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Eric Wood


Where Robert Bruce cast off the English Yoke and won for Scotland her Independence

What Edward I. of England had won Edward II. lost. He was a weak king, governed by favourites for whom he sacrificed the loyalty of barons and people, a king who took his ease while his foes in Scotland won back what the first Edward had taken from them.

Step by step Robert Bruce regained the lost ground, until at last Stirling Castle was the only stronghold in English hands; and this was besieged by a large force of Scotsmen. Sir Philip Mowbray commanded the castle, and he, by permission of Edward Bruce, hurried south to London to beg the King to hasten north to the relief of Stirling, it having been agreed between Bruce and Mowbray that unless this was done by June 24th the garrison would surrender.

It brought home to Edward II., as nothing else could have done, the sad straits into which he had come, and, almost in tears, he prepared to call out his military forces, although, be it said, not without the strong urging of the nobles, who looked back with regret to the days of Edward I., the Hammer of Scotland.

The royal summons called upon the military to meet the King at Berwick on June 11th, 1314, and thither hastened an army of one hundred thousand men, including forty thousand cavalry. From France, from Flanders, from Ireland, and from Wales troops hurried to the standard of Edward, and on June 22nd Bruce, who was stationed at Torwood Forest, midway between Stirling and Falkirk, received tidings that the royal force was advancing from Edinburgh. He immediately moved his army of forty thousand men (and twenty thousand camp followers) to a piece of ground called the New Park. It was a strong position, crowning the slopes of a hill. The trees formed a considerable obstacle to the advance of cavalry, by means of which Edward hoped to win the day, especially as he was aware that Bruce was sadly deficient in this respect. Directly in front the position was protected by a morass, to pass which would be exceedingly difficult. To the right it was guarded by the steep woody banks of the rivulet of Bannockburn, and to the left by pits which Bruce had ordered to be dug, while strewing the ground in every direction were iron calthrops, three-pointed steel spikes, which would lame and disable the horses which trod on them. The pits, which were knee-deep, were carefully hidden by brushwood.

Bruce divided his army into four columns. The right wing was commanded by Edward Bruce; the left by Randolph, Earl of Moray, who was stationed near the church of St. Ninians, with orders to prevent, at any cost, the English from sending succour to Stirling, which lay in the rear of the Scottish position; the centre by Sir James Douglas and Walter the Steward, Bruce himself commanding the fourth column, which was held in reserve. "Angus of the Isles was with him, and there was stationed his little body of cavalry, under Sir Robert Keith, the Mareschal of Scotland, to whom he assigned the particular duty of attacking and, if possible, dispersing the English archers. The royal standard was fixed in the stone which now marks the centre of the Scottish line, and is protected by an iron grating."

By the time Bruce had made all his preparations the English army came in sight—a mighty concourse of men, with banners, pennons, flags, and standards of all kinds flying in the breeze and making so gallant a show that, reported two of Bruce's scouts, "the bravest and most numerous army in Christendom might be alarmed to behold."

On came the English troops, their mail and weapons gleaming in the sun. In the van came the archers, spearmen, and billmen, covered by a host of mailed cavalry; behind them the remainder of the army debouched from the wood, which stretched away towards Falkirk, finding some difficulty in keeping any kind of formation owing to the narrow ground over which they had to pass. Surrounded by four hundred of his chosen knights, the flower of English chivalry, Edward commanded his great army in person.

This was on the 23rd. The battle really began on that day. While his main body was advancing Edward had sent Lord Clifford, with eight hundred horse, on a circuitous route towards Stirling Castle. The King had not forgotten the terms of the arrangement come to between Bruce and Mowbray, and thought that if Clifford and his cavalry could manage to reach Stirling unseen he might be able to effect its relief and so release Mowbray from his promise.

By making a very wide detour, Clifford's squadron managed to pass the Scottish line, and might have succeeded in reaching Stirling had not the glittering of their spears and the flashing of their armour in the summer sun caught Bruce's eye.

Riding up to Randolph, he cried:

"See, Randolph, there is a rose fallen from your chaplet! You have suffered the enemy to pass!"

