23rd June 1314: The Battle of Bannockburn (First Day)
Following on from an earlier post which may be found here.I apologise for being late and taking so long, but I’ve had to split this post even further.
Having spent the night at Falkirk, Edward II’s army began the final march towards Stirling on the morning of the 23rd. As they advanced towards the Torwood in the midday sun, the landscape which greeted their eyes cannot have filled them with much enthusiasm. The Carse of Stirling (now long since drained, though still frequently wet) was then a vast boggy plain, riddled with streams, channels, and pools, the terrain treacherous and perilous. The Gargunnock hills in the south-west, called Mynydd Bannog by the ancient Britons, gave their old name to a particularly fast-flowing impediment- the Bannock burn, which snaked its way around the south end of the Scots position at the New Park, twisted through Milton and then a deep gorge near the modern town of Bannockburn, before carrying on past the carse of Balquhiderrock to join with the Pelstream burn several miles to the east. Further on the dark waters of the River Forth cut through the Carse, and certain members of Edward’s force might well have recalled the events of seventeen years before, when another English army had met its end in the river after the Battle of Stirling Bridge, to the north of the castle. On that day only Sir Marmaduke Tweng, a Yorkshire knight now serving in the army drawing close to the Torwood, was supposed to have been able to fight his way back across the bridge alive. Worse, the Scots had dug up the road in the woods and dug cavalry traps around their position, which would have provided an extra obstacle for Edward’s vast host to navigate on their way to meet the Scots. However, when Philip de Mowbray arrived in their midst, stating that by coming within three leagues of the castle they had fulfilled the terms of the agreement and that there was no need to fight, (especially as the Scots looked well prepared and were watching the wood) the English commanders decided to press on regardless. Edward and his lieutenants had not come all the way to Stirling only to let Bruce slip through their fingers and rise again- the rebellion was to be crushed once and for all.
The Scots had risen at dawn, and having only consumed bread and water due to the fact that it was the eve of St John the Baptist’s day, they heard mass together, many confessing their sins in case they should die. King Robert personally inspected the field and the cavalry traps that had been laid out the previous day, before giving the order that his men should assemble in their divisions, armed and battle-ready. He is then supposed to have sent the camp followers (“the smale folk and pitall”) away from the field, possibly west of the New Park to the nearby Gillies’ hill. There were a great many of these- possibly around 20,000- and this, along with the fact that Bruce used the nearby Cambuskenneth Abbey as a supply depot, shows how scrupulously he had prepared. After this, the king sent Thomas Randolph and the vanguard to guard the road beside the kirk of St Ninians and prevent the English from advancing up that road. The king personally remained in the New Park with his force, while Edward Bruce and his men were commanded to assist whichever division required his help. James Douglas and Sir Robert Keith, meanwhile, were sent out to view the English force and, reporting back to the king, told him of its strength and size. King Robert deliberately kept this quiet, instructing his men instead to spread the tale that the English were ill at ease and divided amongst themselves.
(The flat appearance of this line of trees is misleading- in fact, the land banks steeply behind them to form the summit of Gillies hill, where the Scottish camp followers may have been sent on the morning of the 23rd)
The Skirmish at St Ninians
Meanwhile, it had been decided by the English that a small force of cavalry (Sir Thomas Gray says 300, John Barbour 800, the former is more likely) under the command of Robert Clifford and Henry de Beaumont should attempt to reach the castle by skirting around to the east of the New Park, avoiding the main body of the Scots army. Barbour states that they had somehow managed to slip past Thomas Randolph’s force on the road, Gray that Randolph actively sought a fight, and there are other versions of how the skirmish began, but whatever the case, Randolph quickly realised his mistake in letting the English by. Eager to avenge his dishonour (and possibly as the result of a rebuke issued by the king, who could see everything from the New Park) the Scots vanguard, with its commander shouting orders from the middle, began to advance towards Clifford’s contingent. For a force composed of spearmen in a schiltrom formation this was not the best of ideas, as schiltroms seldom performed well on open ground, where they might be outflanked easily. The enemy cavalry force watched them come on, perhaps a little confused, and Henry de Beaumont ordered his men to hold steady and wait for them to draw nearer.
Sir Thomas Gray (the father of the one referenced above) disagreed and, when his courage was insulted by de Beaumont, Gray decided to attack the advancing schiltrom himself, followed by his fellow knight Sir William Deyncourt. Hurling themselves onto the Scottish spears, it is unsurprising that Deyncourt was killed and Gray himself captured when his mount died under him. At the sight of this, the rest of the English cavalry pressed on the Earl of Moray’s schiltrom, giving the Scots an extremely hard time, and Randolph’s foolishness in engaging such a cavalry force on open ground began to become apparent, though his soldiers fought well and did not run.
According to Barbour, however, the Scots were saved by the timely intervention of James Douglas and the men under his command who, despite the king’s disapproval of Randolph’s actions and lukewarm support for his nephew at this stage, decided that they could not sit by and let Clifford’s force past. The help given by Douglas’ arrival is meant to have turned the tide, and Clifford, de Beaumont, and the rest of the English cavalry force were driven back, fleeing towards the castle or the rest of Edward’s army as best they could. As they ran, Douglas and his men are supposed to have chivalrously withdrawn to allow Moray and the bruised infantrymen to deal the final blows. The affair might have been a stain on Randolph’s otherwise distinguished military career, but, in the end, it had resulted in a small but important victory.
