In the spring of 1313, before the heather was purple on the hills, a Scottish army was pressing the English garrison at Stirling. Sir Philip Mowbray was governor of the castle, and with him Edward Bruce, who led the Scots, made a compact. If an English army did not relieve the castle by June 24, 1314, it was to be surrendered to the Scottish king.
When Edward Bruce told his brother of the compact he had made, Bruce shook his head at his rashness. "That was unwisely done," said he. "I never heard of such long warning being given to so mighty a king. England, Ireland, Wales, Aquitaine, and part of Scotland are all ready to fight for him, and what army have we? Indeed we are set in great danger."
"Let Edward bring every man he has," said Edward Bruce; "we will fight them were they more!"
Bruce loved his brother for his bold speech.
"Since the deed is done," said he, "then truly will we fight like men, we and all that love us and the freedom of our country."
In England King Edward busily prepared for the great defeat of the Scots and their king.
He levied men, horses, ships, wines, hay, grain, and provisions of all kinds.
Welsh and Irish chiefs, knights from France and Brittany, and Scots who had not yet learned to love their country, were called on by Edward to come and share in the victory. When, at length, it was fully mustered, his army was said to have been over 100,000, 40,000 of them being cavalry, and 50,000 archers.
There were 3000 horses "barded from counter to tail"—that is, covered with mail, like their masters, so thoroughly that no thrust of spear nor stroke of sword could harm them. It is said that the baggage waggons extended in a line would have reached to sixty miles. They were loaded with every kind of luxury, and so sure was King Edward of the relief of Stirling Castle, and of the pleasant days of picnicking that he and his friends were to have that June in Scotland, that he even brought his tame lion with him.
This gallant host assembled at Berwick, and on a June morning, with armour glinting in the sun and gay banners flying, they marched northward, past the silvery Tweed and the high cliffs by the sea.
On June 23, 1314, the army had reached Falkirk, little more than ten miles from Stirling.
In the Torwood, between Stirling and Falkirk, the Bruce had assembled his forces.
The men of the Border were led by the Black Douglas. Those of Moray were commanded by Randolph. Renfrewshire, Bute, and Ayr were led by gallant young Walter Steward, who afterwards married Bruce's daughter Marjory. Bruce himself commanded the men of Carrick, and Angus Og, a chieftain of the west, led the wild Highlanders of the western isles. Edward Bruce and other skilled generals also held commands, but, in all, the Bruce's army could not have exceeded 20,000. The Bruce had no fear but that every man would fight stoutly and to the death, but it needed a brave general to lead an army against an enemy that outnumbered him by five to one.
But Bruce's generalship had not been learned in the ease of an English court, but in years of hardship, when his head, as well as his sword, had to work hard to save a life which was forfeit. He quickly took in the lie of the land, and waited to make his final plans until he saw what Edward and his splendid battalions meant to do.
There were two ways of advancing from Falkirk to Stirling. Either the English army had to come along the old Roman road, and through the village of St. Ninians, or by the "carse" or plain beside the river Forth, which in those days was broken up by little reedy "lochans." Edward, of course, chose the easier way, and Bruce, who was ready with a plan of campaign for whichever way he might choose, took up his position in the park near Stirling, which had been the hunting-ground of the Scottish kings for many long years. Hills and ridges rose behind the park. To the east lay a marshy piece of land, and in front it was defended by Halbert's Bog and Milton's Bog, and by a tumbling streamlet, called the Bannock. At one point the Bannock winds through a steep-banked gully, where cavalry would find it almost impossible to cross, and the bogs lay on either side of the Roman road by which Edward and his men were advancing.
The only way in which the English troops could come to the attack, therefore, was for them to break up into two columns, one column advancing between the two bogs on a piece of firm ground which formed a sort of bridge, and the other going some distance round to where they could escape from the marshes and attack by coming on through some scrubby undergrowth on the fringe of the Torwood.
