Post-classical history

CHAPTER FIVE

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THE SCOTTISH COMMANDERS

‘It greatly pleased his [Bruce’s] heart, and he was persuaded that men of such mind, if they set their strength to it, must be indeed right hard to vanquish.’

John Barbour, The Bruce

MUCH HAS ALREADY BEEN said about the achievements, both militarily and politically, of Robert Bruce before the expected battle, actions which had enabled him and his group of followers, originally hemmed in by enemies on all sides, to become the masters of Scotland with the exception of isolated English strongholds. His military successes owed much to his natural vigour but also to his growing mastery of tactical and strategic factors which reinforced his undoubted skill at arms. In their turn his chosen commanders had Bruce as both model and tutor; two of them, his brother Edward and James Douglas, had shared the dangers and reverses of his early days and when the tide began to turn they were given major responsibilities. In 1307–8 for instance, Douglas, who as yet had few men and still needed the protection offered by the wide forests of Ettrick, Selkirk and Jedburgh was given the massive task of winning back the border regions. No past achievements by Bruce or his leaders, however, could compare with the task of having to meet a massive English army under its king.

From the perilous days following his coronation the mantle of the leader sat well on Bruce’s shoulders and his determination and cool nerve (notably illustrated during 1306 when, surrounded by large numbers of enemy, he openly read a lighthearted French romance while waiting for his few supporters to rejoin him) were coupled with undoubted acumen and graciousness.

Bruce’s antecedents were of obvious importance in his development as a leader, although the adversity of his early days as a fugitive king probably never allowed him to forget the common fate he shared with those who kept faith with him. Both Bruce’s parents were accustomed to exercise power and responsibility. As Countess of Carrick, Bruce’s mother was directly descended from Fergus, Lord of Galloway, the proud prince who had ruled a virtually independent Celtic kingdom in southwest Scotland and it is possible that in the Gaelic fashion during his early boyhood Robert Bruce had the egalitarian experience of being fostered in another household. On his mother’s union with the Bruces she brought the vast estates of Carrick, close by their principal Scottish possessions at Annandale, which themselves totalled some 200,000 acres. The Bruces, on the other hand, were of Anglo-Norman stock who came over to England with William the Conqueror and for their role in overcoming the native resistance they were granted much land in the north of England as well as in Scotland.

So powerful, in fact, were the Bruces in Scotland that by 1238 when the ageing Scottish king, Alexander II, had no heir, his Great Council decreed that unless he had further issue, Robert Bruce, Lord of Annandale (Robert Bruce’s grandfather, known later as the Competitor) a self confident, vibrant man who was descended from Henry of Northumberland, son and heir of the Scottish king, David I, should be the true and legitimate heir to the kingdom.1 In fact, Alexander II remarried and the son born to him relatively late in life became King Alexander III. Yet on Alexander III’s death, despite the presence of his royal grand-daughter, the ‘Maid of Norway’, Robert Bruce claimed he was, in fact, the proper heir, not only by right of succession but by virtue of the nomination made during the reign of Alexander II.

Whatever criteria came to be used by Edward I in 1292 in deciding the succession to the vacant Scottish throne and however much he took care to demonstrate that John Balliol was the strongest claimant to it (which by the law of primogeniture he undoubtedly was) the Competitor still argued that as the son of a younger child of King David he should take precedence over Balliol’s right through the daughter of an older child. The Bruces always regarded Edward I’s decision unjust and themselves as the rightful heirs. Apart from his powerful legal claims, Robert Bruce the Competitor could justly feel he had personal qualities that marked him as a worthy bearer of the Crown. The Lanercost Chronicle described him as a gifted speaker, of handsome appearance, remarkable for his influence and, of equal importance, ‘most devoted to God and the Clergy’.2 He was amazingly hospitable and, like his grandson, renowned for abundant energy. At the age of sixty, after resigning all his offices, he took his son on an extended crusade to the Holy Land at a time when such campaigning was extremely hazardous and carried high risks from disease. On his return in 1272, discovering Edward I had ascended the English throne, he decided to settle on his Scottish lands and in the following year strengthened his Scottish connections by marrying again, taking as his wife a widow, Christiana of Ireby, from an adjoining estate.

