Day One of the Battle of Bannockburn, 23rd June 1314
Dr Callum Watson, Battle Coordinator
23 Jun 2018
A map of the area in which the battle took place. The English initially approached up the road to Stirling through the Torwood, finding the Scots waiting for them in or near the New Park. However, their inability to spread out on the northern side of the Bannock Burn – thanks at least in part to pits dug by the Scots on either side of the road – forced them to move to the east along the southern shore of the burn. Having also found their path to Stirling blocked at St Ninians, the English army made camp for the night in the area marked on this map as ‘Carse’, where the ground was flat enough for them to cross the Bannock Burn with relative ease.
On this day in 1314, an English army numbering 18,000 or more was advancing towards Stirling Castle, held by the English for the last ten years but now under threat from a besieging Scottish army. The Scots had reached an agreement with the garrison at Stirling, that if King Edward II of England could not bring an army to relieve the castle before St John the Baptist’s Day (24th June) the garrison would surrender. While this deal might at first seem to favour the Scots, there is good reason to suspect that King Robert – whose brother Edward Bruce had actually made the deal – did not approve of it. For the past seven years he had been waging a cautious guerrilla war against the English, avoiding pitched battles and focussing on undermining English power throughout the kingdom. Nevertheless, Bruce led his army – numbering only around 6,000, possibly less – to Stirling to prove that he was ready to fight, for honour’s sake, for possession of Stirling Castle. Bruce used the time that the deal allowed him – probably between six to eight weeks – not just to train his army but also to prepare the ground on which the battle was likely to be fought.
King Robert I of Scotland (left) and King Edward II of England (right), as they appear in our exhibition. Bruce’s preparations and clever use of the landscape to his own advantage were crucial in ensuring a Scottish victory at Bannockburn. Commonly perceived as a weak and ineffective king, his failures as a military commander are identified as playing a major part in the disastrous English defeat at Bannockburn. While Edward was undoubtedly an inferior tactician than his Scottish counterpart, Bruce’s preparations before the battle had left Edward with so few options that it is difficult to see how any commander – even Edward’s frequently lionised father – could have altered the outcome. Image: Battlepedia
When the English finally arrived, they found the Scots waiting for them in the New Park, a hunting park built for Alexander III in the 1260s. To reach the Scots, the English not only had to cross the Bannock Burn, a shallow stream running west to east between the two armies, but also had to negotiate a series of ‘pots’ – honeycombed pits filled with sharpened stakes. These ‘pots’ prevented the English from fanning out after the crossed the burn, forcing them instead to fight on a narrow front and preventing the English from using their superior numbers to overwhelm the Scots. King Robert was apparently personally involved in the fighting at this early stage of the battle. One later Scottish writer suggests that this was simply because the English arrived while Bruce was still getting his troops into position. But it is entirely possible that Bruce intentionally placed himself at the front, either to lure the English into a reckless charge or to be able to assess the strength of the English army and decide whether it was more prudent for the Scots to withdraw rather than fight. The king seems to have fought fiercely in this engagement, and according to three of the four main narrative sources from which we can reconstruct the battle (including two English accounts and one Scottish) he killed an English knight – Sir Henry de Bohun, nephew of the earl of Hereford – in single combat!
The ‘duel’ between King Robert and Sir Henry de Bohun, as depicted in our exhibition. The version of events you will see in our Battle Experience are a combination of the account provided by John Barbour in the 1370s and a modern reconstruction suggested by Dr Tobias Capwell of the Wallace Collection.
While the English vanguard was engaging with the Scots in or near the New Park, a second division of around 300 English cavalry – again led jointly, this time by Robert Clifford, lord of Skipton, and Henry Beaumont, titular earl of Buchan – had been dispatched north-east along the southern bank of the Bannock Burn to cross the burn downstream of Milton Ford (where the vanguard had crossed). The precise intention of this division is a matter of some debate among historians, with some suggesting this force had been ordered to prevent the Scots from retreating out of the New Park, some that this force was trying to muscle its way up to the castle, and others that this was merely an exercise in reconnaissance on the part of the English. Whatever its intention, what is certain is that this cavalry division was driven back – ‘shamefully put to flight’ as the writer of the Vita critically puts it – by King Robert’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray, near the village of St Ninians. The poet Barbour claims that Randolph had been stationed at the northern side of the Scottish position specifically to guard against the possibility, but that he was initially slow in responding to the advance of this cavalry division – much to his uncle’s frustration. Nevertheless, Randolph moved his schiltron into position to block Clifford and Beaumont’s path, and when the cavalry tried to charge through this tightly-packed spear formation it predictably broke harmlessly against the wall of spears. Some of the Englishmen were killed in the fighting, and the rest either fled to the castle (presumably having decided that they had already sacrificed enough for their king for the foreseeable future) or else pulled back towards the wide flat area of meadowland between the Bannock Burn and the Pelstream Burn, known as the Carse, where the rest of the English army would by now have been gathering. Sir Thomas Gray was among the English knights captured in this engagement, and in the 1360s his son – also Thomas – would record his father’s recollections of the battle in a chronicle known as the Scalacronica.
A replica of Sir Henry Beaumont’s helmet. Beaumont was a long-standing servant of the English Crown and stood to inherit the earldom of Buchan through his wife, but only if the English could re-establish control of the north-east of Scotland. His hopes of this were dashed when the English were defeated at Bannockburn, but he continued to pursue his ambitions in Scotland until his death in 1340 and played a key role in the outbreak of the Second War for Scottish Independence in 1333.
By the end of the first day, the English had suffered two embarrassing reversals and been forced to back off from the Scots. Unable to cross the Bannock Burn directly (due to the ‘pots’ and the resistance they met from the Scots), the English army was forced to move east and camp in an area known as the Carse. At the time, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable place to camp. The ground was flat enough at this point to make crossing the Bannock Burn relatively easy, it was protected on three sides by the Bannock Burn and the Pelstream (making it harder for the Scots to raid the English camp during the night), and the proximity to the two streams made it ideal for refreshing both men and horses exhausted from a day of travelling and fighting. The English still outnumbered the Scots by at least two to one, and the Scots could no longer count on the Bannock Burn or the ‘pots’ beside the road to protect them from the full force of the English host. In fact, he English were probably confident that Bruce would live up to his reputation as a guerrilla leader and they would wake up in the morning to find that the Scots had disappeared into the hills as usual…