Post-classical history

Section Three: Bruce’s Masterstroke




‘We are so few against so many.’

Barbour, The Bruce

WHETHER IT WAS DUE to a measure of overconfidence, or, more likely, because some important units had still to reach the concentration area, Edward II did not give the order for his army to cross the border before 17 June 1314, a week later than planned. To fulfil the challenge, Stirling had to be relieved by the 24th for which he had allowed himself no leeway for unexpected delays or enemy action along the arduous ninety-mile journey. Whatever his commanders thought about such a restricted timetable they must have been pleasantly surprised by the weather: instead of rain, which had accompanied so many other English armies into Scotland, it was hot and dry. This, however, brought problems of its own: the potholes on the uneven roads were iron hard, causing carts to jolt and buck, while the unyielding surface led to sore feet for animals and men alike.

Most of the heavy transport would probably have gone on from Wark to Berwick, where it would cross the Tweed before taking the Roman road over the Lammermuir hills. Other detachments probably crossed the river at the village of Coldstream. Evidence that the English did, in fact, use the Roman road came from a royal despatch made at Soutra (probably from the ancient hospital there) on 18 June which was sent to the king’s council and the Archbishop of Canterbury.1 From the heights of Soutra where the road climbed to over 1000 feet the invaders had their first clear sight of Edinburgh and, depending on the amount of heat haze, possibly glimpses of Stirling too, lying further north beyond the western shoulder of the Pentland hills. They had done well to reach Soutra, almost forty miles from Coldstream by the end of day two but Edward’s strong pace was far faster than the Monk of Malmesbury liked. ‘He hastened day by day to the appointed place, not as if he were leading an army to battle but as if he was on a pilgrimage to St James of Compostella. Brief were the halts for sleep, briefer still for food, hence horses, horsemen and infantry were worn out with toil and hunger.’2 The chronicler’s observations were surely justified when one realises that with such extended columns of marching men interspersed with heavily burdened carts, progress could not be reckoned to exceed two miles per hour. At times the men would be marching somewhat faster than this but in accordance with normal military practice they were likely to have paused fairly frequently, possibly for ten minutes each hour, to deal with blisters and to patch up their crude footwear.

To reach Soutra within two days the marching columns would have been on the road for at least twelve hours each day. (From Soutra they had another sixteen-mile journey before entering Edinburgh.)

Despite his criticism of the king the same chronicler observed with pride that he led ‘a very fine and large army’ with ‘more than 2000 armoured horse and a very large number of infantry’ and added proudly that all ‘who were present agreed that never in our times has such an army gone forth from England’ with ‘enough waggons to have stretched for twenty miles if they had lined up end to end’. Another contemporary source was quite specific about their numbers: ‘106 waggons drawn by four horses each, and 110 waggons each drawn by eight oxen, making a total of 424 horses and 880 oxen.’3 These numbers applied to the draught animals alone, and the cavalry horses, whose feet needed careful maintenance, were numbered in thousands rather than hundreds. For Edward I’s earlier invasion of Scotland in 1300, 3000 horseshoes and 50,000 nails were required to be carried in seven three-horse carts.4 Far more shoes were required in 1314 when just 200lbs was the normal load for horse-drawn carts.5 Even more important than horseshoes were the war supplies, including bows, together with their shafts, lances and other spare personal weapons. Along with such military equipment they carried food, including grain, bacon, mutton, fish and wine. Whatever grass was available on the way, some hay would also have been needed for the vast number of horses.

With so many waggons the army’s movement was bound to be tedious and it needs no imagination to realise the difficulties experienced when it came to steep gradients at the base of which were streams that needed fording or other places where the road had been partially washed away. If the vehicles had carried food and war materials only the logistical problems would have been difficult enough, but with the pleasure-loving Edward this was far from the case. Where the king led his nobles were virtually bound to follow, carrying with them not only their personal tentage but other material comforts such as silver eating vessels and a wide choice of wines. In the expectation of certain victory some, like the younger Hugh Despenser, whose rights to his lands and tenements in Scotland had been restored to him by the king’s charter, carried domestic equipment to assist in their re-occupation.6

Whatever the mandatory halts, straggling was inevitable and the army’s line of march became so extended that Barbour described it as covering ‘hills and valleys’. Local people who had removed themselves from its path to watch from the safety of adjacent hill tops had no difficulty whatever in tracking it. The vanguard’s progress, for instance, was distinguishable by a moving cloud of dust through which the sun’s rays caught fire upon burnished breastplates, lance points and the brass bosses of harnesses. Accompanying these came the sounds of massed horses, not only destriers but second line animals and remounts; the jingling of tackle and the clatter of hooves on the boulder-strewn road would have easily marked out the horsemen from the more regular crunching noises of the accompanying carts.

