Post-classical history


‘We make war that we may live in peace’


ONCE EDWARD II HAD eluded his pursuers, the chances that a single victory, however conclusive, would bring hostilities between England and Scotland to an end became minimal for, while he was regarded as indecisive and incompetent where his father was feared and respected, he was equally arrogant and obstinate towards Scotland. The English king’s great seal and royal shield were captured by the Scots along with the other spoils of battle, but if Bruce ever really hoped his conciliatory gesture of returning them would bring a positive response regarding peace he was disappointed. English aims towards Scotland remained the same, namely to prevent the recognition of Robert Bruce as legitimate king and to continue their claims of suzerainty over the country.

In spite of this Bannockburn was significant in many ways. It undoubtedly strengthened Bruce’s position and marked the end of earlier Comyn dominance within the kingdom, although it should not be forgotten that he still faced continued external opposition from the Balliol faction where ‘In Argyll and Ireland John of Argyll and other émigrés continued to whip up bitter resistance’.1 As with Stirling Bridge sixteen years before, the battle caused people from across the land, the so-called ‘community of the realm of Scotland’, to feel a stronger sense of identity and pride for their nation and, in the case of Bannockburn, for their warrior king as well. As Evan Barron expressed it, after Bannockburn Scotland had ‘an unconquerable confidence in her ability to hold her own at all times, and under any conditions against the whole might of England’.2

An immediate and tangible result, of course, was the passing of the military initiative into the hands of the northern kingdom. After Bruce found his initial attempt at making peace rebuffed he returned to military persuasion, resuming and extending the tactics that had succeeded before the great battle: the raids into northern England were continued and major new initiatives undertaken. He set out, for instance, to capture Berwick, the last Scottish stronghold still in English hands (together with the English border fortress of Carlisle) and, in response to a request from the sub king of Tyrone, undertook a campaign to conquer Ireland. The raids continued to hold a central place in his attempts to compel England to agree peace terms, for they not only challenged English sovereignty across the northern counties but highlighted the crown’s inability to defend its people. In addition, the regular supplies of booty accruing from them, together with the financial contributions made by areas seeking to buy immunity, were of considerable benefit to his impoverished country. In the battle’s immediate aftermath and before their coming difficulties in Ireland, those conducting such raids were likely to feel such assurance in each other that defeat at the hands of the defenders seemed virtually inconceivable. As long as Douglas retained a pivotal role, however, they were never likely to develop the same attitude of mindless overconfidence exhibited by the English prior to Bannockburn.

Bruce’s motives for a conquest of Ireland were far less clear, but in all probability they included some ideal of a pan-Celtic brotherhood between the kings of Scotland and Ireland (and also his wish to remove his over-ambitious brother, Edward, from Scotland). Military success there could also eliminate Ulster as a source of supply for any new English invasions of Scotland and provide a base from where Bruce could conceivably attack Wales and Middle England.

All such military actions could also justly be viewed as a powerful platform for fresh diplomatic and constitutional initiatives. Just two months after the great battle following a particularly devastating raid into northern England by Edward Bruce, James Douglas and John de Soules (grand nephew of the one-time guardian), Bruce wrote to Edward offering peace. This was discussed at an English parliament held at York but, although the English king was willing to accept an armistice, he refused outright any recognition of Scottish autonomy. In November 1314 Bruce held a parliament at Cambuskenneth where with a confidence buoyed by military success he both tightened his control over Scotland and distinguished further between the two countries by confirming his earlier threat that all those holding land in Scotland who refused to pledge loyalty to him should be disinherited – although he subsequently gave them a further year in which to make up their minds. In December 1314 Bruce again demonstrated his ability to invade the English northern counties virtually at will by leading a major raid along the Tyne valley and afterwards received payment for a truce until midsummer 1315. Even less to the English king’s liking, he accepted the feudal homage of the inhabitants there.3

