Post-classical history

CHAPTER NINE

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WEIGHING THE ODDS

‘He either fears his fate too much,

Or his desserts are small

That puts it not unto the touch

To win or lose it all.’

James Graham, 1st Marquis of Montrose

BOTH SIDES NOW HAD to consider their next moves. Among the English there was some confusion and a mood of new caution,1 replacing the earlier blind presumption of victory and contempt for their enemy. As yet, however, apart from the cavalry detachments, no one in the English army had even seen the enemy, much less contacted them. Most of the soldiers were not only unaware of what was going on but were unable to break ranks to find out. In the circumstances, the cavalry would have been reluctant to proclaim their misfortunes, and hard news would be substituted by rumours, the scourge of any military organisation. However, the sight of once proud knights returning, weaponless, some with their surcoats ripped or missing, others bloodstained and leading injured horses, needed no embellishing. Rumours said they had run from infantry spearmen and some of the footsoldiers would have been less than human if they had not been pleased to see the cavalry ‘peacocks’ so humbled. At the same time these men were bound to feel that if Scottish spearmen could beat English cavalry what chance would they, ordinary English levies so despised by their own horsemen, have against them? Standing immobile along the roadside the English had ample time to wonder whether their latest invasion would prove as easy as they had been led to believe. Barbour had the traditionally superstitious soldiers whispering together ‘in five hundred places or more’ saying, ‘Our Lords will always use their might against the right and when they wage war unrighteously God is offended and brings misfortune and so it may happen now’.2

Many must have suspected that something had already gone seriously wrong for a king whom everyone knew was no equal to his father when it came to either fighting or praying. The rank and file quite expected him to share their own barons’ scorn for footsoldiers but to their alarm he was also generally thought to have little regard for archers either.3 As they waited amid the lengthening shadows their draught animals would have grown fractious in their need for water and grazing. After the physical demands of the journey both men and animals were tired and the longer the army stood immobile the greater the soldiers’ conviction – and for many their relief – that there would be no further fighting that day. Not all the levies swept into the ranks by the sheriffs’ summons were the most enthusiastic or fittest of soldiers, nor were they enamoured by the long hot hours spent plodding along dusty roads in a country stripped of people and livestock. Such men would not hesitate to admit their weariness and start enquiring when and where they would be making camp.

In such circumstances good leadership was of the greatest importance, but instead of showing himself to his army the king sent heralds down the seemingly endless column to explain and justify the recent setbacks. The message they carried was reasonable enough. So far, they told the soldiers, there had been only skirmishing but ‘in the great battle they could by no means fail, and that when the Scots fled full amends should indeed be made’.4 No hint of plunder, however, could change what these men already knew. Their so-called invincible knights had already been given bloody noses. In all fairness one has to wonder what else could have been done, although the same message delivered with an air of authority by the king or his senior representative would surely have been far more effective. But it is unlikely Edward appointed a deputy; it probably suited him better to keep his nobles in perpetual rivalry of each other.

Yet a decision was required urgently; it was getting late and the Scots still held the entry route to the castle. An army stretched along miles of road had to be gathered into a suitable assembly area before it could resume offensive action the next day. The English commanders knew it was imperative they made camp and brought their scattered units together but given Bruce’s renowned aggressiveness – and recent successes – the chosen location had to be suitable for defence against any surprise hit and run attacks during the night. The nature of the ground before the castle and the very size of the force made selection difficult. The army could, of course, have been drawn back into Torwood but retracing their steps in such a way would not have been good for morale and the forest would give the enemy good opportunities to approach unobserved. Equally important in such a location, water was likely to be short and their animals, including the precious horses, were becoming dehydrated.

