Just before dawn, Bruce’s men heard mass and broke their fast. The king then knighted several men, among them James Douglas and young Walter Stewart. The Scots then formed up in three schiltroms and made their way down through the steep slope of Balquhiderock Wood. Once at the bottom, they stood, facing the English in their three divisions: the left flank commanded by Randolph, earl of Moray, the right schiltrom by Douglas and Stewart, and the centre by Bruce himself. All but one of the chronicles said that Bruce led this division from the front, the other (The Brus) opts for four schiltroms, the fourth commanded by Edward Bruce but it must be noted that none of the other accounts even mention him (maybe he was fighting by the side of his brother in the centre).
A Note About the English Position
The order of battle of Edward II’s troops is one of the most confusing details, as there are various options, some of which make more sense than others. It must be remembered that Edward was not expecting a full battle to take place that morning, as that would be almost unheard of from Bruce. There was always the chance of a night attack or some sort of raid on part of the English army, but certainly nothing as serious as a pitched battle. He also expected to march north to Stirling Castle, probably following the line of the Carse and most likely in a similar battle order to how he marched north on the Roman Road.
However, we have no idea of how his troops were camped on the Carse that night, and I think that that may have a bearing on how his divisions were, or were not, aligned to Bruce’s attack. Many historians have thought that Edward had his army already formed up facing west and Balquhiderock Wood, with some of his archers in front of the cavalry and the rest behind (in other words the archers in front were impeding the cavalry whilst those in the rear were too far away to be effective). No medieval army had ever arrayed itself thus and even if Edward was fool enough to do so (which he wasn’t), he had plenty of experienced veterans from the Scottish wars as generals who would have advised otherwise.
The chronicles are annoyingly vague about this point, but the Brus does offer an interesting clue. It states that the English divisions were ‘together in a schiltrom’. In other words, one large division, not anything like an orderly Edwardian army drawn up ready for battle. From all the books I have studied I think Aryeh Nusbacher comes closest to how things unfolded in his book: The Battle of Bannockburn 1314. From the points I have put forward above, he came to the conclusion that Edwards army was lined up, in a wide formation, facing north for the march to Stirling. Looking at this from the Scottish position, it may have looked like the troops were in a line, in one schiltrom. As for the archer being in the front and rear – if the English had been formed up facing north, the archers would have been on the flanks as usual, so that when Bruce attacked from the left, it was the archers who were in the front line.
However, there is one problem with this: when Nusbacher stated that the English divisions formed one schiltrom, he conveniently left out the next line from the Brus. To give the complete sentence, the English were formed up: ‘one and all in a schiltrom, apart from the vanguard alone, which were drawn up by themselves in a large force. Anyone who had come by would have seen there those folk spread over a great broad area…‘
So maybe Edward’s troops at that point were not in any sort of formation. Maybe they were still in the process of waking up and breaking their fast. After all, as I said before, Bruce was not expected to take the battle to them. This may also account for the confusion among the commanders and ranks of Edward’s army when they saw the Scots lined up against them.
The Scots Pray
According to the Bruce, Edward’s first astonished reaction was to remark to one of his most experienced knights, Sir Ingram Umfraville: ‘What, are yon Scots going to fight?’ Umfraville, who knew Scottish tactics better than most answered that they were, although the prospect was rather astonishing. He added: ‘But if you listen to my advice, you will easily beat them. Pull back suddenly from here, with divisions and with pennons, until we pass our tents, and you will see quite quickly that they will break rank, despite their lords, and scatter to take our equipment. And when we see them scattered like that, gallop on them fiercely and we will have them quite easily, for none will be closely arrayed to fight who could withstand your impact.’
We will never know whether those were wise words or not as Edward chose to ignore his advice, stating: ‘Indeed I will not do that. For nobody is going to say that I shall avoid battle, or [that I] withdrew for such a rabble.’ Once again, the ideal of chivalric bravery over-rode common sense.
The Scots advanced a little more into the field and, as the English watched, dumbfounded, knelt to pray. Once again The Brus describes the scene:
And when the English King had sight of them kneeling, he said at once, ‘Yon folk are kneeling to ask mercy.’ Sir Ingram said, ‘You are right this time; they ask for mercy, but not from you. The ask God [for mercy] for their sins.’
The Reckless Charge of the Earl of Gloucester
The first men to engage each other on that day were the archers. The English archers were already in the front line, and they were able to shot off their arrows at the pikemen while the Scottish archers replied in kind. This shooting match went on for a little while, no doubt giving the English army time to try and organise themselves into some form of battle order. Then the Scottish archers retreated behind the schiltrom lines. Any hope the English had of Bruce’s men retreating vanished as the three schiltroms started to march forward towards the English lines. What happened next seemed to have happened very quickly: Douglas, sensing that the Scottish lines were at the point of closing off any westward escape from the Carse pressed forward a little faster. The English were about to be caught like rats in a trap, the once reassuring Bannockburn and Pelstream now forming a muddy barrier behind them.
Maybe the earl of Gloucester was the first to see the danger, or maybe he was still furious about the charge of cowardice levelled at him by his king. Kicking his spurs, he urged the vanguard forward towards the leading schiltrom led by Douglas. Douglas’s men, as they had been trained to do, stopped, anchored the ends of their pikes in the ground, and waited. Having outrode his escort, Gloucester was one of the first knights to fall victim to the ‘dense forest’ of pikes. His horse, mortally wounded, threw him off and landed on him and, before his men could reach him, he had been killed. Many historians maintain that he was killed, rather than captured for a huge ransom, because he was not wearing a surcoat bearing his coat of arms. Even if this had been the case, his horse would still have been caparisoned with his colours, and the quality of his armour and destrier would have marked him out as someone worth ransoming. It is far more likely that he was either killed by a pike during the first clash, or by the fall from his horse. Or else the Scots had been ordered not to take any prisoners during the actual battle.
