‘Right brave were they, and believed if they came to battle no strength could withstand them.’
John Barbour, The Bruce
IN THE SAME WAY as the character of Robert Bruce would set the tone and unite the purpose of the Scottish forces, the character of the English king, Edward II, formerly Edward Caernarvon, first Prince of Wales, was of equal importance to the English army. In their ruler the Scots were well-served; the English were not. In fact his biographer, Michael Prestwich, concluded that Edward II ‘was one of the most unsuccessful kings ever to rule England’.1 However, by 1314 the reign was only a third of the way through and, despite the grievous divisions that had occurred between Edward II and his nobles, the king’s much-hated favourite, Piers Gaveston, was dead and an uneasy peace existed between them. A major battle with Scotland presented a classic occasion for the leading English nobles to close ranks round their king. However, divisions were so deep that only three of the English earls agreed to serve personally under him, although the others sent the retinues required by their feudal obligations and many of the younger nobility gave him their personal support. This support was not always offered for purely patriotic reasons and certainly not out of love for this particular king but because success on the battlefield was the goal of any feudal knight: for the ambitious it offered unique opportunities to be granted land, the basis of all wealth at this time, and for advancement into the more senior ranks of the peerage.
Edward Caernarvon was ten years younger than Robert Bruce, the fourth son of Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile. By the time he was four months old the last of his older brothers had died leaving him heir apparent to one of England’s most formidable kings. One penalty of Edward I’s success was that for much of the prince’s boyhood his father was away fighting and up to her death when he was just seven parental guidance came largely from his mother. As a result, the robust young prince spent much time in the hands of his general tutor, Sir Guy Ferre, who apparently kept his royal charge on a very loose rein. The prince did not distinguish himself educationally although he undoubtedly developed a wide range of interests, including a love for ‘gambling on dice’ that was shared by many of his subjects. In an age when everyone could ride he was soon considered an excellent horseman, albeit favouring the more self-indulgent activities of hunting and horse racing rather than the jousts that trained men for war and allowed a future king the chance to assess their potential worth on the battlefield. In addition the prince enjoyed boating and swimming and, more controversially, rustic crafts such as thatching and ditching, wrought iron work, even shoeing horses.2 He was musical and, when king, Genoese instrumentalists were commissioned to entertain him, while he himself played the crwth or Celtic violin.
An orthodox rather than fervent believer, he was far less inclined to pay public tribute to his God than either his father or, for that matter, his future opponent at Bannockburn. In fact, the English chronicler from Lanercost strongly criticised him for not commending himself to the saints when campaigning. On Edward’s journey to Bannockburn the same chronicler went on to say he marched with great pomp and elaborate state purloining goods from the monasteries as he went; it was also reported that he did and said things to the prejudice and injury of the saints.3 The pleasure-loving Edward could also be amazingly generous: he once gave £50 to a surgeon who cured one of his stable boys who was bitten by a stallion from the royal stable and, more controversially, in March 1312, the same amount to Geoffrey de Sellinges, one of Piers Gaveston’s retainers, when he learned that Gaveston had decided to remain in England.4 He was less celebrated for his emotional stability, for losing his temper over relatively minor issues and, more importantly, being hesitant or mistaken over major ones. Denholm Young’s withering introduction to Vita Edwardi Secundi attributed many of the king’s shortcomings to a lack of good preparation for his role, calling him an aimless man without poise or sense of values.
In spite of any deficiencies in Edward II’s training for kingship whether serious or not, it would be wrong to say that Edward I lacked paternal regard for he took considerable pains to help his son gain command experience in Scotland, but by 1300 the old king was struggling with many serious problems, and after the loss of his first wife he became noticeably more impatient and harsh. In that year the prince accompanied his father on a major campaign against Scotland where he undoubtedly cut a fine figure and about whom it was said:
He was of a well-proportioned handsome person,
Of a courteous disposition, and well bred
And desirous of finding an occasion
To make proof of his strength.5
In the event the expedition, like so many others against that inhospitable and determined country, proved disappointing. Confronted by such a strong English army the Scots were understandably unwilling to risk a major engagement and the prince’s active role was limited to a single skirmish. Nonetheless his father was not displeased with his demeanour, appointing him Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester.
