Post-classical history

CHAPTER TEN

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BATTLE JOINED

‘Let us do or die!’

Robert Burns, Bruce’s March to Bannockburn

HAVING CONCLUDED THE RELIGIOUS and knightly ceremonies and delivered his powerful, if traditional, address before battle, Bruce gave the momentous order to advance across the open carse against the mighty English army, treble the strength of his front line units and equipped with far superior weapons, lying in its encampment between the Bannock and Pelstream burns.

This was the second definitive moment for Scotland in the Wars of Independence, the first being William Wallace’s blast on his horn at Stirling Bridge that signalled the charge of his troops down the slopes of Abbey Craig onto the English formations confined in the bend of the river below. Given the enormous risks, Bruce’s directive was only possible because of the innovative way he had trained his schiltrons to move forward in echelon formation. Despite the clashes of the previous day, and the forward dash made by Moray’s schiltron against Clifford’s opposing cavalry, Bruce hoped the English would still view his schiltrons as essentially defensive formations, like William Wallace’s, and fail to appreciate fully how vital their mobility was for his plans.

Leaving the protection of the woods the first three schiltrons picked their way down the steep incline of the Dryfield and formed up at its base before starting their move eastwards up the gently rising ground of the carse. Compared with the English the Scottish army travelled light. Their many recent engagements had compelled them to jettison unnecessary stores and their fighting men were remarkably self-sufficient, which was fortunate since there was no question of waggons being used in support. Spearmen had to rely on their personal weapons and the equipment they carried, including spare spears. Bruce had ordered each schiltron to carry banners bearing their leader’s arms, such as the three white stars on a blue background of Sir James Douglas or the proud emblem of the black galley against a yellow backcloth for Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.

From the base of the scarp they had something over half a mile to travel before reaching the enemy. As they ascended the gentle slope they could see flashes of colour – reds and blues, bright greens and gold, from among the many domed tents in the cavalry lines. Sounds carried across on the clear morning air, swords being sharpened on whet stones, horses whinnying, the burble of talk together with the clanking of cooking pots being stowed away as the English appeared to be breaking camp. The Scottish spearmen knew that if the English brought even a fraction of their archers forward, their deadly firepower would make the task of crossing the grassy plain fronting the English position beyond them. Bruce gambled on the element of surprise and the fact that, although the English were unquestionably far stronger, they were as yet disorganised and above all lacked a planned response.

The Lanercost chronicler had the schiltrons preceded by Scottish archers acting in the role of skirmishers, an excellent way of using the limited number of Scottish shortbowmen. Apart from sacrificing his small cavalry force in a preliminary attack, it was Bruce’s one means of giving his spearmen some degree of protection. Some English bowmen, probably those attached to the cavalry units, immediately moved forward to counter this and, although their numbers were only a fraction of those serving with the main body of English infantry, the battlefield observer from Lanercost reported that they scattered their Scottish opponents. However, this clash of archers inevitably diverted fire from the schiltrons as they pressed on to reduce the gap between the two armies and Traquair has the English archers unable to follow up their early successes because of the English vanguard charging out across their line of fire.

Edward Bruce’s schiltron took the lead with the appointed task of anchoring its right flank against the Bannock Burn. Coming after him and immediately to his left was Moray, followed by Douglas. Moving up in this order the spearmen began to usher the opposing archers against the English right flank by the Pelstream Burn. The Lanercost chronicler referred to just three Scottish schiltrons and these were all the English could have seen at this stage, although the fourth and largest formation of spearmen directly under the king’s command followed some distance behind them.1 Bruce’s concern for his men was, of course, by no means confined to the dangers from English archers, deadly as these might prove. The main threat would come from their cavalry, and his audacity in giving the order to advance over ground favourable for horsemen is all the more remarkable. It should not be forgotten, however, as other Scottish commanders did at Flodden two centuries later, that a schiltron’s strength lay in keeping its formation and for this it too needed good ground. Pre-eminently, Bruce knew that in order to reduce the odds he had first to seize and then retain the initiative and it was imperative to meet the enemy head on to give his plan any chance of success. Only then could he succeed in imprisoning the English within their treacherous grassy rectangle, encompassed on three sides by the barriers of the River Forth, the Bannock Burn and the Pelstream Burn, all swollen by the morning’s tidal floodwaters. At high tide the waters of the Forth (and its tributaries) were only one or two feet below the general level of the carse and in places they spilled over into adjoining pools.