However able their leader, such incursions could not have been pursued so successfully without good subordinate commanders. Douglas and Moray in particular developed their raiding techniques into a form resembling those of the Vikings in the ninth century.4They developed a high degree of mobility: mounted on their wiry, sure-footed horses called ‘hobins’ (from which they took the name of ‘hobelars’), they travelled light, each attacker carrying an iron plate under his saddle upon which he could bake oatcakes – bannocks – on the camp fires at the end of the day to be eaten with steaks of beef from stolen cattle. Their return journeys were inevitably slower since together with horses, cattle and prisoners for ransom, their pack horses would be burdened by coin and other booty, but such was their reputation that they usually came back unchallenged. So regular and damaging did these raids become that Northumberland, for instance, suffered from considerable depopulation and lawlessness. Equally serious for English morale, there seemed no effective counter measures against them. Capable of travelling more than twenty-five miles a day such redoubtable raiders appeared able to pick their targets at random. With the breakdown of local administration the situation was made worse by bands of mounted freebooters called ‘schevaldores’ whose excesses were often blamed on Bruce’s raiders.

Under Bruce’s direction the skills and daring of his commanders enabled him to maintain the military dominance gained at Bannockburn, first over Edward II, seriously hampered as he was by continuing conflict with his nobles, and then over the young Edward III before his own development into an outstanding king commander. This was all the more noteworthy in the light of England’s far superior resources and its military and diplomatic support from other countries, particularly from the Vatican. With relatively little scope politically Bruce knew well enough that it was only by keeping up, or increasing, the military pressure over a protracted period if necessary, that England could finally be compelled to recognise Scotland’s right to full independence. The very size of the task became evident when, despite continued English disunity, this took fourteen further years, and success did not come until Bruce was sick and near death.

That it took so long owed as much to Scotland’s limited military resources as to England’s resoluteness. Their brilliant commander also committed what turned out to be a major strategical blunder by allowing his Irish adventure to drain off forces that, in the period immediately after Bannockburn, could surely have been used to far better effect on the mainland. Yet when the Irish campaign was behind him, while he understandably lacked the ability to deal his opponent a conclusive final blow, Bruce showed an unwillingness to hazard his forces against English armies invading Scotland.

Geographical factors weighed heavily against offensive operations mounted by either country. England’s problems were primarily concerned with supplying its armies as they marched through the desolate regions of the borders before reaching the Scottish heartland. Scotland on the other hand was not capable of sending a sufficiently large force far enough into England to damage it severely. Effective as they were, Scottish raids had a relatively limited effect, as England’s true strength lay a long way from its northern border. Not only was its seat of government in the south, but also most of its shipping, the greater bulk of its industry, its main centre of population, and the bulk of its food production. Even relatively deep raids into England’s northern counties could, therefore, never threaten the country’s vitals.

Scotland’s military limitations were probably most clearly apparent during 1316–18 when their border raids were seriously affected by the demands of Edward Bruce’s Irish campaign, as were other initiatives that met with disappointing results. In July 1315 the Scottish king attempted to capture Carlisle but was driven back for want of adequate siege equipment, together with a most efficient defence of the city conducted by the sheriff of Cumberland, Sir Andrew Harcla. In December of the same year Bruce and Douglas made a second attempt to capture Berwick, again without success. In Ireland, too, their forces were thinly spread. Although the Scots’ invaders enjoyed initial victories in Ulster and Edward Bruce was crowned King of Ireland at Dundalk in May 1316, the campaign was soon to go badly wrong. A combined expedition led by Robert and Edward Bruce during the winter of 1316–17 was seriously affected by famine conditions, together with unexpectedly determined opposition. In the spring of 1317 Robert Bruce was compelled to return home and at the end of 1318 the Irish campaign ended in defeat with Edward Bruce’s death in battle.

During 1316 and 1317, with so many troops away, much of the border raiding depended on the skill and energy of James Douglas, who heavily defeated a strong group of English and Gascon knights venturing out from Berwick. Soon afterwards he met two other cavalry detachments, one sent from Jedburgh by the Earl of Arundel, the other from near Berwick under Robert Neville of Raby, the so-called ‘Peacock of the North’, whom Douglas killed. In recognition, during 1317 Bruce appointed him Warden or Lieutenant of Scotland. In the spring of 1318 Douglas succeeded at last in capturing Berwick and followed this up in the autumn of 1319 by carrying out his most destructive and penetrating raid yet, burning all the gathered harvest and seizing large numbers of men and animals from Gilsland and Westmorland.5 If all Scottish military resources had been used as effectively and the raids had penetrated deeper still, there would have been such a continued and increasing outcry from northern England that the war might not have continued for so long.