This evidence was as nothing compared to the sounds of the main body with its endless line of cumbersome waggons, over half of which were drawn by teams of slow phlegmatic oxen, heads swaying at each stride. The banshee-like squeals made by the wooden axles might well have taken their toll on the accompanying troops, as they did almost five centuries later when they almost drove Sir John Moore’s soldiers to distraction during their epic retreat across northern Spain to the seaport of Corunna. With such repetitious and nerve-fraying screeching came the rhythm of marching feet, thousands of them, interspersed with sporadic shouts of command and snatches of song. As the Monk of Malmesbury had already observed, for the majority of those involved, particularly the footsoldiers, it was undoubtedly a demanding experience. Burdened by thick jerkins, or mail, and carrying unwieldy spears along with their other equipment they were forced to plod through choking dust clouds amid the droppings and the ammoniac pools of the horses, unable to see much further than the rank immediately to their front, while from time to time selected detachments would be ordered to break ranks in order to manhandle carts stuck fast in potholes. During the overnight halts the need to take their turn at standing guard further deprived the soldiers of much-needed rest.


Such a march was certain to tell on both men and animals. Some of the men who sustained gashed or raw feet might be allowed to ride in the waggons but others with strained muscles or broken bones would have been left under escort in one of the villages on the way. As the army advanced ever further into a country stripped of food and shelter, initial optimism was also liable to have given way to some feelings of vulnerability. The Scots’ reputation for raiding had been well-earned and, as part of a seemingly endless column, men must have thought they presented a near perfect target for attacks by marauders on fast horses. The English were not to know that Bruce had no plans to attack them until much later, but they dared not ignore the possibility.

Although the daylight hours were long at that time of year, many soldiers had additional responsibilities to perform by the light of their camp fires. Men not allocated for guard duties, for instance, still faced the enormous task of feeding and watering the animals before they could rest their own leg muscles and aching shoulders and begin preparing food. No wonder some of them remained hungry for most of the journey and were ‘out on their feet’ by the end of it.

The king had badly underestimated the time needed to move such a massive army but failure to meet the date agreed by Edward Bruce and Sir Philip Moubray would mean handing the castle over to the Scots. After so much time allowed for mobilisation it would represent a massive blow to English prestige apart from the even more important military considerations. Foremost among these would be Robert Bruce’s release from the compact made with Sir Philip Moubray. He could therefore place a strong garrison in the castle and keep his main army hidden in the surrounding woods, ready to harass any assault made on it by the English whose army in any case was designed for open combat rather than for siege operations. By keeping his forces in being, and not hazarding them in battle, Bruce could wait until the English experienced inevitable logistical problems, whether or not they came from mounting a major siege. In the event of an English withdrawal the advantage would pass to Bruce and he could resume his guerrilla tactics. The army was, therefore, driven on rigorously. The English reached Edinburgh on 19 June but more time was lost when two days were spent taking on and distributing stores from the ships waiting at Leith docks. This was a very necessary procedure as not only was it the army’s first opportunity for replenishment since setting out over the hills7 but it was of particular importance to those who had joined the army following a long approach march, and whose footwear and clothing was probably already in tatters. It was not until 22 June, with just two days before the castle was due to be relieved, that the host set off again. Completing a punishing march in the hot, dry weather they covered the twenty-two miles to Falkirk in a single day – but even then ten miles separated them from their goal, which by the agreement was a point three miles or less from Stirling Castle.

Under such an insensitive commander the English army undoubtedly became more leg weary than it needed to be and infantry soldiers and their commanders were likely to have reacted angrily. Yet with the cavalry it would have been different. Rapid movement was everything to them and they would have found the great army’s progress painfully slow. For both infantry and cavalry, however, the problems set by the march were bound to prevent any consideration about their detailed dispositions or the degree of necessary co-operation between them when they finally brought the Scots to battle.

