To Edward the Second, lying in luxurious idleness in his palace of pleasure at London, came the startling word that he must strike a blow or lose a kingdom. Scotland was slipping from his weak grasp. Of that great realm, won by the iron hand of his father, only one stronghold was left to England—Stirling Castle, and that was fiercely besieged by Edward Bruce, brother of Robert Bruce, who some years before had been crowned King of Scotland and was now seeking to drive the English out of his realm.
The tidings that came to Edward were these. Sir Philip Mowbray, governor of Stirling, hotly pressed by Bruce, and seeing no hope of succor, had agreed to deliver the town and castle to the Scotch, unless relief reached him before midsummer. Bruce stopped not the messengers. He let them speed to London with the tidings, willing, doubtless, in his bold heart, to try it once for all with the English king, and win all or lose all at a blow.
The news stirred feebly the weak heart of Edward,—lapped in delights, and heedless of kingdoms. It stirred strongly the vigorous hearts of the English nobility, men who had marched to victory under the banners of the iron Edward, and who burned with impatience at the inglorious ease of his silken son. The great deeds of Edward I. should not go for naught, they declared. He had won Scotland; his son should not lose it. Robert Bruce, the rebel chief, had been left alone until he had gathered an army and nearly made Scotland his own. Only Stirling remained; it would be to the endless disgrace of England should it be abandoned, and the gallant Mowbray left without support. An army must be gathered, Bruce must be beaten, Scotland must be won.
Like the cry of a pack of sleuth-hounds in the ear of the timid deer came these stern demands to Edward the king. He dared not disregard them. It might be as much as his crown were worth. England meant business, and its king must take the lead or he might be asked to yield the throne. Stirred alike by pride and fear, he roused from his lethargy, gave orders that an army should be gathered, and vowed to drive the beleaguering Scots from before Stirling's walls.
From every side they came, the marching troops. England, hot with revengeful blood, mustered its quota in haste. Wales and Ireland, new appendages of the English throne, supplied their share. From the French provinces of the kingdom hosts of eager men-at-arms flocked across the Channel. All the great nobles and the barons of the realm led their followers, equipped for war, to the mustering-place, until a force of one hundred thousand men was ready for the field, perhaps the largest army which had ever marched under an English king. In this great array were thirty thousand horsemen. It looked as if Scotland were doomed. Surely that sterile land could raise no force to face this great array!
King Robert the Bruce did his utmost to prepare for the storm of war which threatened to break upon his realm. In all haste he summoned his barons and nobles from far and near. From the Highlands and the Lowlands they came, from island and mainland flocked the kilted and tartaned Scotch, but, when all were gathered, they numbered not a third the host of their foes, and were much more poorly armed. But at their head was the most expert military chief of that day, since the death of Edward I. the greatest warrior that Europe knew. Once again was it to be proved that the general is the soul of his army, and that skill and courage are a full offset for lack of numbers.
Towards Stirling marched the great English array, confident in their numbers, proud of their gallant show. Northward they streamed, filling all the roads, the king, at their head, deeming doubtless that he was on a holiday excursion, and that behind him came a wind of war that would blow the Scotch forces into the sea. Around Stirling gathered the army of the Bruce, marching in haste from hill and dale, coming in to the stirring peal of the pipes and the old martial airs of the land, until the plain around the beleaguered town seemed a living sea of men, and the sunlight burned on endless points of steel.
But Bruce had no thought of awaiting the onset here. He well knew that he must supply by skill what he lacked in numbers. The English army was far superior to his, not only in men, but in its great host of cavalry, which alone equalled his entire force, and in its multitude of archers, the best bowmen in the world. What he lacked in men and arms he must make up in brains. With this in view, he led his army from before the town into a neighboring plain, called the Park, where nature had provided means of defence of which he might avail himself.
The ground which his army here occupied was hard and dry. That in front of it, through which Edward's host must pass, was wet and boggy, cut up with frequent watercourses, and ill-fitted for cavalry. Should the heavy-armed horsemen succeed in crossing this marshy and broken ground and reach the firm soil in the Scottish front, they would find themselves in a worse strait still. For Bruce had his men dig a great number of holes as deep as a man's knee. These were covered with light brush, and the turf spread evenly over them, so that the honeycombed soil looked to the eye like an unbroken field. Elsewhere on the plain he scattered calthrops steel spikes—to lame the English horses. Smooth and promising looked the field, but the English cavalry were likely to find it a plain of pitfalls and steel points.