Another reason for its length was the obduracy and capacity for intrigue shown by Edward II. Although his military ineptitude had caused such humiliation, he was more successful in other ways. Through his close relations with the papacy he conducted a religious (and diplomatic) offensive against Bruce to prevent him gaining Scottish independence. In a deeply religious age this was a powerful card to play. Since Bruce’s sacrilegious murder of John Comyn in 1306 and the subsequent support he received from the Scottish bishops, the Gascon Pope Clement V, whether or not favourably inclined towards the English, was understandably not well disposed towards him. Clement not only served sentence of excommunication upon both Bruce and the Scottish church but repeated it time after time.

After Clement’s death in 1316 the new Pope, John XXII, sought an end to hostilities in Europe so that its monarchs could join him on a projected crusade against the Turks. This, of course, required peace between England and Scotland and in 1317 he attempted to force the Scots into a two-year truce. Bruce received the Pope’s two cardinals courteously but refused to consider their peace proposals as long as they addressed him as ‘Governor of Scotland’ and not as its true king. Continuing in the same ironic vein he told them he could not open their sealed letters as they might be intended for another Robert Bruce. The Scottish king was able to adopt such a stance partly because the English appeared incapable of gaining the military advantage their greater resources warranted. In fact, the Scots showed they had no intention of observing the Pope’s proposed truce when Douglas besieged and succeeded in capturing Berwick during the two-year period. This provoked the Pope into ordering the four senior Scottish bishops, of St Andrews, Aberdeen, Dunkeld and Moray, to appear before him at the papal curia, and when they refused he excommunicated them together with Bruce; while this was not an uncommon occurrence for any of them, in a religious age its seriousness could not be doubted.

In response, during April 1320 the Scots sent a remarkable document to the Pope justifying their country’s independence and their own love of liberty. William Wallace had expressed the same sentiments in earlier years but the confidence behind this elegant and remarkable document could only have come after Bruce’s success at Bannockburn with its unifying effect upon Scotsmen of all classes. The letter, known as the Declaration of Arbroath because it was dated at the abbey there, was, in the opinion of Professor Barrow, likely to have been first sent as a round robin to be seen by as many earls, barons and other people as possible. Probably drafted by Bernard of Linton, Abbot of Arbroath and Scotland’s Chancellor, it was signed by eight earls and forty-four other senior laymen, many of them previous supporters of John Balliol and the Comyns, and also by a relatively large number of modest freeholders, collectively representing ‘the whole community of the realm of Scotland’.

The declaration was a tour de force written in an elegant but restrained style and purporting to represent the Scottish nation rather than any current royal power. It asserted the country’s independence since ancient times, condemned the aggression of the two Edwards and begged the Pope to help bring such aggression to an end by persuading the King of England to be content with his own country and ‘suffer us to live in that narrow spot of Scotland, beyond which is no habitation, since we desire nothing but our own’. Approaching the end of the letter the language rose to a climax: ‘for as long as a hundred of us remain alive, we intend never to be subjected to the lordship of the English in any way. For it is not for glory in War, riches or honours that we fight but only for the laws of our fathers and for freedom, which no good man loses except along with his life’. It concluded with the admonition, ‘But if your holiness too credulously trusts the tales of the English fully or does not leave off favouring the English to our confusion then we believe that the Most High will blame you for the slaughter of bodies, the destruction of souls and other misfortunes that follow, inflicted by them on us and by us on them’.6

However far it was orchestrated by Robert Bruce and his ministers such a patriotic claim for national independence was remarkable in the early part of the fourteenth century. Its sentiments were to be mirrored in the United States Declaration of Independence, directed against the British over four centuries later. But however powerful, neither the Pope nor the English king was as yet willing to heed the message. Admittedly the Pope did ask the English to justify their claim to Scotland but by 1325, after renewed English pressure, he still had not raised his interdict on the northern kingdom, although by now he at least addressed Bruce by his royal title.