In 1301 he joined his father on another invasion of Scotland and this time the king entrusted him with command of a separate force due to enter the country from the southwest, with the intention that ‘the chief honour of taming the pride of the Scots should fall to his son’.6 Unfortunately, the Scots proved too strong and far too elusive for the Prince of Wales to gain the glory for which his father had hoped. He reached no further than Whithorn and Loch Ryan along the coast of Galloway before he was compelled to rejoin his father who had moved into quarters at Linlithgow. Two years later Edward I assembled another major army and completed his occupation of Scotland (except for Stirling Castle) but since he met with only nominal resistance his son gained little further experience in battlefield command.
Apart from such difficulties, Edward I’s tutelage of his son as future king and military commander was punctuated by violent disputes between them. One incident occurred in 1305 when the nominal cause was the prince’s poaching deer from the estate of Walter Langton, the king’s favourite minister. In reality it resulted from the prince’s continuing obsession with Piers Gaveston, the handsome and witty son of one of Edward I’s household knights. Gaveston was required to leave the country and the prince was humiliated by being banned from court and required to follow its progress at a distance of some ten leagues.
In 1306, following Bruce’s revolt, Edward I’s health began to fail and he realised that his son would soon have to lead the English forces against Scotland. In fact, a writ dated 25 April 1306 described the projected movement north in that year as an ‘expedition by Edward, Prince of Wales, to be joined afterwards by the King’.7 The king mended relations between them and, to seal the prince’s more influential role, held a magnificent ceremony to knight him before he set off for Scotland, a ceremony that brought together the largest grouping of knights ever seen at Westminster. Unfortunately the solemnity of the occasion was marred when the preceding night of fasting and prayer turned into one of drunkenness and turmoil with the prince taking a leading part. Edward knighted the prince in the palace chapel, assisted by the earls of Lincoln and Hereford who fastened on his spurs, and the prince himself then knighted a further 267 young men, including Piers Gaveston. A banquet followed at which all present pledged themselves to defeat the Scots and subsequently go on crusade; the prince, for instance, swore he would never sleep twice in the one place until he had reached Scotland and revenged Robert Bruce’s murder of John Comyn. However, in the resultant campaign, it was Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, who gained the initial battlefield successes against Bruce, while the Prince of Wales followed up behind. At this time he became known more for his harsh treatment of the ordinary people in southwest Scotland than for his prowess in battle, a tactic however that succeeded in driving underground any support remaining there for Robert Bruce.8 Although the prince undoubtedly shared his father’s determination to subdue Scotland, it soon became apparent that, compared with Edward I’s fierce dedication, his own pleasures would take an equally high priority.
During the winter of 1306–7 when Edward I was staying with his son at Lanercost Priory near Carlisle in preparation for a renewed campaign against Scotland, fresh trouble flared up between them. The cause was again Piers Gaveston who, with twenty-two other young knights, had angered Edward by deserting the war in Scotland (which with Bruce’s second defeat at the hands of John MacDougall seemed virtually over) and moving across to the continent to attend a tournament there. All their lands were seized but at the intervention of his young queen, Marguerite, Edward I pardoned them with the exception of Piers Gaveston. Despite his father’s strong displeasure at their relationship and Gaveston’s recent behaviour, the prince rashly attempted to use the king’s treasurer, Walter Langton, to help gain his father’s permission to bestow one of the prince’s own titles, Count of Ponthieu, on his beloved. His father’s response left the prince in no doubt about the king’s feelings or about his estimate of his son’s achievements so far: ‘You baseborn whore-son! Do you want to give lands away now, you who never gained any? As the Lord lives, if it were not for fear of breaking up the Kingdom you should never enjoy your inheritance!’ In his rage Edward seized the prince by the hair and tore out as much as he could before throwing him out of his presence. The Prince of Wales delayed carrying out the king’s order to banish Piers Gaveston for as long as he dared before accompanying his favourite to Dover, where he showered him with gifts of tapestries and rich tunics.9He had, in fact, not yet rejoined his father for the projected campaign northwards when Edward I died at Burgh-upon-Sands near the border.