These two avenues for the approach of the enemy Bruce honeycombed with holes, a foot wide, and as deep as a man's knee, and hidden by turfs laid lightly over them. On the ground between the holes he scattered caltrops, or iron spikes, for laming the horses which managed to avoid these traps.
At sunrise on June 23rd the Scottish army heard mass and were shriven, for in those days the people of Scotland, and of England too, were Roman Catholics. It was S. John's Eve, a holy day in the Roman Church, and so the army fasted, eating only bread, and drinking water.
When mass was done, the Bruce rode over the field to see that all was ready. He found all as he wished, and had his army drawn up before him in full battle array.
"All you," said he, "who cannot trust yourselves to hold out until we win all, or to die with honour, now is the time for you to leave me. I wish none to stay with me but those who are ready to stand with me to the end, and to take the grace that God will send."
From every one of those Scottish men came a great shout like the voice of one man speaking—"We will win or die!"
When the Bruce heard this answer, and saw not one man leaving the ranks, his heart was glad.
"Such men in battle will hold their own even with the mightiest foe," thought he.
All the camp-followers, those who drove the baggage-waggons, and others who were not fighting men, he then sent off to encamp on a height behind the Torwood. It has been known ever since then as the Ghillies' (or Servants') Hill.
He then sent off the Black Douglas and Sir Robert Keith on a scouting expedition, to gain news of the movements of the English army. At noon they returned to tell him that the enemy was advancing. It was a mighty host, they said. Their burnished armour shone in the sun; their embroidered standards and banners were waving, and from each knight's spear fluttered his own brightly coloured pennon. It was an army so magnificent that it might have daunted the bravest heart.
"Do not tell this to our men," said the king. "A single word may often give despair, just as a single word can give comfort and courage."
Then he went the round of the camp, speaking to his men so cheerily and so encouragingly that even the most faint-hearted felt brave.
Soon the vanguard of the English army came in sight. The nine miles' march from Falkirk on a hot June day made the English long for rest before meeting the Scots in battle, and so the body of the army encamped in the carse near the river. The vanguard, however, were more eager to fight. There were 800, all "young men and jolly," says the old historian. Led by three gallant knights, 300 of them made for Stirling Castle. So sure were they of themselves, and so scornful of "King Hobbe" and his men, that it must have seemed ah easy thing to relieve the castle and wipe out the Scots before they dined.
They skirted the wood at the part where Randolph's division had been posted, and the Bruce anxiously saw them riding on in safety.
"See, Randolph," said the king, " a rose from your chaplet is fallen."
This was the Bruce's way of putting, in the poetic words that he loved, the fact that Randolph had allowed the enemy to pass without hindrance.
To this the only answer Randolph gave was to set spurs to his horse and lead his men in furious charge after the 300 gallant Englishmen. When the English saw their advance, they wheeled round, and with couched spears spurred forward to meet them.
But a bristling hedge of pikes—a thing like a great hedgehog with its prickles made of steel—met the Englishmen when they came to close quarters with Randolph and his men. The Scots, all on foot, had formed themselves into a square, each man in the front rank having the butt of his pike firmly between his knees. On this bristling mass of steel the English cast themselves like waves that break on a great rock by the sea. One of their leaders, Sir William D'Eyncourt, fell dead at once. The horse of another, Sir Thomas Grey, was pierced by a pike and he was taken prisoner. Horses and men were oppressed by the heat. Steam rose from the horses and mingled with the dust that circled round them in clouds, so that they fought as if in a fog. Growing desperate, the Englishmen threw swords, spears, and maces at those grim Scottish fighters to try and break their square. But the men were ancestors of the men who fought five centuries later at Balaclava.
"Men," cried Sir Colin Campbell in 1854, "you must die where you stand!"
"Ay, ay, Sir Colin, we'll do that," they cheerily replied.
"We will win or die," the Scots had said to the Bruce.