In reality Scotland was not nearly so united as the Declaration pretended: indeed while it was being considered by the papacy charges of treason were being prepared against several who had actually placed their signatures on it. The reluctance of men like Roger Moubray, William Olifant and William Mowat to sign was demonstrated by their names not appearing in the main draft but being added last of all. Such men were supporters of Balliol and the Comyns who, according to the three chroniclers, Barbour, Fordun and Grey, during 1320 plotted to kill the king. With Bruce’s success against the English seemingly so close they probably felt forced to reveal their hands in a desperate bid to seize power by assassinating Robert Bruce and placing their own candidate on the throne, in this case William de Soules, grandson of Alexander Comyn, Earl of Buchan. De Soules, who had also signed the Declaration, was the hereditary Seneschal (or butler) of Scotland. During the previous year he had helped to negotiate the truce with England but he was by no means a strong or charismatic figure. On the plot being discovered David Brechin, Gilbert Malherbe, John Logie and a squire, Richard Brown, were condemned to be executed by a parliament held at Scone on 4 August 1320. Gilbert Malherbe, John Logie and Richard Brown were accordingly drawn, hanged and beheaded while David Brechin was hanged and beheaded. Although another conspirator, Roger Moubray, died before being convicted, his body was brought before the judges to be quartered as a traitor. However on Bruce’s intervention the body was spared and given decent burial. De Soules was treated comparatively leniently being condemned to perpetual imprisonment. He was confined in Dumbarton Castle where he was said to have died in a tower of stone. The same sentence was passed on the Countess of Strathearn, widow of the pro-Comyn Earl Malise, who was also involved in the plot.

With the conspiracy firmly suppressed, Bruce’s position became stronger than ever. Although evidence of a less than united community within Scotland so soon after the Declaration was submitted must have caused a degree of embarrassment, none of the conspirators, except De Soules, had held high rank or belonged to the king’s inner circle of councillors. Such a short, limited and unsuccessful uprising could not compromise Scotland’s clarion call for independence.

However the Scottish military initiatives were continued, and by Christmas 1319 their superiority in the border areas was such that the English were compelled to ask for a truce of two years. This was accepted at a meeting between the two sides at Newcastle, where Scotland was represented by a deliberately restrained Scottish delegation led by William de Soules. Although the English delegates were given the authority to discuss a longer term peace they were still not allowed to recognise Scottish sovereignty, and this was not pursued. During 1321, as a result of new papal pressure, envoys from both countries met again to discuss a more permanent peace – but were no nearer to reaching an agreement.

On 6 January 1322, six days after the two-year truce ended, Douglas and Moray resumed the military pressure and restarted raiding. For the first two months the English were as divided among themselves as ever until under the command of Andrew Harcla (who had already distinguished himself against the Scots at Carlisle) the king’s levies from Cumberland and Westmorland, clearly imitating Bruce’s tactics at Bannockburn, defeated Edward II’s bitter enemies the earls of Hereford and Lancaster. Hereford was killed and Lancaster, who had been secretly corresponding with Douglas, was taken prisoner before being executed.

As a result, in July 1322 Edward was able to lead his last expedition into Scotland. Bruce responded by refusing to be drawn into a major battle and reverting to his scorched earth tactics. Apparently, in the whole of the normally fertile Lothian region they found just one lame cow that could not be driven off. Seeing it, the Earl of Surrey remarked, ‘This is the dearest beef that I yet beheld; for of a certainty it has cost a thousand pounds and more’.7 As Bruce intended, the English army was soon brought close to starving and the king had no option but to withdraw. The initiative passed to his opponents who were not likely to miss such an opportunity.