In 1286 on the death of Alexander III the seventy-six-year-old Competitor still had the energy and belief to emerge from retirement and press his claims for the throne as he would do even later on the Maid of Norway’s death when, at eighty years of age, he moved with a strong body of armed men to Perth, where the Scottish council was in session, to ‘safeguard’ his royal title. Once his claims had been rebuffed by the decision of King Edward’s adjudicators, Bruce returned to his estates but roundly refused to pay homage to Balliol.

Robert Bruce, the future Robert I of Scotland, was born in 1274 (the same year as William Wallace) at Turnberry Castle in Carrick, about sixty miles from his grandfather’s seat at Lochmaben. As a boy he saw a considerable amount of the indomitable Competitor and would have been left in no doubt about his grandfather’s opinions regarding the rightful position of the Bruces with respect to the Scottish crown. McNair Scott is sure, for instance, that as a sixteen-year-old squire he accompanied the force raised by the Competitor and his father which went to Perth to further the Bruces’ case there.3 In his turn the old man would be sure to have recognised the future promise of his grandson, compared with his calculating, if spineless son.

In November 1292 the Competitor formally invested the Bruce claims to the Scottish throne upon his son (Bruce’s father) Lord of Annandale and Earl of Carrick, and his heirs after him. In his turn, two days later, Bruce’s father resigned the earldom of Carrick to the future Robert I. Bruce’s father also took considerable pains to avoid doing homage to John Balliol as king of Scotland, since it would have jeopardised the family’s claim to the throne, and he went on a protracted visit to Norway with his daughter Isabel to give her in marriage to King Eric of Norway.4 This left young Robert Bruce as the virtual head of the large family. When Bruce’s father returned to England on the Competitor’s death in 1295 he still refused to pay homage to John Balliol and Edward I appointed him governor of Carlisle Castle, probably to make certain of his loyalty.

Edward’s decision seemed soundly based for during 1297, the year following the Scottish defeat at Dunbar and the submission of John Balliol to the English king, the Earl of Annandale felt compelled to remind Edward I of the Bruce claims to the Scottish throne. This was met with Edward’s scornful and negative reply, ‘Have we nothing else to do but win kingdoms for you?’ When the future Robert I came out against Edward I at Irvine during 1297 the English king relieved his father of his governor’s post at Carlisle following which he put himself out of contention, retiring permanently to his English estates, and remaining there until he died in 1304.

From 1297 the Bruces’ hopes of gaining the kingship would rely on the Competitor’s grandson. The mainsprings of Robert Bruce’s actions thereafter were his determination to right the injustice done to his family together with his own fierce ambition for the throne of Scotland. Unlike his father and for all his loyalty to a family with strong connections in both England and Scotland, Robert Bruce identified himself strongly with Scotland. This is less surprising than some observers might believe when one realises that he was in fact the first born of a union between a mother whose Celtic ancestry stretched back to antiquity and a father who was one of Scotland’s premier earls whose family while originally Norman (from Norse descent) had direct connections with Scotland, including its Royal House, for over six generations. Robert Bruce’s connection with Scotland had been strengthened by his marriage to Isabel, daughter of the Earl of Mar, who was a great friend of the old Competitor. Although a daughter, Marjorie, resulted from the union, Isabel died tragically early, probably in 1297.

