of the battle was that it ended the civil war in Scotland, symbolized by the enlistment under Bruce of the remaining Scottish garrison commanders. Sir Philip Mowbray surrendered Stirling and became a consistent Bruce follower, fighting in Ireland and attending the king, while Walter Fitz Gilbert [see under Hamilton family] at Bothwell captured part of the fleeing English army and handed them over to Bruce. Faced with a direct conflict of loyalties when Edward II arrived at Dunbar seeking safety, Patrick Dunbar, eighth earl of Dunbar or March, fulfilled his obligations to his then lord by granting him safe passage, but joined Bruce shortly afterwards. Like several of his retinue the earl was swiftly reintegrated into Scottish society, exemplified by his membership of the embassy which delivered the declaration of Arbroath to the pope in 1320. The later careers of Mowbray and Earl Patrick demonstrate how men previously sympathetic to Balliol or Comyn or the English could readapt and prosper in Bruce's Scotland.

Some Scottish irreconcilables did remain with Edward II, but their numbers were few and they were left dependent on Edward's largess. Here Bruce's efforts not to burn bridges are worthy of note, and many of the exiles returned over the following years, the most prominent being Donald, eighth earl of Mar. Captured by the English in 1306, when he was about thirteen, Mar became a close friend of Edward II, and although his release was arranged after Bannockburn he decided to stay in England, where he remained until after Edward's deposition, when Bruce allowed him to return to Scotland and even returned his family estates to him. The end result was the recreation of a nationally based political community focused on a Scottish king and exemplified in the aspirational claims of the declaration of Arbroath (1320) for national political harmony. Although the attempt to remove Bruce through the conspiracy of 1320 allegedly headed by Sir William Soulis [see under Soulis, Sir John], a former Balliol adherent who came into King Robert's allegiance after Bannockburn, demonstrates that significant divisions remained, the plot's failure also shows the limitations of domestic political faction and did not bring the English back into Scotland.

Bannockburn also enabled Bruce to make good his threat to forfeit those not in his peace, and a proclamation was duly issued in the November 1314 parliament. Politically essential at the time, the impossibility of holding land in two kingdoms did have considerable implications. A group of English lords, known as the ‘disinherited’, retained an interest in recovering former Scottish possessions, and their private initiative led to further English invasions from 1332 in the name of Edward Balliol, son of the former king. But all attempts at recovery ultimately failed, for Scots who lost English lands as well as for the English ‘disinherited’, though in the short term the former were compensated by renewed domestic security (Berwick, in English hands since 1296, was recaptured in 1318) and by the opportunities for plunder in northern England and Ireland afforded by years of military supremacy under Robert Bruce. But while Bannockburn ensured a politically independent Scotland it also meant the end of the cross-border social contacts that had characterized the thirteenth century. In particular Anglo-Scottish marriages ceased completely, at least at lordly levels. To later medieval Scottish writers such practicalities were understandably less important than the righteousness of Scottish independence and kingship. Victory was by God's will and justified Bruce's rule, the Lord's special grace emphasized by the triumph of the smaller army. But in a world where men became ‘Scots’ or ‘English’ simply by changing allegiance it was still possible until 1314 for Scots to participate in the events leading up to Bannockburn in a variety of ways, and for the combination of national freedom and Bruce's kingship to remain open to challenge. That Robert I triumphed in such circumstances makes his achievement all the more remarkable.

Jonathan Gledhill


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seal, NA Scot.; Robert Bruce [see illus.]