Given the packed nature of the English forces within the rivers, Bruce’s tactics were an even more effective version of those used by William Wallace under the lea of Stirling Castle seventeen years before. If Bruce could first trap and then, equally importantly, start compressing the English, they were bound to experience grave difficulties in bringing more than a small proportion of their forces into action against his lines of spearmen that had proved so effective the previous day. Speed and surprise were vital for, if the English emerged from their camp area and moved onto the plain of Balquhiderock, their numbers would be able to envelop the Scottish infantry and subject it to deadly volleys of arrows before crushing it with combined assaults from cavalry and infantry. Whether or not the English high command at Bannockburn was actually capable of rapidly mounting and then co-ordinating their attacks in such a way was something Bruce could not risk. He had to push his advance forward with all speed.

Whatever their shortcomings in leadership and despite their king’s aversion to bowmen, if the English had suspected for a moment that the Scots would emerge from the woods and attack as they did, the more experienced of Edward’s commanders would doubtless have already brought forward numbers of foot archers to provide direct support for the cavalry. From their experiences of the day before, Beaumont and Gloucester especially would have been aware of the problems experienced by cavalry against Scottish spearmen and it was, therefore, somewhat surprising that no one pressed for some detachments of foot archers to be placed in the forward lines, however unlikely the event of a Scottish attack. No Englishman could have doubted Bruce’s previous successes against adverse odds, nor his ability as a commander, marks of which he had demonstrated only the day before. However, in that particular army, with Edward II as its commander, the English cavalry were unlikely to yield their positions on the carse or jeopardise their opportunity of being the first to engage the enemy for such an improbable situation.

The English archers were sure to have been much in the thoughts of Bruce’s spearmen as they moved across open ground in close formations. Veterans from Falkirk would have told their companions how arrows could tear into them in a hissing, death-dealing cloud. As experienced soldiers they would know that in spite of carrying their proud armorial banners, the schiltrons could rapidly have holes rent in them by the lethal shafts. Even if they did arrive within arm’s length of the enemy positions they were still likely to meet archers able to fire point blank into their ranks. As seasoned soldiers they would try to blank out such dangers and concentrate on the immediate problems in hand, striving to obey their sergeants’ instructions to keep good lines, to point their spears straight ahead and, with the hummocks in the ground, to take especial care over their footing. As they continued to advance, though, they must have felt the urge to tilt their helmeted heads forward and hunch their backs the better to meet the expected arrow cloud. In such a religious age, and conscious of their vulnerability, they would also have welcomed the signal from the Abbot of Inchaffray, who was preceding them bearing a crucifix, for them to kneel briefly and join him in reciting the Paternoster.

But once on the open carse there was no turning back. Bruce’s most experienced soldiers customarily held the flank positions but in any case, walking shoulder to shoulder with friends from their own clans and from their own localities – like those members of Pals battalions in an infinitely more costly war 600 years later – such men were better able to subdue their fears and even grow in confidence as they approached ever closer to the enemy. Had they not done well the previous day under the same commanders? In any case, all shared the heady feeling of being committed to a long-awaited battle and, above all, of going onto the attack.

On the English side arrangements were, of course, at a much earlier stage. Whichever cavalry commander had despatched the archers forward as skirmishers probably sent word for the king to join him with all speed. Once among the front detachments, Edward could only watch in amazement as the Scottish spearmen, in virtual silence, moved steadily across the carse towards his position. By now they were less than two bowshots away and the forward phalanx continued its relentless advance with the other schiltrons following close behind. In their tight formations the king must have thought them remarkably few compared with his own great army spread over the carse behind him, especially as he had not seen how the same spearmen performed on the previous day. Most importantly, they showed no signs of slowing.