As we have seen already, from 1297 until 1301 Robert Bruce supported his country’s national cause against successive invasions by Edward I, but it was Comyn attempts to sideline him from the senior decision-making processes in his own country, as well as the possible return of John Balliol to Scotland, that led him to join an English king who at least professed to acknowledge his claim to the Scottish throne. The decision was also likely to have been influenced by his desire for a male heir and with it his interest in marrying for a second time to Elizabeth, daughter of the powerful Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster, a strong supporter of Edward I. Whatever the outcome of Edward’s attempts to subjugate Scotland the match promised to bring benefits to the twenty-eight-year-old Bruce. It would serve to revive the Carrick alliance with the Earl of Ulster and, ‘as Bruce’s future wife was James Stewart’s niece by marriage, it would confirm the long-standing Bruce/Stewart friendship too’.5 The prominence of the Stewart family within Scotland at this time was seen by the fact that James Stewart had been appointed as one of the joint guardians following the death of King Alexander III.

Bruce’s behaviour during his five years at the English court before being forced to flee to Scotland can also be seen both in terms of attempting to balance his regard for Scotland while preserving his own regal prospects. No doubt his Comyn rivals in Scotland, struggling against Edward I’s invasions, would have observed that compared with their continuing armed struggle his ambition for the throne seemed equal or greater than any feelings of patriotism. On the other hand anyone who believed in the justice of his royal claims as strongly as Robert Bruce was not likely to give his support – even conditionally – to an English king who had annexed Scotland and had dealt unfairly with the Competitor and his own father without strong reasons. The astute English king would know this well enough and he favoured both Bruce and other members of his family – Edward took Edward Bruce into the household of the Prince of Wales while another brother, Alexander, was made Dean of Glasgow. Despite their differences it is also quite possible that some degree of genuine respect existed between Bruce and Edward I. Bruce would be likely to acknowledge the ability and determination along with the harsh cruelty of a great medieval king while Edward was sure to see in Bruce not only courage and great skill at arms but a longsightedness quite absent in his own son. No recognition of the other’s qualities, however, stopped either Bruce or Edward I from pursuing his chosen aims, in Edward’s case the subjection of Scotland, with Bruce his country’s throne. As Edward’s siege engines pummelled the garrison of Stirling Castle, Bruce made a secret compact with Bishop Lamberton over a future bid for the throne. Two years later while still in Edward’s peace he concluded a further contract with John Comyn (the Red), his most powerful rival in Scotland, with the same purpose.

In an age when men still felt free to change their allegiance if they considered their oaths of fealty had been given under duress or when promises made for such oaths had not been kept – like Edward’s promise to Bruce over the Scottish throne – Bruce’s commanders could better appreciate his marked opportunism during 1297–1306 than some later commentators.6 What none of them could fail to appreciate was his long-felt determination to be king and once king his commitment to Scotland. Under the most adverse conditions this one-time duplicitous courtier went on to display qualities of resolution and perseverance that brought them notable military successes. While Randolph might not, at first, understand Bruce’s tactics of guerrilla warfare he would soon do so. Moreover once men gave their allegiance to such a spirited and attractive leader they quickly tended to give him their devotion as well.

To a greater degree than Edward I with his habitually superior forces and in a way unknown to Edward II with his limited experience on campaigns, Bruce had shared the hazards of his commanders, usually against adverse odds. By the nature of society at the time they would normally be selected from a relatively small group of privileged men but, because, with the exception of Edward Bruce, all the king’s brothers, along with his other senior leaders, had been executed, he needed to spread his net further than normal to look for senior military commanders. As a result Bruce discovered the outstanding James Douglas, a minor noble and unlikely candidate, as well as the justiciar and administrator Sir Robert Keith, who so ably took the field at Bannockburn when Bruce needed his regular cavalry commanders to command the schiltrons.