While thus defending his front, Bruce had given as skilful heed to the defence of his flanks. On the left his line reached to the walls of Stirling. On the right it touched the banks of Bannockburn, a brook that ran between borders so rocky as to prevent attack from that quarter. Here, on the 98d of June, 1314, was posted the Scottish army, awaiting the coming of the foe, the camp-followers, cart-drivers, and other useless material of the army being sent back behind a hill,—afterwards known as the gillies’ or servants' hill, that they might be out of the way. They were to play a part in the coming fray of which Bruce did not dream.
Thus prepared, Bruce reviewed his force, and addressed them in stirring words. The battle would be victory or death to him, he said. He hoped it would be to all. If any among them did not propose to fight to the bitter end and take victory or death, as God should decree, for his lot, now was the time to withdraw; all such might leave the field before the battle began. Not a man left.
Fearing that the English might try to throw a force into Stirling Castle, the king posted his nephew Randolph with a body of men near St. Ninian's church. Lord Douglas and Sir Robert Keith were sent to survey and report upon the English force, which was marching from Falkirk. They returned with tidings to make any but stout hearts quiver. Such an army as was coming they had never seen before; it was a beautiful but a terrible sight, the approach of that mighty host. The whole country, as far as the eye could see, was crowded with men on horse or on foot. Never had they beheld such a grand display of standards, banners, and pennons. So gallant and fearful a show was it all, that the bravest host in Christendom might well tremble to see King Edward's army marching upon them. Such was the story told by Douglas, though his was not the heart to tremble in the telling.
Bruce was soon to see this great array of horse and foot for himself. On they came, filling the country far and near with their numbers. But before they had come in view, another sight met the vigilant eyes of the Scottish king. To the eastward there became visible a body of English horse, riding at speed, and seeking to reach Stirling from that quarter. Bruce turned to his nephew, who stood beside him.
"See, Randolph," he said, "there is a rose fallen from your chaplet."
The English had passed the post which Randolph had been set to guard. He heard the rebuke in silence, rode, hastily to the head of his men, and rushed against the eight hundred English horse with half that number of footmen. The English turned to charge this daring force. Randolph drew up his men in close order to receive them. It looked as if the Scotch would be overwhelmed, and trampled under foot by the powerful foe.
"Randolph is lost!" cried Douglas. "He must have help. Let me go to his aid."
"Let Randolph redeem his own fault," answered the king, firmly. "I cannot break the order of battle for his sake."
Douglas looked on, fuming with impatience. The danger seemed more imminent. The small body of Scotch foot almost vanished from sight in the cloud of English horsemen. The glittering lances appeared about to annihilate them.
"So please you," said Douglas, "my heart will not suffer me to stand idle and see Randolph perish. I must go to his assistance."
The king made no answer. Douglas spurred to the head of his troop, and rode off at speed. He neared the scene of conflict. Suddenly a change came. The horsemen appeared confused. Panic seemed to have stricken their ranks. In a moment away they went, in full flight, many of the horses with empty saddles, while the gallant troop of Scotch stood unmoved.
"Halt!" cried Douglas. "Randolph has gained the day. Since we are not soon enough to help him in the battle, do not let us lessen his glory by approaching the field." And the noble knight pulled rein and galloped back, unwilling to rob Randolph of any of the honor of his deed.
The English vanguard was now in sight. From it rode out a number of knights, eager to see the Scotch array more nearly. King Robert did the same. He was in armor, but was poorly mounted, riding only a little pony, with which he moved up and down the front of his army, putting his men in order. A golden crown worn over his helmet was his sole mark of distinction. The only weapon he carried was a steel battle-axe. As the English knights came nearer, he advanced a little to have a closer look at them.
Here seemed an opportunity for a quick and decisive blow. The Scottish king was at some distance in front of his men, his rank indicated by his crown, his horse a poor one, his hand empty of a spear. He might be ridden down by a sudden onset, victory to the English host be gained by a single blow, and great glory come to the bold knight that dealt it.
So thought one of the English knights, Sir Henry de Bohun by name. Putting spurs to his powerful horse, he galloped furiously upon the king, thinking to bear him easily to the ground. Bruce saw him coming, but made no movement of flight. He sat his pony warily, waiting the onset, until Bohun was nearly upon him with his spear. Then a quick touch to the rein, a sudden movement of the horse, and the lance-point sped past, missing its mark.
The Scotch army stood in breathless alarm; the English host in equally breathless expectation; it seemed for the moment as if Robert the Bruce were lost. But as De Bohun passed him, borne onward by the career of his steed, King Robert rose in his stirrups, swung his battle-axe in the air, and brought it down on his adversary's head with so terrible a blow that the iron helmet cracked as though it were a nutshell, and the knight fell from his horse, dead before he reached the ground.
King Robert turned and rode back, where he was met by a storm of reproaches from his nobles, who declared that he had done grave wrong in exposing himself to such danger, when the safety of the army depended on him. The king heard their reproaches in silence, his eyes fixed on the fractured edge of his weapon.
