Post-classical history




‘It was victory, but it was not success yet.’

Agnes Mure MacKenzie, Robert Bruce, King of Scots

LIKE ALL VICTORIOUS COMMANDERS the full rewards of Bruce’s success would depend upon how effectively he could pursue the enemy’s broken forces and how far he was able to seize the chance it gave him to bring the bitter conflict between the two countries to an end.

Bannockburn was unusual in battlefield terms for being an absolute victory. Although the English king left the field accompanied by a remarkably strong cavalry escort there was no question in his mind of making it the caucus for a further attack. Edward’s one object was to free himself from Bruce’s fearsome spearmen by seeking security behind the thick walls of a fortress still under his control. A second large body of English horsemen which left the field intact also had nothing but escape in mind. As for the footsoldiers they scattered in all directions. No unit marched off under its officers in any semblance of order or with its banners flying, although one sizeable body of men was subsequently guided to the border and safety. The plain fact was that the huge army which had so recently marched into the Scottish heartland now ceased to exist. Even so, as Professor Barrow pointed out, in one vital respect at least the English escaped more cheaply than they deserved. While they lost considerable numbers of noble rank, many escaped and the biggest prize of all, the English king, got away.

In hindsight Bruce might conversely have been more single-minded in his pursuit, yet he is not alone among gifted commanders in neglecting to take full advantage of a victory. After breaking an army’s outer shell of resistance attackers are given a signal opportunity of annihilating it but for numerous reasons, including their own exhaustion, they have often failed to do so. Few military leaders have ever come close to equalling Hannibal’s great victory at Cannae in 216BC where, after surrounding and compressing a larger Roman army he broke its will and continued the slaughter until virtually the whole force was wiped out. In more modern times the Russians gained a sweeping victory at Stalingrad during World War Two, when they surrounded an army which, after a two and a half month siege, was three-quarters starved before their final attacks compelled the remainder to surrender.

At Cannae and Stalingrad no one escaped, but it is more usual for there to be comparatively large numbers of survivors. Even when the Duke of Cumberland ruthlessly hunted down the Jacobites following his victory at Culloden, sizeable remnants gathered afterwards under their commanders. Bannockburn would never be a Stalingrad or Cannae, for the English could escape by crossing the water courses encompassing their position even though this involved a relatively high level of casualties. Compared with the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden Robert Bruce had much better reasons for not pursuing his enemy to the utmost. He was most certainly deficient in cavalry, the traditional means of pursuit and exploitation quite apart from any feelings of sympathy he might have had for the defeated after his own experiences as a fugitive. His total numbers of light cavalry were no match for the 500 barded knights who accompanied the English king on his dash south nor, for that matter, did they seem capable of checking the other contingent of 600 cavalry and 1000 infantry under the Earl of Hereford which made for Bothwell Castle on the Clyde. Bruce therefore was compelled to keep his schiltrons intact in case the English decided to turn against his footsoldiers with a mixed cavalry and infantry force (such as Hereford’s), and this undoubtedly reduced his capability to follow up vigorously.

In any case, with Bruce’s army not much more than a third of the English strength when the battle commenced he was forced to consider mounting a full-scale attack using both cavalry and infantry upon the large numbers of English infantry who, failing to gain admittance into Stirling Castle gathered themselves on the crags at its base. In the light of his own determined and successful struggles against superior forces Bruce would expect the English to attempt some form of re-grouping and understandably he would be reluctant to risk compromising his victory. Bruce also had reason to feel himself unlucky when Edward looked for protection in Stirling Castle. The king and his powerful escort made straight for it but on their arrival its commander either told the king that if he entered the castle he would be taken by the Scots ‘as none in all England … (will) bring you succour’ or Moubray actually raised the drawbridge against him.1 If the governor had been a less strong individual and had admitted the king, rather than pointing out his agreement to hand the castle over to the Scots, they would certainly have besieged it and in all likelihood captured the king along with all his 500 cavalry.

At Moubray’s refusal Edward and his escort turned through King’s Park round the rear of the Scottish army until they reached the Torwood and came onto the high road to Linlithgow. However, Bruce’s chance of capturing the English king had not disappeared completely. Had he used all his cavalry to pursue the king’s force he could have made things exceedingly difficult for them, for while their horses were better-armed they were also more ponderous. The Scottish horses were not only much faster but with their riders’ knowledge of the country they could have been used in ambushes. However, this was not to happen.