After Edward II and his forces re-entered England many of them dispersed, and Bruce seized the chance of leading a powerful contingent in pursuit of the English king. Edward fled from Byland Abbey in Yorkshire to Rievaulx Abbey near Malton. Douglas and Moray, who were characteristically in the forefront of the Scottish forces, found their direct route to Rievaulx blocked by Edward’s household knights under the Earl of Richmond, John of Brittany. Without hesitation the Scots attacked the powerful position, with Douglas and Moray leading the assault uphill while Highlanders charged along the even higher ground to its flank. Faced with a twin assault the English broke and ran, although they delayed Bruce long enough for Edward to escape. He rode to Bridlington where he took ship to York, but again suffered the humiliation of defeat, this time in his own country, and of having to abandon his personal equipment, including silver plate and jewellery, even his horse trappings and harness. Richmond himself was captured together with other nobility including a French lord, Henry de Sully, whom Bruce, unwilling to antagonise France, ordered to be released without ransom. Sully however developed such an admiration and liking for the Scottish king that, before his return to France, he offered to take part in negotiations between England and Scotland for a new and long-standing truce. Whatever approaches were being considered by the countries’ two governments, from early 1323 many northern nobles made private treaties of immunity with the Scots in an effort to protect their communities. By far the most serious was made by Andrew Harcla, now Earl of Carlisle, who concluded that ‘the King of England neither knew how to rule his realm nor was able to defend it against the Scots, who year by year laid it more and more waste, [and] he feared lest at last the King should lose the entire kingdom’.8 Harcla entered into secret negotiation with Bruce and on 3 January 1324 negotiated a draft peace treaty which he openly proclaimed within his earldom. Edward II was enraged, proclaiming Harcla a traitor, and when a friend, Sir Anthony de Lucy, betrayed Harcla, Edward II had him taken prisoner and, after a summary trial, inflicted on him the traitor’s fate of being hanged, disembowelled and quartered.

Carlisle no longer had a strong leader to defend it against the northern raiders and the likelihood of its capture gave the English a particularly strong reason to propose a new truce, this time for the remarkable period of thirteen years. It was accepted and ratified by Bruce at Berwick on 7 June 1324. A truce of such a length went far towards the English acceptance of Scottish independence and Bruce made his ratification as King of Scotland. By his acceptance Bruce must have believed a full-scale peace treaty was sure to follow long before the thirteen years elapsed. In the short term the truce’s most important outcome was that England agreed not to oppose the Scottish supplication to the Pope requesting the removal of his interdict against their country. Moray was sent to Rome as Bruce’s representative supported there by Henry de Sully. Despite Edward II’s promise not to interfere, in 1324 he also sent a powerful delegation to press the Pope to continue with his interdict and, as a result, the only concession made by the papacy was the formal recognition of Bruce as King of Scots. In the same year the English king commanded Edward Balliol, son of king John, to come to England from Picardy where he had been living on the ancestral estates. The motive was plainly to run Edward Balliol as a contender for the Scottish throne. Despite Edward II’s continued machinations, the truce succeeded in bringing a cessation of hostilities between the two countries and laid the foundation for genuine peace talks to commence at York in 1324, although Scottish hopes here broke down upon Edward II’s continued intransigence. Earlier in the year, however, Scotland had been able to celebrate the long-awaited birth of an heir to Robert Bruce and his queen.

In 1326 Scotland’s reacceptance as a sovereign European state moved a stage closer when relations between England and France declined and the ‘auld alliance’ was officially renewed with Scotland and France signing a defensive treaty whereby each country would come to the other’s aid if they were attacked by England. Whatever these developments in Europe might herald, it was England’s recognition that remained all-important. The convulsions therefore in the English court which led to Edward II’s deposition in favour of his fourteen-year-old son, and the king’s subsequent murder by his wife Isabella and her lover, Sir Roger Mortimer, brought a new and dangerous situation for Scotland, especially as Edward’s loss of Scotland had been cited as an important reason for his deposition.