The Scottish forces faced quite different problems. Being relatively close to the anticipated battle area, no debilitating approach march was needed although nothing could change the fact that they were heavily outnumbered and had a less well-balanced force. To help offset this Bruce continued with his plans to bring his army up to the highest standards of training. Constant drilling with heavy lances helped his infantrymen’s level of fitness and after inevitable difficulties in the early stages the smooth movements by which his individual schiltrons were able to change formation from massed lozenge to circular patterns must have done wonders for their confidence. At the end of May, before the English had even come to muster, his initial training had gone so well that he was able to move his schiltrons from inside the Torwood to the more open – and likely battle – area of New Park where they could practise against dummy attacks mounted by Scottish cavalry units. New Park had been King Alexander III’s hunting demesne, close to Stirling Castle and immediately south of the King’s Park, the royal hunting ground of earlier centuries.

From New Park’s higher ground the Scottish forces would be able to watch the English army approaching along the Roman road before it descended into the valley containing the Bannock Burn. If the English kept to the road they would soon come into view again as they ascended the valley’s nearside and entered the park on their route towards the castle. As a defensive position it was a good one; the park’s forward hills were perfect for observing the English while its crests and rear slopes had enough wooded areas to give Bruce the opportunity to withdraw and make his army safe from any possible attacks from English cavalry. When, on the morning of Saturday, 22 June, Bruce’s scouts galloped up to tell him the English had at last set out from Edinburgh with less than two days before the midsummer deadline, he must have reasoned they had little choice but to keep to the direct route of the Roman road to Stirling which ran east to west roughly in line with the old Antonine wall. After the English forces reached the point where the Bannock Burn crossed the road they would be entering the zone where he could bring his defensive preparations into play.

Before considering the attributes of his position it is necessary to become familiar with the terrain involved. Of particular interest is the rectangular piece of land bounded on its west side by the forward hills of New Park and the Roman road where it crossed the Bannock Burn, and on its eastern side by the crossing places close to the tiny settlement of Skeoch and the point where the Pelstream and the Bannock Burn meet (see map). To the west of the rectangle the road to Stirling is bounded by Gillies Hill and the King’s Park while to its east the Bannock Burn eventually disgorges into the River Forth. The rectangle itself splits conveniently into two, with the Pelstream Burn as its dividing line.

On the upper section and to the west of the rectangle is the relatively dry land of the King’s Park where horsemen could gallop along its wooded rides, while to the east of the Roman road cultivated land stretches for a quarter of a mile until a steep bank (sheer in places) descends at the 30 metre contour on to flat, wet meadows (carse) stretching to the River Forth. During the fourteenth century the area close below the castle was still used for gathering peats for fuel and it was wet and uneven, but in any case the whole carse of Stirling south of the castle was dangerous ground intersected by sluggish streams called ‘pols’ from the Celtic, or ‘pows’ in later Scots.8 Professor Barrow described these as tending to run through ‘deep peaty pools with crumbling, overhanging banks’.9The largest pow was the Bannock Burn itself but the entire area of the carse was known in the fourteenth century as Les Polles, the area of sluggish streams.10

The lower section of the rectangle below the Pelstream was, in fact, where the main battlefield action would take place. Here, looking again from west to east, there are the rolling (and wooded) hills of New Park with thickets of trees bordering the side of the Roman road. Beyond the road is the small plain of Balquhiderock, including St Ninians township, where corn was grown and subsequently threshed in mills along the Bannock Burn. On the plain’s eastern flank the land descends steeply, at the 30 metre contour, to the carse with its pows and patches of fresh moss which were as treacherous as quicksand. A track follows along the foot of the scarp from its crossing place over the Bannock Burn northwards towards Stirling Castle. At the base of the whole segment the Bannock Burn represents a considerable barrier, both where the Roman road crossed it but particularly where it runs through a gorge up to 10 metres deep at the small settlement of Bannock, until its banks become lower as it enters the flat carse land.


This was the area in which Bruce chose to meet the English army. Although he could be reasonably sure the English in their haste would be likely to follow the line of the Roman road (if they did not actually keep to it) he still had to decide where best to position his own forces. Bruce no doubt hoped the English army, confident in its superiority, would attempt the obvious and keep to the road itself, which he could then straddle with hidden obstacles covering the front of his troop positions. But he also had to consider other possible choices open to them. While still following the direction of the road the English could fan out along the woods to its west, but this was unlikely since armies, especially those with a large number of cavalry, are vulnerable in woods, and Bruce made it virtually unthinkable by blocking all the tracks within the forest. A more probable alternative was for the English to move onto the road’s eastern flank and to keep parallel with it through the cultivated ground south of St Ninians, where the going was ideal for cavalry. This would be far more difficult to counter.

