Battle of Bannockburn Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Battle of Bannockburn marked the defeat of a superior English army by Scottish forces under Robert Bruce, which allowed him to secure his own reign and preserve Scotland’s independence for another four centuries.

Summary of Event

Margaret (“the Maid of Norway”), heir to the throne of Scotland, died in 1290 at the age of eight. Without a clear claimant to the crown, the Scottish clans permitted an eager King Edward I Edward I of England to choose between various aristocratic candidates. Edward chose John de Baliol, Baliol, John de whom he believed he could control, over a stronger Robert de Brus, a nobleman of Anglo-Norman descent. The choice proved unfortunate when Baliol made the famous Auld Alliance with Edward’s enemy France; Edward invaded Scotland, Scotland;English invasion of forced Baliol to abdicate, carried away the sacred Stone of Scone to England, and left Scotland without a king. [kw]Battle of Bannockburn (June 23-24, 1314) [kw]Bannockburn, Battle of (June 23-24, 1314) Bannockburn, Battle of (1314) Scotland;June 23-24, 1314: Battle of Bannockburn[2650] Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 23-24, 1314: Battle of Bannockburn[2650] Bruce, Robert Edward I Wallace, William Edward II Gilbert, earl of Gloucester

Into the vacuum of power stepped William Wallace, Wallace, William a landowner but not noble, who would become a hero of Scottish nationalism. Wallace rallied the disparate and often feuding clans to attack English garrisons and won a decisive victory over superior English troops at the Battle of Stirling Bridge Stirling Bridge, Battle of (1297) in 1297. Wallace was defeated in a subsequent battle at Falkirk and in 1305 was betrayed, captured, and convicted of “treason” against an English king to whom he had never declared allegiance. He was hanged, drawn, and quartered, and his arms and legs were sent to four cities as a lesson to rebels.

Inspired by the support Wallace had received from the Scots, Robert the Bruce, Bruce, Robert grandson of Robert de Brus passed over for king fifteen years earlier, abandoned his earlier allegiance to England and took up Wallace’s cause. He was about thirty years of age when Wallace died in 1305; and in 1306, he was crowned by the Scottish clans at Scone. He faced daunting odds. Scots rarely worked in unison. He was himself excommunicated from the Catholic Church for having murdered a rival, John (Red) Comyn, in a church. It was also certain that the English would once more invade Scotland to end the independence that a king represented.

Bruce experienced a brief breathing space when Edward I died in 1307 and his feckless son and heir Edward II Edward II showed little desire to pursue his father’s ambitions in Scotland. Bruce took advantage of his reprieve to consolidate his power. He took several castles back from English control, including Edinburgh, and held a parliament of his clans at Saint Andrews. He was even recognized as king of Scots by the French, although not by the pope.

It was not until early 1314 that Edward II came to Scotland and the struggle for independence was renewed. Edward mustered a seemingly invincible English army to end Bruce’s reign and, by the middle of summer, was ready for attack. The two armies met just southeast of Stirling, only three miles from the spot where Wallace had defeated the English seventeen years earlier.

Sometime during the day of Friday, June 21, 1314, Bruce and perhaps six thousand men arrived at a small stream (a “burn” in Scots) called Bannock, which flows south of Stirling Castle and meanders through bog lands between Stirling and Falkirk to the River Forth. Stirling Castle, visible from this spot, was still held by the English, and Bruce reasoned that Edward would try to use its security as a base of operation against him in the central lowlands. He carefully chose a place north of Bannockburn on a crest atop a slope. North of the stream were only two patches of solid turf, and to cross the stream to meet him, Edward’s army would have to narrow their ranks in order to avoid bogs. Strategy was particularly important because Bruce knew that he would be outnumbered almost three to one, his six thousand soldiers against between fourteen thousand and twenty thousand English. Patriotic enthusiasm alone would not be sufficient for victory.

On Saturday, June 22, scouts reported that Edward’s army was proceeding along the old Roman road that connected Edinburgh to Stirling. Later reports confirmed the supposition that the English would camp for the night at Falkirk, only nine miles from Stirling.

On Sunday, June 23, the eve of Saint John’s Day, Bruce and the Scottish army proclaimed a vigil and spent the day both in preparation for battle and in prayer. Late in the day, after a tiring march from Falkirk, the English army approached Bannockburn, but because of the late hour—and perhaps also because it was Sunday—the English king gave orders for his army to make camp south of the stream, at some distance from the Scots. One of his commanders, Gilbert Gilbert (earl of Gloucester) , the earl of Gloucester, either did not hear the command or chose not to heed it and sent his three thousand soldiers against the Scots. His charge was repulsed, demonstrating the determination of Bruce’s army, but the English seemed not at all dismayed by this failure. As a matter of fact, their camp reverberated late into the night with sounds of revelry, while the Scots kept vigil with prayers to Saint John. Later accounts credited Bruce with one of history’s greatest speeches of inspiration.