Although Douglas, with the anticipation and swiftness of thought that so distinguished him as a soldier, left his schiltron as soon as he saw the English king move northwards and asked for Bruce’s permission to lead the Scottish cavalry in pursuit, Bruce refused. Quite apart from Edward’s large cavalry escort and the numbers of footsoldiers that began following their king to Stirling Castle the remainder of the English cavalry force still heavily outnumbered Bruce’s horsemen and he felt it too great a risk to use all his cavalry on a single mission, however important. In fact the move away by the king’s escort caused the other large group of cavalry and infantry to start moving south and Barbour was sure the large numbers around the castle were the chief reason ‘that the King of England escaped to his own country’.2 Bruce eventually compromised by allocating Douglas just sixty horse for the pursuit. Undeterred by the uneven odds he set off after the English king. On the road he was fortunate to meet with a fellow Scot, the young Sir Lawrence Abernethy who, with eighty horse, had come to join the English. On being told the result of the battle, Abernethy was persuaded to change allegiance and join Douglas. Pausing briefly to take public pledges of loyalty from Abernethy and his men, Douglas set off with a force more than double in size, although it was still heavily outnumbered by the English.

He caught up with Edward and his party just after Linlithgow, but instead of taking the expected route over the Lammermuir hills to Berwick, the king turned due east along the shorter coast road to Dunbar. Douglas was thus deprived of many favourable ambush points along the Roman road but so urgently did he shadow the party that, as Barbour remarked, no Englishman could stop even to make water and any whose horses broke down were swiftly captured. Aymer de Valence’s biographer believed that Valence and his followers were responsible for defending the party and fighting a prolonged rearguard action against Douglas’ attacks. If this is so, their heavy casualties were equally or more likely to have been caused by this action than during the main battle; from Valence’s retinue of twenty-two knights and fifty-nine men at arms, four knights were killed and ten taken prisoner with a similar proportion of losses among the men at arms. It is known for certain that just one knight, John Comyn (son of John Comyn of Badenoch), had already been killed on the field of Bannockburn and if just a proportion of these casualties occurred later it points to the determination of Douglas’ pursuit.3

When the king and his knights reached Dunbar Castle, owned by the sympathetic Earl Patrick of Dunbar, they jumped off their horses and ran in leaving them unattended outside. The king and a few chosen knights sailed to Bamburgh in an open boat and from there went by land to Berwick but the main body who followed him by land had a far more difficult journey. They were chased for a full fifty miles by Douglas and Abernethy and although they shed their armour to help increase their horses’ speed some still fell into their pursuers’ hands.4 If Douglas had commanded the whole complement of Scottish cavalry it is more than possible he could have captured the king. Even with Douglas’ restricted number of pursuers Edward had no doubt about the good luck associated with his escape, for in thanksgiving this less than religious monarch subsequently founded the Carmelite college of Oriel at Oxford.5

Bruce enjoyed better luck with the other contingent of more than 600 mounted men and 1000 foot under the Earl of Hereford. They made their way to the stronghold of Bothwell Castle lying about twenty-five miles southwest of Stirling, where its constable admitted the party’s leading commanders who, along with the two senior earls of Hereford and Angus, had included Sir John Seagrave, Sir Anthony Lucy, Ingram Unfraville and Maurice, Lord of Berkeley amounting to fifty in all. The castle’s constable was a Scot, Sir Walter FitzGilbert, who hitherto had inclined to the stronger side which up to this time had been the English. When however he learned the reason for his having so many distinguished guests and, even more importantly, the extent of the Scottish victory, he promptly removed their weapons and made them prisoners.6 On the arrival of Edward Bruce, whom the king had sent in pursuit, FitzGilbert handed them over.

After Edward II himself, the Earl of Hereford was the greatest single prize from the battle: in return for his release Bruce was granted fifteen Scottish captives among whom he specified his wife, Elizabeth, his daughter Marjorie, his sister Christiana and that great patriot from the time of William Wallace, Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow, now blind and sick after eight years of harsh captivity. In return for Hereford Robert Bruce’s nephew, the Earl of Mar, was also given release but as he had formed a warm friendship with the English king he opted to remain in England. Deprived of their senior leaders few men from the rest of Hereford’s large force reached England safely: some were killed close to Bothwell Castle while many others were killed by common folk as they made their way to the border.7 Any who escaped apparently only did so in abject confusion.8 In their flight it was every man for himself, for even if the nobles avoided injury, in the event of their being captured they became liable to pay a ransom. This could have grave results. In 1317, for instance, when Aymer de Valence himself was on a later mission to France on behalf of the king he suffered the misfortune not only of being captured but having a huge ransom of £10,400 set on his head. Although the king paid the first £2,500 the ransom caused Valence serious financial problems for the rest of his life and was the reason for his dying in debt in 1324.9

The large numbers of ordinary English soldiers who escaped the battlefield and congregated in large numbers at the base of Stirling Castle did not give Bruce the trouble he expected. They soon tamely surrendered.

