Post-classical history

CHAPTER EIGHT

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ENCOUNTERS – DAY ONE

‘Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?’

I Kings 21:20

THE ENGLISH VANGUARD PRESSED on through the Torwood. After being restricted earlier to the pace of the main body it must have been exhilarating swinging along the road towards the castle. They could hardly believe they would be allowed to reach it unopposed, but after the long march the previous day they had been slow to set off from Falkirk and as it was now late afternoon Hereford was conscious there was little time to strike at the Scots that day. A detachment of young knights and esquires along with some of Hereford’s Welsh soldiers, all well-mounted, rode ahead of their seniors. Coming out of Torwood at Snabhead they caught sight of their goal, the great castle standing on its lofty grey crags, seemingly close enough to touch, with trails of smoke from its kitchen fires drifting lazily above. Before them they saw the road descend into a valley and, after making their way down its steep incline, they came upon a considerable stream (the Bannock Burn) that crossed it.

They splashed through it and after climbing the road on the other side shouted to each other in delight when they sighted a number of Scottish footsoldiers apparently withdrawing into the woods of the New Park.1 In reality they were being marshalled into formation. Bruce’s scouts would certainly have kept him posted about the progress of the English main body but he might well have been surprised by the speedy progress of the vanguard. It never seemed to have crossed the minds of the young men that the defenders, who so far had not contested their invasion, would dare to withstand armoured horsemen in broad daylight and in open country. Most of the riders had one thought, to catch the Scots before they entered the protection of the woods. Spurring their horses forward the leading horsemen rode pell-mell for the enemy. As they were seemingly not affected by Robert Bruce’s ‘pots’ positioned on both sides of the road it is likely they rode straight down it and continued to follow its course up the hill towards the enemy’s position.

To the rear of the group was Hereford’s nephew, Sir Henry de Bohun, who, rather more thoughtful than his bellicose companions, noticed that although the Scots had undoubtedly seen them they were not in fact running for the protection of the woods. He paused and shrewdly signalled his men to pull back a little towards the burn to await further reinforcements. De Bohun then caught sight of a figure who rode out some 30 metres in front of the Scottish soldiers, dressed in mail, riding a sturdy grey hack with a light hand axe hanging from its saddle. On his head he wore a conical steel head piece and above it a cap of hardened leather surmounted by a crown. In spite of his earlier cautiousness this was something de Bohun could not resist: he realised he had been given a unique chance not only to end what seemed an interminable war but to gain personal fame, for did men not say that the Scottish king was the second most renowned knight in Christendom? De Bohun himself was mounted on a barded horse and was fully armed and protected. He did not hesitate. From some 200 metres away he lowered his helm, pointed his lance straight forward and picking up his horse cantered across the rough grass towards his opponent before accelerating into a full charge over the final 50 metres. With such an uneven contest, Bruce had good reason to seek the protection of his spearmen before re-emerging when he was properly equipped. But whatever prudence might have dictated, the Scottish king was standing in front of soldiers prepared to hazard their lives for him. In any case, as he caught sight of the De Bohun arms on the young knight’s surcoat, it would have been hard for him to forget that it was the De Bohuns who had received his Annandale and Carrick estates after they had been seized by Edward I. Bruce coolly held his ground and let the young knight thunder close until, a moment before the galloping rider could impale him, he pulled away from De Bohun’s line of strike, remaining close enough to raise himself in his stirrups and swing his axe down upon the knight’s helmet. His stroke was to such good effect that the axe ‘clove skull and brain’ before its shaft broke.

Bruce’s first blow of the campaign had a predictable effect on his followers. With a triumphant shout they made a concerted forward movement with their spears extended to meet the rest of the English vanguard that had followed De Bohun but as the vanguard attempted to form up into battle order it experienced serious difficulties with Bruce’s ‘pots’. In the subsequent meleé De Bohun’s squire, who gallantly rushed forward to stand over his fallen master, was killed, while Gloucester the English co-commander was unhorsed. The clash developed into a considerable engagement in which Bruce’s full schiltron took part. It ended when, after suffering a number of casualties and being unsure how far the ‘pots’ extended on both sides of the road, the English withdrew down the line of the road to the south of the Bannock Burn. The Scots commenced to pursue but they were recalled by Bruce lest they lost cohesion and let themselves become vulnerable to the horsemen. When they came back the soldiers gathered round their king in delight, although their commanders, conscious of his unique importance to their cause, reproached him for his rash action. Bruce made no attempt to justify himself and seemed quite content to let his deeds speak for themselves, except for making the wry comment that he was sorry to have broken his good axe.2

While this engagement was taking place, the second English cavalry force had also been advancing; after crossing the Pelstream they were almost level with St Ninians. The route they had taken along the carse had not been anticipated by Bruce, although Moray’s scouts should have picked them up below St Ninian’s kirk. In the stress of action Scottish leadership was also showing some deficiencies, although, if the English acted predictably, there was still a fair chance to retrieve the situation. Inevitably it was Bruce who spotted Clifford and Beaumont riding northwards in their attempt to circle New Park from the east. Moray himself who was with the king rather than his own schiltron was quite unaware of the English movement and Bruce turned on him with a flash of anger telling him that, ‘a rose had fallen from his chaplet’. In other words, he had let his king down by allowing English cavalry to move past him, thus heavily compromising the Scottish defensive position. At this, Moray turned and rode hurriedly back to his men, just in time to lead them out of the woods near St Ninians and make towards the armoured knights.

