First Day: Sunday, 23 June, the Eve of the Vigil of St John the Baptist
Early that bright, warm summer morning, Bruce’s camp was already astir. He sent the Black Douglas and Robert Keith to reconnoitre the approaching English army. What the two men saw on that soft June day must have turned their hearts to stone. Edward’s army was an awesome sight to behold, exceeding the armies his father had led into Scotland in 1296 and 1298. In haste Douglas and Keith galloped back to the Scottish camp to report to Bruce. We have no way of knowing how Bruce reacted to their news but he must have been seriously troubled by what they told him. Despite the extremely favourable position he held, Bruce knew that if he withdrew, not only would Stirling be relieved but, more importantly, his authority and standing in Scotland would be lost, perhaps forever. He must have taken comfort from the fact that, during the night, there had been no desertions from his small army. That day would test Bruce to an extent as never before: if he withdrew from Bannockburn the Scots would damn him for being a weak and opportunist king; if he stood and fought, he might be defeated and lose everything. Bruce knew his army was no match for Edward’s in terms of numbers but he placed his faith in the terrain he had chosen and the high morale of his troops. Also, he had four capable lieutenants in his brother Edward, Randolph, Douglas and Keith. And among his knights were David de Strathbogie, Earl of Atholl and Walter the High Steward of Scotland, his son-in-law.
As the hours ticked away the day became oppressively hot; the Scots lay in their concealed places, listening to the hooves of the enemy cavalry, the stamp of thousands of feet as the English army came into view. It must have been a terrifying sight. So many … De Mowbray’s garrison watching from the battlements of Stirling Castle must have felt relieved, knowing that, very soon, the Scottish siege would be lifted and Bruce’s army annihilated. Almost a month had passed since Sir Philip de Mowbray had been given safe conduct to warn Edward of the deadline for the relief of Stirling.
The vanguard of the English army was led by Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester, and Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford; among their knights was Hereford’s nephew Henry de Bohun who would play a brief but dramatic part in the prelude to Bannockburn that day. Stirling was ten miles distant, the Torwood half that. Where were the Scots? All Gloucester and Hereford could see was Sir Philip de Mowbray and his escort coming towards them; no doubt Bruce had granted de Mowbray safe conduct under the conventional rules of chivalry which allowed the commander of a beleaguered castle to parley with the commander of the relieving force. Thus far Bruce was playing by the rules; it would be the first and last time in the battle about to commence. Perhaps Bruce entertained a forlorn hope that were de Mowbray granted an audience with Edward II he might persuade the king not to attack the Scots as the size of Bruce’s army was unknown. Mowbray was taken before Edward and informed him that the Scots were still in the vicinity, that they had destroyed the pathways through the woods and that Edward should advance with caution.
Edward was unmoved by de Mowbray’s pleas. He had not come all the way to Stirling to relieve a castle but to finally confront Robert the Bruce in a battle where he would defeat the Scottish king and regain control of the country. That day de Mowbray left Edward in jubilant mood, returning to the castle which he was certain would be relieved on 24 June. He was followed by the vanguard of Edward’s army led by Gloucester and Hereford. The plan was simple. The English first division of cavalry, the vanguard, would approach Stirling through the Torwood; the second division of 300 knights and men-at-arms led by Sir Robert Clifford would guard Gloucester’s right flank and proceed to Stirling Castle. With Clifford effectively to the rear of the main Scottish army, Bruce would be unable to withdraw in safety. The third division, led by Edward II himself, would remain in the rear as reserve, along with the thousands of foot soldiers who lagged behind the three cavalry divisions.
Gloucester and Hereford passed through the gloomy Torwood without incident, again relieved to emerge into the sunshine. Now the last obstacle was the woods beyond Torwood where Gloucester and Hereford rightly believed it was there they would confront Bruce and his army. The fact that the vanguard passed through Torwood without being attacked confirms that if Randolph had been positioned there he had withdrawn to the vicinity of Saint Ninian’s Church.
Advancing with caution and still fearful of ambush, Gloucester ordered forward the contingent of Welsh foot soldiers attached to his division. The Welshmen were led by Henry de Bohun, Hereford’s nephew who was keen to win acclaim in battle. The hot-blooded knight had boasted that he would either kill Bruce or take him prisoner.18 De Bohun was foolhardy enough to press forward ahead of the Welsh foot, keen to strike the first blow; he cantered into the woods and was immediately lost from view in the dark interior. Then suddenly he saw Bruce, seated not on a war-horse but a palfrey, more suited to the wooded terrain. De Bohun recognized Bruce from the gold circlet or crown on his basinet or helmet; Bruce was armed only with a war axe as he busied himself organizing his division, the Scottish rearguard. De Bohun could not believe his luck.
