Tuesday, June 14, 2011

King Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn and Braveheart Part Two

Blàr Allt a' Bhonnaich, The Battle of Bannockburn, on 23-24 June 1314, was one of the most important occasions in all of Scottish history. I mention the movie Braveheart, because so many people take what is in that movie as truth rather than fiction. In the movie, Robert the Bruce hasn't quite decided whether he will fight the English or not. Finally, the Scottish army simply makes a pell mell, sword-waving charge at the huge English army and (miraculously) defeat it.

Ha! They would have been SO dead.

I think in Part One of this series, I indicated pretty clearly that King Robert made a lot of preparation for that battle, but that doesn't answer what happened at the battle itself.

Many people have the idea (probably from movies where it isn't practical to have enough extras to form a real army) that medieval armies were small. This was very often not the case.

A levy called by a king could form an army with a substantial portion of the entire kingdom's adult male population who owed him service. While the English army, very likely of about 20,000 men, was unusually large, it was not at all outside the range of what was possible with a year's preparation, which is what King Edward II put into it. It was led by the King Edward, who didn't have a great reputation as a fighter, but also by hardened fighters such as Aymer de Valence, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, Henry de Beaumont and Robert de Clifford, 1st Baron de Clifford as well as the earls of Gloucester and Hereford.

The Scottish army, made up of about every fighting man in Scotland, was about one-half that size, probably in the range of 8,000 to 10,000 men total. You can vary those estimates by a few thousand, but not much more than that. I find the possibility they were larger unlikely. It is also highly unlikely they were much smaller.

The Scots knew not only that an English army was on its way but very close to when they could expect it. However, they didn't know its makeup. On 23 June, King Robert sent one of his most trusted lieutenants, Sir James Douglas, with a small force to scout the approaching army. Even this doughty fighter was horrified at the sight of the medieval host they would face. There was debate about whether to retreat--always something King Robert was willing to do rather than have an army destroyed. King Robert the Bruce decided to take the risk.

On the first day of battle occurred one of the most stirring fights in all of Scottish history -- a fight witnessed and described by chroniclers with both armies.

The English vanguard was approaching the Scottish host. King Robert himself decided to scout the ground. No one knows quite how he got so far ahead of his commanders, but, alone, not wearing armour, on a regular steed rather than a warhorse and armed only with a battleaxe, the King was spotted and was identified by Sir Henry de Bohun, slightly ahead of his own army, by his crown and gold tabard.

De Bohun couched his lance and set his massive warhorse into a charge.

It is hard to imagine the horror of the king's watching lieutenants as Robert the Bruce sat calmly, watching the oncoming knight thunder towards him. When de Bohun was no more than a few feet away, King Robert turned his horse, rose in his stirrups, and slammed his battleaxe down on de Bohun's head.

The single blow split de Bohun's helmet and his head in two.

The Scot version of the fight says that when he was reproached for so risking himself, King Robert's reply was a complaint that he had broken his favorite battleaxe. Sir Henry de Bohun, nephew of the Earl of Hereford, lay dead. Only the king's command held the Scots back from a charge.

Thus began one of the greatest battles in all medieval history.


Please check out my novels on Scotland's struggle against English conquest. Freedom's Sword is available on Amazon and Smashwords. My novel about Robert the Bruce's most trusted lieutenant, Sir James, the Black Douglas, is A Kingdom's Cost is also available on Amazon and Smashwords.

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