‘What?’ he shouted to those beside him. ‘Will those Scots fight?’ Barbour’s account of the battle places the veteran Scotsman, Sir Ingram Umfraville, past guardian of his country, long-standing Balliol supporter and enemy of the Bruces, beside the king to advise him. Initially Umfraville’s reply seemed to reflect admiration for his countrymen, as well as the certainty they were coming to their death. ‘Of truth, sir, now I see the most marvellous sight by far that ever I beheld – Scotsmen undertaking to fight against the might of England and to give battle in the hard open field.’ This Scot who so hated the Scottish king must then have had second thoughts about the result, for he proposed a strategem for the English to fall back beyond their baggage thereby tempting the Scots into plundering it, when they could easily be attacked and destroyed. Umfraville plainly did not appreciate the iron discipline exerted by Bruce nor could he have properly anticipated the difficulties of such an undertaking within the cramped English position. The king rightly rejected the absurd suggestion out of hand, largely because he had no intention of giving way in front of ‘such rabble’, but also due to the fact that he still could not bring himself to believe the Scots had actually come to fight him. As the schiltrons stopped and knelt in prayer he grasped at the possibility that they might be asking for mercy. This time Umfraville knew his fellow Scots well enough to answer him, ‘You are right; they ask for mercy, but not from you. They cry to God for forgiveness. I tell you one thing for certain, yonder men will win all or die. None there shall flee for fear of death.’ In any case, as the Scots resumed their approach, the king could doubt his eyes no longer. ‘Now so be it,’ he said, ‘we shall see presently.’2

Edward’s wish for battle that day was granted, but not on the terms he had imagined and furthermore one of his ill-considered and unrestrained responses the night before came to have serious results. During the king’s council of war the young Earl of Gloucester had joined with more experienced heads to recommend a further day’s preparation before moving towards Stirling Castle, but Edward had not been content with rejecting Gloucester’s proposal, accusing him of cowardice, the ultimate insult for a Christian knight and senior member of such a proud family.3

Edward’s order to sound the trumpets for battle brought a frantic response. It was relatively easy for footsoldiers and bowmen to snatch up their weapons and shake themselves into their clothing, but far less so for the cavalry stationed in the forefront of the army. The knights had the painstaking task of getting into their full armour, including their helms; their horses had to be readied and their lances and other weapons brought from nearby tents before they could be helped onto their mounts. Among the cavalry the vanguard was expected to respond quickest of all and some of its members were likely to be fully arrayed but, having given the order to arm, nothing more seemed to follow in the way of commands, the king apparently gave no tactical directives beyond hastening to get into his own armour in readiness for combat. In fact, neither the king nor his commanders seemed prepared to consider anything beyond an immediate sally. Even so there was discord. Among the vanguard, Gloucester, who was still smarting from the king’s slur, disputed with Hereford over who should have the honour of leading. Hereford argued that as Constable of England it was his prerogative, while Gloucester maintained his ancestors had always held the premier place in the attack.4 Refusing to spend any more time in wrangling Gloucester called for archers to support him, although he did not wait for their arrival or even for his knight to place his surcoat, emblazoned with the De Clare coat of arms, over his head, before mounting and putting his spurs to his horse. Heading the vanguard’s other knights he charged headlong across the space between the two sides, crashing against Edward Bruce’s schiltron where he was killed on the wall of spears raised to meet him. A number of senior figures who followed close behind him, including Sir Robert Clifford, joint leader of a cavalry brigade the day before, Sir John Comyn, son of the Red Comyn murdered by Bruce, Sir Edward Mauley, steward of the king’s household, and Sir Pain Tiptoff, engaged the Scottish spearmen and were also killed.