Monday, June 24, proved the fateful day. The English attacked as Bruce had anticipated and hoped, crossing the stream (almost dry at this time of the year) in the narrow spaces between the bogs, then having to climb toward the Scots on higher ground. The Scottish army formed into schiltrons, small, compact rings of spearmen, each man with spear leveled, as observers testified“bristling like hedgehogs.” The schiltrons counterattacked the English and broke through their ranks, forcing them into the bogs and pursuing the English king. The earl of Gloucester was killed, and the English infantry fell into chaos. The English cavalry was crippled by the swampy turf, but the Scottish cavalry, choosing its path, disrupted the English archers. Estimates held that up to one-half of the English forces perished that day, most of their casualties coming in the bogs along Bannockburn.

His army disintegrated, Edward circled the battlefield and hurried to Stirling Castle, but its commander, knowing that he would have to surrender to Bruce, advised him to seek the safety of Dunbar. From there Edward made his way to the Lothian coast and eventually arrived back in London. He never returned to Scotland, and thirteen years later, he was deposed and murdered in a most horrible way by his queen and her lover.

Significance

The victory at Bannockburn secured Robert Bruce’s (King Robert’) reign as certainly as it weakened that of Edward. Scots united behind him, and the European powers recognized him as king of Scots. In 1324, at the urging of Scots bishops, even Pope John XXII blessed his reign. In 1327, Edward III recognized his legitimacy and by implication the independence of Scotland. Robert reigned from 1306 to his death from suspicious causes in 1329.

Scotland remained a kingdom of its own for another four centuries. Yet the gravitational pull toward the stronger England continued. King Robert’s son David (1329-1371) agreed to be Edward III’s vassal; and the Stewart family that replaced the Bruces on the Scottish throne continually made concessions to its powerful neighbor to the south. In the fifteenth century James IV Stewart married Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and his great-grandson James VI inherited the English throne as James I when the “virgin” Queen Elizabeth died. The two thrones, while occupied by the same person, remained separate until the official Act of Union in 1707, which created the United Kingdom.

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Even though a Scottish king became king of England, many Scots still feel that union was a mistake accomplished by deceit, when the English bribed Scottish parliamentarians to vote for the United Kingdom. Many believe that Bruce’s victory at Bannockburn only delayed the inevitable. Still, when Scots talk of heroes, they remember Robert Bruce. When they desire renewal of their pride, they remember Bannockburn.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barrow, G. W. S. Robert Bruce and the Community of the Realm of Scotland. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965. A thorough biography of Bruce that places Bannockburn in the perspective of the king’s whole career and corrects the errors of earlier scholarship.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Duffy, Seán, ed. Robert the Bruce’s Irish Wars: The Invasions of Ireland, 1306-1329. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2002. A historical overview of the military invasions of Ireland during Bruce’s reign. Includes maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fisher, Andrew. William Wallace. 1986. Reprint. Edinburgh, Scotland: John Donald, 2002. Synthesizes numerous sources into a concise factual biography that strives to be judicious in separating the legend from the man. Includes a lengthy bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fry, Plantagenet, and Fiona Somerset Fry. The History of Scotland. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982. Places Bannockburn in the larger context of Scottish history and demonstrates its symbolic significance for Scots.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Linklater, Eric. The Survival of Scotland. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. In a book that portrays the history of Scotland as a struggle to survive against great odds, Bannockburn is described as an essentially Scottish victory against a superior opposing force.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maxwell, Herbert. Robert the Bruce and the Struggle for Scottish Independence. London: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1897. This account of Bannockburn provides a balanced if romantic description of the battle, and it contains a convenient fold-out map.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nusbacher, Aryeh. The Battle of Bannockburn, 1314. Charleston, S.C.: Tempus, 2000. A brief look at the battle, with color maps and other illustrations, a bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, John L. Lost Kingdoms: Celtic Scotland and the Middle Ages. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1997. A history of Scotland from the eleventh to the seventeenth century, including a chapter on Bruce and Scottish independence.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, Alan, and Michael Stead. In the Footsteps of William Wallace. Stroud, England: Sutton, 2002. Wallace’s story is accompanied by photographs and maps of related historic sites.

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