Of the twelve claimants to the crown of Scotland, no less than six of them had been born illegitimately. Though they had been sired by such men as William the Lion and Alexander II, that they were bastards made their chances of ever ascending the throne slim indeed. The English Host of Edward II
Of the legitimate claimants, John Comyn the Black, Lord of Badenoch had a claim of descent from Duncan I, the king murdered by Macbeth in the Shakespearean play of the same name. Two men, the Count of Holland and a Robert Pinkey had claims based on descent from the two younger sisters of Malcolm IV, William the Lion and David, Earl of Huntingdon. The Count of Holland, at one point claimed that David, Earl of Huntingdon had given up his rights to the throne in favour of his sister Ada, the Count's mother. Had this been true, the Count's claim would have been the strongest, but it was never proved and presently the Count gave up his claim to the throne. That left three further claimants, all descended from the daughters of David, Earl of Huntingdon. The two strongest were John Balliol, whose grandmother was Margaret, David's eldest daughter and Robert Bruce Lord of Annandale, the son of David's second daughter Isabella. That the rules of primogeniture cleary showed Balliol's claim to be the stronger mattered little to the Bruce family and the stage seemed set for a destructive civil war.
It was then that Bishop Fraser, intent on avoiding such a calamity, wrote to Edward I asking him to come north and choose between the candidates. Edward came in the summer of 1291 and at Norham on Tweed his arrogant assertions that he was the Paramount Lord of Scotland angered the Scots who had come to hear his judgement. All but nine of the claimants that is. Balliol and Annandale among them, these men accepted Edward as their superior lord. Edward's final decision came months later and he chose Balliol. By the laws of the time it was the correct decision and though it brought Edward nearer his goal of dominating Scotland there can be no denying the justice of his choice. After Balliol was crowned at Scone as King John I, he rode south to Newcastle and there knelt in submission to Edward. Balliol was a weak man, alternatively timid or haughty and often sick. He was the last kind of king Scotland needed and Edward treated him with great contempt. He was ordered to Edward's court for the settlement of petty disputes affecting not England but Scotland, treaties were torn up and even the unpaid wine bills of Alexander III presented to him for settlement. Finally when ordered to take part in Edward's war against France, he decided enough was enough, ignored Edward's command and signed a treaty (the Auld Alliance) with France instead.
Edward came north in a fury. Though the old Earl of Annandale was dead, his claim had passed to his shrewd son and vigorous grandson, both named like him, Robert the Bruce. The Bruces promised their swords in the service of Edward and held Carlisle for him against a besieging army led by John Comyn the Red, a supporter of Balliol and married to his sister. Edward raised the siege and then marched on to Berwick, held against him by William Douglas. The town fell, the inhabitants were massacred and soon after the Earl of Surrey, sent in pursuit of John Comyn, met his quarry by Dunbar castle and slaughtered his army. All the major castles and keeps in Scotland either surrendered to Edward or were taken by siege and soon English chains bound the country. In July of 1296 Balliol wrote a craven letter to Edward begging forgiveness and when he submitted to the Bishop of Durham at Brechin castle, the heraldic arms of Scotland were humiliatingly torn from his tunic leaving him only with the contempuous nickname of 'Toom Tabard', the empty coat. He was sent to prison in England. Scotland suffered under an English yoke and the cruelties practised by Edward's men were many and atrocious. They led to the revolt of Wallace, his great victory at Stirling Bridge, defeat at Falkirk and final barbarous execution in London.
In those days Bruce found his family sometimes in Edward's favour, sometimes out and his own actions mirrored this fact. Sometimes the Bruce's sword was raised on behalf of Edward and sometimes against him. Bruce was appointed one of the Guardians of Scotland, along with Bishop Lamberton of St.Andrews and John Comyn the Red, son of the lord whose army had been destroyed by Surrey at Dunbar. They operated a shadowy government parallel to Edward's, but the rivalry between Bruce and the Comyn was bitter and sometimes violent and Bruce resigned his Guardianship in 1300. The Comyns, still Balliol supporters continued resistance and in 1300 and again in 1303, Edward rode north to punish their impudence. The latter occasion was prompted by the defeat of an English force by Comyn at Roslin. Edward wasted the countryside and the Comyn came before him in submission, his life being spared in return for an oath of allegiance to the English king. Bruce himself had submitted to Edward, once again, in 1302 and after Comyn's surrender was appointed, by Edward, joint Guardian of Scotland with Bishop Wishart of Glasgow and the English earl John de Mowbray. There was only one centre of resistance to Edward now and that was Stirling castle where a gallant William Oliphant and about two score men continued to keep the torch of Scottish liberty burning. Robert the Bruce commanded the English siege-engines that finally took the castle for Edward.