Traditionally the most successful commanders have taken pains to appoint subordinates whom they can be sure are willing to carry out their directives whether in a single battle or throughout a protracted campaign. When, for instance, during the early nineteenth century, the Duke of Wellington was fighting the French in the Iberian peninsula he chose as subordinate commanders men such as Roland Hill and Thomas Picton, steady soldiers who gave him the unquestioning concurrence his method of leadership required. Under his direction they proved immensely difficult soldiers to beat. At Bannockburn under Bruce, his commanders needed to exercise equal steadiness against superior English numbers. Sometimes commanders have had to value the unquestioned loyalty of their subordinates more than their ability, as for instance Hannibal, the outstanding Carthaginian commander of ancient times, who not only had to face the Romans but also many enemies from within his own homeland. As a result he used his two brothers, Hasdrubal and Hamilcar, as supporting army commanders but, although he undoubtedly had their loyalty, they failed to match either his military skills or those of his Roman enemies. At Bannockburn Bruce was more fortunate because his commanders not only had the opportunity to show their loyalty but their skills had been developed in earlier engagements. During the battle his luck held because all his important leaders survived and were able fully to justify his faith in them.

Thomas Randolph, 1st Earl of Moray (d 1332)

The first schiltron at Bannockburn was given to Thomas Randolph, first Earl of Moray, Bruce’s nephew. Randolph was accustomed since childhood to being involved in important affairs of state, and as a minor he accompanied his father to Norham during December 1292, where he witnessed John Balliol swearing fealty to Edward I for the crown of Scotland. However, despite his father’s support for John Balliol, after his marriage into the Bruce family, Randolph was expected to assist Robert Bruce. After Bruce’s murder of the Red Comyn and his rout at Methven in June 1306, Randolph was taken prisoner along with other close family members. While those like Neil Bruce and Simon Fraser were drawn, hanged and beheaded, Randolph was the only major figure to be spared execution, very probably as a result of his family’s friendship with Aymer de Valence, the English commander.

Despite this Randolph could not expect to escape Edward I’s wrath completely and on 24 July the English king ordered him to be kept under close guard in the castle of Inverkip until he should be arraigned at either Carlisle or Perth.7 It was probably to save his life that Randolph swore fealty to the English king and agreed to take up arms against Bruce, yet once he had given his pledge he served Edward I faithfully. His knowledge of Bruce’s bases and likely movements proved invaluable to the English. Valence, using Randolph as a guide, together with help from one of Bruce’s pet blood hounds, narrowly failed to capture the Scottish king and Randolph got close enough to seize his banner.

In the following year the tables were turned when Bruce’s own commander, James Douglas, surprised and captured Randolph at the waters of Lyne near Peebles. Randolph remained defiant when brought before Bruce, even reproaching the king for cowardice because of his reluctance to meet the English in open warfare. According to Barbour, Bruce replied with heavy irony, ‘Mayhap it shall come ere very long to such endeavour. But since thou speakest so royally, there is much reason to reprove thy proud words, till thou knowest what is right and bowest to it as thou oughtest’.8 In fact, Bruce appreciated such honesty and boldness, even against himself. He ordered Randolph ‘to be kept in firm keeping’, but Randolph was soon his loyal follower and in the years to come, next to Douglas, he became his most famous general. Bruce’s own trust was demonstrated in 1312 when he made him earl over the warlike men of Moray, who had already served the cause of Scottish independence so well, and partly as compensation to Randolph for his estates in England that were forfeited and subsequently transferred to Hugh Despenser.9

The approving Barbour described Randolph as being ‘of medium height’ with a ‘broad visage, pleasant and fair, courteous at all points’ and a man ‘full of all nobleness and made of all virtues’ who ‘esteemed honour and liberality and ever upheld righteousness’.10 Barbour’s eulogy aside, Randolph went on to prove himself a brave and popular commander. Most importantly he showed himself capable of learning the more subtle arts of warfare from the sharper minds of the king and James Douglas. It was Douglas’ seizure of Roxburgh Castle that led Randolph to explore unorthodox ways of capturing Edinburgh Castle, which seemed so secure on its daunting volcanic crag. His brilliant success there on 14 March 1314 made it certain he would be given command of a main Scottish division at Bannockburn.