With Edward I’s death the new king moved back into England and did not return to Scotland for three years, a decision that gave Bruce the priceless opportunity to extend his power. Characteristically, Edward II’s first act was a selfish one that antagonised his nobles; he brought Gaveston back and created him Earl of Cornwall, a title customarily given to a member of the royal family. In spite of such ill-judgement Edward II’s reign appeared to start promisingly with his marriage in France to Isabella, daughter of the French king, although on his return to court, the king’s kisses and repeated embraces for his favourite, whom he had appointed Keeper of the Realm while he was in France, allied to his obvious preference for Gaveston’s company to that of his queen, infuriated both her and other senior nobles. As if this were not enough, at Edward II’s coronation on 25 February 1308 while other nobles were content to wear cloth of gold, Gaveston, in his vanity, wore regal purple trimmed with pearls. The barons – assisted by the queen – banded together and demanded Gaveston’s banishment by 25 June at the latest. In the face of such opposition Edward II was forced to concur, but even then he continued to make grants of land to his favourite and softened the sentence of exile by appointing him as his Lieutenant in Ireland in place of the powerful Richard de Burgh, Earl of Ulster.
One of Edward II’s most serious shortcomings as king was his carelessness at alienating some of the men he needed most. However, with Gaveston no longer on the scene Edward II showed that when he was minded he could use royal patronage as well as other kings. By a shrewd use of bribes he succeeded in dividing the baronial opposition and persuading them to allow his favourite’s return, but in his delight at their reunion he no longer bothered to treat his senior barons with the degree of tact they warranted, while Gaveston too soon showed how little he had learned by becoming even more abusive, calling Ralph de Monthermer, Earl of Gloucester, ‘a whoreson’ and the venerable Earl of Lincoln, who headed the opposition to him, ‘old burst belly’. As a result the earls understandably refused to attend Parliament if Gaveston was present and instead held a Royal Council of Assembly which they attended in armour and where they forced the king to agree to a commission of reform comprising twenty-one of their number called the ‘Lords Ordainers’. Their main grievance was against Gaveston, but many of their complaints were about the state’s finances and the expenses involved in military expeditions.
While they were considering their findings Edward embarked on a long overdue campaign against Scotland, as much from personal motives as objectives of state, for whilst on campaign he would be excused from being in London to face the report of the Ordainers’ committee and avoid having to explain the treatment of his queen to her father, Philip of France. Only two earls, Gloucester and Warwick, agreed to take part in the projected campaign and in the event its modest objectives of strengthening and reprovisioning the garrisons still in English hands were not fully achieved.
With the defection of the other earls, Gaveston had an opportunity to demonstrate his military ability but, although he marched north to Perth while Gloucester concentrated his forces in the great forest of Selkirk, the Scottish forces stayed out of reach, denying him any chance of battlefield success. If Gaveston had proved a notable military leader it would have strengthened the king’s case against his critics and possibly reversed English misfortunes in Scotland; but he did not and by November the king was back in the border fortress of Berwick where he remained until June 1311. Although Edward II intended to lead another expedition that summer, a crippling shortage of money forced him to return to Westminster and hear the Ordainers’ verdict. Their main demands included the renewed exile of Piers Gaveston and a re-ordering of royal finances, which they considered had been squandered on the king’s favourite rather than used in pursuit of the Scottish war, but after another short exile the king allowed Gaveston to return and by January 1312 all his lands had been restored to him.
