Saturday, November 07, 2009

I have been to.... Bannockburn

As I mentioned in my last post the Bannockburn trip was a bit of a two edged sword - half good, and half disappointing - but read more following.... For reference by the way, Wikipedia is excellent for this site, I also recommend the National Trust of Scotland site [click here]

First the history bit - and bear with me - I like to understand what happened where and when, if I visit a battlefield... .

So where I left this in the last post, the English in Stirling Castle had just agreed a stay of execution with the Scots until mid-summer 1314 - if the English army didn't appear to relieve them by then, they would hand the castle over to the Scots. Edward II in the meanwhile, (son of "Longshanks") was raising an English army to do exactly that....

Bruce's army had been assembling in the Tor Wood (near Stirling - see Wiki maps below) from the middle of May, but on the 22nd June (a Saturday), with his troops now organised into their respective commands, Bruce moved his army slightly to the north (towards Stirling) to the New Park - most of the accounts say that this was to take account of the better cover provided by the more heavily wooded Park. Their position was helped by the Bannock Burn and the boggy ground around it. They also dug pits either side of the road which they covered and disguised, and laid caltrops to trip and cripple the English horses.

Robert the Bruce's army was chiefly composed of infantry armed with long spears but he also had a small cavalry force of about 500 men-at-arms. Lots of sources, but from what I cant tell there were about 6-7,000 men all told. Most would have been equipped with the aforementioned spear, a helmet, a thick padded jacket down to the knees and armoured gloves - one thing, they were quite well equipped for a medieval army, but they'd been at war with England for a long time which always gives opportunities for captured equipment to be re-used. The rest of the army would have been archers (very few - 500 or less) and men-at-arms.

In appearance they would have looked very similar to their English opposite numbers..

The English army on the other was much larger - consisting of about 2,000 cavalry and 16,000 foot. Edward was also accompanied by a host of the nobility, some of he very seasoned campaigners, and a large number of them Scots opposed to Robert the Bruce.

Day 1: 23 June

True to form, and in a way that characterised the English campaign there was a reckless advance by the vanguard of Edward II's army - led by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and Humphrey de Bohun (pronounced Boon), Earl of Hereford. Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont, with cavalry, went to ford the Bannock Burn.

This was where one of the most famous engagements in medieval times occurred - "one English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun - a nephew of the Earl of Hereford - saw King Robert. Although the king was only lightly armoured and riding a pony he was wearing a gold circlet. Bohun decided to attack, because to defeat the enemy leader in single combat - one man against another- could make him very famous. But King Robert was able to dodge him when he charged and struck Bohun on the head with his battle axe so hard that he split his helmet and skull, and broke the axe".

Luck or otherwise you can only imagine the morale benefit to the Scottish army! Bruce's own division rushed forward to engage the main enemy force. After fierce fighting, in which the Earl of Gloucester was knocked off his horse, the English knights were forced to retreat to the Tor Wood.

So ended the first day..

Day 2: 24 June

This is where it all gets a bit difficult; trying to figure out where the action was on the second day is quite difficult as the evidence is scanty, and conflicting... the map following shows the battle as occurring in the area known as the Dryfield, the other theory is that the action took place further north & west on the Carse - in the loop of the river that you see... either way the end result was the same.

For the record though, I think, having looked at the maps that the Carse theory is more likely....

The Bruce's preparations (caltrops and pits) had made the direct approach to Stirling too difficult, Edward needed an alternate plan and came up with perhaps the worst one... he ordered the army to cross the Bannock Burn to the east of the New Park - on to the Dryfield, or the Carse, depending on your point of view.

Not long after daybreak the Scottish spearmen began to move towards the English.

"Edward was surprised to see Robert's army emerge from the cover of the woods. As Bruce's army drew nearer, they paused and knelt in prayer. Edward is supposed to have said in surprise 'They pray for mercy!' 'For mercy, yes,' one of his attendants replied, 'But from God, not you. These men will conquer or die.'" Not the brightest spark, our Edward.....

He then managed to irritate one of the English earls to such an extent, he then lead a(nother) impetuous charge at the Scottish spear-men. The Earl (Gloucester) was killed along with other knights.

With the advance of the Scots, and the size of the army, the English were starting to have difficulties manoeuvring in the small area they occupied.

Bruce then committed his whole Scots army to an assault on the increasingly disorganised English army.

