Wednesday, June 8, 2011

King Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn and Braveheart Part One

Anyone who writes a about the Scottish War of Independence as I do in Freedom's Sword and A Kingdom's Cost can not ignore these topics so today I'd like to discuss them.

I'll start with the movie Braveheart to get that subject out of the way. I assume that many of you have seen it. In the last scene, Robert the Bruce. leading a ragtag army of Scots, can't quite decide whether he will fight for Scotland or not. He fiddles with a piece of cloth he somehow inherited from William Wallace. A glance from one of Wallace's men (who hasn't aged in spite of the fact that it has been nine years since Wallace's death) makes the royal Bruce realize that to retreat would be cowardice and he has this same ragtag, untrained army charge an English force of armored knights which vastly outnumbers them. They win because--well, for some mysterious reason.

Did you enjoy the movie? As movie it was probably enjoyable. As history--it was wrong in every implication and detail.

The Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most important events in all of Scottish history. It was certainly the worst defeat of the English/Normans during the middle ages. It absolutely did not happen by chance.

So what did happen?

During the years between 1306 when Robert the Bruce was crowned King of the Scots and 1314 when the English King Edward II marshalled one of the largest armies then ever raised in English history to attempt to defeat him, Robert Bruce had fought one of the most successful guerilla wars ever waged in Europe. Yet he also suffered terrible losses. Three of his four brothers were captured and executed. His wife, his only child, and two of his sisters were captured and imprisoned in England. In spite of it, he had driven the English almost entirely from Scotland.

In fact, no one would have criticized the king had he chosen to retreat because that was his usual tactic when faced with a large force on the field. His well-thought-out guerilla tactics come down to us today in a very old verse called Good King Robert's Testament:

On foot should be all Scottish war
Let hill and marsh their foes debar
And woods as walls prove such an arm
That enemies do them no harm.
In hidden spots keep every store
And burn the plainlands them before
So, when they find the land lie waste
Needs must they pass away in haste
Harried by cunning raids at night
And threatening sounds from every height
Then, as they leave, with great array
Smite with the sword and chase away.
This is the counsel and intent
Of Good King Robert's Testament

This is the tactic that had served Scotland's Good King Robert so well in defeating the English.

During those years, King Robert had captured and razed almost every major castle in Scotland. Stirling Castle with its strong walls high on a cliff overlooking the sea still held out. The governor of Stirling Castle had agreed that if relief from the English did not arrive by early July of 1314, he would surrender. This would be a humiliating blow that the English king, who was already in trouble with his nobles, could not endure.

For months King Edward II raised the English levies and prepared a huge army.

For months, King Robert the Bruce called upon the men of Scotland to rally to him. In the Torwood, a huge forest in the center of Scotland, he led his men as they worked to make the schiltron -- a pike square -- manueverable. Those same sixteen-foot pikes had brought down the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge under the leadership of Andrew de Mornay and William Wallce. But they had not charged. They could only stand and wait to be attacked.

Bruce was determined that a schiltron, with its multiple rows of deadly pikes, would charge the English, and King Robert trained his men until they could. Each of the four schiltron's was lead by one of his most trusted lieutenants. But they were still dreadfully outnumbered, at least three to one.

How to even the odds even more?

The land their wall, as his testament so famously says. Much of the land in the region of Stirling Castle was marshy, bad country for the huge destriers ridden by knights in their heavy armor. So the Bruce positioned his army so they would have to be attacked across bad country, but not bad enough. Then he ordered pits lined with sharpened stakes to be dug across most of the same area.

It was a horror waiting to happen for the English.

Yet even with all the training and preparation, the Bruce was willing to retreat. He would not lead his army to defeat merely for pride. Facing an army of that size and might was a terrible risk, but one that could have a great prize if they won. That night with the advisement of his faithful lieutenants, King Robert made his decision.

Before them stood an English army of unimaginable might. Against it, King Robert the Bruce was determined to stand.

King Robert was not a king who "led from the rear" and in another post I'll talk about what happened on that amazing day.

Please check out my novels on Scotland's struggle against conquest. Freedom's Sword is available on Amazon and Smashwords. Please also check out A Kingdom's cost also available on Amazon and Smashwords.


Jon Mac said...

What, a Hollywood movie that doesn't have accurate history? Say it ain't so ;)

I love your real account of the battle and conditions. I remember reading about this in Trevelyan's History of England. I can't wait to see what happens in the next post.

I haven't heard of the schiltron before. A charging one sounds wicked.

J. R. Tomlin said...

I wouldn't complain so much about the inaccuracy of Braveheart if a lot of people didn't believe it. *sigh*

A schiltron was wicked. And Bannockburn was one of the battles that proved it. :)