At this, even those barons who had remained sympathetic towards the king united in arms against Gaveston. After his capture and subsequent execution the king was so enraged that he began to gather armed forces against his nobles. In such a situation any warlike operations against the Scots were necessarily suspended – there was no question even of countering the Scottish raids against northern England – and as the Scottish chronicler Fordun wrote, exultantly, ‘The fruitless English nation, which had unrighteously attacked many a man, was now, by God’s righteous judgement made to undergo awful scourges.’10
In April 1312 the Scots took further advantage of English inaction by recapturing Berwick, but the power vacuum in London could only be temporary and gradually the balance began to swing back in the king’s favour. A certain revulsion developed against the earls who had executed Gaveston and in November 1312 the king’s cause was further aided by the birth of an heir to his queen, Isabella. The more moderate among the nobles began actively seeking a reconciliation. Two papal emissaries, together with the King of France’s brother, Louis of Evreaux, toiled for several months to bring about a settlement between the king and his nobles and, after long and bitter exchanges, not least over the custody of the valuable jewels which the king had given his favourite, a final settlement was reached on 14 October 1313. By this the earls admitted their fault and offered a humble apology to the king who, in turn, granted a general pardon to them and their followers.
No amount of agreement, however, could alter the fact that for more than six years after his accession Edward II had outrageously misused his royal patronage in favour of one man. Nor could the settlement bring immediate concord; the king’s hatred for Lancaster, for instance, was far too marked for that. Serious differences remained, not only between the nobles and the king but also amongst themselves. The full price of Edward’s infatuation with Piers Gaveston to the exclusion of all else was only too likely to be paid in the coming battle with Scotland.11 As a leader largely inexperienced in war, Edward II would command a group of nobles lacking some of their most powerful representatives, while those who remained, however sincere their loyalty, had long been accustomed to such rancour and discord between monarch and others of his nobles that the actions of the king no longer bore the full stamp of authority. In such circumstances it needed a stronger king possessing better judgement than Edward II to obtain the best from his subordinate commanders who in any case had yet to witness his demeanour and powers of decision-making in the heat of battle. Their own fixation on attacking the enemy, whatever the situation, would probably cause them serious difficulties, as at Falkirk when they had needed the restraining influence of Edward I.
The three earls who answered Edward II’s call and could be expected to take senior positions of command during the coming battle were Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke, Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford.
Aymer de Valence, Earl of Pembroke (d 1324)
Valence’s biographer, J R S Phillips, was critical of all the English nobles who served under Edward II at this time but, although not judging his subject an Alexander in war, he ‘came to rate him the best of a moderate group and a man essentially faithful to the monarch’.12 Valence was the son of William de Valence, one of Edward I’s marcher lords. With extensive possessions both in Wales and Montignac in Europe, and twice married to French women of distinction, Valence could be expected to take a wider view of affairs than some others of his peers, whose interests were confined to England and Scotland. With such immaculate French connections he was uniquely qualified to conduct relations between England and France and his high level of performance on such missions led Professor Barrow to rate him as the one English noble during the early years of the fourteenth century who displayed qualities of statesmanship. While it is Valence’s military qualities that are of prime concern, his diplomatic talents were not irrelevant to his role as a commander nor, in such troubled times, was the fact that he loyally supported both Edwards until his death in 1324. It needed exceptional stupidity on the part of Edward II to drive Valence into opposition but, although he allied himself with his fellow Ordainers between 1310–12, it is more than likely that at heart he remained loyal to the concept of kingship as opposed to any alignments of rival nobles.