Only one sizeable group of men – all footsoldiers – made good their escape to England. There is some doubt who was responsible for their delivery. The Lanercost Chronicle reported a large body of fugitives fleeing to Carlisle and it has been suggested that Aymer de Valence, after leading the king towards Stirling Castle, was responsible for shepherding the half-naked Welsh levies recruited from within his earldom to the border city. Certainly the greater part of one organised party, possible several thousands strong, safely crossed the border despite being harried all along the 100-mile route to Carlisle.10 No chronicler, however, actually mentions Valence by name and Barbour is quite specific in saying that Sir Maurice de Barclay set forth from the battle with a great host of Welshmen.11 Barclay was certainly in Valence’s retinue of knights and Valence may have ordered him to take charge of the Welsh levies or, after leading them off, handed over responsibility to Barclay. J R S Phillips, Valence’s biographer, cites evidence supporting the presence of Valence with the king on his flight to Dunbar and sailing to Berwick from there.12 Whether Valence was responsible or not for leading off and then handing his Welsh levies over to Barclay before subsequently fighting off Douglas and his pursuers on the road to Dunbar, he emerged from Bannockburn with more credit than most of his contemporaries.

From the nature of the battle it was inevitable a sizeable proportion of the vast English army would leave the field quite apart from those who negotiated the Pelstream Burn and made northwards for Stirling Castle. How many other footsoldiers actually succeeded in escaping to England is far more difficult to say. While the archers had only briefly been in action and the foot virtually not at all, both faced the initial problem of crossing the fast-flowing and deep Bannock Burn before moving south towards the English border over 100 miles away. After the burn had claimed its proportion of victims, for the survivors, demoralised, frightened, with little or no food, the journey to Carlisle across barren border country must have seemed endless and it was indeed beyond the capability of many. With only one organised group coming off the battlefield it is certain a large proportion fell to the avenging Scots. If two-thirds of the horsemen and infantry who did not gain admittance to Bothwell Castle failed to reach the border it is not likely that many others would do much better. It seems doubtful if even a third of the footsoldiers returned to England. But in contemporary eyes such ordinary soldiers (the poor bloody infantry of later centuries) counted for less than men of noble blood: fresh levies could be raised fairly easily and such men earned no bonuses for their captors. Some of those who succeeded in crossing the border still had some weeks’ walking before they returned to their home villages.

As for the nobility, if their casualties were not as high as they might have been they were still undoubtedly high compared with most medieval battles, partly because many nobles were killed in the savage early encounters. Gloucester died together with thirty-four barons and several hundred knights, but every knight was accompanied by one or more squires, and other members of their personal household, many of whom would have been killed along with their masters. While he might be guilty of some exaggeration in this respect, Barbour relates how on the battlefield 200 golden spurs – the spurs of knighthood – were taken from the bodies of the dead knights, a total which exceeded Scottish losses at Flodden two centuries later, although in that battle it included their king. At Bannockburn all such knights were buried in sanctified ground, while dead soldiers were placed in great pits acting as communal graves.13

On the Scottish side the casualties were very light. Barbour wrote that two knights were killed, Sir William Vipont and Sir Walter Ross (much mourned by Edward Bruce), while Sir William Airth was killed as he guarded the Scots baggage. As for the private soldiers, if the one death suffered by Moray’s schiltron on the first day of the battle is any guide, then their casualties would also have been relatively light, as they kept their cohesion throughout. Although Douglas’ schiltron found itself a target for the dreaded archers it was only for a comparatively short time before these were successfully dispersed, and the phalanx was unlikely to have suffered more than 200 casualties for this reason.

As in other medieval battles, equally or more important for the victors than those killed were those they captured: after Bannockburn there were probably 500 or so men of rank, nobles, knights and squires, who were worth ransoming. The barons, baronets and knights among them amounted to more than 100, much the most important being Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford. After his victory Bruce could afford to be magnanimous, but while the details of their ransoms were being discussed the Scottish king apparently treated his prisoners with so much kindness and courtesy that even the English witnesses acknowledged he went far to winning their hearts.14

In certain cases he also showed a willingness to waive their ransom. One such case was that of Sir Marmaduke Twenge, the English hero of Stirling Bridge. Twenge found himself surrounded and after discarding his arms and armour hid himself all night, appearing before Bruce next morning dressed only in his shirt. His humiliation and state of undress would have amused many a victorious monarch but Barbour related how the king greeted him. ‘Welcome, Sir Marmaduke, to what man art thou prisoner?’