Bruce had to display all his tactical skills to position his soldiers so that they could both cover the obvious lines of approach and still retain sufficient flexibility to meet any that were less likely. He had already decided his main army would depend very largely on its four divisions of spearmen in schiltron formation and on Sunday 23 June he posted them. He positioned his own strong schiltron to meet the most likely English approach, where the road crossed the Bannock Burn, at the place later commentators have called ‘theentry’. The other three schiltrons were committed to blocking the relatively good ground to the east of the road should the English decide to fan out there. This was much the more difficult option to counter; as vanguard he placed Moray’s schiltron at St Ninian’s kirk to the north end of New Park with the two schiltrons of Douglas and Edward Bruce lying some way between him and Moray, Douglas being nearer to Moray (see map). In the event of the English declining to use ‘the entry’ and approaching along the cornfields, the plan was for Moray to block their advance, at which point Bruce and the other two schiltrons could fall on the exposed English flanks and rear.

In addition to the schiltrons the Scots had their 500 light cavalry which their king was unwilling to commit too soon. Much would depend on how the English decided to use their archers. If they were unwise enough to move them onto open ground without protection from cavalry or spearmen his small body of horsemen might yet play a decisive part. Finally there was the question of what role he might give to his camp followers and servants who were collectively termed ‘small folk’, along with others who arrived late for muster and who were either too ill-armed or not sufficiently trained to enter the ranks of the schiltrons. In the event Bruce decided to place them to the rear in the valley between Gillies and Coxet hills, from where they could be brought up into the action if the situation became critical.

Having decided on his dispositions the king assembled his commanders and formally revealed his plans. Bruce’s own style of leadership and the intrinsic merit and confidence of his leaders would almost certainly have led to questions and some discussion. In a confident tone he confirmed what most had already come to believe, that the English were likely to pass through New Park, ‘unless they marched beneath (us) and go over the morass. Thus shall we have them at advantage … If we fight on foot we shall always have the advantage for in the Park among the trees the horsemen must always be encumbered and the ditches below must also throw them into confusion’.11 To reinforce his advantage Bruce also adopted a device which he had used earlier at Loudon Hill, where he canalised his opponents along a narrow track. At ‘the entry’ he honeycombed the ground on each side of the Roman road with small pits, or pots, the depth of a man’s knee (and about a foot across), so close that Barbour likened them to the wax comb of a hive.12Bruce and his men toiled all Saturday night, digging them and then covering the relatively small snares with sticks and grass. This ‘medieval minefield’ would be quite enough to break horses’ legs and Barbour for one was satisfied with the effectiveness of such devices. However, a single contemporary authority, Friar Baston, who accompanied the English, says that Bruce made them more deadly still by placing iron spikes in the holes. Two later commentators, Christison and Traquair, have gone further and speak of calthrops (three-pronged iron spikes) standing in the pots to maim the horses.13 Bruce’s intention was to force the English into a position where they could not use their greater numbers, particularly of horsemen, to advantage. With ‘minefields’ of pots on both flanks they would be forced onto a narrow front where he would meet them with massed spearmen. In any case with horses trapped in the pots the whole momentum of the charge would slacken.

On the morning of Sunday 23 June, the eve of the feast of St John the Baptist, the Scots heard mass and ate a frugal breakfast. After mass Bruce inspected the pots and then assembled his forces. A commander’s address was often transmitted (section by section) by appointed heralds to the whole army but Bruce’s force was so small and close-packed that he went down the lines talking and looking into the faces of his men. Even then, after so many engagements together, he offered them a choice, namely ‘whatsoever man found his heart not assured to stand and win all, and to maintain that mighty struggle or die with honour, should betimes leave the field, and that none should remain but those who would stand by him to the end, and take the fortune God sent’.14 As the king fully expected, all answered with a great shout that they would not fail him for fear of death until the battle was won. At this point the servants and ‘small folk’ were sent to the base of Gillies Hill for their protection.