Edward Bruce (d 1318)

Bruce’s second schiltron commander was an obvious choice. Edward Bruce, the king’s brother and overall commander in the king’s absence, was just a year younger than Robert and the only one of Bruce’s four brothers to escape Edward I’s executioners. He was undoubtedly an ambitious and arrogant man – qualities that may have been fed to some degree by the removal of his three brothers – although as the next in line to Robert he would, in any case, have enjoyed superior rights of succession over them. His closeness to the crown was shown by a tailzie or entail published by Bruce’s Ayr parliament of 1315, stating ‘with the consent of Marjorie Bruce, the king’s daughter, that if the king died without a male heir the crown should go to Edward: as a man of great prowess in warlike actions for the defence of the rights and liberties of the Scottish realm’.11 Barbour hinted at a strong rivalry between Edward and the king when he wrote that Edward ‘thought Scotland too small for his brother and himself’.12 If Edward had regal ambitions himself, he was also autocratic and rash by nature, and after Bannockburn the man who so coveted a crown was given his brother’s permission and support to invade Ireland and take to himself the title King of Ireland. It was always an optimistic venture and eminent Scottish historian Geoffrey Barrow was in no doubt ‘the notion that he could lead a successful national revolt in Ireland and rule there as king on the same footing as his brother ruled in Scotland was preposterous and foredoomed to extinction’.13 However, it can also be argued he was taking no greater risks than those of his elder brother in 1306–7, but support from the Irish proved variable and at Dundalk in 1318 he was defeated and killed.

The manner of his death was entirely in character. At the head of a thousand Scots, together with a number of Irish, Edward set out to attack Dundalk. Their route was barred by Richard Clare, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, with a force of knights many times greater than that of the Scots. Edward Bruce had, according to custom, divided his forces into a vanguard, main body and rearguard, but his initial briefing had been sketchy and they failed to keep contact with each other. The first two bodies of men were separately destroyed and when Edward’s three veteran commanders, Sir John Soules, Sir Philip Moubray and Sir John Stewart, advised him to turn back as reinforcements were not far away he refused to listen, flew into a rage and swore ‘that no man, while he lived should ever say that an enemy had made him give way’.14 The Irish among his forces refused to fight such a superior force but his small body of Scottish knights stayed and were killed taking part in the headstrong attack.

Such irresponsibility made Edward Bruce totally unsuitable for the highest level of command, but under Robert Bruce’s close direction he played an important role prior to and during the battle of Bannockburn. He was never happier than when in sight of the enemy. Ronald McNair Scott was sure that, like the hero of the Chanson de Geste, Edward Bruce would have declared, ‘If I had one foot in Paradise I would withdraw it to go and fight’.15 There was no shortage of hard fighting during Robert Bruce’s early days and acting as his brother’s mailed fist Edward gained more responsibility as the king’s successes accumulated. After Robert Bruce had defeated the Earl of Buchan at Inverurie on 23 May 1308 he used Edward, the heedless and hard thrusting cavalry commander, to ravage the Buchan province from end to end. Bruce then appointed him to range over the rugged province of Galloway, ‘killing rebellious nobles and making all subject to the king’. Well aware of his brother’s love of titles, meaningful or not, Bruce followed this by naming him Lord of Galloway.

Edward Bruce also took part with James Douglas in lightning and destructive raids into northern England, before going on to attack the English-held castles which, with his troop of engineers, he dismantled. It was, of course, Edward’s dislike of sieges that led him to be trapped by Sir Philip Moubray, Stirling Castle’s wily commander, into the agreement to fight that brought strong pressure on Robert Bruce to depart from the careful strategy he had so far successfully pursued. And it was typical of Edward Bruce that he made no attempt to consult the king beforehand.

