Post-classical history


THE BATTLE OF BANNOCKBURN was the greatest victory ever gained by the Scots over the English. As such it gave Scotland new confidence to continue with the series of military and diplomatic initiatives that enabled the country to regain its freedom from English domination. Yet apart from the action’s significance, both to the Scottish nation and to the fortunes of Scotland’s warrior king, Robert Bruce, Bannockburn stands comparison with other western battles of the time in the tactical skills and masterly control shown by its victorious commander. It was also an heroic and, by medieval standards, a prolonged encounter.

Unlike many other battles during this period, Bannockburn is well documented. Foremost among its chroniclers is Archdeacon John Barbour of Aberdeen. Although he wrote his magisterial work The Bruce sixty years after the battle he interviewed a good number of those who actually took part and mentioned many by name. From his post in Aberdeen Barbour was able to keep in touch with eminent men from the Scottish court and ordinary people alike, and he also listened to the songs and traditional stories associated with the great battle. As a result the comprehensive work of this Scottish Chaucer, written in graphic verse using metre and rhyme and running to 13,000 lines, represents not only a powerful romantic story in the genre of other chivalric romances of the fourteenth century such as The Romance of Fierabras, but it gives a thorough-going and authoritative account of the conflict. It also happens to be the most detailed life of any medieval king in the west. Read in the prose translation of George Eyre-Todd its accuracy has, for instance, been acknowledged by people as far apart as Barbour’s contemporary, Andrew of Wyntown, in his Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, and by that demanding and pertinacious writer of comparatively modern times, John E Morris. In his book on Bannockburn, Morris was initially determined to be highly critical of Barbour but ended up acknowledging the accuracy of The Bruce.

While there is nothing on the English side to compare with The Bruce for detail, three accounts are of particular use. There is the Scalacronica – the so-called ‘ladder chronicle’ because of its author’s desire to survey events from a detached, lofty position – written by Sir Thomas Grey the younger, of Heton, whose father was taken prisoner at Bannockburn before being subsequently released.1 Thomas Grey was himself captured by the Scots in 1355 when, as constable of Norham Castle, south of Berwick, he made an unsuccessful sally against superior numbers. While confined for two years in Edinburgh Castle he had the run of its considerable library. There Grey wrote his Scalacronica, including an account of Bannockburn which would have inevitably drawn on his father’s experiences.

Another English authority of particular interest is a comprehensive account called Vita Edwardi Secundi, the Life of Edward II. The authorship of this is uncertain, but it was obviously written by a highly educated layman of mature years who was an authority on civil law; evidence points here to it being John Walwayn, who was the Earl of Hereford’s agent in both England and Scotland. The account is written with flair and outspokenness and it ends abruptly in 1326, the year in which Walwayn died. It is, therefore, highly probable that it was written no more than twelve years after the actual battle, and is all the more valuable for that.

The third ‘southern’ account was the work of an Augustinian monk, or succession of monks, most probably from the priory of Lanercost near Carlisle, and shows strong English prejudices – unsurprising from a cleric whose religious house was an inevitable target for successive Scottish raids. The writer claimed he was told about the battle ‘by somebody worthy to be believed who was present there himself and saw it’.2 Although the Lanercost account is quite short, it is invaluable both for its English perspective and for being a relatively contemporary description.

Other contemporary chronicles and documents, together with later commentaries, are acknowledged at the end of the book. Of the later authorities four men and one woman deserve particular acknowledgement. They are Professor Geoffrey Barrow, whose truly authoritative book on Robert Bruce (1998) is essential for anyone examining the king’s path to power as well as his greatest battle, Ronald McNair Scott (1993) for his graphic biography of the Scottish king, and Caroline Bingham (1998) for her own elegantly written account of the king’s life. With regard to the two writers on the battle itself, John Morris’ Bannockburn (1913) is both an acute and distinctive commentary, while William Mackay MacKenzie’s Battle of Bannockburn (1913) changed radically all previous thinking about its location.

Since the two latter books published almost ninety years ago – and Mackay MacKenzie’s is a comparatively short work – no comprehensive account of Bannockburn has appeared. This is despite the fact that during the interim, and especially in recent years, renewed attention has been paid to the early Wars of Independence and to Scotland’s premier battlefield success. During the last quarter century, for instance, the numbers of visitors to the Scottish Heritage Centre at Bannockburn have increased markedly.

In such circumstances, particularly when one considers that not all observers are even agreed upon its actual site, some further consideration about the great confrontation that took place near Stirling Castle during the two days of 23 and 24 June 1314 seems long overdue.

The most notable analysis of the battle in relatively recent years is by General Sir Philip Christison whose findings, since 1964, are contained in a booklet produced by Scottish National Heritage. However, in spite of General Christison’s work and further descriptions of the battle that occur in books on the Wars of Independence, such as Peter Traquair’s Freedom’s Sword or Raymond Campbell Paterson’s For the Lion, the present book is the first full length account to appear since before World War One. In it I go somewhat further than MacKenzie and Morris in attempting to trace how the conflict stands in relation to Bruce’s overall plans to recover Scotland. More attention is also paid to the individuals involved, not just the two kings but their chief subordinates, together with the two sides’ contrasting military doctrines.

With respect to my researches, I owe an immense debt to the staff of the National Library of Scotland, both in its main building on George IV Bridge in Edinburgh and when in its temporary base at Causewayside, for giving me an opportunity to consult the early chronicles and contemporary documents held there.

Other libraries which have given valuable support are: the Edinburgh Central Library, Edinburgh University Library, the Royal Military Academy Library, Sandhurst, the Services’ Central Library and the Prince Consort’s Library, Aldershot, where the greater part of the writing has taken place.

For illustrations and maps I acknowledge the collections in the National Portrait Gallery, the Scottish National Portrait Gallery and the Scottish Map Library. The detailed battle maps have been produced by Mr Paul Vickers, the British Army’s technical librarian, who has both walked and measured the battlefield with me, pored over Ordnance Survey maps and considered the different interpretations of the battlefield made by other writers.

The draft manuscript was produced by Mrs Christine Batten with her ‘sparkling’ word processor and most valuable preliminary observations on it have been made by Mrs Jennifer Prophet and Dr Leslie Wayper. Mrs Prophet and her son Charles also produced the index.

With regard to Canongate Books which is, of course, of crucial importance, the project would not have commenced without the proposal from Hugh Andrew, continued without the ever present support from Jamie Byng and Neville Moir, and come to publication without the sensitive, acute and constructive editorial work of Donald Reid.

Despite such remarkable support, as in the past I could not think of such a project without Barbara, my wife and mainstay.

Any errors are, of course, the author’s responsibility alone.

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