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Beaumont was in the lead and although he could have swung his riders round the spearmen and, by making straight for the castle, cut off the Scots’ retreat, no Englishman at this time seemed willing to avoid a battle. Beaumont’s first reaction was the need to make space in order to surround the spearmen and he shouted at those close to him, ‘Let us wait a little; let them come on; give them room’.3 Beside him the veteran Sir Thomas Grey was less sanguine about seeking battle in this way and with the prospects of unsupported cavalry against massed spearmen. He turned to Beaumont and said: ‘My lord, give them what you like now; I’m afraid that in a short while they will have everything.’ What Grey’s sombre words meant is not clear but there was likely to have been bad ground to one or more of their flanks which prevented the English from taking full advantage of their mobility. With the exception of Grey and, no doubt, some few others, the vast majority of English knights seemed haunted by the possibility of showing any trace of fear against their Scottish opponents and incapable of considering more measured actions against them. Beaumont’s hot and utterly inappropriate rejoinder to Grey was, ‘Flee then. Flee if you’re afraid.’ Grey shouted back, ‘Fear will not make me flee, my Lord,’ and, in mindless gallantry, he spurred his horse on between Beaumont and Sir William Deyncourt who were heading straight for the spears. Deyncourt was killed immediately while the Scots pulled Grey off his dying horse and took him prisoner.

A fierce and prolonged engagement followed as the rest of the cavalry came up. Under Moray’s command the Scottish infantry took up circular formation as they had been taught and presented a double line of spear points towards the horsemen. They, lacking archers, had no choice but to move around them, then charge forward at any possible gap appearing in the ranks. The spearmen set their points straight forward, directly at the horses, probing for vulnerable areas. If the mounts could be brought down their armoured riders were likely to be pinned under them, or if the horses reared up in face of the blood-stained tips, some riders would suffer heavy falls and find themselves lying helpless on the ground amid threshing hooves.

It was the same story as Falkirk until Edward I brought up his archers. As the members of the schiltron stood shoulder to shoulder offering an impenetrable wall of spears it appeared invincible. The English mounted attack after attack without success and, in their rage and frustration at not breaking through the shield wall their knights hurled spears, darts and maces – even swords – into the heart of the formation in vain attempts to maim its occupants, until a pile of such weapons built up inside it. Whereas the English were without bowmen, there were possibly some men within the schiltrons carrying shortbows who brought down both men and horses, although Evan Barron, for one, was sure the Lanercost chronicler was more likely to be describing individual footsoldiers who, dashing out from the spear walls, stabbed and cut down their fallen assailants at close quarters or, as happened with Thomas Grey, dragged them inside the spear walls to be held prisoner.

The noise and movement created by the horsemen surrounding the beleaguered schiltron was unceasing. Yet although the English cavalry, like a pack of hunting dogs around a boar, had trapped the spearmen they were quite unable to get beneath their spear tusks to reach the formation’s soft underbelly. All thoughts about the cavalry’s tactical objective of joining up with the castle’s garrison were forgotten as, in their pride and rage at being thwarted by footsoldiers, they mounted sally after sally against their obdurate opponents. The plunging horses raised choking clouds of dust around the schiltron while a cloud of steam rose above it from the close-packed spearmen clad in thick tunics and clumsy bassinets, as they strained to keep the heads of their long, unwieldy spears facing forward.

James Douglas, who commanded the schiltron nearest to Moray’s, and was never happier than when he was fighting, approached the king with offers of help. At first Bruce refused. He was confident of the schiltron in such conditions, and sure that he detected some wavering amongst the attackers. Moray should be allowed to take his rightful credit. However, when after a further period of din and dust matters still remained unresolved Bruce eventually agreed to Douglas joining in. As Douglas brought his spearmen closer to Moray he saw the king was right: the English attacks were plainly losing momentum as their knights became baffled and frustrated at being kept at spears’ length by the Scottish formation. Chivalrously he stopped his own schiltron to allow Moray a well-earned victory, but the very sight of his approach confused the English cavalry and some attempted to wheel about to meet the fresh enemy.

At this Moray saw his opportunity and assumed the offensive, charging right through their ranks. One part of the broken English squadron galloped towards the castle, while the larger one made for the main army. Both were seen to be in great disorder after suffering serious casualties and following such a surprising turn of events. Amazingly, during the whole engagement Moray’s schiltron lost just one yeoman, although many of his men were bound to have sustained cuts and bruises. Worn out and soaked in sweat, at Moray’s command his men slumped down on the ground, took off their helmets and began to relish their triumph. They had seen off the enemy – for a time at least. After a scout reported their victory to the king, together with the amazingly low casualty figures, the rest of the army moved over to congratulate them and salute the earl.4

In the exhilaration of the moment such men – or their opponents for that matter – would scarcely have been aware that their success marked a new development in warfare. The signs had been there at Falkirk before Edward I intervened with his archers, but now spearmen had not only defended themselves successfully against armoured cavalry, they had then moved onto the offensive and driven them off the field. While in 1302, at Courtrai, Flemish peasant infantry protected by a stream had defeated French nobility on their horses, Moray’s men, unlike the Flemings, challenged cavalry in the open and on good ground.

By the time Clifford returned to the main English army he was compelled to admit he had failed to open up a route for them to relieve Stirling. In any case, it was now so late that no further offensive action could be contemplated before the following day.

Although the English losses during that afternoon had not been heavy and they still retained their great numerical superiority, the effect of the two clashes on the morale of both armies was tremendous. As the English chronicler of Lanercost said: ‘From that moment began a panic among the English and the Scots grew bolder.’5 Napoleon, a great commander by any standard, considered good morale crucial for success, going as far as to say that this was to the material as three is to one. If that were really so, the events at Bannockburn on day one were worth a minimum of 5000 extra men to Robert Bruce and his army. Whatever the effects, with a break in hostilities commanders on both sides had the opportunity to digest the lessons of the early encounters and decide on their actions for the next day.

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