It was a disastrous beginning for the English. The vanguard had succeeded no better than on the previous day and such mindless acts cost them some of their most dependable and experienced commanders before the battle had properly begun. Those who so rashly charged at the forward schiltron caused an additional problem; with both men and horses lying on the ground other cavalry had the greatest difficulty in forcing a way over them to press home their assaults. In any case, when the foremost-placed horsemen found themselves checked they were not prepared to retire and allow others to attack. The spearmen who had paused to meet the horsemen’s first assault now resumed their forward movement and succeeded in placing themselves against the Bannock Burn thereby anchoring the Scottish right flank. The first segment of the trap had been moved into place.

Once there Edward Bruce’s men were able to hold their own against fresh cavalry attacks by jabbing their long spears through the horses’ trappings and, like Moray’s men the day before, when the animals reared, lunging for their hearts and entrails. At the same time the other schiltrons continued their forward movement. As Moray’s schiltron came close to the forward one it clashed headlong with some of the main cavalry units moving up to threaten Edward Bruce’s left flank. Such large numbers of English cavalry were despatched and so many horses milled around the schiltron that observers said it disappeared from sight ‘like men plunged in the sea’.5 With notable courage the English mounted a succession of spirited attacks, ‘spurring haughtily on’, but Moray’s men had been through a similar experience the day before. Like Edward Bruce’s spearmen they resolutely stood their ground and succeeded in bringing the forward riders crashing down. Once more the prone casualties helped to blunt the English assaults and gave Moray’s schiltron the chance to move into station alongside the right-hand one. More than half the entrance was blocked. Douglas and Stewart approaching on Moray’s left offered their own thicket of spearmen to the impetuous cavalry and as more men and horses were impaled, Douglas came into line and closed off the entrance.

Through lack of imagination born of overconfidence the English king and his fellow commanders had placed their army in a potential trap. With such few numbers, it was, of course, one thing for Bruce to seal the pocket, quite another to hold it shut. The interval of land between the streams was about 1200 yards wide at this point. With each spearman occupying about a yard of frontage and with only narrow intervals between the schiltrons their steel-tipped barrier was likely to have been just three or four ranks deep.

Robert Bruce, watching from a vantage point relatively near to his fourth schiltron, which he held in reserve close behind the other three, must have wondered how such flimsy human ranks, precursors of the thin red line of Scottish soldiers at Balaclava, could hold against the vastly superior numbers locked in the salient. As a gifted soldier he must also have thought it inconceivable for the English to continue to fight so disconnectedly and to leave unused so much of their actual strength but, if they did not deploy it, there seemed no reason why his spearmen should not hold the cavalry at bay as they had a few hours earlier. In the spearmen’s favour, the great numbers of cavalry at the front end of the pocket were becoming so jammed together they could develop nothing like the momentum they had on the Dryfield the day before.

For a time events continued to follow the same grim pattern. The Scottish spearmen held their ground against bruising rushes of horsemen issuing from the main body of cavalry, repeated again and again with exemplary bravery. The physical demands on individual spearmen must have been enormous, for the Lanercost chronicler described the clashes as ‘a great and terrible crash of spears broken and of destriers wounded to death’.6 On the English side, some of the horses, riderless and wounded, ran amok. In their attempts to escape the terrible blood-tipped spears they not only galloped back through the cavalry squadrons scattering other horsemen, but trampled over squads of unfortunate footsoldiers as they attempted to push forward to take part in the fighting. As on the previous day the disciplined spearmen showed greater unity and control against the sporadic, if frequent, attacks from the English cavalry. They not only rebuffed the charging horses but every so often succeeded in edging their way forward further into the narrowing pocket.

More and more cavalry units eager to become involved crowded against their own forward elements, merging into what Barbour called ‘one great schiltron of their own’, and among its forward units the king and his escort fought as hard as anyone. Admirable as this was, it quite prevented him from seeing the overall picture and exercising the control required of a commander-in-chief, particularly over his 5000 archers who had the potential to give him victory.

