“Freedom!” That’s the word that most symbolises Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, to me. Why? Because it is a movie about the War for Scottish Independence fought between 1296 and 1328, in which Scottish nobles and later the Kingdom of Scotland fought to regain their freedom from England. Whilst the war lasted 32 years, its most decisive battle was the Battle of Bannockburn fought on 23rd and 24th June, 1314 near Stirling Castle.
Bannockburn’s place in Scotland’s mythology is well earned. It was the battle that decisively turned the War of Independence in Scotland’s favour and ensured that the next few years would see raids between the two kingdoms rather than any one decisive battle, unlike the decades before. That it only happened because King Robert’s brother Edward took a gamble makes it all the better.
Following the demand by Robert the Bruce that any remaining Balliol loyalists declare for him or face the forfeiture of their lands, Bruce also demanded that the remaining English garrison at Stirling surrender. To this end, in 1314 he sent his brother Edward to lay siege to the castle, which is what Edward did, but he also agreed to a deal with the garrison commander. If the castle was not relieved by mid summer, the commander would surrender, but if it was, Edward would have to retreat. Knowing that they could not ignore this challenge, the English gathered together a large army under the personal command of Edward II and marched northwards.
Edward and his advisors were aware of the various places where the Scots were likely to challenge them and sent orders for their troops to prepare for an enemy established in boggy ground near the River Forth, near Stirling. The English advanced in four divisions compared to the Scots three schiltrons. On the first day of battle-23rd June- two English cavalry divisions advanced and were met by a force commanded by Robert the Bruce. When Henry de Bohun, commander of one of the cavalry divisions charged, Bruce split his head open with an axe. This prompted the Scots to rush the English who retreated back over the Bannockburn.
During the night, the English forces crossed the stream and established their position on the plain beyond the stream from which the battle gets its name. A Scottish knight-who fought for Edward II- named Alexander Seton defected and told Bruce that English morale was low, encouraging him to attack.
When morning came the Scots advanced from New Park, surprising King Edward, and as they got closer they allegedly stopped and knelt in prayer before resuming their march. The Earl of Gloucester who had argued with the Earl of Hereford over who should command the vanguard eventually advanced to meet the Scots, very few accompanied him and when he got to the Scots he was surrounded and killed.
The English were gradually pushed back and ground down by the Scottish schiltrons, and whilst their longbowmen attempted to support the advance of knights, they caused casualties amongst their own men and were forced to stop shooting. A second attempt was dispersed by 500 Scottish Cavalry under the command of Sir Robert Keith.
With the English cavalry being hemmed in against the Bannockburn, they were unable to manoeuvre and eventually broke rank. Both Aymer de Valence and Giles d’Argentan were aware that at this point the English had lost the battle and that the King needed to flee, and so they grabbed the reins of the KIng’s horse and dragged him away followed by the Royal Bodyguard. Once the King was safely away d’Argentan turned to the King and said that since the King was now away from the battle he was free to return to fight. The man would be surrounded and killed.
Edward’s flight from the battlefield caused panic to spread amongst the remaining English troops and caused their defeat to turn into a rout. Pursued by James Douglas and a small troop of horsemen, Edward flet to Dunbar Castle, where he then took a ship to Berwick. Many of the remaining English army were slaughtered by the pursuing Scots army or by the peasants they passed on the way south to England.
Following the battle, the Scots invaded and raided Northern England and Robert the Bruce opened up a second front in the war against Edward by invading Ireland. Robert was also in a strong enough position to demand an exchange of hostages, with his wife and sisters and daughter being returned, ending their eight years of imprisonment. Victory at Bannockburn encouraged Bruce and his subjects to issue the Declaration of Arbroath which beseeched the Pope to recognise Scottish independence and formally end the interdict that had existed against the Kingdom since 1306. Whilst the Pope did do just this, war with England continued for another fourteen years until, eventually a peace was signed with Edward III.
Bannockburn went down in history as one of the great battles for Scotland, and rightly so. Facing an army twice their size the Scottish army successfully held their ground and managed to push the English into retreat and then failure. That victory gave them the confidence to keep going and built up the legend of the Bruce. A legend that still inspires people to this day.