The English army that accompanied Edward on his march north was probably the most powerful force ever put into the field by the English in their wars with the Scots. The chroniclers said that it was a hundred thousand strong and though it may have pleased men in bygone ages to think that they vanquished such a host, the figure is ridiculous. To have supplied such a force, even if it could have been assembled, was a practical impossibility in the Britain of the 14th century. A more likely figure is somewhere in the region of 20,000. The cutting edge of the army, the seemingly invincible shock arm was the heavy cavalry. Made up of the knights, their squires and men-at-arms it was a potent weapon. The riders wore a surcoat of chain mail and this was covered with plate armour and then a flowing robe which carried the knights coat of arms for easy identification in the fight. The main weapon was a 12 ft iron-headed wooden lance. Battle-axes and maces (a kind of spiked club) were carried for close in work. the cavalry's tactics were simple: charge forward and allow the momentum of the charge to smash through and trample down any formation that stood in the way. Such formations were usually lighted armed foot-soldiers of little training for rarely did large groups of armored knights charge each other. Knight to knight encounters were usually restricted to single combat. One can imagine the terror a force of heavy cavalry at full gallop could inspire. The very earth would shake under the impact of the horses hooves and only troops of great discipline and gifted leadership could stand any chance of resisting them. Edward had 2,000 such heavy horse. The Scots under the Bruce
The cavalry were supported by around 17,000 footsoldiers, spearmen and archers. The spearmen were armed with a 12ft spear and a short sword or dagger as a sidearm. They wore a quilted or leather jacket to protect them against sword slashes or arrows and wore gloves of chainmail or steel plates sewn together. On their heads they wore a bascinet, a simple steel helmet either coneshaped or with a wide brim not dissimilar to the 'battle bowlers' of World War I. The exact proportion of English archers to spearmen is not known but the latter were in the majority. The archers, who had caused such execution at the battle of Falkirk, carried a longbow made of yew and a quiver of 24 arrows, each iron-tipped and a clothyard long. When the archers came forward to loose their missiles they usually stood in line about five or six paces apart. Edward's archers came principally from Wales, but also from Ireland and the north of England.
The nature of Edward's army, with the heavy cavalry the arm that would win any martial glory, led to command problems at lower levels. As all the nobles and knights fought in the cavalry, the footsoldiers were often poorly led. In contrast the Scots nobles and knights fought amongst their men on foot and were thus well placed to maintain morale and discipline. It would be an important factor in the coming battle. One more thing hinted at a weakness or lack of will. For all the chivalric power of the English host, the great English feudal lords were conspicuous by their absence. Only Hereford and Gloucester and Pembroke rode north behind the king. It would have been different in Edward's father's day and Scotland was blessed that the old man, the 'hammer of the Scots' had passed away at Burgh-on Sands, three miles from Scotland only seven years before. This king, Scotland's bitterest ever foe, was 68 when he died and leading yet another punitive expedition north to chastise those who had been the bane of his later years.
Among Edward's force, apart from the English, Welsh and Irish, were freebooting adventurer knights from France, Germany, Burgundy and Holland. There were also Scots, traditional enemies of the Bruce family and those who felt their own cause best advanced by service with Edward. The spirit of Scottish nationhood was nascent then and would need the impetus of a great victory to propel it to fruition. The Comyns stood with Edward, how could they do otherwise after the murder of their kinsman in Dumfries? The MacDougalls also, and the MacNabs.
The Scots who faced Edward looked very different from the glittering chivalry that filled the ranks of their enemy. No great silken banners or horses bedecked in armour and gorgeous cloths greeted the English when they finally came upon their foe. The Scots army was rugged and tough, the product of a thousand guerrilla-type engagements fought out over the length and breadth of Scotland and they had neither the time nor the need to engage in sartorial splendour. There must have been men who had stood with Wallace that stood with the Bruce that day in the summer of 1314, and not a few of their sons. Most of them had known no other life than that of the warrior and they were ready for the fight. Bruce had spent the time from the issuing of the challenge to relieve Stirling Castle to the approach of 'proud Edward's power' in training his men in the methods they must use in the upcoming battle. They were a well-drilled, disciplined, well-nigh professional army that would successfully acquit itself when the clash of spears came. The First Day Of Battle
The chroniclers said there were 20,000 of them and this figure is also ridiculous. The ratio of Scots to English was probably recorded correctly and it seems Edward had a fourfold advantage in numbers. The hard core of Bruce's army were his spearmen and of these he had 4,500 to 5,000. They were supported by a handful of archers from the Ettrick Forest and about 500 light horse. Mounted men indeed but lightly horsed they were no match for Edward's knights on their mighty armored destriers.