Valence’s military career began in 1296 with Edward I in Flanders and he fought at the battle of Falkirk. From then on, with the exception of besieging Piers Gaveston in Scarborough Castle, he was exclusively concerned with the Scottish wars. Although Valence was the Red Comyn’s brother-in-law and therefore not likely to feel any warmth for Robert Bruce, his appointment by Edward I as his Lieutenant in Scotland at the time of Bruce’s revolt also demonstrated confidence in his military ability. Valence’s success over Bruce at Methven has already been discussed, though his conduct on that occasion was heavily influenced by the Scot, Sir Ingram Umfraville, who also hated Bruce and who advised Valence to ignore accepted practice by moving against Bruce during the night.13
At Edward II’s accession Valence was deprived of his Scottish lieutenancy, apparently on the advice of Piers Gaveston who in an age of universal hatred for Jews also insulted him (and amused Edward II) by nicknaming him ‘Joseph the Jew’ because of his height and pallid complexion. When in 1310 Edward II marched to Scotland with Gaveston, Valence, along with most of his fellow nobles, understandably refused to accompany the king, although he sent his feudal quota of knights, about ten in number.14 As a supporter of the Ordainers he removed Gaveston from Scarborough Castle and imprisoned him in Deddington but it was seemingly without his knowledge that Warwick had the king’s favourite removed and executed. In apparent disgust Valence returned to the court party, although he was certainly no firm supporter of the king’s policy regarding Gaveston.15 In spite of their serious differences over the royal favourite Valence continued to enjoy close personal relations with Edward II who, for instance, even went so far as to give him a number of falcons that had previously belonged to Gaveston, while the king also used Valence’s diplomatic skills to conduct peace negotiations with his nobles and with the French king.16
In 1314 Valence supplanted the feeble John of Brittany as Lieutenant of Scotland and was given correspondingly wide responsibilities. He went on to play an energetic and creditable role at Bannockburn, although, unfortunately, there is no evidence as to the nature of his participation in the English councils of war there. Militarily, particularly in terms of personal energy, Valence appears to stand comparison with Bruce’s much younger commander Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. However, under Edward II Valence was not given the same opportunities as Moray to develop his skills on the battlefield and the critical J R S Phillips came to conclude that neither his average military virtues nor his leadership qualities in the field of politics were equal to the demands placed upon him by the serious crises of Edward II’s reign.17
Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester (d 1314)
The Clares were another marcher family that served with Edward I in Wales. Despite Phillips’ sombre judgement of all English barons at this time the young Earl of Gloucester, a grandson of Edward I and nephew of Edward II, was considered one of the outstanding nobles of his generation and ‘both intellectually and morally the noblest representative of his great house’.18 His mother was Edward I’s third daughter, Joan of Acre and his father Gilbert de Clare. A boy prodigy, at fifteen years of age he was made a companion to Edward II and served him in Scotland during 1306. Despite his tender years Gloucester not only attended a muster of the English forces at Carlisle but was selected to negotiate a truce there with Robert Bruce.19 Rapid advancement followed: on 3 December 1308 he was appointed commander of the English forces sent to relieve Rutherglen Castle and in the following year – when still only 18 – he became commander of the English forces on both sides of the Forth.20
In spite of such swift promotion for one so young, Gloucester lacked practical battlefield experience. His advancement was very probably due to his seeming incorruptibility and to the fact that he was a consistent supporter of Edward II when so many others were against him. While Gloucester, like Valence, supported some of the reforms proposed by the Earl of Lancaster’s Ordainers – in particular those designed to check the king’s undue generosity towards Gaveston – he opposed the use of extreme measures in obtaining them. In 1308 he distanced himself from those who called for Gaveston’s banishment, although he appeared to have no personal sympathy for the favourite. As a mark of Edward II’s trust in him, in 1313, while the king was absent in France, he was appointed regent of England.21
Gloucester brought a large retinue to Bannockburn, although it was certainly smaller than the 500 men attributed to him by Barbour. In his eagerness to be first to meet the Scots in battle Gloucester disputed with Hereford over who should lead the vanguard but, this apart, he was widely known for his level-headedness: after the disappointments of the first encounters he was one of those who advised the king to delay until the full strength of the English army could be mobilised. His death at the outset of the main battle deprived the king of someone capable of understanding the dangers in which the English army had placed itself and the need to take fundamental, if unpopular, decisions to improve the situation.
Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford (d 1322)
Humphrey de Bohun’s father had served Edward I in Wales and Humphrey himself had accompanied him during his invasion of Scotland in 1300. At the time of Bannockburn the twenty-eight-year-old baron was Constable of England and was married to Elizabeth, seventh daughter of Edward I and widow of Count John of Hainault. A man of vast wealth, De Bohun was a noble of considerable importance with a fortune sufficient for him to leave the amazing sums of £2000 to each of his four younger sons and 1000 marks to his son-in-law, Hugh de Courtenay.22 Although he lacked the campaigning experience of men like the veteran Henry de Lacey, Earl of Lincoln (who died in 1311), De Bohun enjoyed the strong confidence of his peers and was chosen, with Valence, as a negotiator in the quarrels between the king and his nobles both over Piers Gaveston and then, following Bannockburn, with the Despensers. While De Bohun shared his peers’ alarm and anger concerning Edward II’s favourite he was, like Valence and Gloucester, a moderate opponent. Skilled in personal combat, De Bohun listed (unsuccessfully) against Gaveston in the great tournaments held at Fulham in 1305 and 1307 but like his brother earls, his experience of military leadership was strictly limited. Apart from joining Edward I’s disappointing Scottish campaign of 1300 he accompanied the Earl of Gloucester against Robert Bruce in 1308 without having any chance to distinguish himself, and was afterwards present at the bloodless siege of Piers Gaveston in Scarborough Castle.
Having returned to the king’s peace after Gaveston’s death, Hereford enthusiastically answered Edward II’s call in 1314 but although he fought bravely enough at Bannockburn, his distinction arose not from his ability as a commander there but as the Scots’ most notable prisoner. Despite his eminent position and the large retinue he brought onto the field, he had little practical experience of command in war and none of large-scale engagements. His battlefield philosophy was to reach the enemy as soon as possible, and he was unlikely to have contributed anything original to the councils of war held the night before the main encounter. During the battle itself he was behind the forward elements of his vanguard when they clashed with Bruce on day one, and during the main action he became too quickly involved in hand to hand fighting to exercise an overall influence.
The two other English commanders with an opportunity to influence events at Bannockburn, particularly in its early stages, were the joint leaders of the English army’s second cavalry division, Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont.
Sir Robert Clifford (d 1314)
Clifford came from Northumbria, and his father had been a friend and companion to Edward I from their crusading days together. Clifford himself was involved in several of the clashes that took place between England and Scotland from the 1290s into the early years of the new century. His military career began promisingly when, together with Henry Percy, he made a brilliant raid into Scotland which was rewarded by the surrender of the Scottish forces at Irvine in June 1297. During April of the previous year, when just twenty-three years of age, he had been present at the English victory at Dunbar23 and over a period of almost twenty years the spirited and determined cavalry commander accompanied a succession of English invasions northwards until his death in battle. On Edward I’s expedition in 1300 Clifford was responsible for the campaign’s one notable success, the capture of Caerlaverock Castle near Dumfries in July and as a reward Edward made him its guardian.
In the light of such long experience of the Anglo-Scottish clashes Clifford would have been familiar with the ground on which Bannockburn was fought. A trusted supporter of the old king, Clifford was present at his deathbed where he was given instructions relating to the banishment of Piers Gaveston of whom, with the majority of his peers, Clifford was a strong opponent. Notwithstanding this Edward II also had a high opinion of Clifford both with regard to his military ability and for his honesty and directness. In 1308, for instance, he appointed Clifford, along with the Earl of Angus, as Captain Guardian of Scotland on either side of the Firths. As late as March 1310 Clifford showed he had not yet fully aligned himself with the fiercest baronial opposition to Edward II by stating that any concessions made by the king to them should not be seen as a precedent.24 However, in 1312 on rumours of Gaveston’s return from exile, Clifford guarded the northern counties against any possible collusion between the favourite and England’s enemy, Robert Bruce. Clifford despised Gaveston and on 4 May 1312, he joined with the Earl of Lancaster, the king’s bitterest enemy, to besiege him in Scarborough Castle.