The same lack of judgement was seen in his personal life: he seduced the Earl of Atholl’s sister Isabel, made her pregnant and then deserted her in favour of the Earl of Ross’ daughter. As with his decision at Stirling, this was to have wider repercussions for, partly as a result, during the first night of the battle at Bannockburn, the Earl of Atholl, who was apparently coming to join Bruce, surprised Sir William Airth and killed him along with many others who were guarding the Scottish base camp. While not without emotion Edward was not a commander particularly sensitive to his men’s needs: he was said to have wept twice in his life, once when at Bannockburn he heard about the death of his friend and paramour’s brother, Sir Walter Ross, and two years later at Carrickfergus in Ireland when Neil Fleming and a group of knights sold their lives to give him the necessary time to recover from a surprise attack.

In many ways Edward Bruce was a loose cannon. When left to his own devices he could be almost as dangerous to his own side as the enemy, but for all that he was a doughty soldier, practised and hardened in war who, under Robert Bruce’s guidance, was a fearsome and irrepressible opponent.

James Douglas (the ‘Black’ or ‘Good’ Douglas d 1330)

Bruce’s third division of spearmen in the great battle, though nominally under the command of Walter Stewart, High Steward of Scotland, was led by Stewart’s cousin James Douglas, Bruce’s finest soldier. Tradition precluded the subordination of the Stewart to a commander of lesser social rank and for Bruce’s sake Douglas accepted the title of joint commander for a force that was, in fact, largely peopled by his own followers and under his control. John Barbour’s Bruce made Douglas its co-hero and he had, in fact, been with Bruce since his crowning, distinguishing himself in countless actions before Bannockburn. While a veteran in terms of combats Douglas was only twenty-seven years of age at the time of the battle and his still unscarred face bore testimony to his amazing skill at arms.

Douglas came from a military family. William, his father, also fought against the English and in 1296 commanded Berwick Castle during its siege by Edward I. After Edward put Berwick to the sword William Douglas surrendered the castle and was sent into captivity from which he either escaped or was released since he joined William Wallace at the commencement of Wallace’s rebellion. He left Wallace to join Bruce and the Stewart, and was among other Scottish leaders who surrendered to the English at Irvine. Most were allowed to go free providing they produced hostages to guarantee their future good behaviour but William Douglas refused to surrender his son, James, who would certainly have been acceptable. He was therefore sent in chains to Berwick Castle where his captors dubbed him ‘savage and abusive’. Such an obstinate prisoner was bound to have been dealt with severely and in 1299 after his transfer to the dreaded Tower of London, William Douglas died, still a declared enemy of the English. John Barbour for one was sure he had been murdered there.16

James Douglas was sent away to complete his education in Paris, not for the quality of the instruction but to remove him from English eyes. Alone in a foreign city, among people of all classes, he enjoyed no favours and it was while in Paris that Douglas learned of his father’s death and the forfeiture of the Douglas estates which Edward I gave to his own commander, Sir Robert Clifford. From then on James’ whole purpose in life was to fight the English and regain all that was rightfully his. Fortunately for Douglas he met Bishop Lamberton in Paris, who took the destitute young man into his household. By the time Douglas returned to Scotland, Lamberton (together with the vast majority of the Scottish nobility) had made his peace with the English king. In 1305 when Edward I was mounting his showpiece siege against Stirling Castle – the last stronghold still in Scottish hands – Lamberton brought his ward before Edward hoping the clemency he had shown to other rebels would be extended to a young man whose only offence was being his father’s son. But the eighteen-year-old’s petition for a return of his lands was brusquely refused and Douglas was quickly removed from Edward’s sight.

