ON March 25, 1306, when Robert Bruce was crowned King of Scots, the first of that name to be Scottish monarch, he was a man without a kingdom, never mind a throne.
Almost as soon as he left the crowning ceremony at Scone, the new King was in serious trouble. Just six weeks before his coronation, Bruce had killed John “the Red” Comyn at Greyfriars Monastery in Dumfries. This gave King Edward I of England the opportunity to put Bruce at the doors of a place feared by every Christian in those medieval times – Hell itself.
Having deposed John Balliol from the Scottish throne ten years earlier when he had declared himself overlord of Scotland, Edward Longshanks was enraged at the defiance of Bruce who, as ever, had the support of Bishops such as William Lamberton of St Andrews and Robert Wishart of Glasgow who had already given Bruce absolution for the killing of Comyn.
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Declaring Bruce an outlaw who, even though he was a knight, could be now killed without trial, Edward also went over Wishart’s head and asked Pope Clement V to excommunicate the new king for the sacrilege of murder in a place of sanctity and sanctuary. Clement duly complied and the Archbishop of Canterbury pronounced the excommunication in June of 1306, putting Robert into a long list of excommunicates that included St Columba, several Kings such as Philip I of France and Harold II and John of England, numerous Holy Roman Emperors and a few Popes, too.
It was the Pope’s greatest power that was most often used for political ends and meant that the excommunicated person was denied the sacraments, effectively condemning him or her to eternal damnation. In addition, the excommunicate was shunned and any oaths sworn to that person were null and void – yet almost incredibly, none of the Scottish bishops or any of his major followers deserted Bruce.
The religious context is vital. The bishops had their own patriotic war to fight – Longshanks wanted the Scottish dioceses brought under the Archbishopric of York where he spent a great deal of time in the years running up to 1306, convening Parliaments there. Supporting an excommunicated king was a massive risk – but Lamberton and Wishart were prepared to risk their own lives for the Bruce, and they had great influence and many loyal followers. Bruce gathered his troops even before Longshanks sent an army north under Aymer de Valence, the future Earl of Pembroke. He was allied to the Comyns and the pro-Balliol faction in the Scottish nobility, and after declining single combat with the Bruce, de Valence used them in a pincer movement that trapped Bruce’s army between his English host and the Comyn forces. It was the latter who, ignoring a supposed truce, surprised the new King and his small army in a night attack at Methven, Bruce’s forces being routed and the King fleeing north-west with only a few supporters. A second conflict at Dalrigh saw the Clan MacDougall, who were Comyn supporters, send the King running for his life.
A disastrous start to his reign got much worse, and the king’s family and friends paid a terrible price. Bishops Lamberton and Wishart were captured and taken to the Tower of London, Bruce’s brother Neil (Nigel) was hanged, drawn and quartered at Berwick, a fate shared by other loyal supporters, and his sister Mary was suspended in a wooden cage from the battlements of Roxburgh Castle for four years as was Isabella of Fife who had crowned him at Scone. His wife, Queen Elizabeth, was taken south under house arrest and spared death because her father was a supporter of Longshanks.
Bruce fled, most probably to Rathlin Island off Ireland, where Sir Walter Scott recounts in his Tales of Grandfather that the King met his famous spider in a cave. It’s probably tosh, as the first person about whom the story is told was James, Lord of Douglas, and that was at least 200 years before Scott.
INSPIRED by arachnids or not, Bruce came back to Scotland in early 1307 and began the long years of the guerrilla warfare that he soon perfected. He split his forces in two, with his brothers Thomas and Alexander raiding Galloway from sea while Bruce and his other brother Edward and James Douglas went “home” to Turnberry Castle where the king had been born 33 years previously.
The dual raid was a disaster as Thomas and Alexander were captured by MacDougall forces, and both men were executed at Carlisle Castle. Three of Bruce’s four brothers had now died for his cause, and we will learn more about the remaining brother, Edward, later.
The king was forced to go north, gathering forces as he went, and he defeated an English force led by John Mowbray at Glen Trool, before he was drawn by the English into his first full-scale pitched battle.
At Loudon Hill in Ayrshire on or around 10 May, Bruce chose his ground and tactics perfectly and inflicted heavy losses on Aymer de Valence’s troops, winning revenge for Methven. Loudon Hill was followed by another swift victory over the Earl of Gloucester’s force, and these cumulative losses forced Edward Longshanks into a grave decision, if you will pardon the pun. Enraged at Bruce and his growing Scottish army, despite being seriously ill, Longshanks rode north, only to die at Burgh by Sands in Cumbria on July 7, 1307.
His son Edward returned south with the English army, and that left Bruce able to deal with his enemies such as the Comyns and MacDougalls. He harried the Comyn heartland of Buchan, destroying property and ruthlessly exterminating Comyn support, before turning west and doing the same to the MacDougalls.