It is not known who saw whom first. De Bohun lowered his visor and put spur to his war-horse. Probably the first Bruce knew of his assailant was the thunder of hooves coming towards him; realizing de Bohun was alone he stood his ground. De Bohun increased his canter to a charge and lowered his lance; the combined weight of horse and armoured rider was formidable and should have ensured a kill as de Bohun aimed the tip of his lance at Bruce’s chest. Suddenly, at the last moment, the crucial moment, Bruce shifted his palfrey to the side so that the Englishman’s lance could not strike home. Then, as de Bohun drew level with him, Bruce raised himself upwards and, standing in the stirrups of his palfrey, brought his axe down on de Bohun’s head. The sickening impact not only cleaved de Bohun’s basinet but his skull, killing him instantly. The blow was so fierce that the axe-head snapped from its wooden shaft, buried in the luckless knight’s head. Bruce turned away to resume his positioning of the rearguard, shrugging off the rebukes from those Scottish lords who had witnessed the incident. They vociferously accused him of putting his life at risk. Bruce simply replied that he was sorry for the loss of his favourite axe.
Although, in terms of the battle to come, this was a minor incident, it could have had serious consequences for the Scots; it was obvious that only one man would emerge unscathed from the encounter. To the English, de Bohun’s violent death was a frightening spectacle; to the Scots, it was inspirational. Bruce’s men poured out of the woods brandishing spears, axes and swords, smashing into Gloucester’s and Hereford’s division. After a brief fight the two sides withdrew, neither having been beaten. However, the Scots had won a psychological victory, the English suffered a loss of face, which was almost tantamount to a defeat.
Next to be challenged that day was Sir Robert Clifford’s division which had slipped past Thomas Randolph’s division, sent to protect the road to Stirling Castle. The very move that Bruce had predicted had happened; either Randolph was taken by surprise or he was preoccupied with other matters. Bruce chided Randolph for his lapse. (As many who were schoolchildren of this author’s generation will remember, Bruce reputedly chided Randolph for his sin of omission by saying that ‘a rose has fallen from your chaplet’, a chaplet being a heraldic device consisting of a garland of leaves bearing four flowers.) Whatever the truth of it, Randolph made haste to correct his error, compounding his dereliction of duty by disobeying Bruce’s express orders not to engage the English on open ground. Perhaps courageous, Randolph’s order to his schiltron to move against Clifford was also foolhardy and could have brought grief to a third of Bruce’s army. Apart from the fact that the schiltron was the early equivalent of the British Army square used in the Napoleonic Wars, neither was intended to be a mobile formation; foot soldiers caught in open ground by cavalry stood little chance of surviving. The whole purpose of the schiltron was defensive but Randolph made an almost unthinkable decision; he ordered his schiltron to advance in formation towards Clifford and his associates, Sir Henry de Beaumont and Sir Thomas de Gray, with their 300 cavalry and Welsh foot soldiers in support.
The sudden appearance of the Scottish vanguard out of the woods unbalanced Clifford momentarily; he was thrown into indecision. There was a heated exchange between de Beaumont and de Gray as to how the English should respond to Randolph’s challenge. Beaumont was for pulling back to draw the Scots farther away from their protective woods. Gray disagreed. Beaumont accused him of being afraid, a taunt which stung Gray who reputedly said he would not flee out of fear and proved his point by charging Randolph’s schiltron, accompanied by a single English knight, William Deyncourt, perhaps like Henry de Bohun, keen to win acclaim. In the ensuing charge Deyncourt was killed and Gray was taken prisoner.
Shocked into action by this spectacle, Clifford and de Beaumont – both had engaged Wallace’s schiltrons at Falkirk in 1298 – led their men forward, attacking Randolph on every side. Bruce was horrified when he arrived on the scene to ascertain how Randolph was resolving his earlier error. Sir James Douglas begged Bruce to allow him to assist Randolph; Bruce refused at first, then relented. At the sight of the Black Douglas, the English lost their grip of an opportune situation and began to disengage, falling back, then scattered. Most of Clifford’s men sought refuge and safety in the main army.