In March of the following year Douglas was with Bishop Lamberton at Berwick when they received the momentous news that Robert Bruce had proclaimed himself King of Scots. Although Bruce, obeying Edward’s orders, had in 1297 ravished Douglasdale and earlier abducted Douglas’ mother and her other children, the situation had much changed. Bruce was now Edward’s declared enemy and at odds with the Comyns too. Under the circumstances Douglas had reason to hope an embattled Bruce would welcome his pledge of support. The prudent Lamberton gave Douglas permission to seek Bruce out (and also some money to help him on his way) providing he did not go as the bishop’s official representative. John Barbour has Douglas leaving Berwick on the bishop’s own palfrey, Ferrand, to meet with Bruce as he made his way to his crowning at Scone:17

And when Douglas saw him coming he rode forward in haste and greeted him and made obeisance very courteously and told him all his conditions and who he was and how Clifford held his inheritance. Also that he came to do homage to him as his rightful king and was ready in everything to share his fortune. And when Bruce had heard his desire he received him with much pleasure and gave him men and arms. He felt assured he should be worthy, for his fathers all were doughty men. Thus they made their acquaintance that never afterwards by any chance of any kind was broken while they lived.18

The young slim figure with his pale complexion and black hair who sought Bruce out was soon to be known for a personality that captured men’s loyalty and for a pronounced and unorthodox military ability. In normal circumstances he was said to be gentle and courteous, speaking quietly with a slight lisp, but in battle he became a different man – bold, swift in thought and act, ‘always bent on plots’ to deceive his enemy. For the time being he was one of Robert Bruce’s least impressive followers, bringing neither money nor followers, not even the basic military equipage of a gentleman.

Whatever his initial disadvantages James Douglas quickly distinguished himself during Bruce’s disastrous campaigns of 1306. Physical hardships did not deter him and he soon established a close bond with the king. After Bruce’s rout at Methven and with enemies all around them, the king and his companions arrived at the west shore of Loch Lomond. To avoid a long detour they were desperate to cross the loch and, after tirelessly scouring its banks, James Douglas discovered a little sunken boat in which they laboriously crossed two at a time, the first two being Bruce and Douglas. Bruce then split his forces and, as a mark of the confidence he already felt, entrusted the twenty-year-old Douglas with the second group.

In the following year Bruce’s forces were reduced to a few score men seeking refuge in the hills near Turnberry; their capture or death seemed only a matter of time for most of their supporters were cowed by the terror campaign waged by the English king. Even at this time Douglas continued to think aggressively and he asked Bruce for permission to try to redeem his property at Douglasdale, only some fifty miles away. With just two companions he reached his estates and identified himself to Thomas Dickson, one of his most loyal tenants, who succeeded in gathering a few extra supporters. With this added strength Douglas decided to ambush the garrison of Douglas Castle as they attended church on Palm Sunday three days later. Although the ambush was revealed prematurely, it eventually succeeded and Douglas either killed or took prisoner all the soldiers in church. With characteristic nerve he led his followers back to the castle where they sat down to the dinner prepared for the garrison on its expected return. After ransacking the castle’s stores and poisoning its water supply they piled any equipment surplus to their requirements in the cellar, brought in the prisoners and beheaded them before setting fire to the castle.

The grim affair became known as ‘the Douglas larder’ but Douglas’ act, like William Wallace’s assassinations of English officials ten years before, posted a warning of Scottish intent and raised the spirits of Bruce’s beleaguered party. At first sight his killing of the prisoners appears barbaric, but it should be remembered the English king had already instituted the policy of executing any of Bruce’s supporters without trial, for the most part hanging, drawing and quartering them, and Douglas could not risk the prisoners giving information liable to jeopardise the families of those retainers who had recently joined him. In Douglas’ case, as in Wallace’s, it was total war against an enemy who not only made him destitute but was committed to destroying his master Bruce and all his supporters.

The same intensity accounted for Douglas’ treatment of English archers. Every one caught by him or his men suffered the loss of either his right hand or right eye. No longer able to take more Scottish lives they were then released. The side-effect of such action was to terrorise any bowmen acting against him and there were instances of them being filled with wine before agreeing to fight him.19

Over the months following ‘the Douglas larder’ he played a leading role in harassing Bruce’s opponents, always placing the greatest emphasis on reconnaissance and good intelligence. After Edward I’s death, when Bruce was able to display more aggression, Douglas’ speed and skill at deception made him the ideal commander for tactics that depended on swiftness and surprise.