The savagery of Bruce’s campaigns in these civil wars was such that entire families were wiped off the face of the earth, but it meant that Bruce could call his first Parliament in 1309, and then proceed to take back castle after castle from the remaining English occupiers in a quite brilliant campaign that ended with a hugely provocative raid on the Isle of Man in 1313.
All the time Edward II had tried and failed to maintain his forces in Scotland and had come north several times, only to be harassed so badly by Bruce’s guerrillas that he had gone home. He had huge problems at home, too, and at times Edward’s hold on the throne of England was very shaky.
Perhaps it was the Isle of Man incident, or Bruce’s Parliament in 1313 at which the King ordered all Scots to declare their loyalty to him or face forfeiture of their lands and properties, that forced Edward to act. Even as he planned the largest invasion of Scotland in history, Edward was told of the loss of Edinburgh Castle in March, 1314, taken by stealth by Sir Thomas Randolph and his men.
Bruce had every English soldier in Edinburgh Castle summarily executed, and that sent a warning to Sir Philip Mowbray, commander of the last major English possession in Scotland, Stirling Castle.
It is not known for sure if Edward Bruce really did screw things up with a deal that Mowbray would quit Stirling if he was not relieved by the English army by Midsummer Day, 1314. Medieval poet John Barbour in The Brus says the King was furious at his hot-headed brother, and certainly there was no indication before May that the Scots were preparing for a huge battle with Edward II and his massive host.
In that month, however, we know that Bruce picked his chosen battleground and chose it well. The land around the Bannock Burn was perfect for what he intended, which was to draw Edward into a soggy battlefield that would help cancel out the English advantage in numbers of troops and heavy horse.
Modern historians say Edward had around 12,000 men including 2,000 cavalry. Curiously the very large contingent of archers that Edward’s father had used to destroy the Scottish army at Falkirk was not there in the same numbers. Bruce had perhaps 6,000 or 7,000 men, but all were battle-hardened veterans of his campaigns and were very well trained and highly disciplined and motivated.
Even as the English proceeded north to Berwick and then Edinburgh, Bruce was presiding over the creation of huge numbers of booby traps such as stakes hidden in pits which he would use to force the English to attack on a narrow front.
On 23 June, his tactics worked superbly. One story by Barbour has it that Bruce was caught out in the open before his army by a headstrong English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun. Like all the English knights, the Earl of Hereford’s grandson was aboard a huge charging horse and he aimed this at Bruce who was supposedly on a small palfrey – highly unlikely as the King was wearing some armour and he would have needed a larger horse. As Barbour describes it, de Bohun went glory hunting and had almost ridden down Bruce before the King moved his horse sideways and stood up in the stirrups to bring his heavy axe down through de Bohun’s helmet and skull. True or not, it sums up the David and Goliath nature of the battle, yet Edward was not his father and Robert the Bruce had become a great warrior-general.
He had divided his troops into four large formations known as schiltroms or schiltrons, each commanded by proven leaders. Every man was armed with a long spear, and bound together in discipline and commitment, they were all but unbreakable.
The English heavy horse tried to attack but all that did was ensure that Edward’s archers could not be brought to bear at that time.
When another horse attack failed, this time with heavy casualties among cavalry and infantry, the English broke away and camped out for the short Scottish night, some helping themselves to the wine casks of their superiors. They chose a hideously stupid place to camp – right beside the Bannock Burn which helpfully flooded as the dawn broke, meaning that the English army was now on a narrow front exactly as Bruce had intended.
It was then that Robert the Bruce made arguably the most important and certainly the bravest decision in the entire history of Scotland. As the weary English forces got themselves ready, Bruce ordered the attack.
THIS was something none of the English could have believed. Thousands of men in close formation marching together at pace came smashing into their disorganised force. The archers couldn’t fire at a moving target, and they were eventually scattered by the light horse cavalry of the Scots.
The English heavy horse probably caused more trouble than they were worth as they attacked the leading Scottish schiltron and died on its spears, John Comyn, son of the man Bruce killed, being among them.
It was unprecedented – knights always won battles, didn’t they? But here were the common people of Scotland cleaving together to bring down their arrogant enemies.
The schiltrons smashed into the main English infantry force and when the so-called “small folk” of baggage carriers, cooks and even some of the women camp followers suddenly came rushing down to the battlefield, some among Edward’s commanders took them as a fresh Scottish army and urged the king to flee. He did so reluctantly, but did not stop riding until Dunbar where he caught a ship south.
Meanwhile thousands of his men died, either cut to ribbons by the Scots or being forced into the Bannock and the River Forth to drown or be slaughtered.
Robert The Bruce had triumphed in a fashion that resounded across Europe. The excommunicated king had routed a force twice the size of his own army, so surely God was on his side?
The price he had paid, however, was very heavy, but at least the King was able to get back his queen and his daughter, though not the brothers and friends who had laid down their lives.