Did King Robert have to fight the battle of Bannockburn?

Michael Penman

24 Jul 2013

Events 23-24 June 1313 – A year before the battle of Bannockburn

Did King Robert have to fight the battle of Bannockburn? This has become a classic question for school pupils and students. More often than not their answers begin wisely with a 'no'. Bruce had emerged as a skilled guerrilla fighter since his return from exile in February 1307 and could have declined battle to Edward II's superior forces. He could have withdrawn to hill and wood in the face of the enemy, scorching the earth before them and stretching their supply lines, harassing them with hit and run raids only as they withdrew south, humiliated after an ineffectual campaign.

Alternatively, Bruce's forces could have wasted northern England while Edward's army dithered in Scotland without a foe to fight. The Bruce Scots deployed such tactics to face Edward II's invasion in 1310-11 and would do so again in 1319 and 1322.

After all, Robert had learnt the hard way against both English occupation forces and his Scottish opponents, through early defeats at Methven (26 June 1306) and Dalry (July 1306), and foothold victories at Loudon Hill (10 May 1307) and Inverurie (May 1308): pitched battles, even relatively minor skirmishes, could be highly unpredictable affairs.

Historian Michael Brown's recent book on Bannockburn reminds us that this phase of the Wars of Independence was far more a campaign of attrition for control of territory, resources and men's loyalties. Bruce was anxious to establish the long-term credibility of his regime and dynasty. If he could achieve this without a risky winner-take-all battle he would do so.

Famously, both Scottish and English medieval sources tell us that even after the apparent Scottish success on the first day of fighting in June 1314 Robert was prepared to retreat and presumably allow Edward II to save his garrison in Stirling Castle: it was only the advice of a Scottish defector, Sir Alexander Seton, crossing the battle-lines in the dark, which persuaded Bruce and his captains of their enemy's disarray and the need to stay and fight.

All this is well known. Nevertheless, even if we put aside the romance and 'patriotic' destiny which have enshrined Bannockburn, powerful forces still draw us to the idea that the battle was fated, inevitable. Indeed, historians have identified evidence to suggest that Bruce and his supporters actively invited a decisive reckoning against England, setting the scene for the clash in midsummer 1314.

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