At last the sun began to slip down behind the trees. It had been a long, gruelling and anxious day for both armies. For Bruce it had been one of unexpected success. He had achieved what he had set out to do – avoid having to commit his entire army against the might of Edward II in the open field. The Scots retired into the woods to a supper of bread and water, then a few hours of sound sleep. The English did not enjoy the same luxuries. All night they laboured in the boggy, waterlogged ground they occupied. During that short night a deserter from Edward’s army crossed over the Bannock Burn; Sir Alexander Seton defected to Bruce, advising him that all was far from well in Edward II’s camp and that if Bruce attacked the English the following day he would defeat Edward with ease. The only disappointment Bruce suffered that night was the defection of David de Strathbogie, the Earl of Atholl, who harboured animosity towards Bruce’s brother Edward.
In the English camp men were tired, yet they could not sleep. The foot soldiers were weary after a thirty-mile march from Falkirk in oppressive heat. The cavalry were dispirited by the loss of Henry de Bohun and the capture of Sir Thomas de Gray. That night Edward’s knights and men-at-arms did not lay off their armour and they kept their weapons close by, leaving their horses saddled and bridled.
Edward’s men were physically exhausted even before the bulk of his army had struck a blow against Bruce; they were also depressed and anxious, dispirited by the loss of two prominent knights. Only Edward II was ebullient, confident that on the morrow he would draw Bruce into the open and defeat him and his contemptible little army. Just one physical objective lay in his way – the Bannock Burn, a steep-sided, deep and marshy stream in 1314, unlike its modern descendant. Edward had to ford the stream before daybreak; he set his men the task of seeking all manner of wooden supports which would serve as walkways for his cavalry and infantrymen. Foraging parties scoured the vicinity of Stirling to obtain wooden doors, frames, roof beams from local cottages; even the thatch from these cottages was put to use to ensure a safe crossing of the Bannock Burn for Edward’s men.
That stifling hot night of June, one of the shortest of the year, Bruce delivered a speech worthy of Winston Churchill in 1940. Bruce reminded those present of their suffering at the hands of the English; he spoke of those who had lost brothers, relatives and friends in combat as well as those who languished in English prisons, including his own wife and family. Of the English he said that their glory was in possessions, whereas for Scotsmen their glory was in the name of God and victory in battle. Heartened by the news he had received from Alexander Seton, Bruce spoke of the low morale in Edward’s army, saying that if their hearts were cast down their bodies were worth nothing. He announced to his nobles and knights that the following day he intended to stand and fight but reassured those present that if they disagreed with his decision he would withdraw from the field. It was a clever speech which had the desired effect. With one voice his men said they were willing to stand and fight at his side. Bruce reminded the nobles that Edward had brought vast riches with him and that even the poorest among his army would enrich themselves with plunder in the event of victory. This was a skilful ploy, given the massive baggage train in full view of the Scottish army. Bruce ended his speech by reminding those present that they were not only fighting for their personal freedom and lives but also those of their wives, children and families as well as for their lands, not for the power Edward craved. That night the Scots slept well; their morale was high.
It was not so in the English camp on that shortest of nights. The reverses of that day hung heavily on the minds of some of the veteran leaders like Gloucester and Hereford. Both men knew that it was imperative that Edward’s army must be as close as possible to the Scottish army, hidden in the depths of the woods. It was imperative that the English commanders should find ground firm enough to bear the weight of war-horses and their heavily armoured riders. The Bannock Burn proved a difficult obstacle so that it took most of the night for the heavy cavalry to splash across the burn and scramble up the Scottish side. Those that crossed over got little sleep; it was feared that the Scots might make a night attack, so they stood to in full armour. The men who had negotiated the burn were exhausted physically; now the strain began to take its toll mentally. Seeds of doubt had been sown that day, with the unexpected and bloody deaths of de Bohun and Deyncourt and the capture of Gray. It was rare for horsed knights to be killed in battle but the English had lost two of their most prominent warriors in a single afternoon, even before the main battle. Furthermore, the English vanguard had been repulsed ignominiously by foot soldiers. The conscript levies of English foot knew that all was not well in their army; the common soldiers looked up to the knights both as their betters and masters, men for whom they worked and to whom they owed their livelihoods. The success of their lords in battle had elevated them, an aristocracy of warriors who had proven their worth in countless battles. But as the foot soldiers slogged their way across the Bannock Burn murmurs of discontent drifted above the quiet, running waters of the burn. Only Edward himself seemed unmoved, determined to engage Bruce in a battle he had craved for years.