After the army had learned about the unexpected rebuffs to its cavalry any decision was bound to be something of a compromise, especially as there seems to have been no prior consideration about suitable laagering areas before the castle. It had never been thought they would be needed. In the event the English commanders decided to send their cavalry, and the greater part of their infantry onto the carse land two miles eastwards away from the Scots’ positions both at the entry and in the region of St Ninians. Most of the heavy transport would, however, have to laager nearer the road. Another seeming advantage of the site was that it allowed the cavalry and infantry to move beyond the deep gorge containing the Bannock Burn to a point where the land levelled out and they would be able to ford the burn relatively easily. Although many of their accompanying wagons would still be unable to cross over, the carse promised plenty of water and it was open enough to prevent any surprise attacks from the Scots. Such thinking was legitimate enough; but what the English did not fully anticipate was the scale of the problems involved in making camp on such wet and treacherous terrain, nor those posed by its confining water courses.

Both Barbour and Grey described the chosen locality. Barbour is quite matter-of-fact: ‘The host therefore quartered that night in the carse and made all ready, and got their gear in order against the battle. Because of the pools in the carse they broke down house and thatch and carried them to make bridges that they might pass over … so that before day they had bridged the pools, and the host had all passed over, and with their horses occupied the firm ground, and, arrayed in their gear, stood ready to give battle.’5Barbour probably thought he hardly needed to emphasise they had struggled all night to get so organised, especially as any colourful description of English exhaustion would tend to detract from the performance of his Scottish champions the following day. The Englishman Grey gives an altogether darker picture. ‘The king’s host which having already left the road through the wood had debauched upon a plain near the water of the River Forth, beyond Bannockburn, an evil, deep, wet marsh where the said English army unharnessed and remained all night, having sadly lost confidence and being too much disaffected by the events of the day.’6 The Life of Edward II confirmed the English had moved over the Bannock Burn to the carse, as did the Lanercost Chronicle, describing the obstacle as ‘a great ditch into which the tide comes from the sea, called the Bannockburn’.7

The massive English forces, unsettled by conflicting rumours about the reverses suffered by their heavy cavalry, were about to spend an exhausting and sleepless night on the carse with their high command still far from unanimous about the king’s wish to fight the next day.

The Scots were in a very different position although at this stage they had not decided on their own course of action. By now Bruce knew any coming battle would not take place on his chosen site where the Bannock Burn crossed the Roman road to Stirling. He could not expect to trap the English in his minefield a second time. In any case having moved onto the carse the English were most unlikely to return to the entry point before resuming their progress to the castle. Bruce’s knowledge of the ground and the decision taken by the English commanders to camp on the carse led him to think the invaders would now choose to advance over the open ground between the New Park and the carse, where defenders could not use woodland for protection and which was too wide for ‘pots’ to be dug to hamper them. It also represented relatively good terrain for cavalry. Bruce, too, had an important decision to make. Having inflicted two humiliating reverses on his opponents he could either be satisfied with that and withdraw westwards to wild country where the English could not pursue him, or opt for the much more hazardous choice of taking on the great English host. While the first was by much the safer course of action it would allow the English to claim they had in fact succeeded in their campaign objective, namely the relief of Stirling Castle. There are two versions of how he arrived at his decision.

The first account by Barbour referred to the period before the English had made camp when Moray’s victorious schiltron rejoined the Scots’ main army and was surrounded by happy and excited men. Barbour has Bruce taking the opportunity of sounding out many of the soldiers standing together by putting the most crucial of questions to them, speaking as follows:

‘I am full well assured that many an (English) heart shall waver that seemed erstwhile of mighty valour. And if the heart be dismayed, the body is not worth a mite. I trow, therefore, that a good ending shall follow this beginning. Nevertheless, I say not this to you in order that ye shall follow my desire to fight; for with you will rest the whole matter. If you think it expedient that we fight, we shall fight; and if ye will that we depart, your desire will be fulfilled. I shall consent to do in either fashion right as ye shall decide. Therefore speak plainly your desire.’