"They thought to die in the melee Or else to set their country free."
And this the 300 "jolly" young Englishmen learned to their cost.
The Black Douglas, who had seen Randolph go forward to attack a force by which he was so greatly outnumbered, hastened to the king.
"Randolph is in deadly peril, sire," he said, "unless help comes to him soon. With your leave I will speed to his aid."
"Let him win or lose," said the king. "I will not break my ranks for his sake."
But the Black Douglas was obstinate.
"By my faith, I cannot see him beaten when I might help him," he said. "Give me leave to go, for go I must."
"Then go," said the Bruce, and Douglas galloped off.
But as he drew near the place where Scots and English were fighting so desperately, Douglas saw the Englishmen waver. The Douglas was always a perfect knight, and so to his men he called—
"Halt! Randolph has gained the day. Let it not be said that it was through our help that he did it. It were a sin to let him lose any of the honour that he, through hard fighting, has won so gallantly."
When Randolph saw the enemy waver, he pressed them the more sorely. Before that terrible wall of advancing pikes the English broke in disorder, and galloped back to safety, leaving many dead and cruelly wounded men and horses behind.
The Scotsmen took off their basnets and cooled their streaming faces, begrimed with dust and sweat. Of all their company, so we are told, they lost but one yeoman.
"Bravely done," said Bruce to Randolph and his men as they rejoined him. "We ought to praise God for so fair a beginning. I trow that a good ending shall follow it."
He then spoke to his army.
"I do not ask you to follow my will," he said. "Rather I will do as you wish. If it is your will to fight, we shall fight. If you wish to retreat, then so be it."
This he said only to try his men. And again from the Scottish ranks arose a mighty shout—
"To-morrow let us go to battle. We will not fail our king!"
The Bruce drove his battle-axe crashing down on de Bohun's head.
"To-morrow be it, then," said the Bruce, and he gave them orders for battle. "We fight for our lives, our children, and the freedom of our land. Our foes are strong, yet with us is the right."
While what was left of the gallant 300 wearily returned to the main body of the army, the rest of the English vanguard, under the young Earl of Gloucester, rode into the park, where Bruce was reviewing his men.
The king did not wear his full armour. He was mounted on a little, well-mettled grey pony. On his basnet he wore a gold coronal, and he carried his trusty battle-axe in his hand.
A bowshot in front of the English van rode a knight named Sir Henry de Bohun. He was in full armour, and rode a splendid charger. When he saw the golden circlet on the Bruce's head, he knew him to be the king. He put his horse to the gallop, and bore fiercely down upon the grey palfrey. A mighty blow he dealt at the king as he reached his side, but Bruce must have made the pony swerve, for the blow missed him. Rising in his stirrups, the Bruce, with all his force, drove his battle-axe crashing down on De Bohun's head. It cleft the knight's head in two, the axe breaking in that stroke.
Bruce's spearmen hurried forward, but the English hastily retreated. The Bruce's lords blamed him for his rashness, but he, ruefully turning round in his hand the shaft of his broken battle-axe, made no reply.
That night the English army spent in drinking and in revelry. Drunken shouts of "Was-sail!" and " Drinkhail!" reached the Scottish lines.
No sound came from the ranks where Scotsmen fasted, prayed, and thought in silence of the morrow.
When the sun of Midsummer Day rose, it saw the Scots kneeling at mass. After mass they breakfasted, and the king then knighted the Black Douglas, young Walter Steward, and some others. The army then moved out of the wood, and took up the positions that the Bruce had planned. While they were taking their places, the English army appeared.
Their burnished armour glittered like gold in the sun. Their gorgeous banners and standards and gay pennons swung as they marched. To the watchers on the Ghillies' Hill above, the host must have looked like one of the most brilliant flower-beds that one sees in a garden in June.
There was little colour in the Scottish lines, no brilliant heraldry nor splendid armour.
"Will these men fight?" asked King Edward, looking at them in scorn.