(The kirk of St Ninians, near which Randolph’s division is supposed to have clashed with Clifford’s force, though this is uncertain. The present kirk is a later building)
The Engagement in the New Park
Whilst Clifford had been busy attempting to break through to the castle, another engagement was taking place further west. Having finally emerged from the Torwood, the main body of Edward II’s army was advancing along the road to the New Park, likely along the same line as the modern A872 through Borestone and Milton. Apparently, Edward paused for a while to discuss with his commanders whether or not they should engage the Scots that day, but the English vanguard, riding well in front, does not appear to have received the message and continued on their way, heading straight through the eastern fringe of the New Park. This division was led by the young Earl of Gloucester and his uncle the Earl of Hereford, but their kinship did nothing to diffuse the tension that had been caused by King Edward’s decision to appoint Gloucester as constable for the campaign. The divisions in Edward’s army were not to surface immediately, but the ill-feeling between the king and his lieutenants would prove fatal the next day.
In the meantime, suspecting that there were Scots in the New Park, a Welsh contingent led by Sir Henry de Bohun, Hereford’s nephew, had been sent out in front of the rest of the van. Sir Henry was, by all accounts a well-heeled, brave and accomplished knight, but young and perhaps over-eager for glory. One can easily imagine his glee when he caught sight of a figure riding in front of the Scottish lines, mounted, not on a large warhorse, but a small palfrey, and wearing a crown on top of his helmet. Here was the King of Scots, the great warrior Robert Bruce, distracted and “horsyt…sa ill”- a chance for glory that, it must have seemed, had been handed to the English knight on a plate. Sir Henry immediately spurred his horse towards the Scottish king, who turned to face him without retreating. When the knight barrelled in Bruce’s direction, King Robert deftly guided the small palfrey to the side so that he missed, and then, standing up in his stirrups raised his axe and brought it down on Henry’s head. The blow was so great that the axe shaft split, and the blade cut straight through the unfortunate knight’s metal helm to slice into the skull and brain. It is perhaps a small mercy that Henry probably died quickly, but it must have been a terrifying thing for his comrades to behold. The Scots, on the other hand, took courage from their king’s feat, and immediately set upon the enemy vanguard, igniting a fierce skirmish in which the Earl of Gloucester was unhorsed, before the English broke ranks and fled. The Scots were prevented from chasing them too far by Bruce, who was rebuked by his lords for taking such a risk, though he did not answer them, being far too preoccupied with complaining about the loss of his axe.
(Looking north from the foot of Gillies hill, across the area which was probably once the centre of the New Park- the M80 currently cuts straight through the middle. Today, Stirling Castle can clearly be seen in the distance.)
The Eve of St John
Not long afterward, Randolph and Douglas’ forces returned triumphant from their engagement with Clifford. If the success of the day’s two skirmishes had not already convinced Bruce to abandon his plans to withdraw into the Lennox, then the appearance of Sir Alexander Seton, recently defected from Edward II’s camp, probably did. Thomas Gray claims that Seton had been a spy sent from the English camp to fill Bruce with false hope of victory, which may well have some truth in it but whatever the case the Scots do not seem to have been aware of the reasons for Seton’s coming beyond his claimed defection, and his tale of the disillusionment and division within the English camp was true by all accounts. After Edward refused to fight any more that day, his army moved lower down on to the carseland further to the east to make camp, doing their best to ford the treacherous streams with any wood they could find, but his soldiers endured a sleepless night, terrified that the Scots would attack. The Scots meanwhile, prepared themselves for battle the next morning, probably snatching moments of rest where they could, and elated by the events of the day which, though not ultimately decisive, were good omens.
“The cardinals dallied with their duty until 18 March 1314, when, on a scaffold in front of Notre Dame, Jacques de Molay, Templar Grand Master, Geoffroi de Goneville, Master of Normandy, Hugues de Peraud, Visitor of France, and Godefroi de Gonneville, Master of Aquitaine, were brought forth from the jail in which for nearly seven years they had lain, to receive the sentence agreed upon by the cardinals, in conjunction with the Archbishop of Sens and some other prelates whom they had called in. Considering the offenses which the culprits had confessed and confirmed, the penance imposed was in accordance with rule—that of perpetual imprisonment. The affair was supposed to be concluded when, to the dismay of the prelates and wonderment of the assembled crowd, de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney arose. They had been guilty, they said, not of the crimes imputed to them, but of basely betraying their Order to save their own lives. It was pure and holy; the charges were fictitious and the confessions false. Hastily the cardinals delivered them to the Prevot of Paris, and retired to deliberate on this unexpected contingency, but they were saved all trouble. When the news was carried to Philippe he was furious. A short consultation with his council only was required. The canons pronounced that a relapsed heretic was to be burned without a hearing; the facts were notorious and no formal judgment by the papal commission need be waited for. That same day, by sunset, a pile was erected on a small island in the Seine, the Isle des Juifs, near the palace garden. There de Molay and de Charney were slowly burned to death, refusing all offers of pardon for retraction, and bearing their torment with a composure which won for them the reputation of martyrs among the people, who reverently collected their ashes as relics.”