The Scots spearman fought with a 12 foot spear, a simple steel cap on his head, armored gloves and perhaps a leather jerkin and and chain mail shoulder cover to protect from arrows. He fought in the schilltron, or spear ring, a formation with the ability to become a fluid line in advance with more manoeuvrability than the Macedonian phalanx whose purpose it sometimes duplicated. In defence the schilltron drew in on itself into a hedgehog of prickly spears. Simple manoeuvres it seems but desperately difficult to effect on broken ground, in great haste or with men less than intimate with their task. Until the advent of the Spanish tercios almost two centuries later, there were probably no infantry in all Europe better drilled than Bruce's that midsummer. If puissant was the word to describe Edward's host, disciplined flexibility were the words most applicable to Bruce's. The army probably reflected the racial mix that had created the Scotland of the early 14th century and the blood that flowed through their veins could have been Irish, Norse, French, English or Flemish as well as Scots and Pictish. Although Gaelic speakers were in the majority there were men who spoke Lowland Scots and even some who found Norman-French the easiest on their lips.
Bruce divided his spearmen into four main divisions. Randolph, Earl of Moray commanded the the first and it contained men from Ross, Moray, Inverness, Elgin and Forres. Sir Edward Bruce, the king's last surviving brother led the men from Buchan, Mar, Angus, Strathearn, Menteith and Lennox in the second division. Walter the High Steward was the commander of the third division but as he was still a boy the real leader was Sir James Douglas. His men included the borderers and those from Lanark, Renfrew and Dumfries. The fourth division Bruce led himself and it comprised the Highlanders and Islesmen of Angus Og MacDonald and troops from Kintyre, Bute, Carrick, Cunninghame and Kyle. The horse were led by Sir Robert Keith and the baggage camp commanded by Sir John Airth. Behind Coxet Hill on the edge of the battlefield there gathered 'the small folk', townsmen, labourers, craftsmen and small tenant farmers, perhaps up to 2,000 of them. Not trained or armed well enough to be placed with the main body of troops, they could be a useful reserve if they battle started to go in the Scots favour. If it didn't they would probably be massacred by pursuing, victorious Englishmen
Gang cry the hounds o' Douglas Vale,
Gang string your Ettrick bows,
Gang warn the spears o' Liddesdale,
That Edward leads the foe.
The Second Day Of Battle
There is a legend that in the days when he was a fugitive king harried from one hiding place to another, when all his friends and family seemed to be either dead or rotting in English gaols, the Bruce found himself completely alone and hiding in a cave somewhere in the west of Scotland. So many times he had raised armies only to see them destroyed or scattered and as he lay on the damp floor of the cave he must have been dispirited beyond imagination, the bitter taste of despair welling up in his throat and onto his tongue. It was then that he saw a spider. Foolish creature, it seemed intent on spinning its web across an impossibly wide space and as the Bruce watched the spider leapt and failed, again and again. Six times it jumped and six times it failed but on the seventh attempt it succeeded. The Bruce took heart from this example of arachnid perseverance and rose once more determined to see his quest for the throne fulfilled. The quest led him directly to the banks of the Bannock Burn and the battle that would decide his throne's, his country's, his family's and his own fate
Gang pack your bags, ye English loons,
Gang tak' your banners hame,
Just like the king, whae sought our croon,
And lost the bloody game.
Just like your king, whae sought our croon,
And lost the bloody game.