Allegedly, the English were now so tightly packed that if a man fell, he risked being immediately crushed underfoot or suffocated. Worse, the English knights began to escape back across the Bannockburn.

"With the English formations beginning to break, a great shout went up from the Scots, "Lay on! Lay on! Lay on! They fail!"" If that mental picture doesn't want to make you start painting medieval wargame armies I don't know what will!

Whether by accident or not, the Scottish camp followers had heard the furore and grabbed any weapons they had to join in - apparently they also grabbed banners and flags, which to me makes it sound like it was a coordinated action. The sight was enough to make the English think that the Scots had reinforcements, and they broke....

"Some tried to cross the River Forth where most drowned in the attempt. Others tried to get back across the Bannockburn, but as they ran, “tumbling one over the other” down the steep, slippery banks, a deadly crush ensued so that “men could pass dryshod upon the drowned bodies”."

Post match analysis
  • Edward fled with his personal bodyguard, he arrived eventually at Dunbar Castle, from here he took ship to England.
  • The rest of the army had 90 miles to cover to the English border. Historian Peter Reese believes that at a minimum two thirds of the English army were taken, captured, or killed - 11,000 lost... a massive blow. how did the actual visit go??? Well worth it, but disappointing at the same time.. The down side is that the Bannockburn battlefield is now well and truly built over so it's not really possible to see any of the major features - the woods have largely gone, and the Dry Field and the Carse are pretty heavily developed...

The upside is that they do have a very good visitors centre:

With some excellent exhibits:

I'm sure I remembered seeing an article in an old Practical Wargamer about this exhibit, and sure enough when I got home I found it in the Spring 1988 issue - this is Charlie Wesencraft's handiwork and represents the Battle of Stirling Bridge, Wallace's earlier victory in 1297.. I have the magazine, so if there's interest I'll post the article. Suffice to say the exhibit is still in top notch condition 21 years after it was first made.

As it happens they also have a brilliant children's education area - with replica armour to get dressed up in, not for the first time I wished I was 40 years younger!

Moving outside of the centre the hill to the side is dominated by this monument:

This concrete and brick ring ring contains the following monument - this is known as the Borestone and marks the spot where Robert the Bruce raised his standard before the battle - it lies at the edge of the old New Park - Bannock Burn would be behind you at the bottom of the rise, as you look at this monument:

Walking on through the ring you are heading north - I took the following as I left the ring - looking north - a bit of a misty day, but in the distance of this picture you can just see Stirling Castle - that's how close the battle was.

There is also this quite magnificent statue of the Bruce...

...and that was my visit - brilliant day out with my Dad, and to round it off on the way home we went into Dunfermline for a few beers (at a brilliant pub called the Commercial Inn) and he just happened to mention that Robert the Bruce is buried in the cathedral there! So as a kind of bookend to the day we walked over to see the place... unhappily the cathedral was closed that day, but it's clear who's buried there from the crenellations on the tower

...and there you have it - I hope to visit Stirling Bridge and the castle next time I'm up in Scotland...


  1. Steve,

    You do such a wonderful job with your background and analysis of various historical battles . . . and this one is no exception.

    Very well done, sir. You help to make this battle very clear. Thank you.

    -- Jeff

  2. Yes, excellent post!

    Heres something else to excite your interests

  3. Hi !
    Very interesting post ! ! !

    I just found your blog, and I will read it at full.

    Do you have an order of battle for these armies ?

    Are there some Highlanders present at this battle ?

    PS : Sorry for my language, I am French.

  4. Ah Moif - I knew about that one and can't wait - we've been waiting for ever for a decent version of Robin Hood, and Russell Crowe is my favourite for the role..... I just wish they'd do another Aubrey/Maturin with him!

    Bonjour Thomas - your English is much better than my French so no need to apologise at all! The only order of battle I have is those I got from the web resources... they make little or no mention of highlanders, the one Highland chieftain who I have read was at the battle was a man called Angus Og (Clan Madonald) his fighters served in the troops who fought right at the end - certainly the Bruce rewarded him after the battle...

  5. Agreed, Steve. A wonderfully informative entry to your blog. Hope to see it one day myself. Thanks!

    Best Regards,


  6. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your comments. Fascinating post.

    I remember visiting Stirling years ago, staying in Argyll’s Lodging when it was still a Youth Hostel. It’s good to see the visitors centre exhibits and models are still in decent condition.