Post-classical history

Chapter Sixty-Two

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The Triumph of the Bruce

Between 1304 and 1314, Edward I subdues the ScotsEdward II flees from themand Robert Bruce becomes their king

EIGHT YEARS of desperate fighting against the English had resulted in little gain for the Scots.

William Wallace had followed up his victory at Stirling Bridge with an invasion of England itself and had returned to Scotland loaded with plunder and glory. But the following year an English army crushed Wallace’s men in the Forth valley near Falkirk, and Wallace was driven into hiding. Four more years of fighting yielded no real advantage for either side, and no single leader of the Scottish cause emerged. Edward, anticipating a victory yet to be won, awarded the title Prince of Wales to his oldest son, also named Edward; the first time an English heir apparent had claimed it.

In 1302 a brief peace had been declared. But nine months later, Edward invaded Scotland once more. Deprived of Wallace, deprived of French support, the Scots were defeated again and again. By Easter of 1304, Edward had fought his way up to Stirling Castle on the river Forth.

He planned the attack on the castle as a massive demonstration of English strength; he had commissioned a mammoth new trebuchet nicknamed the “War-wolf,” and as the siege began five master carpenters and fifty craftsmen were still assembling it outside Stirling’s walls. Prince Edward, just turned twenty and in command of one wing of the English army, was sent to collect lead from the roofs of nearby churches to add to the counterweight. When the outmatched garrison in the castle tried to surrender, the king refused to accept until the trebuchet could hurl its first boulders: “Stirling Castle was absolutely surrendered to the King without conditions this Monday, St. Margaret’s Day [July 20],” one of his knights wrote in a letter home, “but the King wills it that none of his people enter the castle till it is struck with his ‘War-wolf.’” Only when the walls were battered to bits did he allow the garrison to yield.1

This seemed to wrap the matter up. “Both great and small in the kingdom of Scotland (except William Wallace alone) had made their submission,” says John of Fordun, “. . . and after all and sundry of Scottish birth had tendered him homage, the king, with the Prince of Wales, and his whole army returned to England.” He left a Chief Warden as vice-regent in his place, and never entered Scotland again.2

Eleven months later, William Wallace was taken prisoner by John Menteith, the English-appointed governor of Dumbarton Castle; the fourteenth-century chronicler Peter of Langtoft notes, without elaboration, that Wallace was betrayed to Menteith by his own servant, Jack Short, and was “taken unexpected at night.” He was sent to London, where, after a trial that consisted of a recitation of his crimes without any chance for defense, he was hanged, cut down and disemboweled alive, and then beheaded as his intestines were burned in front of him. “His body was hewn into four quarters to hang in four towns,” says Langtoft, “his head at London, his quarters spread throughout Scotland.”3

As far as Edward was concerned, this brought an end to the Scottish matter; but the Scots were not yet finished resisting.

Robert Bruce the Sixth, onetime companion of Edward on the Sixth Crusade, had fought for the English since the beginning of the war for independence. Scottish accounts tell us that he had become disenchanted with the English administration of Scotland (“indignant at the cruel bondage of the kingdom and the ceaseless ill-treatment of the people,” says the contemporary Chronicle of Pluscarden), but there were more practical drawbacks to his English alliance: he had spent a good deal of his own money on the English campaign, he had not been reimbursed by the crown, and Edward I had neglected to reward his loyalty in any way. In March of 1306, he mounted a renewal of the Scottish rebellion, declaring himself King of the Scots and taking Edward completely by surprise.4

Once again, English armies marched into Scotland. And, as had become the pattern for the Scottish rebellions, Bruce was almost at once driven into hiding. He was defeated twice in succession, the first time in June near Perth, the second time on August 11 at Dalry, much deeper into Scottish territory. His men were forced into hiding, and Bruce himself became a fugitive, living “a most wretched life in the wilderness,” as the Chronicle of Pluscarden tells us:

He sometimes went a whole fortnight without taking any food but raw herbs, water and milk . . . now walking barefoot when his shoes were worn out with age; now left alone in the islands; now alone, unknown, fleeing from his enemies; now slighted and despised by his own servants, he remained utterly deserted, an outcast from all his acquaintances.5

But he remained out of English hands, and while Bruce was at large, the Scots still hoped for victory.

EDWARD I WAS ILL. He had been slow to arrive at the Scottish front, after Bruce’s coronation, because he was suffering from pains in his legs and his neck and could ride only two miles per day. He grew a little stronger over the winter, but the illness returned in the summer of 1307. He was on his way back to Scotland when he came down with dysentery; already weakened, he died suddenly on July 6, while his servants were getting him out of bed for breakfast. It was his thirty-fifth year as king of England.6

The Prince of Wales was crowned Edward II of England, and almost at once Bruce emerged from the shadows and began to regather his armies. Scotland’s fortunes took a sharp turn towards the good; Edward II was less concerned with Robert Bruce than with arranging the royal household to suit himself. He was, says the contemporary Vita Edwardi Secundi, “a strong young man in about his twenty-third year . . . [who] did not fulfil his father’s ambition, but turned his mind to other things.”7