Bruce was no longer robust physically and a seemingly endless truce while England regathered its military strength appeared to be neither in his nor Scotland’s best interests. He therefore decided to remind the new English ruler of his military presence by attacking the castle of Norham on 1 February 1327, the very day of Edward III’s crowning. The attack failed when the castle’s commander received warning of it, and Bruce did not follow it up with further hostile acts. On 6 March the English Council of Regency under Henry, Earl of Lancaster, confirmed their desire for a renewal of the truce between the two countries, but although Scottish envoys went to York avowedly to negotiate its renewal, what both countries now wanted, in fact, was a resumption of warlike operations. On the Scottish side it was hoped that new military successes would at last force England to acknowledge their country’s independence, and on England’s part there was a new determination to re-exert their hold over what they saw as a rebellious Scotland and to inflict punishment for its destructive raiding. There could be no better fillip for the new regime than a victory over the Scots. From early April the English issued writs to commence military preparations and sent troops under the command of two earls, Lancaster and Kent, to Newcastle.

Following the inevitable breakdown of negotiations at York James Douglas wasted no time in making a raid into the English northern counties, thus marking the beginning of a fresh Scottish campaign. In early July, Douglas, Moray and Earl Donald of Mar led a far more considerable force into northern England, through the Kelder gap and down the North Tyne, with Wearsdale as their objective. Despite poor health, Bruce himself went to Ireland where he obtained a truce from the Ulster seneschal, Sir Henry Mandeville, that stopped him helping the anticipated English invasion of Scotland. Bruce also brought away a promise of much-needed food supplies for the northern kingdom.

As Bruce had rightly anticipated, the new English government showed its own eagerness for military action by sending a large army to seek out and crush the Scottish forces. In support were many Hainaulters under command of John of Hainault to whose niece the young English king was betrothed. These included 700 mounted men at arms.9 The English also brought a frightening new weapon in the shape of small cannons but during this campaign they remained impotent, as it rained so much that their gunpowder was rendered useless. The fifteen-year-old Edward III was the army’s nominal commander, although in practice the direction came from the earls of Lancaster and Kent, with John of Hainault leading the cavalry. James Douglas was the overall Scottish commander and, in Bruce’s absence, Douglas’ remarkable leadership skills, clearly evident before and during the great battle of Bannockburn, came into their own.

The success of Scottish tactics during the campaign of July and early August 1327 and the corresponding bafflement and misery of the English have been described in graphic fashion by a Hainaulter, Le Bel. From the outset Douglas’ lightly armed force, burning and pillaging as they went, led the English a rare dance through Wearsdale and Teesdale. The English were determined enough but their pursuit was impeded by their cumbersome train of waggons and the other equipment required by an orthodox force. As Le Bel described it, Douglas led them ‘through woods and swamps and wildernesses and evil mountains and valleys’.10

At length Douglas chose a good defensive position south of the Wear and waited for his pursuers. The next day it started raining heavily and it continued to rain for a further eight days. On the ninth day the Scottish scouts captured an English squire, Thomas of Rokebury, but Douglas released him so that he could brief the English about the whereabouts of the Scottish camp. There was much manoeuvring as the English moved up and the Scots exchanged one good defensive position for another, but although Douglas was far better placed as a master of speed and surprise commanding a smaller and handier force, he determined to take no risks. At one point he and his fellow commanders refused Edward III’s naı¨ve request (in some ways reminiscent of the young Bruce’s at Methven against Valence) that the Scottish forces leave their strong defensive position and fight superior numbers of English on the plain. As Le Bel reported, ‘They said they would do neither the one nor the other. They said that, as the King and his staff could see, they were in his realm and had burned it and wasted it; and if this vexed him he could come and stop them, for they would stay where they were for as long as they pleased’.11

In such a situation Douglas’ cunning came into its own, as he played on the enthusiasm of the English to pursue him and bring him to battle. On the night of 3 August Douglas suddenly decamped, but kept his camp fires burning to deceive his opponents. Moving across the Wear to Stanhope Park, one of the Bishop of Durham’s hunting demesnes, he took up a strong position, with a river before it and an impassable marsh to its rear. The next day the English duly resumed their pursuit, and made camp on the river’s opposite bank, from where they planned to surround Douglas’ position and then starve the Scots out. However, the English were so tired after their move and the labour involved in setting up their tents that they neglected to put out an adequate number of picquets. That night Douglas led a raiding party into the opposing camp, cutting down large numbers of sleeping and bewildered men as he went. Spurring into the centre of the encampment he slashed the guy ropes of the royal tent and attempted to seize the young monarch, but despite inflicting many casualties on the king’s household, including its chaplain, he failed. In fact, the tables were almost turned for as he waited to shepherd his men out of the camp, he only narrowly avoided capture.