In fact, so tight was the wedge of heavy horsemen locked in desperate combat with the schiltrons that without some fundamental re-ordering neither the English bowmen nor the other infantry seemed able to tilt the balance in Edward’s favour. Nor was this the case only with the footsoldiers: many cavalry units failed to come within arm’s reach of the enemy and were so tightly packed that 200 knights were not even able to draw their swords.

Finally, despite the extreme difficulties, those in command of the archers ordered them to fire at the schiltrons. At first they discharged their shafts over the heads of the foremost cavalry, but with the ranks of the schiltrons being so narrow and so closely engaged they fell harmlessly beyond them. The bowmen were then ordered to fire past the cavalry directly at the spearmen. This expedient also failed for the spearmen were dwarfed by the opposing horsemen who from their horses’ hooves to their helmet crests stood over seven feet high. In any case, the leaping and plunging riders repeatedly masked the archers’ line of fire with the result that they hit ‘few Scots in the breast but (were) striking more English in the back’.7

One can imagine the cavalry’s rage at this but the bowmen’s leaders persisted and led a considerable body of their men over the Pelstream Burn to link up with those archers who had earlier acted as skirmishers. Together they gathered on the Scottish left flank, and taking up positions some six paces apart, began to unleash a rain of deadly missiles that soon tore gaps in Douglas’ lines. As Barbour reported, ‘The English archers shot so fast that had their shower lasted it had gone hard with the Scots’.8 The watching Bruce, quickly appreciating the extent of the danger, ordered up his light cavalry under Marischal Keith to try and disperse them. After crossing the burn, most probably where the bridle path forded it, they bore right and with levelled lances rode at a full gallop across the open carse. Their fierce charge against the archers’ flank was so successful that the English bowmen were either killed or fled. Unlike the English heavy cavalry who had difficulty wheeling at the trot, the wiry Scottish horses with their lightly protected riders were far more difficult to elude. While no match for the English cavalry this was a task for which they were ideally suited. When the few archers who survived recrossed the stream and rejoined other English soldiers they were greeted with abuse and even blows for their failure.

Following their success the Scottish cavalry continued to patrol the Pelstream’s northern bank to deter any further detachments of bowmen from crossing over. With the threat from the English archers removed – from that flank at least – the Scots continued to edge forward, particularly Edward Bruce’s schiltron on the Scots’ right flank. There were even reports about the few Scottish archers who survived the initial exchange enjoying an opportunity of being able to fire at the opposing cavalry from short range.9

The hard-fought battle had now reached its savage attrition stage, although the success of the Scottish cavalry in seeing off the English archers was an immense bonus for their side. At this point Bruce sent forward his own – and last – schiltron to bolster Douglas’ weakened formation and to give additional impetus to his attacks. By doing so Bruce played his full hand, for he could not afford the situation to arrive at stalemate. Although his Scottish footsoldiers with their spears and Lochaber axes had shown they could defend themselves against mailed knights and his light cavalry had repulsed the first major English attempt to bring their bowmen into the struggle, with things so finely balanced the English could still find some opportunity for making better use of their other forces. If, despite inevitable casualties from drowning, a commander had the nerve to lead a detachment of English infantry across the treacherous Bannock Burn, then move them along its bank before recrossing at some point before the gorge he could attack the Scottish spearmen from the rear and the situation could swiftly change. As he committed his own schiltron the Scottish king emphasised the importance of their role by telling Angus Og MacDonald and its other leaders, ‘My hope is constant in thee’, adding, in encouragement, that if they could give some added force the day must be theirs. In response some filled the gaps made in Douglas’ spear lines while others took up rearward positions among the schiltrons and, leaning with all their strength against the backs and shoulders of men whose knees were buckling and whose arms could hardly keep the tips of their long spears from sinking to the ground, attempted to impel them forward. Their presence was not lost on the English whose armoured knights experienced even greater difficulties with their spirited horses as the jabbing spearmen began a concerted forward movement.