Barbour has them responding in a heroic vein:

‘Good King, without more delay, tomorrow, as soon as ye see light, ordain you wholly for the battle. We shall not fail you for fear of death, nor shall any effort be wanting till we have made our country free.’8

It sounds almost too good to be true, although the Scots’ initial success against the English cavalry would have done wonders for morale and a portion of these men would have already accompanied Bruce during some of his earlier engagements against English forces. After his successes they were quite likely to be happy to go on following him. The Englishman Grey gave another version. He said the Scots being well satisfied with their day’s work after calling a conference of their senior commanders, had decided to break off hostilities and were on the point ‘of decamping in order to march during the night to the Lennox’ when Sir Alexander Seton, a Scots knight in the English service, repelled by the lack of leadership and sense of defeatism in their camp, made his way to Bruce and told the king, ‘My Lord King, this is the time if ever you intend to undertake to reconquer Scotland. The English have lost heart and are discouraged, and expect nothing but a sudden, open attack.’ He described their unhappy condition and pledged his head on pain of being hanged and drawn, that if he (Bruce) would attack them on the morrow he would defeat them easily without (much) loss.9

Seton was unlikely to have been fully trusted in spite of his offering to stake his life on the accuracy of his report. The news he brought, though, gave Bruce further evidence for his growing conviction that the English actions so far had been far from impressive. He realised well enough that as yet he had repulsed only two relatively small English divisions, albeit from the cream of the English cavalry and it would inevitably be very different when his soldiers had to face the full English army, with its unrivalled complement of cavalry who this time would be supported by archers and overwhelming numbers of infantry. Conversely after blundering into his prepared positions the English had compounded their difficulties by deciding to make camp on a stretch of wet and broken carseland. For such reasons, whether or not Bruce and his commanders had actually decided to move away, they now decided to take on the massive English army.

Understandably, neither side enjoyed much sleep. The English cavalry spent virtually the whole night in utilising planks and beams stripped from nearby houses to help move their horses and stores onto firm ground and, once there they kept a proportion of their excitable chargers bitted and tacked up to meet any surprise Scottish attacks. As for the English infantry allotted the wettest part of the carse, with no tents for shelter, they dulled their discomfort from sodden garments and clouds of voracious insects with strong drink, keeping up their courage with endless shouts of ‘Wassail’ and ‘Drinkhail’.10 The few who did not join in would have found it difficult if not impossible to sleep through the noise. Such revelling, which must have been countenanced by their leaders, was not good for discipline nor for the cool heads needed on the coming day. As Friar Baston subsequently wrote bitingly about their revels, ‘They kill thee Scotland with vain words upbraiding’.11 In any case, at this time of year the night was remarkably short; at Stirling it was down to three hours of dusk rather than full darkness, and as early as 3.45 a.m. on the 24 June the lightening of dawn began to be apparent.

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By then the Scottish king in a repeat of Edward I’s actions before the battle of Falkirk, when he had sent his army to hear mass, made his confession to Maurice, Abbot of Inchaffray and commanded him and other priests to offer mass for his soldiers which they did on a small feature at the edge of a wood.12 Abbot Maurice had brought the relics of St Fillan to whom Bruce was devoted, and Abbot Bernard of Arbroath carried the casket containing the remains of St Columba (the Monymusk reliquary) with which to bless the army. By such means Bruce had his troops commit their bodies and souls into the safekeeping of their Maker and as a further pledge of their faith on this important feast day of St John the Baptist they ate plain bread and water. After their frugal meal they began to assemble in their respective schiltrons carrying distinguishing banners as the king had commanded them. When the ranks were drawn up they watched Bruce carrying out the traditional ceremony of knighting selected individuals, including the young Walter Stewart and he created James Douglas a knight Banneret (a senior cavalry commander), an award conferred only on the battlefield. They would have seen the king slashing off the forks of Douglas’ knight’s pennon with his sword and replacing it with the banneret’s square standard.

