Battle of Bannockburn

In the summer of 1314 Robert Bruce was besieging Stirling Castle. Stirling was the last castle still left in English control, and Edward II decided that every effort should be made to stop it being captured by Bruce. Edward therefore decided to take the largest army that had ever left England, to save the castle.

Scotland's army was not only outnumbered but lacked the experience of Edward's troops. Edward also had a large number of armoured knights and longbowmen, the two most effective forces in medieval warfare. Bruce, on the other hand, had very few of either and instead had to rely heavily on spearmen.

Bruce made no attempt to stop Edward's large army from entering Scotland. He decided that his best hope was to force the English to fight on territory that best suited his limited resources. Bruce chose a site only two and half miles south of Stirling, by a stream called Bannockburn. The Scots took the high ground and, if the English were to attack, they had to advance on a narrow front between marshland and a thick wood.

The English advance guard arrived at Bannockburn on the 23rd June. Sir Henry Bohun, the leader of the English party, recognised Robert Bruce. After fixing his lance, Bohun charged the Scottish king. Bruce darted out of the way of the lance and killed Bohun with a blow from his axe.

The main English army arrived on 24th June. Gilbert, 10th Earl de Clare, who had brought 500 of his own knights with him, advised Edward to allow the men to rest for a day. Edward disagreed and accused Gilbert of being afraid of the Scots. Gilbert was stung by these comments and immediately ordered his men to attack. Gilbert gallantly led the charge but his horse was cut down and while he was on the ground he was killed by Scottish spearmen.

However, while the English knights were assembling, Scottish spearmen, who had been hiding in the woodland, launched an attack. The English knights, still not organised into battle order, were forced to retreat.

The English archers were called forward but before they could take effective action they were charged by the Scottish knights. After large numbers were killed the archers were also forced to retreat.

Edward now decided to use his knights to charge the Scottish position at the top of the hill. As the English knights were forced to attack on a narrow front, the Scottish spearmen were able to block their advance. English archers tried to help, but as both armies were crushed together their arrows were just as likely to hit their own men as the Scots.

Suddenly, English soldiers started to turn and run. Others followed and soon the English army was in retreat. The Scots charged after them. Many of the English knights were able to escape but those without horses, such as the spearmen and archers, suffered very heavy casualties.

The battle of Bannockbum was the worst defeat in English history. While what was left of the English army tried to get back home, the Scots were able to take Stirling Castle.

Primary Sources

(1) Monk of Malmesbury, The Life of Edward II (c. 1375)

The king and the other magnates of the land with a great multitude of carts and wagons set out for Scotland... The cavalry numbered more than two thousand, without counting a numerous crowd of infantry... Indeed all who were present agreed that never in our time has such an army gone forth from England.

(2) Speech made by Edward II before the Battle of Bannockbum, quoted by John Major in his book The History of Greater Britain. (1521)

Both in number and in equipment... our troops are far superior to those wretched Scots. In engines of war, in catapults, in arrows, and all such machinery of war we abound, while in all these the Scots are lacking.

(3) Speech made by Robert Bruce before the Battle of Bannockbum, quoted by John Major in The History of Greater Britain. (1521)

I have been told that the English army is made up of men who speak six different tongues; the soldiers are unknown to one another... It is a slender task that I lay upon you; that each of you slay two men from Edward's army... You will have then killed forty-five thousand.

(4) Song, The Battle of Bannockbum (c. 1320)

He (Edward II) went to make war on the Scots... There were in the English army many nobles and knights who were too showy and pompous when the two sides engaged, the Scots remained firm, but the English fled. The wicked party lost and the cunning one conquered.

(5) Speech made by Robert Bruce before the Battle of Bannockbum, quoted by John Major in The History of Greater Britain. (1521)

Our enemies are moved only by desire for domination but we are fighting for our lives, our children, our wives and the freedom of our country... You could have lived quietly as slaves, but because you longed to be free you are with me here.