In sooth they will," answered Sir Ingram de Umphraville, one of his knights. He advised the king to feign a retreat, and thus beguile the Scots into breaking their ranks, pursuing them, and thus falling into their hands.
"That I will not do!" said Edward proudly. "Let it never be said that I retired before that rabble."
Almost as he spoke, the Abbot of Inchaffray bore a crucifix along the Scottish lines, and each division knelt and silently prayed as he passed.
"See!" cried Edward. "They kneel for mercy!"
"Yes, but not of you," replied Sir Ingram. "It is God's mercy that they seek. I tell you of a surety these men will win or die."
"So be it," said the king. "We shall soon see."
Then he bade his trumpeters sound the advance.
The English vanguard led the attack, making a dashing cavalry charge on Edward Bruce's division. It was a fierce hand-to-hand fight. Many men on both sides soon lay dead.
Wounded and riderless horses plunged and reared in fierce confusion. The heavy cavalry suffered greatly from the pits the Bruce had made for them, yet they bravely pressed on, protected by the English bowmen, whose arrows fell in a hideous shower, thick and fast as snowflakes, sowing death as they fell. There was a crash of splintered lances, the crash and clang of swords falling on helmets, the terrible cries of men and of horses in dying agony.
To the aid of Edward Bruce's division came Randolph and his men. With spears outthrust they moved slowly forwards, "as they were plunged in the sea " of knights. Their foes were ten to one; the grass grew red and slippery with blood. The English spears, maces, swords, and daggers did terrible work. The arrows smote them in clouds. Yet Randolph and the men of Moray held on their way. No rose dropped from the young earl's chaplet that day.
Douglas and Walter Steward came to Randolph's aid. The men of the Border did ghastly execution with their iron-knobbed staves, made in Jedburgh, but the English received them unflinchingly. Soon the blood stood on the field in pools.
The time had come for Bruce to order his little body of cavalry into action. Sir Robert Keith, with 500 armour-clad horsemen, charged the English archers in the flank, and scattered them in flight.
Now was the chance of the Scottish archers. The hard-pressed Englishmen were battered by arrows, and the archers, getting into close range, drew their knives and hacked and cut and hewed their way through the English ranks.
Hither and thither the battle swayed. Now the Scots seemed to be gaining the day; now the English won some ground.
The Scots, we are told, "fought as if they were in a rage; they laid on as madmen."
The gallant young Earl of Gloucester had his charger killed under him, and was slain ere he could rise from the ground, and the loss of their leader dazed his men.
Between the burn and Halbert's Bog the fight was at its fiercest.
The June sun looked down on riderless horses, galloping at mad pace in dire panic hither and thither, seeking escape, or struggling and floundering helplessly in violent throes in bogs or burn.
Many a brave man—
"Down under foot was lying dead
Where all the field of blood was red."
The Scots, with desperate fury, were shouting "On them! on them! on them! they fail!" and the English army, though getting each moment into more hopeless confusion, was still fighting with splendid courage, when, by what people call "an accident," the fate of the day was decided.
The camp-followers and country people on the Ghillies' Hill had heard that cry of "On them! they fail!"
No longer could they watch the fight from afar. Rich plunder was within their reach, plenty of fighting was still to be had.
With blankets fastened to pikes and to cut saplings for their banners, they came helter-skelter down the Ghillies' Hill—15,000 of them, or more—shouting the slogans of the Highland and the Border clans.
The English never doubted but that this was a fresh army, and panic seized them.
The Bruce, marking this, pealed forth his battle-cry.
With fresh courage the Scots pressed onward and broke the English line. The English fell back before them, back, further back, until they resisted no longer, but fled in hopeless rout. Many made for the river Forth, hoping to cross it, and were drowned.
Horsemen and foot were driven into the Bannock, until the burn was so full of the slain that men could cross it dryshod. Only a few brave Englishmen still made a stand, but they were soon slain or taken prisoner. The rabble of the camp had come to plunder and to kill, and from them no Englishman might hope for mercy.