Such religions and civil ceremonies both helped to remind Bruce’s men what was required of them and also served to emphasise the worth of their leaders. Shortly afterwards Bruce addressed the assembled army with words that sounded the same themes. His speech was recorded by Bernard, Abbot of Arbroath, Bruce’s chancellor who, some six years later, was almost certainly responsible for the declaration sent from Arbroath to the Pope in support of Scotland’s independence. Bruce’s address was notable not only for its powerful moral and patriotic tone but also for its egalitarianism:

My lords, my people, accustomed to enjoy that full freedom for which in times gone by the Kings of Scotland have fought many a battle. For eight years or more I have struggled with much labour for my right to the Kingdom and for honourable liberty. I have lost brothers, friends and kinsmen. Your own kinsmen have been made captive, and bishops and priests are locked in prison. Our country’s nobility has poured forth its blood in war. These barons you can see before you, clad in mail, are bent upon destroying me and obliterating my kingdom, nay, our whole nation. They do not believe we can survive. They glory in their warhorses and equipment. For us, the name of the Lord must be our hope of victory in battle … if you heartily repent of your sins you will be victorious, under God’s command.

Finally Bruce offered material benefits to those among his men who like many other soldiers down the ages, would have joined him to escape from the law, probably for misdemeanours committed in their native townships or localities ‘As for offences committed against the Crown, I proclaim a pardon, by virtue of my royal power, to all those who fight manfully for the kingdom of our fathers’.13

For the men of substance Bruce promised the remission of feudal dues for the heirs of any killed in battle. Bruce’s order to commence hostilities followed immediately. Not only had he decided to fight but he devised a calculating and highly daring plan, one that depended on his army being able to confine the English within the area of their chosen camp. With the two armies so close together he was unable to conceal his preparations and as it became fully light English scouts reported that the Scots seemed fully prepared for battle.

In contrast, on the English side there was no such urgency, virtually their whole concern over the last few hours had been making camp in what had turned out to be most difficult circumstances. They assumed they would be able to move their army’s different units into battle formation before proceeding towards the castle, whether or not they were to meet opposing forces on the way. The news of the Scots’ preparedness therefore caught the English leaders off guard. The night before Edward’s veteran commanders, together with the Earl of Gloucester, had recommended postponing any advance on Stirling Castle for twenty-four hours. Both moral and practical arguments were voiced against advancing the next day, namely that it was a saints day – a fact not rated that highly by the king – but more importantly because much reordering of their formations was needed before they could meet an assembled enemy, and in any case, after its hard march, the army was close to exhaustion. None of these considerations seemed to carry much weight with the king nor with the hot-bloods among his councillors to whom any further delay was anathema.

Notwithstanding such different points of view within the English camp, even those who counselled caution and time to balance the army did not propose taking up a position of all-round defence involving mixed units of cavalry, bowmen and infantry. None of the English commanders considered the possibility of an attack by the Scottish main army. This was particularly so with the king. While he may have felt some slight reservations after the outcome of the previous day, he declared himself fully confident in his far superior force and it seems that detailed tactics were apparently not discussed at any time. In fairness, standing there on broken ground enclosed by two tidal streams with a major river at his back, any commander would know that major changes in formation would best be left until the army moved out onto the plain, where it could expect to meet the Scots if they tried to block its progress to the castle. In any event, there seemed no undue haste for, although the Scots were apparently ready to meet them, and they had put cavalry to flight on the previous day, they would never dare leave the shelter of their prepared positions to attack the entire English army.

Before recounting the dramatic events of the battle it is worth being as clear as possible about its location and it is hoped the reader will find the map at p123 helpful here. Although we are fortunate to have contemporary descriptions of the battle, recounted as they are in considerable detail, there are still conflicting theories about exactly where the main Scottish and English armies met. The initial problem arises because in their descriptions, neither John Barbour nor Thomas Grey gave the battle a clear name (which would surely have helped to pinpoint it). In fact, two names were used in letters written about it from 1314–19: Englishmen called it the battle of Stirling and early Scottish writers (from the early fourteenth until the fifteenth century) referred to it as the battle of Bannock,14 both versions giving way to the general title, the battle of Bannockburn.