‘To none,’ he said, ‘but here to you I yield to be at your pleasure.’

‘“And I receive thee, sir,” said the King.’15 Bruce much valued bravery; he granted Twenge freedom without ransom and gave the veteran soldier gifts to take back with him. Another prisoner who understandably enjoyed Bruce’s special favour was Ralph de Monthermer, stepfather of the young Earl of Gloucester who was killed in the battle’s early stages. It was Monthermer who, when Bruce was at the court of Edward I, reputedly sent him a pair of spurs, a hint that Bruce acknowledged by escaping from Edward’s vengeance. Bruce repaid the debt by both entertaining Monthermer and releasing him without ransom which as Edward II’s brother-in-law would have been set at a very high level.

Although such conspicuous courtesy towards the defeated enhanced Bruce’s cause there seems no reason to doubt his sincerity towards such victims of war. He mourned the death of the young Earl of Gloucester as a cousin. After having Gloucester’s body laid out in a nearby church he kept a night’s vigil over it, before sending the corpse to King Edward at Berwick together with that of the next highest-ranking magnate, Robert Clifford.16

In addition to the material benefits from the ransoms Scotland profited from the proceeds of the English baggage train which the Scots captured in its entirety. As well as money to pay the soldiers, it carried large quantities of gold and silver vessels, armour, cloths, wine, hay and the family plate of those nobles who had been promised estates in Scotland. At the time it was said to be worth £200,000.17 Some idea of its modern value can be gauged from a comparison between the pay of a soldier then and now. J E Morris set the average wage for soldiers in the Welsh Wars at 2d a day,18 a figure that remained constant until 1333 when Edward III had great difficulties raising men to fight in Scotland and increased it to an inflationary 3d a day. Working on the figure of 2d a day, a soldier’s annual pay was about £3.00. Compared with the wages of a trained British soldier in 1998 of £13,000 a year the baggage train would be worth roughly £866,000,000. The material rewards to Scotland from Bannockburn would, therefore, certainly be more than a billion pounds in modern figures and, with the relative scarcity of monetary transactions in the fourteenth century, in practical terms it would certainly be much higher. The value of the baggage train was supplemented by the considerable spoils taken by individual soldiers from both the dead and captured. In addition to such material benefits the battle allowed Bruce to be reunited with the female members of his family after an interval of eight years or more and for the possibility of a male heir to be revived. Even then they were not actually released until the autumn. The outcome also brought the transfer of the two great castles of Stirling and Dunbar into Scottish hands. On the day following the battle both Sir Philip Moubray and Patrick, Earl of Dunbar surrendered and swore allegiance to Bruce.

Bannockburn was unquestionably the greatest victory Scotland ever achieved against the English and by the same reasoning England’s worst defeat since the battle of Hastings. The immediate benefits of the battle to the victors were enormous: the challenge mounted by a fearsome army led by an English king had been eliminated; long-held Scottish captives, including Bruce’s immediate family, were released; and the material advantages from ransoms and booty were felt throughout Scotland. Bruce’s hereditary right to the throne of Scotland and his country’s claim for a separate existence had now been justified by success in battle, along with the support given him by the majority of Scotland’s people. The English were by no means ready to acknowledge officially Bruce’s right to the throne of Scotland, but whatever subsequent machinations were pursued by the English king and the English church against the northern kingdom’s legal and religious position, Bannockburn enabled Scotland to regain its confidence as an independent country which it was to express in a most memorable way in 1320.

If only the Scots had succeeded in capturing Edward II then peace and England’s full recognition of Scotland as a sovereign power under Robert Bruce must have followed quickly, but this was not to be. While the battle was undoubtedly a great triumph its results were not as beneficial as Scotland could reasonably have hoped. Like Wallace’s triumph at Stirling Bridge and Edward I’s victory against him a year later, Bannockburn did not succeed in bringing about an immediate end to such a bitter war, although, as the next chapter reveals, it gave Scotland a powerful platform upon which to pursue her campaign for peace and so deploy her forces that England would eventually be forced to recognise her independence. Conversely, in the years following, the battle’s military lessons would be taken more to heart by the defeated than by subsequent generations of Scottish soldiers.

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