Yet Gaveston apart, Clifford was as loyal to his sovereign, Edward II, as to his father, willingly answering his call to muster at Berwick for the relief of Stirling Castle. He was already at Berwick in April 1314, for he was excused attendance at the April parliament for that reason. A measure of the regard both monarchs felt for Clifford’s military and administrative abilities could be seen in their generous awards which made him one of the largest English landowners. He was, for instance, granted Robert Bruce’s forfeited manor of Hert and Hertlepool, Christopher Seton’s estate at Skelton in Cumberland and William Douglas’ Douglasdale (this on payment of 500 crowns a year).
At Bannockburn Edward II’s own trust in this vigorous soldier and long-time opponent of the Scots was shown by appointing him (along with Sir Henry Beaumont) as commander of the English army’s second cavalry division. His death at Bannockburn during the opening moves of the main battle undoubtedly robbed the English king of a capable and highly respected commander whom the chronicler Rishanger referred to as a ‘miles illustris’. In the light of Clifford’s unhappy experience against spearmen the day before it is virtually certain he would have tried to bring up bowmen as soon as possible in support of the English cavalry during the main battle.
Sir Henry Beaumont (d 1340)
Although Clifford was undoubtedly the more experienced soldier, Edward II unwisely attempted to spread his bounty by appointing Sir Henry Beaumont as co-commander of the second cavalry division. Originally from Beaumont in France, Sir Henry was Edward II’s cousin and a knight of the royal household who had served with Edward I and then with the Prince of Wales in their Scottish wars. At Edward II’s accession Beaumont stood high in the new king’s favour and received extensive lands in Lincolnshire and, more contentiously, the Isle of Man – to the fury of other English nobles. In 1310 Beaumont married Alice Comyn, niece of John Comyn, third Earl of Buchan, and this gave him even more reason to fight against Robert Bruce. Certainly no more capable than Robert Clifford, during his and Clifford’s first exchange with the Scots Beaumont had one idea only, how best to attack. When a more cautious approach was suggested by a fellow commander, Thomas Grey, he utterly rejected it and continued in the energetic but ultimately fruitless assaults against the Scots. Despite suffering such unexpected failure, on the second day he continued with the English vanguard, but again without success since insufficient bowmen were brought up in its support. Beaumont was demonstrably not an outstanding tactician, preferring to bludgeon in all-out attack with little respect for his opponents.
There appear to be no grounds whatever for querying Beaumont’s loyalty to Edward II during the battle, either during the preliminary clashes, or when among the large contingent of cavalry that fought with and gave the king protection as he left the field. Later he became involved in conspiracies at court against his king and showed himself as an adventurer. He turned his coat, paying allegiance to Queen Isabella in her attempt to depose Edward II, and later along with Edward Balliol he became chief of the disinherited nobles pledged to regain their Scottish estates.
It is not known whom Edward II selected to command the English forces at Bannockburn in the event of his becoming a casualty. One is left to wonder whether the relatively inexperienced but arrogant monarch, for instance, ever felt the need to appoint a deputy. If so it is likely to have been Valence, but in the light of Edward’s idiosyncratic decision-making this is by no means certain. There is also no record of who commanded the large numbers of English infantry and bowmen, but whoever they were, they were allowed little opportunity to swing the battle in favour of the English. A strong and self-willed leader such as Edward I permitted little deviation from his orders, and this gave poor training for the senior English commanders under him, while the seven years under Edward II prior to Bannockburn were highly undistinguished in the military sense.