The next day the English set about investing Stanhope Park, certain that Douglas would be forced eventually to attempt a break-out and suffer defeat in the process. Douglas’ co-commander Moray also saw no other option than to fight. But the Scottish commander knew differently: on 6 August he arranged for a Scottish knight to be ‘captured’ who told the English that Douglas was planning a break-out attempt that evening. In expectation the English stood to arms all through the night as Douglas’ heralds blew their horns in an endless series of commands and his camp fires continued to burn brightly. Under cover of this activity the Scottish army stole away over the seemingly impassable marsh, which they crossed by laying down wooden hurdles that they afterwards retrieved. When dawn came and the English could make out the empty camp on the opposite hillside, their opponents were four or five miles north on their way to Scotland.

During the campaign Douglas gave the English a classic lesson in waging war. If his despoiling tactics and avoidance of battle appeared unchivalric to both his opponents and possibly to many young bloods in his own force, they were the result of his long experience of warfare against the English, both before and during the great battle at Bannockburn. Like his master Bruce, he knew how much that victory had owed to shortcomings in English leadership. During the Wearside campaign he realised the only hope for the English was to pin him down and destroy his forces. He was determined to deny them that and in the process to demoralise the large army they had assembled at such cost: this achieved, northern England would be open to further destructive raids.

Meanwhile gazing across at the guttering campfires in the Scottish camp the English leadership knew only too well they had no further military options. Their army was utterly worn out, their horses ruined and the men’s personal equipment rotted by the rain. Their only course of action was to return south, baffled and empty-handed. Faced with such humiliation the young Edward III burst into tears in his disappointment and frustration. Back in York it became clear that although the English might issue further writs for military service, their offensive capability had been temporarily destroyed. With the exchequer empty (the crown jewels had been pawned to pay for the mercenaries) and the Hainaulters dismissed, Douglas’ skills had made sure the military initiative stayed in Bruce’s hands. Once the Scottish army had rested and been given new horses the destructive raids were resumed across Northumberland together with attacks upon its castles, and Bruce now began openly to grant lands to his supporters there as a clear signal that he intended to incorporate the county into Scotland, to be followed no doubt by others.12

As intended, the English now seriously entered into peace negotiations and their delegates arrived in Edinburgh on 10 March 1328. Agreement between the two nations, including a dynastic union between Bruce’s son, David Bruce, and King Edward’s sister, Joan, was reached within seven days to be ratified by an English parliament at Northampton on 4 May. The thirty-two-year war had finally ended and with it Bruce achieved his lifelong aim.

Bannockburn provided the martial platform that led to Scotland’s eventual re-emergence as a sovereign state free from English suzerainty and to the recognition of Robert Bruce, the usurper claimant, as her legitimate king. It gave Scotland a military ascendancy over England which under Bruce it never lost, and an increased pride and confidence that led the Scottish leaders to address, even to chide, the Pope not just on behalf of their king but the whole community of the realm to remove his interdict over the country. Without the outstanding personal qualities of Robert Bruce, the rare skills and commitment of his commanders, and the constancy of the Scottish church it is extremely doubtful whether the English would have finally been forced to sign the Treaty of Northampton. Without their defeat at Bannockburn they would certainly not have done so.