It would be far simpler if the different interpretations had been restricted to these place names but over the years historians on the battle have come up with four different sites with a variation of up to two miles. It seems hardly credible that despite the highly acidic nature of the soil, there should be no evidence of the mass graves dug after the battle which would materially help define its location. However, a detailed analysis of the soil in the most likely areas has yet to be carried out and unfortunately much recent building has made any such study considerably more difficult, if not impossible. With no clear scientific proof one can only continue, like earlier historians, to make deductions from the contemporary accounts, combined with a detailed examination of the ground.

The first, or traditional, site was at the borestone to the west of the map’s lower segment which adjoins the present National Trust heritage centre and Robert Bruce’s great equestrian statue. This can be rapidly eliminated. While Bruce conceivably used the area of the borestone to watch the English army approach the Bannock Burn and placed his reserve in its general vicinity, it is virtually certain that the main battle on 24 June was not fought there. Admittedly in 1913, the same year as William Mackay MacKenzie published his pioneering account of the battle, another commentator was still of the belief that the site of the borestone was not open to doubt, but following MacKenzie’s powerful arguments against this location no serious authority has subsequently supported it.15Contemporary accounts of the battle describe enclosed flanks and the difficulties experienced by the English in getting their infantry forward – but while the borestone site to the north of the Bannock Burn offers some protection for the Scottish east flank by a steep slope, on the opposite flank open ground gives ample opportunity for cavalry, together with supporting infantry, to circle and thus compromise the whole Scottish position.

MacKenzie argued that the true site was on the carse of Stirling, near Muirtown, some two miles northeast of the borestone and almost the same distance from the village of Bannock. On this site the opposing forces would be confined within the water courses of the Forth and the Bannock Burn. Yet MacKenzie’s site was only half the story. Unlike earlier commentators, who placed the Scottish army north of the Bannock Burn and the English to its south, MacKenzie turned the opposing forces round almost ninety degrees to have the Scots facing east and the English confronting them from a westerly direction within an area bounded by the Bannock Burn and an enclosing bend of the river Forth. Along with his relentless and careful reasoning MacKenzie cited in confirmation an illustration from an early manuscript of the Scotichronicon which shows the Scots at Bannockburn with Stirling Castle to their left and the Bannock Burn on their right.16

Although subsequent commentators have accepted MacKenzie’s east/west alignment they have disputed his proposed location. Professor Barrow, for instance, has pointed out that MacKenzie mistakenly interpreted the Celtic word ‘pol’ as pool, whereas pols were, in fact, sluggish streams. Barrow concluded that MacKenzie’s confusion about the pols led him to place his site in the buckle of the Forth further to the east of Bannockburn village than the descriptions indicated. According to Barrow the name of the battle also contradicted MacKenzie’s ‘far eastern’ site. If the battle had been fought that far east it would have continued to be named after Stirling rather than Bannock, a long-established settlement quoted, for instance, in the Chronicle of Melsa during the early fifteenth century.17 If, following MacKenzie’s detailed arguments, the borestone site to the extreme west is rejected and, following Barrow, MacKenzie’s Muirtown site to the extreme east is also rejected, one is left with a location within an area stretching from the Dryfield (where corn was planted) eastwards to the carse of Balquhiderock.