Making no reply, Randolph hurried away at the head of five hundred spearmen to intercept Clifford. As soon as the latter perceived that he was discovered, he wheeled his squadron to the left, and charged down upon the Scots. In close order the spearmen waited for the impact. It came. The English charged full speed at the wall of spears, many a knight being unhorsed in the fruitless attempt to break through the phalanx. In a few minutes the devoted little column was surrounded and so hard pressed that Sir James Douglas craved Bruce's permission to go to their help.

"No," replied the King; "let Randolph redeem his fault!"

"So please you, my liege," said Douglas, "I must aid Randolph. I cannot be idle and see him perish."

Bruce unwillingly gave permission, and Sir James hastened away to the succour of his friend.

His aid was not needed, however. Randolph had redeemed his fault unaided, and when Douglas arrived he found that the English cavalry was in confusion.

"Halt!" cried Douglas to his men as he beheld this. "Randolph has gained the day. Let us not diminish his glory by seeking to share it!"

Meanwhile the English van was still approaching the field where the battle would take place on the morrow, for neither side seemed eager to begin till then. Bruce rode along his line, mounted on a small white palfrey instead of his great war-horse. Carrying his great steel battle-axe in his hand, and wearing a golden crown upon his head, he presented a conspicuous figure. For a moment Bruce advanced a little before his line to take better stock of the advancing English, and at the same instant there rode out of Edward's army an English knight, Sir Henry Bohun. Bohun had conceived the idea that if he could strike Bruce a fatal blow the battle would be terminated forthwith, and, mounted on his war-horse, and armed at all points, with lance couched, he dashed towards the King.

Despite the fact that he was well aware of his danger, for his small steed could not be expected to withstand the shock of the impact with the oncoming knight, Bruce stood his ground, calmly awaiting the attack.

With thundering hoofs, the charger raced over the intervening ground. Such was his speed that when, with a quick movement, Bruce turned his horse aside, Bohun was unable to pull up his mount, and went clattering past the King. Rising in his stirrups, Bruce brought his battle-axe down upon the head of the passing knight, crashing it through his helmet, shivering the mighty axe into pieces, and hurling Bohun to the ground dead.

Going calmly back to his own line, the King met with a smile the reproaches of his men, who grumbled at his having exposed himself to such danger, merely saying, as he looked at the remains of his axe:

"I have broken my good battle-axe!"

On the morning of June 24th the battle began in real earnest. Edward's trumpets sounded the attack, and as the Scots saw the great army massed against them they joined together in an appeal to Heaven for help.

The Abbot of Inshaffray walked barefoot through their ranks, exhorting them to fight boldly and bravely. As he passed among them they knelt on the ground before him, and King Edward seeing this cried:

"See! they crave mercy!"

"Yes," said Sir Ingram Umfraville, a Scottish traitor "But they ask it of God, not of us, for on that field they will be victorious, or die."

The main body of the English, under the command of the King, advanced in along, dense column, and assailed the Scottish line. Time after time they hurled themselves at the foe; but the wall of spears kept them back, broken and dismayed. The Earls of Hereford and Gloucester lead their cavalry at a fierce charge upon the right wing commanded by Edward Bruce, while at the same time the left wing was also attacked.

The battle had begun indeed. All along the Scottish line fighting was taking place. Standing like rocks, the Scots kept their ground, hurling back cavalry and infantry alike. Not a man budged, except those who fell beneath battle-axe, spear, or bill. The thunder of horses' hoofs, the clash of steel on steel, the thud of falling horses, and the cries of wounded men, mingled together to make the air hideous. Stepping on the calthrops, horses fell, throwing their riders headlong to the ground, to be put to death by the fierce Scots. Charging the right wing, Gloucester found the pits barring the way. Hidden as they were by brushwood, none knew of their existence until horses stumbled into them and were pierced by the pointed hazel stakes which had been driven in. The column was thrown into confusion, and, to make confusion worse confounded, out came the Scottish infantry and a dreadful mle  ensued.

In the centre Randolph pushed his men forward, piercing the English line, until his men became lost, as it were, in a sea of foes, but doing dreadful damage to their opponents.

Again and yet again did Edward hurl his cavalry at the foe; but the men on whom he had fixed his greatest hopes fell before the solid wall of rugged men from Scotland, or, if they reached the Scottish ranks, pitched headlong into pits they had not yet seen.