No later consideration can invalidate the primary contribution of Bannockburn towards the regaining of Scottish independence. However, Bruce’s death a year later was followed by those of his leading commanders in the battle, Douglas in 1330 and both Moray and Keith in 1332, the latter in battle at Dupplin Moor. With the passing of the men who fully understood the grave risks Bruce had taken at Bannockburn and knew the true extent of English military incompetence there, later Scottish commanders were liable to be less circumspect. Raymond Campbell Paterson condemned subsequent Scottish military leaders for having ‘an illusory sense of invulnerability’: this may be too harsh, but they certainly deserve to be criticised for a disastrous lack of imagination.13

Traditionally, serious defeats cause nations to rethink their military options; from Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk Bruce realised his schiltrons had to be trained in mobility, and following their defeat at Bannockburn the English realised the need to co-ordinate their different arms in battle. The fractious English knights, who in 1314 decried both archers and spearmen, were soon to fight dismounted shoulder to shoulder with ordinary soldiers, and with longbowmen on their flanks. This deadly combination was to give them victories over Scotland at Dupplin Moor (1332), at Halidon Hill (1333), Neville’s Cross (1346) and at Flodden Field (1513). It also gave them ascendancy over France at Crécy in 1346 and Poitiers in 1356, despite being heavily outnumbered. At Crécy all the English infantry were bow-armed, but while it was primarily a victory for the English longbow, Edward III also adopted earlier Scottish tactics to reinforce his success by, for instance, digging pits to slow the advance of the opposing cavalry.14 Significantly Crécy, like Bannockburn, was a victory for a smaller, well-disciplined army against a much more powerful adversary who failed to make his numerical superiority count.

Bannockburn had a quite different effect upon Scottish commanders. It established a tradition, or at least re-emphasised the favoured Scottish characteristic of taking the offensive, but in doing so at Dupplin Moor, Halidon Hill and Neville’s Cross – against English archers supported by dismounted knights – they suffered terrible casualties in the process. There also came into being an enduring faith in the schiltron, the thicket of yeoman spearmen who had proved so formidable under Bruce’s direction. This faith persisted into the mid-sixteenth century with the disastrous battle of Pinkie Cleuch (1547) where the Scottish schiltrons, unsupported by cavalry or archers, were assailed from all sides by heavy English cavalry, supported by long and shortbowmen together with mounted arqubusiers, and most deadly of all by massed guns firing at short range, whose shot tore bloody corridors in their massed ranks. With their dedication both to the offensive and the schiltron Scottish commanders forgot what was arguably Bruce’s greatest legacy to Scottish arms, the ability to switch their formations from the offensive to the defensive. Weaker leadership would allow fatal divisions to appear in the command structure as at Dupplin Moor, when the rivalry between Lord Robert Bruce and his overall commander, Donald of Mar, led to them disputing who would be first to charge the enemy, with the result that both were killed.

It might seem all too simple to attribute the Scottish defeat at Pinkie Cleuch to their victory at Bannockburn over two centuries before, although the Scottish commander there, James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, ordered his army to leave a strong defensive position and attack in a tragic parody of Bruce’s initiative. At Pinkie, unlike Bannockburn, Arran was fighting an enemy who had gained greater military experience from fighting on the continent. It is also true that Scottish tactics had remained static and unimaginative, with too little appreciation of the fact that cavalry would re-emerge as the arbiter of war supported by a new military arm. This could in part have been due to Scotland’s lack of involvement in European wars, but not entirely since many Scottish mercenaries had taken prominent roles in the continuing conflicts abroad. Victory at Bannockburn was undoubtedly a factor, and an important one at that, in Scottish over-confidence that led to costly and repeated defeats.

Even still, Bannockburn’s positive attributes are incomparably greater. However many times Scottish armies might have been subsequently beaten by the English, however weak the country’s monarchs or divided its national councils, even with their king a captive in English hands, Scots still remembered that they had succeeded in checking English ambitions to incorporate their country into a greater England. By the Treaty of Northampton, Edward, grandson of Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots, whose aim was nothing short of full conquest, ‘willed and consented that the said Kingdom, according to its ancient boundaries, observed in the days of Alexander III should remain unto Robert King of Scots, his heirs and successors, free and divided from the Kingdom of England, without any subjection, right of service, claim or demand whatever; and that all writings which might have been executed at any time to the contrary should be held as void and of no effect’.15

This remains the true measure of Robert Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn.

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