So effective was this addition to the Scottish strength and so highly did Bruce rate the entry of Angus Og and his clansmen at the battle’s climax, that he subsequently granted the MacDonalds the honour of always taking the right of the line in the royal armies. While in the absence of any fresh English initiatives the advantage appeared to be moving in the Scots’ direction, where the sides came together the fighting continued with unceasing ferocity. Barbour wrote, ‘Mighty was the din of blows, as weapons struck upon armour, and great was the crashing of spears with turning and thrusting, grunting and groaning …’10 Within the heart of the diminishing salient conditions were worsening: men and horses were becoming so packed together that not only were they unable to fight properly, but if a knight fell or was unhorsed he became not only vulnerable to the enemy but was in the greatest danger of being trampled on by his own side.

The vital difference between the contenders at this point was that the English had still only succeeded in bringing a limited portion of their forces into contact with the enemy. However, with the commitment of Bruce’s last regular formation and the resumption of some forward movement, however modest, Scottish spirits began to rise and with their growing elation signs of desperation started appearing among the English. As the Scots sensed some crumbling in the resistance they let out a triumphant shout that rolled along their battle line as each schiltron took it up. The English attempted to shout back but the Scottish cries would not be rebutted. They roared out exultantly, ‘On them, on them, on them, they fail.’11 The shouts were accompanied by attacks from all along the line and in a remarkable reversal of fortune Barbour had the Scottish short bowmen beginning to enjoy considerable success as they shot boldly ‘amongst the enemy and harassed them greatly’.12

While at the front of the salient the fighting went on unabated, elsewhere in the English encampment events were taking a different turn. A number of the levies, who saw no chance of being involved in the action but sensed the likely outcome, began to drift off and attempt to cross the surrounding watercourses with the aim of making for the English border. Such desertions had, of course, no immediate effect on the king and his cavalry for there were more than enough horsemen to replace their casualties in the forward ranks. For outright victory the Scots needed to administer a new blow against their larger opponent, otherwise the long and costly struggle seemed destined to continue for some time and mutual exhaustion would become an increasing factor and one likely to tell against the side with fewer numbers.

At this point a fresh body entered the reckoning, namely the ‘small folk’, those Scottish soldiers who had arrived too late to undergo Bruce’s specialised training or were without the required military equipment, together with the ‘poveraill’, numbers of labourers and camp servants, both men and women. This body moved forward from where Bruce had placed them below Coxet Hill and appeared at the top of the Dryfield slope in military formation, with crude banners flying and carrying all manner of improvised weapons, no doubt eager for their share of booty from the failing English. As the men amongst them began to descend the slope they roared out ‘Slay, Slay. On them hastily.’ To the beleaguered English struggling in their bloody-slippery pocket the sight of more than 2000 fresh men – equal in number to the king’s schiltron – must have seemed like a new Scottish army entering the conflict.

Compared with the schiltrons’ total strength the numerical addition was, of course, considerable but their fighting ability was quite another matter. The Scottish king himself might have had distinctly mixed feelings over such unruly elements joining his veteran fighters – men who would no doubt be ready to kill indiscriminately, whether their opponents were worthy of valuable ransoms or not. No chronicler suggested they came to the battlefield directly on Bruce’s orders but it is likely they sent observers who returned and told them the Scots were getting the better of things. An English defeat meant enormous plunder and they would dearly want to be in at the death. All plunder aside there were likely to be strong patriots among them who had served this king and his followers on other fields. In Barbour’s account of the battle he writes that they appointed one of their number captain saying they would help their lords to their utmost.13 A recent writer has put forward the somewhat outlandish theory that the ‘small folk’ were in fact mobilised by the Knights Templar whose own war banner, the Beauseant, coming over the hill was bound to bring dismay to the English.14 Representatives of the St Clairs, the principal Templar family in Scotland, did fight with Bruce at Bannockburn but whether they were the self-appointed leaders of the small folk remains unanswered.15 None of the contemporary observers upon the battle supports such a theory.