One of his first acts as king was to call back, from exile, his close friend Piers Gaveston. Gaveston and Edward II had grown up together, and the two young men had become so inseparable that the older Edward grew annoyed: “He realized that his son, the prince of Wales, loved a certain Gascon knight well beyond measure,” remarks the fourteenth-century Annales Paulini. When the Prince of Wales demanded that Gaveston be given the title Count of Ponthieu (a Norman countship that had belonged to Edward I himself), the king flew into a fury and banished Gaveston to his ancestral lands in Gascony,* a southwestern French province controlled by the English crown.† Young Edward was forced to swear that he would “neither receive, nor keep with him nor about him” the banished knight, and on his deathbed Edward I asked the earls of Lincoln, Warwick and Pembroke “not to suffer Piers Gaveston to come again into England.”8

Defying his barons, Edward II invited Gaveston back into England (“with the dead king not yet even buried,” notes the chronicler Walter of Guisborough with disapproval) and made him the Earl of Cornwall. When in 1308, Edward II traveled to France to celebrate his promised and long-delayed marriage to Isabella, daughter of Philip IV (the Fair), he left Gaveston as regent of the kingdom in his absence.9

He returned to find the barons fed to the teeth with his favorite. Gaveston, says the Vita, was a tactless regent, “a man very proud and haughty in bearing.” Court gossip said that he and the king were lovers, but the resentment against Gaveston had less to do with a rumored and unproven sexual relationship and more to do with the young king’s willingness to treat his personal friends with such lavish and obvious favoritism: “The great men of the land hated him,” the Vita explains, “because he alone found favour in the king’s eyes and lorded it over them like a second king.”10

With almost one voice, the barons demanded that Edward get rid of Gaveston. The king saved some face by sending Gaveston to Ireland to act as his lieutenant there; but the united hostility of his barons unsettled him, and he began unobtrusively to prepare for civil war. “When the king saw that his barons stood against him like a wall,” the Vita says, “. . . he tried to break up their alliance and draw the more powerful to his side . . . with gifts, promises, and blandishments.” In this way, he rounded up enough support to allow for Gaveston’s return, but the royal favorite was unable to fit himself back neatly into the court hierarchy. With his old importance restored, he “began to behave worse than before,” calling his enemies by insulting nicknames and using his power to grant offices and privileges to his own favorites.11

Meanwhile, Edward II had finally gotten around to taking notice of Robert Bruce. In the fall of 1310, he marched into Scotland with an army; but Bruce and his freedom fighters evaded him, lurking in hiding, then emerging to plunder the English camps and pick off isolated reconnaissance parties before disappearing again. The unfruitful campaign dragged on for months, Bruce gaining in strength, the English losing horses, men, and confidence.12

Early in 1312, with the English army in winter quarters near the border and Edward himself back in England, the English barons began to plan Gaveston’s murder. Their chance came in May, when the two men were briefly apart: Gaveston in Scarborough, Edward II in York. Led by the Earl of Lancaster, Gaveston’s enemies surrounded the castle where the young knight had spent the night and forced him to emerge. They had already decided, says the Vita Edwardi Secundi, that he should die “as a nobleman and a Roman citizen” rather than as a thief or traitor; so they led him out onto the Earl of Lancaster’s land and beheaded him.13

They left him where he fell, but nearby Dominican friars gathered up the body and head, and buried them together.

Edward, grieved and infuriated in equal measure, could not muster enough support to attack the offenders. He was forced to accept a mediated peace with them, in which they protested that they had acted only to preserve the king’s power, and with his good in mind; but he did not forget.

He had now been on the throne for nearly seven years and had accomplished almost nothing. In the summer of 1314, he attempted to right this by marching into Scotland personally with additional reinforcements, hoping to bring the ongoing and exasperating war to an end. Like everything else he attempted, the invasion failed. The English army met the Scots at Bannockburn, where the Scots—fighting almost entirely on foot—managed to draw the heavier English cavalry forward, across pits that had been dug and covered over lightly. The horses floundered in the pits; the cavalry behind panicked and retreated; Edward himself, at the rear of the army, turned and rode to safety as fast as possible.

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62.1 The Battle of Bannockburn

“From that day forward,” John of Fordun concludes, “the whole land of Scotland . . . rejoiced in victory over the English.” Robert Bruce was no longer a rebel: “After the victory,” says the Chronicle of Lanercost, “Robert Bruce was commonly called King of Scotland by all men.” Immediately he launched a war of conquest, sending ships to Ireland and marching over the border into northern England to raid, burn, and plunder.14

Meanwhile, Edward was forced to return to London in humiliation. “If he had followed the advice of the barons,” remarks the Vita, “he would have humbled the Scots with ease.” This fact had not escaped the barons; and a full revolt was delayed only because England was now facing a new crisis.

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*See map 59.1, p. 415.

†Philip IV had given up claim to Gascony in the 1303 Treaty of Paris.

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