Gateway to the Classics: Stories from English History, Book I by Alfred J. Church
Stories from English History, Book I by  Alfred J. Church

The Battle of Bannockburn

E DWARD I set his heart on making one kingdom of the island of Great Britain. First he conquered Wales; and to his son Edward, who was born just then in the Welsh town of Carnarvon, he gave the title of Prince of Wales. Then he set himself to bring Scotland under his power. When it was doubtful who ought to be king, he was asked to decide, and he decided in favour of John Baliol, who was ready to acknowledge him as his superior. But the Scotch people were very unwilling to submit. John Baliol revolted, and Edward marched into Scotland, deposed him, and put English garrisons into the strong places.

The Scotch rose against them under William Wallace, and defeated the English at Stirling (this was in 1297 A.D.) Then King Edward marched again into Scotland, defeated Wallace at Stirling (1298), and conquered the country. The Scotch rose again under Robert Bruce. Edward was about to invade the country a third time when he died (at Burgh-on-Sands, in 1307). When he was dying he entreated his son (afterwards Edward II) to carry on the war. It is said that he commanded that his bones should be carried in a chest with the army, so that even after his death he might still be helping to carry out his purpose. Edward II paid no attention to these requests, but gave up the expedition.

For the next seven years Robert Bruce became more and more powerful, and the English weaker. King Edward twice invaded Scotland, but both times failed to do anything. He was very unlike the great king his father, being careless and fond of pleasure; and thus all that Edward I had gained in Scotland was lost by his son. So England and Scotland remained separate kingdoms for three hundred years more.

The English garrison in Stirling Castle, which was now almost the only strong place that was held in Scotland for King Edward, was hard pressed by the Scotch. Its commander offered to give it up to the besiegers, if he did not receive help by Midsummer Day (June 24). This was in the year 1314. When King Edward heard that the castle was in danger, he sent out messengers calling all the soldiers in England to meet at Berwick-on-Tweed on the 11th day of June. Besides the English there was to be a great body of soldiers from Ireland. Altogether nearly one hundred thousand men assembled at Berwick. Robert Bruce had not been able to collect half as many.

King Edward now marched forward to relieve the castle (which was about ninety miles from Berwick). He reached it on Sunday, the 23rd of June, one day before the time on which it was to surrender. Robert Bruce had drawn up his army in three squares; these three made one line, which reached from the brook of Bannock to the castle. Behind them was a fourth division, in which were the Highlanders and the men of the Western Isles and Bruce's own followers. In front of the line he caused some pits to be dug; in these sharp-pointed stakes were fixed, and they were covered over with brushwood.

King Edward, as soon as he came in sight of the castle, sent a body of cavalry which was to make a round, and so getting past the line of the Scottish soldiers, to relieve the castle. Bruce saw what was going on, and blamed his nephew Randolph for letting the English horsemen pass him. "Randolph," he said to him, "a rose has fallen from your crown." Randolph at once rode off with a body of Scottish cavalry, and charged the English furiously. At one time it seemed as if they would be too strong for him, and Sir James Douglas went with part of the second division to help him. But just as he came up, he saw that the English were giving way; thereupon he held his soldiers back. "We will not make the glory of these brave men less," he said.

Bruce himself did a gallant deed that day. An English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, rode out of the English line, mounted on a war-horse. Bruce went out to meet him; all could see that he was king by the crown on his helmet. He was riding on a small palfrey, and he was armed with a battle-axe. The English knight rode furiously at him with his spear in rest; but Bruce avoided the stroke, and, rising in his stirrups as the knight passed him, struck him a great blow on his helmet. The battle-axe was shivered to pieces, but the helmet was broken in, and Sir Henry de Bohun fell dead to the ground. This happened on the day before the battle.

Early on Midsummer Day the first line of the English army began to move forward; a little behind came the main body, which was led by King Edward himself. As they advanced, they saw the whole line of the Scottish army kneel down. A priest was praying to God to help them in the battle, and all the soldiers kneeled as they joined in the prayer. "See!" cried some of the English; "they are begging for mercy."  "Yes," answered one of the knights, "they are begging for mercy; but it is from God."

And now it could be seen how well Bruce had chosen his place. The English army was more than twice as large as the Scottish; but only a part of it could get near the enemy. Some of the divisions had nothing to do with the fighting from the beginning to the end of the battle. They could not get near enough to strike a blow. Still there were some who fought well. There was a body of archers who poured their arrows fast and thick into the ranks of the Scottish soldiers, and struck many of them to the earth. When Bruce saw what damage they were doing, he sent a company of horsemen to charge them from the side. The archers had no swords with which to defend themselves, and when they were attacked in this way, they could not hold their ground, but broke and fled. The English line first stopped, then wavered, then began to fall back. When Bruce saw this he led his own division forward. The English knights charged fiercely; but many of them fell into the pits. Their horses were lamed, and they themselves thrown. Still the Englishmen, being brave men, and accustomed to win battles, held out.

Then, all of a sudden, there appeared upon the hills what seemed to be a new Scottish army. They were only the servants and camp-followers; but they had banners with them, and shouted like soldiers. This was more than the English could bear. For all that their leaders could do, they turned and fled. The slaughter was terrible; for there had been war between the two nations for many years, and there were many things to avenge. Twenty-seven barons, two hundred knights, and thirty thousand men were killed that day. As for King Edward himself, he fled from the field of battle; for sixty miles he rode almost without stopping, except to change his horse. When he reached Dunbar, he got on board ship, and went by sea to Berwick. The brave knight who was with him turned back, after seeing him safely off the field, rode back, charged into the middle of the enemy, and so was killed.

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