The day was lost for England.
Scotland had gained one of the world's greatest victories.
King Edward had watched the battle from a height above the field. Even now he would not believe that the day was lost. Not a minute too soon, the knights who rode with him seized his bridle-rein and forced him to gallop away. The foremost knights of Edward Bruce's division on foot had charged the height where the king was stationed. Their hands gripped the gorgeous trappings of the royal charger before Edward could make his escape. While his knights defended him, Edward laid about him with his mace. The Scots stabbed his horse, but at once he was mounted on another, and managed to get clear away.
Sir Giles de Argentine, the third best knight on the field that day—a gallant Crusader—rode with his king so far on the way to Stirling Castle. "For me, I am not of custom to fly," he said, " nor shall I do so now. God keep you!"
With that he spurred back to the field, crying "Argentine!' and fell pierced by the Scottish spears.
Edward and his other knights made for Stirling, but Mowbray, the governor, told him that the castle was sure to be taken at once, and that he must go on.
With 500 horse he spurred onwards, the Black Douglas following in hot pursuit, with sixty men. On the way, a detachment of eighty English horsemen under Laurence de Abernethy met Douglas. They had meant to come and fight for Edward, but on hearing of England's defeat they joined in pursuit of the king.
It was a terrible chase, that race from Stirling to Berwick. No man of the English dared dismount from his horse, for it meant almost certain death. Every man whose weary horse lagged behind was taken or slain.
At Dunbar the king and seventeen followers found refuge with the Earl of March. The rest of his men were forced to ride on to Berwick. Their fate was nothing to the king so long as he himself was safe. In a little fishing-smack he sailed from Dunbar and reached Berwick in safety.
While his foaming horse galloped southwards, he had vowed a vow to the Virgin Mary to build a house for twenty-four poor and godly students if he got off with his life. He kept his promise, and Oriel College, Oxford, still stands as a memorial of that grim ride to Dunbar, and that royal voyage past the rocks and rugged cliffs of the bleak east coast.
It is not possible to say how many men died on the field of Bannockburn, but an old historian puts the number at 30,000.
Twenty-one English barons and baronets, forty-two knights, and 700 other gentlemen "of coat-armour" were slain. The prisoners were so many and so rich that English gold paid as ransoms made Scotland, for the time, a rich country. Rich, too, was the spoil that Edward and his army left behind. The food waggons were well supplied. There were big siege guns for firing stones, and arms of every kind. Gorgeous clothing, chests of jewels, gold and silver plate, had all been brought by Edward and his luxury-loving knights to the Scottish campaign. Magnificent vestments had also been brought, to be worn by the priests who were to hold a service to celebrate the victory of Edward at Bannockburn. A poem describing the defeat had been written beforehand by a Carmelite friar named Baston who came in Edward's train. He was taken prisoner, and gladly bought his life by revising and altering his poem so as to make it sing the praises of the Scots and their glorious victory.
All Midsummer's Night the brave Sir Marmaduke de Twenge hid in the Torwood. In the morning, when the Bruce came to look at the field of battle, the knight came out of his hiding-place and knelt before him.
The king greeted him kindly.
"To whom do you yield yourself a prisoner?" he asked.
"To none save your majesty," answered the knight.
"And I receive thee, sir," said the king.
As the Bruce's guest, De Twenge was most hospitably entertained, and was sent back to England without ransom and with a handsome present.
To other knights the Bruce was equally kind, and even the English chroniclers could tell of him nothing that was not courteous, generous, and merciful.
Stirling Castle was delivered up, and its governor, Sir Philip Mowbray, entered the Bruce's service.
The king had come to his own, but it was not until October that, by the exchange of the Earl of Hereford, one of the most powerful of his prisoners, he won back the wife and daughter from whom he had parted nine long years before.