Friday, October 23, 2009

Bannockburn .... part 1...

As previously mentioned I’m hoping to see the battlefield of Bannockburn in the very near future, so, as is my wont, I've spent a few interesting lunchtimes preparing and investigating and getting the background information ready for the visit.. I do like to know the historical/military/political context in which battles are set – and this one is as complex as most, so the purpose of this first post is just to set the context.....

First off – my knowledge of this particular period of history is not good, I'm no medievalist, though I guess I know as much as most about events in France... to be honest my knowledge of this particular theatre of war, was almost entirely shaped from watching "Braveheart"!

To be fair though, I did go and buy "Freedom's Sword" by Peter Traquair pretty soon after seeing the film, as I knew I needed to add a little fact to the Hollywood glitz....

Having now done some reading (though not I'm afraid Mr Traquair, yet - too little time - too many books!) I was quite surprised that the film “Braveheart” was fairly close to the mark – I had assumed all of it should be ignored completely (apart from the quite astonishingly beautiful Sophie Marceau - right - perhaps!)

For those of you who've seen it the portrayal of Robert the Bruce is quite effective and compares well with what I’ve read – and while Bruce didn’t actively conspire to get Wallace arrested and ultimately, tortured and killed by Edward “Longshanks”, the “Hammer of the Scots” (played by the quite splendidly evil Patrick McGoohan), in real life I should have imagined he wasn't too upset about it.

Basically, the long wars that existed between England and Scotland started as a result of the death of King Alexander (the III) of Scotland, in 1286. As seems to be so often the cause of conflict he died without adult heirs – his children had predeceased him, and his only grand daughter (Margaret) died early, and in doing so triggered 20 odd years of war between England and Scotland. Reading the history I couldn't help thinking of the parallels with a certain King of Spain 500 years later! Nothing changes....

In Scotland however, the search for the new king was on with a vengeance; their were basically two political camps – the Balliol’s, and the Bruce's – each of whom had their supporting camps. Either way – by having the better family relationship, & the stronger position, Balliol was crowned King John in 1292... and it all kind of spiralled downwards from there…

In 1294 – Edward (left) declared war on the French and asked for troops from his Scottish allies; somewhat rashly King John sided with the French, and moved his army to the border. Edward reacted pretty characteristically, got angry, and then destroyed both Berwick on Tweed, and in a campaign of only 17 days, the Scottish army.. he really was an outstanding soldier king.

Edward imposed his own governor on Scotland, seized the Scottish crown jewels and put Balliol in the Tower (he was never to leave it) – many of the Scottish nobles including the Bruce family then swore fealty to Edward, many because they also owned land in England, some because they harboured kingly ambitions but needed time...

By 1297, Scots loyal to King John were in rebellion – the main leaders of the rebellion were Sir Andrew Murray and William Wallace (enter Mel Gibson stage left…). Not much is known about Wallace but either way the two joined forces and defeated the English at the battle of Stirling Bridge. Never one to let something get away from him however, Edward invaded the next year, and won the battle of Falkirk (1298) - Wallace went into hiding for two years but was finally captured, tried, and executed in London in 1305 (FREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEDOM!)

With his death, King John lost his last remaining chance of reclaiming the throne... the remaining political power in Scotland was mostly the Bruce's...

Battle from Holkham Bible

Robert the Bruce launched himself on a long political campaign to garner the extra support he needed from the Scottish nobility to take the crown – he didn’t start too well, however. It's written that he murdered the family head of one of King John’s main supporters while at a meeting being held in church! Despite the faux pas and what should have been an almost automatic excommunication, Bruce retained the support of the Scottish church, and was eventually crowned King of Scotland in 1306

...and back comes Edward again... you begin to understand why he picked up the nickname the 'Hammer of the Scots' when you read the history!

Robert the Bruce was defeated at the battle of Methven, and his wife, family and key supporters arrested and sent to England. Bruce managed to escape to the Highlands and from there started a guerilla war (and this was supposedly the time he was inspired by the spider) which was so effective, he managed to change the political landcape yet again.

In 1307 he beat an English army at the Battle of Loudon Hill, and Edward set off again to bring him to battle, but this time died on the way – he was succeeded by Edward II who (unlike his effeminate portrayal in Braveheart) was a tough fighter but was (allegedly/apparently) homosexual as intimated in the film.

In 1310 Edward II invaded in support of a number of English garrisons (including Perth, Dundee, Stirling & Edinburgh).

In 1313, Perth and Dumfries surrendered after sieges, and by 1314 just two major strategic fortresses remained in English hands: that on the border at Berwick and that controlling the crossing of the Forth at Stirling. Around Lent of 1314 Edward Bruce, brother of the Scottish king, began the siege of Stirling Castle, which was commanded by Sir Philip Mowbray.

Unable to make any headway, Bruce agreed to a pact with Mowbray - if no relief came by midsummer 1314, the castle would surrender to Bruce.

Edward II marched to rescue Stirling in 1314 – and so the stage was set for the battle of Bannockburn - which'll be the next post - getting excited to see the actual battlefield now!


  1. An excellent little potted history! This is an era I know very little about although I feel I should find out a bit more as I am half Scottish (although never lived there). I look forward to your next instalment...


  2. Please don't push Braveheart as good history! It is a great cinematic experience but is otherwise a very distorted and romanticised view of the period. That is not a problem if you take it for what it is but many Scots seem to think of it as a documentary! It is myth forming in a very unhelpful way.

  3. A very interesting read, sir. Thank you.

    -- Jeff

  4. Have you read Sir Walter Scott's "Tales of a Grandfather"? It is an excellent history of early Scotland and is one of my favorite history books.