Although this rules out the sites at the two extremities the problem remains of where the two sides clashed within the carse of Balquhiderock. The Rev Thomas Miller writing with Brigadier General Carruthers in 1931,18 favoured the area of the Dryfield to the west of the carse (also supported by Professor Barrow) but in the late 1950s General Christison argued powerfully for a site somewhat further east, at the mouth of a triangle formed by the Bannock Burn, its tributary the Pelstream Burn, and the steep slope descending from the Dryfield at the base of which runs the bridle path from Bannock to Stirling.19 Christison cites the Pelstream Burn as playing a vital part in confining the English army. This site is currently supported by the National Trust for Scotland, although later writers remain divided on the question. Ronald McNair Scott20 supports Christison’s version, while Peter Traquair21 in reverted to the Miller/Carruthers interpretation, reasoning that with his relatively small forces Bruce needed to fight on a narrower front than that of Christison’s site. To support his interpretation Traquair endeavoured to point out instances of deep gullies on the Dryfield that he believes could have protected Bruce’s flanks.

After walking the ground and considering the different proposals against a series of early maps uncluttered by the wide-ranging modern buildings and before the land was so extensively drained, the author comes to virtually the same conclusions as Christison. Christison’s main contributions have been to consider the role of the Pelstream Burn in confining the English right flank – for the Scots to think they could win they must have been confident about some obstacle here in addition to the Bannock Burn on the English left flank – and to reject the possibility of heavy cavalry climbing the steep escarpment bordering the Dryfield in order to approach the Scots position. In fact, the old general was very fierce with Mr Hugo Millar, secretary of the Glasgow Archaeological Society – and other civilian analysts – who were quite prepared to accept that the English climbed onto the escarpment. As an experienced soldier he told Millar that ‘a critical study of the military factors of time and space, physical obstacles, fatigue, morale, training, discipline, armament, leadership and tactics is absolutely vital in appraising any battle, however old’. Christison asked him whether he (could) really see Edward II moving up it at night or even less probably, sending his heavy cavalry charging up such a steep escarpment against the Scots entrenched in a well-prepared position.22 After checking the scarp, it is indeed hard to envisage heavy destriers being set up it, especially as there are no references in the contemporary descriptions to the monumental difficulties that would have been experienced during such an undertaking or to the Scots moving back to enable the English to occupy it. If the English did not climb the scarp, then General Christison’s picture of the English being trapped within a narrow pocket of carse east of the scarp, bounded by the Pelstream and Bannock burns, with the Forth to their rear, carries the most conviction.

Another problem is raised with Peter Traquair’s assertion that the neck of land between the two burns was over one and a half miles wide. In this case, one must agree with him that the small Scottish army could not block the mouth of the pocket effectively. However, further work on the maps reveals that the actual dimensions of the land between the two burns is not 1.5 miles but somewhat less than 0.7 of a mile wide, a distance which the Scottish forces could certainly have occupied with their spearmen. This was confirmed by re-walking the ground and checking the course of the two burns on either side of the choke point. The Bannock Burn gave no trouble since it is well defined throughout, although it has been robbed of much water by hydro schemes and is no longer the torrent it was in the fourteenth century when its level was raised further by tidal waters from the River Forth. With the extensive drainage of the surrounding area its banks are no longer so slippery although the depth of the gorge on both sides of the present township of Bannockburn is still daunting. The Pelstream Burn is very much diminished due to major changes in the surrounding water table together with drainage and ‘smoothing’ of the once broken carseland for agricultural use. However, despite everything its course is still clearly definable and the burn continues to be fast flowing. Although today it is difficult to imagine such a narrow stream acting as a genuine obstacle against both cavalry and infantry it must be remembered that in the fourteenth century it, too, was tidal where it flanked the area of the battlefield. In addition within living memory the belt of land stretching from its further bank continued to be exceedingly treacherous and local people have cited instances of horses being drowned there as late as the 1950s. After checking the dimensions between the two burns and considering the nature of the two water courses during the fourteenth century, Christison’s arguments for the battle taking place eastwards of the Dryfield within the carse of Balquihiderock seem overwhelming.

Working on such premises, I have indicated on map 3 where I believe the English were camped, together with the positions of their Scottish adversaries during the night of 23/24 June 1314, and where the clash between the two armies took place.

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