On Sunday the 23rd of June 1314 a.d. , the day before the Governor of Stirling had promised to give up the castle, the two armies came in sight of each other. King Robert's army was much smaller than that of the English. But in Bruce, the Scots had a brave and gallant leader. He knew how much depended upon this battle, and he took every care to make the best of his men, and the best of his position. Courage alone he knew could not beat the mighty host that was coming against him, so he thought and planned carefully.
He chose a very strong position. It was a plain guarded in front by bogs and marshes. At one side flowed a little river called the Bannock, with steep rocky banks; on the other rose the castle rock. In front, wherever the land was firm, Bruce made his men dig holes a few feet deep. These holes were then filled with branches and twigs of gorse, over which the turf was again lightly placed. From a distance the plain seemed firm and solid; really it was filled with pits. Besides digging these holes, Bruce made his men scatter iron spikes, called calthrops, over the field.
Having finished his preparations, the King sent all the servants, camp followers, and untrained men, out of the army, and made them go behind a hill. This hill was afterwards called the Gillies' Hill, that is, the servants' hill.
When Bruce heard that the English were near, he drew his soldiers up in line, and made a speech to them. He reminded them of all they had suffered, of what they had so hardly won, of what they might so easily again lose if they were not brave and determined; he prayed every man who was not ready to fight to the death, to leave the army.
"Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled,
Scots, wham Bruce has aften led,
Welcome to your gory bed,
Or to victory.
Now's the day, and now's the hour;
See the front of battle lower;
See approach proud Edward's
Chains and slavery.
"Wha will be a traitor knave?
Wha can fill a coward's grave?
Wha sae base as be a slave?
Let him turn and flee.
Wha for Scotland's King and law
Freedom's sword will strongly draw,
Freeman stand, or freeman fa',
Let him on wi' me.
"By oppression's woes and pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free.
Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty's in every blow
Let us do—or die."
Edward Bruce led the right wing of the army, Douglas, the centre, and to Randolph was given the left, with a command that he should let no Englishman get into Stirling. The King, mounted upon a little pony, rode up and down in front of the lines, making sure that all was ready, although he did not expect to have to fight that day. He wore a golden crown on his helmet, so that all might see that he was the King. He was clad in complete armour, but carried no weapon except a battle-axe.
The English host swept on, their armour and weapons glittering in the June sunshine, their gay banners fluttering in the breeze. On they came, with sound of music and trumpets, till the hills echoed and re-echoed.
As Bruce rode up and down he watched everything with his keen eye, and presently he saw the glint of steel away to the left. A party of English horsemen were quietly making their way towards Stirling.
"Ah! Randolph," said the King, pointing to the horsemen, "a rose has fallen from your crown." By this he meant that Randolph had been careless of the trust given to him and had lost a chance of renown.
Ashamed of himself, Randolph made no reply, but calling to his men dashed off at full speed towards the English. He was upon them before they reached the town, and a fierce fight followed. But the English were twice as many as Randolph's little band, and it seemed for a time as if the Scots were getting the worst of it. Douglas watched the fight uneasily. He and Randolph were King Robert's best generals and greatest friends, yet there was no jealousy between them.
"I pray you, sire," said Douglas at last, "let me go to Randolph's aid."
"You shall not stir a foot," replied the King; "let Randolph free himself as best he can. I will not endanger the whole battle for a careless boy."
"My liege," said Douglas again, "cannot stand thus idly and see him perish when I may bring him help. So by your leave I must away to him."
Unwillingly then the King gave his consent, and Douglas, with his men, hurried off to help Randolph. But when he drew near he saw that Randolph was beating the English without his aid. "Halt," he cried, "yonder brave men have no need of us. We will not take any of the honour of the day from them." Then he turned back to the King without having struck a blow. A little later Randolph followed, flushed and triumphant.
He had recovered his rose.
But meanwhile, the King too had been fighting. An English knight, called Sir Henry de Bohun, had seen the King of Scotland as he rode in front of the line, and saying to himself that he would win great fame and settle the battle at one stroke, he set spurs to his horse and dashed furiously upon Bruce.
Bruce brought his axe crashing down upon the head of Bohun.
Fully armed, riding upon his great war-horse, the English knight came thundering on. Bruce, on his little pony, could have no chance against him. There was a dreadful moment of suspense. The two armies watched breathlessly. Bruce waited calmly, and when Bohun was almost upon him, he suddenly turned his pony aside. Bohun dashed on. As he passed, the King, rising high in his stirrups, brought his battle-axe crashing down upon the knight's head. The steel helmet was shattered by the mighty blow, Bohun fell to the ground dead, and his frightened horse dashed riderless away.
Cheer after cheer rose from the Scottish ranks, and the generals gathered round their King. They were glad that he was safe, yet vexed that he should so have endangered his life. "Bethink you, sire, the fate of all Scotland rests upon you," they said.
But the King answered them never a word. "I have broken my good axe," was all he said, "I have broken my good axe."