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Monday, February 29, 2016

Military History Monday: Bannockburn

Starting this week, I'm opening up a new entry in my blog: Military History Monday. Each Monday, I will discuss a topic relating to military history. It might be a weapon, a strategy or tactic, a formation, or a particular battle.

This week's topic is the 1314 battle that is often considered as the most important win in Scotland's first bid for freedom, the Battle of Bannockburn.

Background & Setup

England’s king Edward I had won significant battles against the Scots, who had won some battles of their own during the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. In 1306, Robert the Bruce became the king of Scotland and reignited the earlier war between the Scots and the English, and in 1307 Edward II succeeded his father to the English throne. After several years of attacking and conquering English castles throughout Scotland, King Robert brought a Scottish force of around 7,000–8,000, of which about 500–600 were horsemen, to Stirling Castle in February of 1313 and besieged it. After about a month, the English commander of the castle offered terms to King Robert, asking to send a request to the English throne for relief. Should the relief force not arrive within a few miles of the castle by June 24, 1314, the castle would be forfeit and would surrender to King Robert’s army.

King Edward II received the request, and assembled an army to march against King Robert; despite the request, many prominent noble families refused to provide forces to the English king. Ultimately, King Edward II assembled a force of about 15,000—16,000, of which some 2,000–3,000 were cavalry. This figure includes several thousand Welsh archers as well. As the relief force arrived near Stirling Castle, King Robert drew up his defense.

The Scots chose a battlefield southeast of the castle proper, between a wetland that surrounded the Bannock stream (Bannockburn is the Scots term for “Bannock stream”) and a wooded area called the New Park. They prepared the battlefield before the arrival of the English by digging and concealing pits along the front of their own position, as well as near the bank of the Bannockburn, to force the English cavalry into head-on attacks.

Day 1 (23 JUN 1314)

Early on June 23, an advance force of the English knights happened upon a small contingent of Scottish defenders between the river and the woodland. Among these defenders was the King, Robert the Bruce, and the English knights recognized him. An English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, charged the field toward the Scottish King. King Robert is reported to have dodged the English knight’s lance when they approached very closely and then stood up in his stirrups and clove the Englishman’s head twain with his battle-ax. After this single combat, and upon seeing their King so handily defeat the English knight, the Scots charged the remainder of the English cavalry. Owing to the battlefield preparation by the Scots, as well as the existing terrain—marshlands on both banks of the Bannockburn severely hindered the approach of the English army—the cavalry forces were bunched up on the road and couldn’t maneuver. The Scots slaughtered them there, with only a few of the knights escaping back to English lines.

Day 2 (24 JUN 1314)

During the evening, the English commanders decided to make sure that the majority of their forces were on the west bank of the Bannockburn to avoid the clustering problem that plagued the cavalry on the road. During the night, the force forded the stream. Much of the English force was deeply bothered by the events of the day, and a large contingent of them broke into the wagon trains and drank throughout the night.

In the morning, the English force assembled on the north side of the road to Sterling, facing south against the deployed Scottish schiltrons. This formation by the Scottish foot soldiers was similar to the ancient Greek and early Roman/Etruscan phalanx, in that it consisted of a shield wall, through which their spears protruded.

The ground beneath the English forces was a soggy marshland, lying between the Bannockburn and another stream (the Pelstream). The Pelstream converged into the Bannockburn behind the English formation, forming a triangle with the road to the south. With the English hemmed in by the two streams beside and behind them, and the road with the Scots in front, the Scots started to advance against the English formation. This unexpected attack forced the English to respond, and some of their cavalry charged into the schiltrons and suffered heavy casualties. English and Welsh bowmen initially responded, but a charge of Scottish light horsemen dispersed them. As the English force continued to take casualties and their cavalry found it more and more difficult to maneuver, the English royal guard withdrew King Edward for his own safety. With the English king no longer commanding, the English force routed, and most of them were cut down or drowned in the marshes.
The English king and his guard made it to the gates of the castle, but the commander of the castle recommended to Edward that he escape entirely. Otherwise, he would likely be taken prisoner when the castle was forced to capitulate. He agreed and made his way to safety via Dunbar.

Outcome & Aftermath

In the immediate aftermath, the Scottish army was able to march essentially unopposed on several towns in the north of England and eventually was able to successfully invade Ireland. Long term, the success at Bannockburn enabled the Scots to force a treaty (the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton) whereby the English formally recognized Scotland as an independent nation with Robert the Bruce as its king.

Besides the political outcome, the battle demonstrated that Scottish King Robert was a capable military commander. King Robert’s use of the schiltron as a mobile formation, rather than a static one, enabled the Scottish forces to resist the vastly superior numbers of the English force, particularly their heavy cavalry. The Scottish preparation and selection of the battlefield is often also credited largely to King Robert and was a major factor in the success of the Scots in the battle.

With the ratification of the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, the Kingdom of Scotland was officially recognized and remained a separate, independent nation until the Treaty of Union, in 1707. For Scotland, the success at the Battle of Bannockburn resulted in nearly 400 years of independence.

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