Seeing Douglas’s success, the schiltroms of the earl of Moray and Bruce also pressed forward towards King Edward’s centre battalion, which had now finally got itself into some sort of attacking formation.
The English in Chaos
With the Scots spread across the narrow piece of land between the Bannockburn and the Pelstream, the English were trapped in a constricted area. The gap between the schiltroms and English cavalry had also lessened to such an extent that the English knights did not have enough space to bring their steeds to full gallop and therefore hit the Scottish lines with maximum impact. If that wasn’t bad enough, the cavalry at the front was impeding the cavalry at the rear, which was in the way of the infantry and other archers. Nevertheless, the cavalry in the rear ranks still pressed forward, forcing their countrymen towards the pikes. The bodies of horses and men started to pile up at the front line of the battle.
Almost too late, the rear of the English lines realised what was happening and that they were being slowly driven back. According to the Scalacronica:
The aforesaid Scots came in line of schiltroms, and attacked the English columns, which were jammed together and could not operate against them [the Scots], so direfully were their horses impaled on the pikes. The troops in the English rear fell back upon the ditch of Bannockburn, tumbling one over the other. The English divisions, thrown into confusion by the thrust of spears upon the horses began to fall.
The Lanercost chronicle concurs on this point:
… when the two armies made contact with each other and the great horses of the English charged on the spears of the Scots, as it were on a dense wood, there arose a great and dreadful noise of spears broken and of destriers wounded to death; so they remained for a while in peace. The English who followed could not reach the Scots on account of the leading division being interposed, nor could they help themselves at all, and so there remained nothing but to take flight.
All was chaos in the rear of the English lines as infantry sought to escape and were in turn rode down by their own cavalry, also trying to flee. The field would by now have turned into a muddy quagmire, the banks of the Bannockburn even more so. It must be remembered that the Bannockburn is no little stream, but can be quite a substantial body of water, especially after rain. The banks were also steep, and increasingly like a mud bath. Heavily armoured men, falling into the burn drowned – some have said that more English were killed in the retreat than in the actual battle.
King Edward Leaves the Field
Seeing the collapse of the English lines and the imminent danger to his king, Aymer de Valence, who had charge of Edward’s reigns led him, protesting, from the field. By his side was Giles de Argentin, supposedly one of the three best knights in Christendom. According to Gray’s Scalacronica:
Those who had been appointed [to look after] the king’s rein seeing the debacle, led the king off the field by the reins, towards the castle, despite his going much vexed at his departure. As the Scottish knights, who were on foot, took in their hands the covering of the king’s destrier, to have him stopped, he struck out so vigourously behind him with a mace, that no-one whom he struck was not knocked to the ground.
In such a way, Edward’s bodyguard got him off the battlefield, probably over the Pelstream and with others of his company fled towards Stirling. All except one. Giles de Argentin was so steeped in chivalry that he refused to leave the battle. Once he had Edward safe, he turned to his king and said (once again according to Gray): ‘Sir, your rein was committed to me. You are now in safety. See, there is your castle where your body could be safe. I am not accustomed to flee nor will I do so now.’
And then, in the best tradition of foolhardy heroics, he rode at Bruce’s schiltrom shouting his battle cry and was killed immediately.
Enter the ‘Small Folk’
Nothing to do with height! The ‘small folk’ were those considered of less importance, militarily anyway, than the fighting men. They were the carters, valets and pages who Bruce had left behind, perhaps in the New Park, or perhaps, as is traditionally told, on Coxet Hill. Seeing the English fall back and the Scottish crying, ‘On them, on them, on them! They yield!‘ they appear to have decided to join in the battle as well. Choosing a leader, they fastened sheets to poles as if they were banners and charged towards the battle with a great cry.
To the English, who were already reeling from defeat, the sight of what must have looked like another Scottish battalion coming to aid Bruce was the last straw. Even those who had been fighting tooth and nail as others departed now panicked and joined in the doomed flight as well. In probably less than a couple of hours, Bruce’s guerilla fighting force, disadvantaged both in numbers and equipment, had defeated one of the mightiest European armies on open ground.
Apart from Gilbert de Clare, earl of Gloucester, many other noble names joined the list of the dead: Robert de Clifford, Edmund Mauley, John Comyn, Payn Tipetoft, Giles de Argentin, John Lovel, Robert de Feltham of Lichfield, and William le Marshal of Ireland. Around 150-200 English men of rank met their death on the field, or fleeing from it and there must have been thousands of infantrymen and archers who also lost their lives. * Many other English lords suffered the ignominy of being captured and held to ransom, but more of that in another post.
On the other hand, Scottish casualties were comparatively light with just a couple of Scottish knights: William Vipoint and Walter Ross being named by Barbour.
But What Happened to the Scottish Light Horse?
Most modern historians tend to mention the role played by Sir Robert Keith’s division of light horse – the nearest thing Scotland had to a cavalry. According to these accounts, the light horse were instrumental in riding down the English archers and stopping them from shooting into the schiltroms, causing major damage. The problem with this is not the presence of the Keith’s cavalry, but that they are only mentioned in one source, that of Barbour’s Brus, and that may only have been for the sake of giving them some glory in the story of the battle. It is far more likely that they stayed at the rear of Bruce’s divisions ready to ride down any English infantry who got through the Scottish line.
If, as Barbour mentions, they had ridden at the English archers, surely it would have put them in front of both their own lines as well as the English cavalry – which wasn’t a particularly wise place to be. If they did engage with any archers, it must have been before the charge of the vanguard when the English archers, seeing the horses coming, ran for their lives and somehow got round to the rear of the Scottish line.
* I will list these in a separate post.