"I have broken my good battle-axe," was his only reply.
This incident ended the day. Night was at hand. Both armies rested on the field. But at an early hour of the next day, the 24th of June, the battle began, one of the critical battles of history.
Through the Scottish ranks walked barefooted the abbot of Inchaffray, exhorting the men to fight their best for freedom. The soldiers kneeled as he passed.
"They kneel down!" cried King Edward, who saw this. "They are asking forgiveness!"
"Yes," said a baron beside him, "but they ask it from God, not from us. These men will conquer, or die upon the field"
The battle began with a flight of English arrows. The archers, drawn up in close ranks, bent their bows, and poured their steel shafts as thickly as snow-flakes on the Scotch, many of whom were slain. Something must be done, and that, speedily, or those notable bowmen would end the battle of themselves. Flesh and blood could not long bear that rain of cloth-yard shafts, with their points of piercing steel.
But Bruce had prepared for this danger. A body of well-mounted men-at-arms stood ready, and at the word of command rushed at full gallop upon the archers, cutting them down to right and left. Having no weapons but their bows and arrows, the archers broke and fled in utter confusion, hundreds of them being slain.
This charge of the Scotch cavalry was followed by an advance in force of the English horsemen, who came forward in such close and serried ranks and with so vast an array that it looked as if they would overwhelm the narrow lines before them. But suddenly trouble came upon this mighty mass of knights and men-at-arms. The seemingly solid earth gave way under their horses' feet, and down they went into the hidden pits, the horses hurled headlong, the riders flung helplessly upon the ground, from which the weight of their armor prevented their rising.
In an instant the Scotch footmen were among them, killing the defenceless knights, cutting and slashing among the confused mass of horsemen, breaking their fine display into irretrievable disorder. Bruce brought up his men in crowding multitudes. Through the English ranks they glided, stabbing horses, slaying their iron clad riders, doubly increasing the confusion of that wild whirl of horsemen, whose trim and gallant ranks had been thrown into utter disarray. The English fought as they could, though at serious disadvantage. But their numbers were so great that they might have crushed the Scotch under their mere weight but for one of these strange chances on which the fate of so many battles have depended. As has been said, the Scotch camp-followers had been sent back behind a hill. But on seeing that their side seemed likely to win the day, this rabble came suddenly crowding over the hill, eager for a share in the spoil.
It was a disorderly mob, but to the sorely pressed English cavalry it seemed a new army which the Bruce had held in reserve. Suddenly stricken with panic, the horsemen turned and fled, each man for himself, as fast as their horses could carry them, the whole army breaking rank and rushing back in terror over the ground which they had lately traversed in such splendor of appearance and confidence of soul.
After them came the Scotch, cutting, slashing, killing, paving the earth with English slain. King Edward put spurs to his horse and fled in all haste from the fatal field. A gallant knight, Sir Giles de Argentine, who had won glory in Palestine, kept by him till he was out of the press. Then he drew rein.
"It is not my custom to fly," he said.
Turning his horse and shouting his war-cry of "Argentine! Argentine!" he rushed into the densest ranks of the Scotch, and was quickly killed.
Many others of high rank fell, valiantly fighting, men who knew not the meaning of flight. But the bulk of the army was in hopeless panic, flying for life, red lines constantly falling before the crimsoned claymores of the Scotch, until the very streams ran red with blood.
King Edward found war less than ever to his royal taste. He fled to Stirling Castle and begged admittance.
"I cannot grant it, my liege," answered Mowbray. "My compact with the Bruce obliges me to surrender the castle to-morrow. If you enter here it will be to become prisoner to the Scotch."
Edward turned and continued his flight, his route lying through the Torwood. After him came Lord Douglas, with a body of cavalry, pressing forward in hot haste. On his way he met a Scotch knight, Sir Lawrence Abernethy, with twenty horsemen, riding to join Edward's army.
"Edward's army? He has no army," cried Douglas. "The army is a rout. Edward himself is in flight. I am hot on his track."
"I am with you, then," cried Abernethy, changing sides on the instant, and joining in pursuit of the king whom he had just before been eager to serve.
Away went the frightened king. On came the furious pursuers. Not a moment was given Edward to draw rein or alight. The chase was continued as far as Dunbar, whose governor, the earl of March, opened his gates to the flying king, and shut them against his foes. Giving the forlorn monarch a small fishing-vessel, he set him on the seas for England, a few distressed attendants alone remaining to him of the splendid army with which he had marched to the conquest of Scotland.
Thus ended the battle which wrested Scotland from English hands, and made Robert Bruce king of the whole country. From the state of an exile, hunted with hounds, he had made himself a monarch, and one who soon gave the English no little trouble to protect their own borders.