Phillips could well have been right in rating the ability of Edward II’s subordinate commanders as moderate, even if they were undoubtedly vigorous and brave; after tricking Bruce at Methven Valence allowed himself to be consistently outfoxed and outfought by the Scots; Gloucester remained startlingly inexperienced and his death prevented him showing any outstanding qualities at Bannockburn; and despite his greater age De Bohun had been as much engaged in conflicts with Edward II as he had with the Scots. Beaumont proved himself as a good middle piece commander, but no more. Clifford was the possible exception but he was killed before he could distinguish himself further. Among other experienced soldiers there was Sir Maurice Berkeley, who appeared to have acted as a senior retainer to Valence rather than as a commander in his own right, and Sir Pain Tiptoft (also killed in the main battle’s early stages) who had acted as companion to Edward II from his early years without acquiring significant command experience. One of the most charismatic figures among the English at Bannockburn was Giles D’Argentan, a magnificent fighting soldier said by John Barbour to rate as the third best knight in Christendom for his skill at arms (the first two were Emperor Henry and King Robert Bruce in that order).25 D’Argentan enjoyed no similar rating for his powers of command. Edward II went to great pains to bring the paladin back from his crusading to support him at Bannockburn but, while brave to a fault, D’Argentan made no impression as a commander there.
Together with Valence the most senior of Edward II’s advisers was Ingram Umfraville, cousin of the Earl of Angus, related to John Balliol, and long-time opponent of the Bruces. Umfraville had held a number of significant civil and military posts in Scotland and in 1302 he acted as a senior envoy during the negotiations held in Paris to agree a peace treaty between France and Scotland. During 1300 he replaced Bruce as joint guardian of Scotland along with Bishop Lamberton and John Comyn (the Red). He had been active militarily since 1299 when, with other Scottish nobles he conducted a large-scale raid south of the Forth with both barded horse and infantry. In 1301, he and John Soules conducted spoiling attacks against the English forces commanded by both Edward I and the Prince of Wales, including a bold assault on Lochmaben Castle. With Scotland’s general submission to Edward I in 1304 Umfraville’s estates were forfeited, the conditions set for their redemption being the payment of up to a maximum of five years’ income. It was a mark of Umfraville’s importance in the rebellion along with his late submission that his redemption terms were the harshest of all the Scottish nobles, i.e. for the full five years value.26
By 1308 Umfraville was fighting on behalf of the English against Edward Bruce in Galloway but it would therefore have been amazing if, as a Scot, even one who had changed allegiance, his advice had been given precedence over that of Edward II’s English councillors. In any event, experienced soldier or not, by Bannockburn his judgement seemed to be clouded by hate. His advice to King Edward at the outset of the main battle (as will be seen) was fanciful in the extreme and although positioned near the king in order to inform him about the Scottish method of fighting, it is unlikely that he would have been trusted with the main direction of the army.
Sadly for the English, in the coming battle their high command would be headed by an unpopular king largely untried in war and supported by a considerable body of nobles, all of whom had previously opposed him for favouring another over themselves or like the Scot, Umfraville, joined Edward II because of his hate for Robert Bruce. Like the Earl of Gloucester they had grown up in a climate of feuding and did not seem prepared to subordinate their own interests to the general advantage on the field of battle. While many had considerable experience of warfare both in Britain and elsewhere they had been given relatively little opportunity for independent command, and during the battle’s early stages some of the most promising became fatalities. In any case, so confident were they in their superior numbers and armament bringing success that the English leaders felt no need to dwell on the tactical problems facing them or to consider overmuch ways of best combining their fighting strength. Apart from the battle at Stirling Bridge against William Wallace in 1297, when the main English army was led by Warenne, Earl of Surrey, rather than their king, and where it had been prevented from using even half its strength, the English simply did not lose to the Scots. Their opponents might elude them and they might even have to turn back for want of food and provisions, but defeat in open battle was unthinkable.