Meanwhile the English army had begun the final leg of its journey. Two men had particular reasons for wanting to learn more about the English line of advance and the tactics they were likely to adopt. They were, of course, Moubray, the Scot who governed Stirling Castle for the English and had watched with growing unease the careful and thorough Scottish preparations for defence, and Bruce himself. Bruce decided to send out James Douglas together with Keith, his cavalry commander, to report on the English army’s progress. What they in fact saw has been graphically described by Barbour who would certainly not want to under-emphasise the task Bruce faced, ‘… so many braided banners, standards, and spear pennons, and so many mounted knights all flaming in gay attire, and so many broad battles taking such vast space as they rode, as might, by their number and battle array, have dismayed the greatest and boldest and best host in Christendom’.15

The observers, of course, could not know how tired the English felt although they could have suspected that under Edward II’s direction the army was probably not as well trained as it might be. There would, of course, be opportunities to test their opponent’s cohesion and their discipline later but, meanwhile, Bruce ordered his observers to say that the enemy were in ‘ill-array’ to help raise the spirits of his men.

Sir Philip Moubray came upon the English army just after midday when it was still about three miles from the castle. To reach them he had ridden round the Scots’ flank by way of Gillies Hill and it appears he might have been given safe conduct to do so by Bruce.16 Bruce’s purpose here is not altogether clear but Moubray asked to see the king and told him the Scots had blocked ‘the entry’ and that any attack upon them in that region could therefore prove difficult. In any case – and this could have been Bruce’s reason for the safe conduct – he reminded Edward that by coming within three miles of the castle the army had technically relieved it.17 In practice the large numbers of Scots close by still controlled the area.

What happened then will never be completely clear. While Moubray was meeting Edward, the English advance party continued to make its way towards the castle along the Roman road. We do not know whether the king took Moubray’s warnings seriously or not, nor whether he felt he was unable – or unwilling – to stop the advance party’s approach. However, both the Lanercost chronicler and Thomas Grey in his Scalcronica, are agreed that for some reason or other the advance party did not stop but that – in the highly unlikely case of it suffering some check – the English decided to send forward an additional force of 300 horsemen under Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont (Barbour had their numbers as high as 800) along open ground to the east of the road either to help relieve the castle or to surround the woods at its base to prevent the Scots getting away.18

Whether the English main body halted before Clifford and Beaumont’s powerful detachment was despatched is not altogether clear. It is more than possible that it did. However, the direction Clifford and Beaumont chose for their own sweep is indisputable. To reach the castle unawares their obvious approach was by Moubray’s route, fording the Bannock Burn at a point west of the Roman road and making their way round the back of Gillies Hill. In fact, they opted for a much shorter route, crossing the burn where the gorge levelled out and following the bridle path that ran below the sharp descent onto the carse. They must have thought it a good decision for they could see Stirling Castle directly ahead of them outlined in the bright sun. To their immediate front the plain appeared to be clear of enemy troops and, after they had forded the fast-flowing Pelstream and spurred their horses up its further bank, it seemed as if nothing could prevent them from reaching their goal.

Meanwhile, the English vanguard continued its progression up the Roman road directly towards the Scottish positions. If Moubray had come upon the English column at a point behind the vanguard he would not have been able to tell them about the Scots’ dispositions and, even if the king had taken Moubray’s warnings seriously and despatched a herald forward, he would not have reached the vanguard before they met the Scottish opposition. Barbour, for one is quite clear the vanguard were told nothing of Moubray’s warnings for he describes the army halting and taking council whether they should pitch camp that night or join battle at once. But, says Barbour, ‘the vanguard knew nothing of this halt and delay and rode with good array, without stopping, straight to the Park’.19 For this to happen one must question whether the English king was fully in control of events and, if not, whether he had appointed one of his veteran commanders, such as Valence, to co-ordinate matters on his behalf. For whatever reasons, two separate groups were now rapidly approaching the Scottish positions, the cavalry battle under Clifford and Beaumont moving by way of a bridle path below the scarp, seeking a route to Stirling Castle in order to relieve it, and the vanguard, the corps d’élite of the English army, moving towards the castle by way of the Roman road. Neither seemed aware of the other. The English command system was already starting to unravel.

Equally serious, the English problems of command were not only felt at the highest level, but further down the hierarchy as well, for the king had allowed both detachments to be under joint command, a disastrous situation during a battle. The Romans had operated the unwieldy command system of consuls taking control on alternate days, but on each day no one could doubt who was in charge. Barbour suggests that Clifford had the chief command of his and Beaumont’s forces, although this is by no means certain. More serious still, there was no acknowledged commander of the vanguard where the young, spirited Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, the king’s nephew, shared command with the imperious Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford, hereditary constable of England, and a bitter rival of the Clares.

Both advancing formations moved with a lack of caution suggesting they were still far from convinced the Scots would dare to take on heavy cavalry in open battle. A clash between the English and Scottish forces was now certain: on what scale and with what results would soon become evident.

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