The sun came up bright and early on the morning of June 24th, 1314 and it promised to be another hot day. The first rays of the dawn shone on the faces of the Scots as they celebrated a pre-battle mass in the New Park. Below them on the sodden ground between the Bannock Burn and the Forth, the English were stirring after a damp if not sleepless night. It was a Monday and the feast of St. John the Baptist. The Scots breakfasted simply on bread and water and stood to arms. Bruce knighted James Douglas and Walter the Steward and after the ceremony the line of battle was formed and the order given to move down onto the Carse. It was no perfectly dressed line of soldiers that moved forward, rather a staggered grouping of four loosely-held together bands of men. Slowly they moved down the broken slope from the higher ground and towards their foe. Leading on the right was Edward Bruce's division. On their left were Douglas and Walter Stewart's Lanark men. Forming the left of the line was Randolph and the men of Ross and Moray. The king's own division of Islesmen, Highlanders and Carrick levies was behind in reserve. Somewhere on the advance from the New Park across the Carse, the Scots halted and seemed to kneel. Perhaps they halted for a last prayer before combat. The watching Edward II cried out that they knelt to beg for mercy. his more seasoned commanders, hiding their embarrassment, pointed out that if this were so , then the mercy the Scots begged was from God himself and not Edward Plantagenet. It does seem unlikely that the Scots, having already said Mass, would chance kneeling to pray in such close proximity to the enemy and most probably the movement seen by Edward was a last chance to straighten and tighten the schilltrons' formations before the clash of steel.
To match the skill of the Bruce and his trusted lieutenants, the English had only the folly of Edward and noble officers riven by petty jealousies. Gloucester and Hereford quarrelled over who should command the English Van and heated words and insults exchanged led Hereford to ride back to Edward and seek his adjudication of this puerile squabble. Before he reached the king, the Scots had appeared and Edward had sounded the trumpets ordering his knights to advance. Gloucester, eager to lead the charge without the interference of Hereford, spurred his horse forward without taking the time to don his brightly coloured surcoat bearing his coat of arms. Without this he was just another mailed, armored rider and many of the knights didn't recognise him at first. As such the charge he led was not as compact and cohesive as it should have been. It was still a terrible sight to behold and was powerfully heavy with the weight of iron suddenly propelled forward. The knights raced on, faceles men in iron helms, their lances lowered and their great warhorses pounding the earth with their iron-shod hooves. They crashed into Edward Bruce's division and, though Gloucester was plucked from his saddle impaled by a Scottish spear, the fury of the charge caused the schilltron to bend - but not break. The English knights were not lacking in courage and they drove their mounts onto the spears. Horses and riders fell with broken spears in their breasts, but some broke into the schilltron and flayed around with mace, battleaxe and sword, cleaving skulls, limbs and shoulders until they were dragged from their horses, their helmets pulled back and their unprotected throats cut. Douglas and Randolph brought their divisions up in support on Edward Bruce's left and the English knights pulled back a little, probably hoping to regroup for another charge. The Scots gave them no respite and pressed on their heels, unstoppable as an incoming steel tide.
The sheer insanity of Edward II's choice of a campsite now became apparent. Caught between the Bannock Burn on their left and the Forth (or perhaps even the Pelstream Burn ) on their right , the English were caught in a space too constricted for them to manoeuvre. Although the three forward divisions of Bruce's army could have numbered no more than 4,000 men, they were enough to bridge the gap between water and water and trap the English where they couldn't deploy. The English knights had no room to adequately withdraw and reform for another charge. The great mass of English footsoldiers that outnumbered their Scottish counterparts by almost four to one were caught behind the cavalry and unable to even see the enemy much less come to grips with him. Even the archers, whose deadly shafts had won Falkirk for Edward's father, were impotent: the action was so closely joined that their falling arrows were as likely to strike their own knights in the back as the Scottish spearmen. And still the Scots pushed forward, driving their opponents back inch by inch to the water. The English had not given up, however and managed to extricate a body of archers from the great mass of the army and these were pushed to the right and forward, rushing along the banks of the river until they were in a position to enfillade the left flank of Douglas' division with their killing shafts. It was a critical moment, for a repeat of Falkirk was still not out of the question. This movement had not gone unnoticed by the Bruce and seeing the danger, he ordered Sir James Keith and his few hundred light horse to charge the English bowmen. Keith and his light horse flowed over the Carse as no armoured knight could do and he was entirely successful in his purpose. The Scots were never a nation of great mounted warriors and the later equine glory won by the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo was more of an exception rather than a rule. The charge of Keith's men, however, held the fate of the nation between fingers and rein and was without question the most important mounted action in Scottish history. The English archers were utterly dispersed before they could bring their clothyard arrows to bear on the schilltrons and the Scottish line continued to advance without fear of flanking enemy archery.