Reputedly the sight of the ‘small folk’ coming towards him made Bruce all the more determined to try and decide things before they actually joined in. He shouted out his own battle cry and along with his spearmen pressed the English so hard that it was said more and more began to leave the ground.

With the outcome now virtually certain to go against them the English leaders determined to get their king away. His departure would seal their defeat but the Scottish spearmen were close about him; some of the Scottish knights among their ranks were even then grasping at his horses’ housings and he had to clear himself with his mace.16 No one could deny that Edward had fought bravely throughout, having had one horse killed beneath him and losing Sir Roger Northburgh, the keeper of his shield, who had been captured. At first he was unwilling to withdraw. But at all events he must be led to safety, the responsibility for which fell upon his personal escort including Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke and Sir Giles d’Argentan. Both knew it would be a national disgrace if the king were killed and probably worse still if he were captured; the ransom set would be huge and the conditions for his return were bound to include the recognition of Bruce as true King of the Scots, together with a demand for his country’s renewed independence.

Despite the king’s protests they turned his horse’s bridle and moved to the flank with no fewer than 500 knights in attendance (many of whom were doubtless glad to leave the ill-fated field). This force was far too powerful to be checked by the Scottish light cavalry and they made a crossing place over the Pelstream Burn and galloped him northwards away from the Scots army and up the carse where he determined to find protection in Stirling Castle. To withdraw 500 knights at such a time not only guaranteed defeat, but triggered the beginning of undisciplined flight by many others causing men to start running in all directions. Understandably there were notable exceptions, like Giles d’Argentan, who, once the king was close to the castle, declared his honour would not allow him to run away and returned to the salient. There he threw himself against Edward Bruce’s thicket of spearmen who killed him instantly. The Highland patriot Evan Barron went as far as to say the king’s flight was followed by a panic to which there is no parallel in the history of England or Scotland.17 This seems an overstatement when Bannockburn is compared with the chaotic aftermath that occurred among Scottish forces following later English victories such as at Flodden, and the inevitable disorder on any battlefield once cohesion is lost. However at Bannockburn the English will to fight was undoubtedly broken, a fact which the English chronicler from Lanercost acknowledged when he wrote that ‘Horsemen and foot alike, noblemen, knights and squires, archers and infantry were seized with the need to escape.’18

Many fugitives gathered round the base of Stirling Castle while others tried to cross the River Forth where most were drowned in the attempt. Even more went southeast to cross the Bannock Burn which, particularly in places where it was non-tidal, was reckoned to have a hard base suitable for horses although where it ran across the carse the bottom was boggy.19 It was not only the base that proved treacherous. Its banks were so slippery and liable to crumble that once committed men could not climb back, and in its gorges north of the township of Bannock horrendous casualties were suffered. Barbour reported that between its banks was so filled ‘with men and horses that men could pass over dryshod upon the drowned bodies’.20 This was agreed by all observers, including the English ones. Grey wrote that ‘the troops in the English rear fell back upon the ditch of Bannockburn, tumbling one over the other’21 and the Lanercost chronicler underlined the effects of panic, ‘there was a big ditch called the Bannockburn into which the tide flows … many noblemen and others with their horses fell into this ditch because of the great press of men behind them’.22

Once committed, Bruce succeeded at Bannockburn because he was willing to venture everything against a much superior adversary who was ill-prepared and comparatively untrained, whose knights had no respect for their own archers or footsoldiers, and who were led by a king who thought the science of tactics unnecessary. As a result the English force was closer to being an armed mob – albeit of brave men – than a dedicated force committed to defeating an enemy. In this respect it is difficult to quarrel with Professor Barrow’s statement that the English army was condemned by its leadership to fight with the wrong tactics, the wrong weapons and on the wrong ground. Such English deficiencies, however, cannot take away from Bruce the credit for leading his small, highly disciplined force to a victory against all the current odds of war and one that will always rank as the premier triumph for Scotland against the English.

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