By 1310 Bruce had succeeded in bringing the greater part of Scotland under his control and had turned to harrying northern England, at the same time attempting to capture the Scottish castles that were still in English hands, and for both activities James Douglas was ideally suited. He showed himself a master at lightning raids where much spoil and many prisoners were taken before the defenders had time to retaliate, while his audacity and resourcefulness were invaluable when it came to capturing castles. He devised a collapsible scaling ladder with rope sides and wooden steps that was subsequently used by other commanders. Its topmost rung was of iron equipped with a socket into which a spear point could be placed to raise the ladder up and hook it over a castle wall.

On 27 February 1314 (Shrove Tuesday) Douglas’ ingenuity came into full play when he captured Roxburgh Castle. At nightfall Douglas and his men at arms wore black surcoats over their armour, approaching the castle like a herd of the small black cattle common at the time. Some of them carried collapsible ladders suspended beneath their bodies and when all arrived below the castle walls and the ladders were raised on the tips of their spears, they climbed rapidly over the ramparts and overcame the garrison. As the cattle-like raiders approached they had been observed by two sentries who remarked to each other that their farmer-owner must have been feasting to let them escape and become possible prey for the marauding Black Douglas.

This was the calibre of the man who commanded Bruce’s third infantry division at Bannockburn, but his responsibilities during the battle by no means ended there. He played a premier role in the pursuit and had he been granted more cavalry for this purpose the outcome would have been far worse for the English and the war might even have been ended.

Robert Keith, Marischal of Scotland (d 1346)

Apart from his long-time and much-valued ally Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles, who fought directly under Bruce’s command with the fourth and reserve schiltron, Bruce’s other eminent commander at Bannockburn was Sir Robert Keith, leader of his light cavalry. Older than Bruce’s infantry commanders, Keith had held posts of high responsibility for both the Scots and the English until he became convinced of Bruce’s importance to Scotland’s future independence. As early as 1294 Keith acted as Great Marischal of Scotland under John Balliol. In 1300 he was captured by the English and imprisoned in Carlisle Castle. Reported to Edward I as ‘one of his worst enemies’ and ‘of bad repute’, Keith was then removed further into England. On his release he became active on behalf of the Scots until their general submission to the English king in 1304. Following this Keith acted as one of two English justices whose jurisdiction stretched between the Forth and the Mounth, for which he was variously rewarded for his loyal and efficient service.20 As an abiding patriot he might well have reasoned that in such a capacity he could at least ensure that impartiality was given to his countrymen as well as the English.

In 1308 Keith became the first Lothian lord to join Bruce, and in the following year he united with other Scottish nobles in sending a letter to France requesting that country’s recognition and support for Scottish independence. Bruce reinstated him in his post as Marischal of Scotland, an office held by the Keith family for more than a century, and also made him Justiciar of Scotland from the Forth to Orkney.21 At the same time the king brought Keith closer to him by granting him extensive land in the northeast of Scotland far away from the family’s former main interests in Lothian. In Keith, Bruce felt he had yet another commander in whom he could place his full trust. The decision to make Keith commander of the cavalry at Bannockburn was shrewd because he was not merely an able man but one of high rank, an important factor as the cavalry was certain to contain a greater proportion of nobles than the divisions of spearmen. Such men expected a commander of equal status and, although Keith was not nearly as experienced in cavalry tactics as either Edward Bruce or James Douglas, Bruce knew that, unlike William Wallace’s horsemen at Falkirk, Keith’s cavalry at Bannockburn could be relied upon to carry out his orders, however demanding. THE CONTENDERSspearmen. Such men expected a commander of equal status and, although Keith was not nearly as experienced in cavalry tactics as either Edward Bruce or James Douglas, Bruce knew that, unlike William Wallace’s horsemen at Falkirk, Keith’s cavalry at Bannockburn could be relied upon to carry out his orders, however demanding.

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