Then came the English archers, concentrating upon the Scottish centre, working awful havoc, and, so it seemed, about to turn the fortune of war, which had hitherto been all in favour of Bruce. The latter, however, had laid his plans well, and as soon as the archers approached, sent off Sir Robert Keith and five hundred mounted men-at-arms to outflank them.

Moving quickly round the morass, Keith charged at the archers, who, having neither short swords not pikes with which to fight at close quarters, were very soon thrown into confusion. Into their ranks and through them, back again and yet again, Keith and his cavalry charged, cutting them down, piling them many deep, or scattering them in all directions, bringing disorder into the English main body.

Seeing that Keith had been successful in routing the archers, Bruce now advanced with his reserve, and sent forward his own bowmen, whom he had taken the precaution of arming with short axes in addition to their bows. Thick clouds of arrows sped through the air into the English cavalry, bringing down horses and men in scores; then, with a ringing Scottish slogan, the bowmen burst in upon them, doing dreadful execution with their axes. "It was awful," says Barbour, the poetical chronicler, "to hear the noise of these four battles (referring to the four columns), fighting in a line; the din of blows, the clang of arms, the shouting of war-cries: to see the flight of arrows, horses running masterless, the alternate rising and sinking of the banners, the ground streaming with blood, covered with shreds of armour, broken spears, pennons, and rich scarves torn and soiled with blood and clay, and to listen to the groans of the wounded and dying."

When Bruce began to move forward with his reserve, the other three columns pressed forward more eagerly, crying, "On them! On them! They fail! They fail!" as indeed the English did. Back, back, were they forced, although they still put up a bold fight. At that moment, however, the camp followers on the hill at the rear of the Scottish position came into sight. Some historians say that Bruce had planned this; others assert that it was merely by chance that the camp followers appeared then, being intent upon taking part in the looting which would ensue as soon as the battle was over, which they had reason to believe would not be long. Whichever view may be correct, their appearance decided the day. Believing that a second army was about to fall upon them, and seeing Bruce and his reserve advancing at a headlong rush, which it seemed nothing could turn back, the English broke their ranks and fled in all directions.

Raising his battle-cry, and putting himself at the head of his reserve, Bruce rushed with fury against the failing ranks, chasing them far from the battlefield. To the south, through the deep ravine of Bannockburn, the greater number of the fugitives fled, hotly pursued by the victorious clansmen. Horses were worse than useless in that ravine—they served but to retard the flying men, who were quickly overtaken by the Scottish spears. The slaughter was fearful: horses and men simply choked the ravine.

Other fugitives made for the River Forth, dashing into its waters to escape their pursuers; but even there death found them, and those who escaped bill and spear were drowned.

Gloucester made a bold, yet foolhardy, attempt to renew the battle. Charging furiously at the Scottish infantry, he called upon his men to follow him. They followed, but little good they did! Hardly had Gloucester reached the foe than he was unhorsed and cut to pieces, although the Scots would have spared his life had they but known who their foe was; but, wearing no surcoat above his armour, Gloucester was not recognised. The forlorn hope had failed.

"King Edward, with a spark of knightly feeling, spurred his horse, resolving to die with his subjects," but the Earl of Pembroke and Sir Giles de Argentine, a crusader of great renown, seized his bridle and led him out of the press of the panic stricken field. As soon as the King was safe, Sir Giles bade him farewell, and saying, "It is not my custom to fly," dashed off to the fray, raising his battle-cry, "Argentine! Argentine!" Straight for the Scottish spears he rode, sending many a man to his last account ere a spear laid him low.

Meanwhile Edward had hurried off to Stirling, entreating Mowbray to open his gates for him. The Governor, true to his treaty with Bruce, refused, saying that he could not break his word: the castle had not been relieved.

Angry, dispirited, and ashamed, the fugitive King put spurs to his horse and fled through Torwood, making towards England, with Sir James Douglas and sixty horsemen in hot pursuit. For sixty miles they chased him to the very gates of the castle of Dunbar, into which, however, Edward managed to escape. Here he was received by the Earl of March, who, later, put him aboard a fishing skiff and sent him off to Berwick, "leaving behind him the finest army a King of England ever commanded."

The Battle of Bannockburn was won, and next day Stirling surrendered. The second Edward had lost what the first had gained.