Bannockburn: The Night of the 23rd June 1314

Note: There are some details about the battle of Bannockburn that we may never know for sure, such as the numbers involved on either side, the actual battle site (although we are a lot nearer to a conclusion now thanks to the most recent dig), and how the terrain looked in 1314. This is because records have been lost and any accounts may vary in their details. However, from all I have read I have put together the most likely scenarios.

 

The Scots, used to living rough and in a good defensive position, probably managed to get far more sleep than the English army that night. Bruce had already won two victories against the cavalry, and he had forced Edward to camp on ground that could easily work to Bruce’s advantage. His army, unlike the English, had not had to march hard with little rest to get there, and had been drilled to act with precision and discipline. In fact the Scottish men were quite right to have a sense of high morale.

It was very different in the English camp. Things were not going the way they were meant to . Going on past experience, Bruce should have maybe made a few raids on their lines here and there and then retreated when faced with a superior force. They should have been camped in comfort at Stirling Castle, not nervously sat in a midge ridden boggy field, having experienced two defeats at Bruce’s hand already.

[dropshadowbox align=”right” effect=”lifted-both” width=”250px” height=”” background_color=”#d4f9f9″ border_width=”2″ border_color=”#b1acac” ]Sir Alexander Seton was from a noble Scottish family close to Robert Bruce although in 1314 he is found in Edward II’s army – until the night of 23rd June, when he defects to the Scottish. He was knighted by Bruce some time around 1302 and after Bannockburn continued to serve Bruce and his brother Edward faithfully. This is just my speculation, but in light of his defection at Bannockburn with such important information, I have wondered whether he was actually spying for Bruce.[/dropshadowbox]One man certainly sensed he was on the wrong side: Sir Alexander Seton, a Scottish knight fighting on the English side, managed to slip out of camp and make his way to Bruce. There he told him how low the English morale was, and how the commanders were squabbling amongst themselves over chivalric pride. Up until this point, Bruce had been in two minds whether to attack Edward or else retreat into the wilderness of the Lennox and safety. He knew a pitched battle on open ground would be risky, even if his men were trained to resist the cavalry charges by forming a hedge of spears. After all, with so many English cavalry, did he have enough men in the schiltroms to sustain a prolonged attack? And then there were the English archers who had cut down the Scottish schiltroms at Falkirk: Edward had archers with him and could do the same again. However, what he had heard about the English camp must have been the deciding factor (and I’ll go into this more on ‘Day 2’), for Bruce decided the odds were in his favour and he would attack at dawn.

Meanwhile in the English camp more dissent ensued. In Edward’s tent, he had gathered around him his most senior knights and councillors. They were all tired, dragged down by the day’s events and most probably not a little irritable. They discussed the day’s events and how they should proceed on to Stirling the next day. There is nothing to suggest that they expected a pitched battle with Bruce, as this was something he tended to avoid at all costs, but even so, they had maintained their horses in harness and themselves in armour just in case of a surprise attack. This was not because they expected to fight, but a case of wise preparedness in hostile territory.

Around Edward’s table was a mixture of older, experienced knights and those who were hot-headed and still out to make a name for themselves. Surprisingly, this did not include the 23 year old earl of Gloucester, Gilbert de Clare. With what was probably some nerve, he suggested that they camp on the Carse for an extra day to allow the men to rest and to celebrate the feast day of St John the Baptist. His reasoning was probably that Stirling Castle had technically been relieved, and if the Scots decided to flee, as expected, the men would need to be rested in order to chase them down.

Figure of Edward II from the new Bannockburn Visitor Centre

Figure of Edward II from the new Bannockburn Visitor Centre

Not surprisingly he was shouted down – there could have been few there who wanted to stay on the uncomfortable Carse for another night when they could be safe and rested at Stirling Castle instead. Gloucester’s argument was not helped by rumours that his stepfather, Ralph de Monthermer, had previously sent Bruce a warning to escape Edward I’s court before he was captured (Gloucester was related to Bruce). This hint of treachery was brought up, most loudly by the king himself who also called him a coward. In terms of knightly pride, this was probably the worst insult anyone could have levelled at him.

Back at Bruce’s camp, news was received that the main Scottish supply train at Cambuskenneth Abbey had been attacked and taken by the earl of Atholl. On the one hand this was a disaster for Bruce as he needed the supplies if he wanted to escape the field. On the other hand it now made his decision to fight easier: its destruction had narrowed his choices dramatically. Both sides now waited on the morning, and what it would bring.

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