The Battle of Bannockburn: Day 1

Note: There are some details about the battle of Bannockburn that we may never know for sure, such as the numbers involved on either side, the actual battle site (although we are a lot nearer to a conclusion now thanks to the most recent dig), and how the terrain looked in 1314. This is because records have been lost and any accounts may vary in their details. However, from all I have read I have put together the most likely scenarios.


Edward’s Approach

To get to Stirling in time for the June 23rd deadline from the muster at Berwick, Edward had to march his men fairly hard, covering up to fourteen miles a day in the hot midsummer temperatures. They marched in battle formation, with the vanguard at the front, Edward’s battle in the middle and the rearguard behind. Following these was the baggage train carrying food for men and horses, and other supplies and equipment, carpenters, cooks, entertainers and all the other hangers on of a multitude on the march It was said that if lined up end to end, the baggage train stretched for twenty leagues.

De Mauley rode out to meet Edward II early Sunday morning under a safe conduct from Bruce. As Edward was now within the required distance of the castle, before the date of the end of the truce, Stirling Castle was, to all intents and purposes, relieved. Edward did not need to advance any further. Mauley was well aware of all the Scottish preparations and knew that Edward would encounter difficulty if he proceeded. His advice was to wait and see whether Bruce’s men would disperse and vanish back into the wilderness as they had so many times.

The Scottish Position

The Monument at Bannockburn - sited where Bruce had his camp at the Borestone.
The Monument at Bannockburn – sited where Bruce had his camp at the Borestone.

On the afternoon of the 23rd, Bruce and his divisions were stationed at the Borestone, commanding the highground above the Roman road and the crossing of the Bannockburn. Thomas Randolph, earl of Moray was stationed at St Ninians, further north, guarding another route to Stirling. Bruce had his men dig pits either side of the Roman road and camouflaged them with sticks and grass so as to force the advancing troops in a narrow formation, as he had done in his victory at Loudon. All he had to do now was wait to see if the fly would fall into into spider’s web.

He knew what he was up against: earlier in the day, two of his commanders James 9the Black) Douglas and Sir Robert Keith took a few men and spied on the advancing English column. Returning to Bruce, they reported a large and heavily armed army bearing down on them. Not surprisingly, Bruce ordered them not to spread the news to the rest of the men as it would be likely to damage morale.

The Borestone by Andrew Geddes 1826, showing the now vanished intact stone where Bruce was said to have raised his standard.
The Borestone by Andrew Geddes 1826, showing the now vanished intact stone where Bruce was said to have raised his standard.

The English Vanguard Crosses the Bannockburn

The vanguard, under joint command of two proud earls, Gloucester and Hereford, had emerged from Torwood way ahead of Edward’s division and seemed to have been under no orders from him on how to proceed. Their command partnership was not a happy one as de Bohun was the hereditary constable of England and therefore had the moral right to lead the vanguard. However, Edward II in a display of utter tactlessness had asked the earl of Gloucester to lead it instead. The uneasy compromise that they both should have the role led to a rivalry that was to prove one of the English army’s downfalls. Both felt they had much to prove. Now, up ahead of them, they saw a division of Scots with Bruce’s banner, lined up across the road, but upon seeing the English cavalry, the Scottish appeared to begin to retreat. With no discipline at all, Gloucester and Hereford charged their men across the burn and up the incline to where the Scots had now turned to face them. Both were determined to get their men into battle first.

The Death of Henry de Bohun

Bruce kills Henry de Bohun
Bruce kills Henry de Bohun

Hereford’s horses were outstripping Gloucester’s in the mad dash for glory. At the front of Hereford’s charge was his nephew, Henry de Bohun. Upon recognising the Bruce, unguarded, in light armour on a small horse, he couldn’t resist the opportunity for making a name for himself and charged, lowering his lance, at the Scottish king. Bruce merely moved out of the charger’s way and, standing in his stirrups, brought his war axe down on de Bohun’s helmet. The force not only broke through the metal, but de Bohun’s skull as well, killing him outright. Bruce was left holding just a stump of the handle of his axe. Another account says that Bruce chased de Bohun down in the fray and killed him. The story above, as told in the Brus, may have been slightly embroidered in order to make Bruce a greater hero.

A war axe of the period
A war axe of the period

The rest of the Bruce’s men, seeing the other horses of the vanguard bearing down upon them, surged forwards in a schiltrom of pikes. In the resulting fight Gloucester was unhorsed and the rest of the vanguard received enough serious casualties to cause them to withdraw south again, back across the Bannockburn. The Scots pursued them for a short way but, showing their superior discipline, stopped when Bruce commanded their return.


[dropshadowbox align=”center” effect=”lifted-both” width=”400px” height=”” background_color=”#d4f9f9″ border_width=”2″ border_color=”#b1acac” ]From what we know today of the effects of weapons against armour, it is unlikely that an axe blade could have done this sort of damage to de Bohun’s helmet and head. Helmets were made with a curved surface so that such blows would have glanced off. It is more likely that Bruce caught the English knight with the pointed back end of the axe, as this was able to pierce through metal and bone.[/dropshadowbox]

Clifford and de Beaumont

The arms of Sir Robert de Clifford
The arms of Sir Robert de Clifford

Meanwhile, another cavalry division, under Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry de Beaumont, decided to try and reach Stirling by another route. Knowing the Bruce’s men were in the New Park and that the direct route through would be just about impossible, they made a detour, riding along the Bannockburn and crossing it near the village of that name to head north, along the left flank of the Scots to rejoin the Roman road at St Ninian’s kirk. It is not certain whether they rode along ‘The Way’, a small road that followed the contours of the scarp just below Balquhiderock wood or whether they kept to the open ground of the Carse. The Lanercost says that, seeing that the Scots had seemed to be in retreat (before the vanguard’s charge), they had decided to try and cut off their escape. The amount of troops they had with them, maybe about 500, was a large number of fighting men, so it certainly wasn’t a raiding party or small scouting group.

The earl of Moray was supposed to be at St Ninian’s guarding the rear and the exit of  ‘The Way’. Instead, wanting to join in with the battle against the vanguard, he was with Bruce. When Bruce heard that Clifford and de Beaumont were level with St Ninian’s without challenge, he rebuked Moray, saying that ‘a rose has fallen from my chaplet’. Moray immediately turned and rode like fury towards the English advance. It seems that he reached it on time and his schiltroms advanced down through the wood towards the English cavalry. De Beaumont was all for drawing back a little and allowing the spearmen to advance a little further into the open where he could use the cavalry. Sir Thomas Grey answered him: ‘My lord, give them what you wish now; I’m afraid that in a short while they will have everything.’ In a exchange that was to be a theme among the English, de Beaumont snapped that if Grey was afraid then he should flee. It was a jibe guaranteed to provoke prideful rage: Grey answered back that fear would not make him flee, then, without orders to do so, charged the oncoming schiltroms, accompanied by Sir William Deyncourt.

A schiltrom (pikes raised) - from the BBC Quest for Bannockburn.
A schiltrom (pikes raised) – from the BBC Quest for Bannockburn.

Predictably, it was a doomed heroic act born of hurt knightly pride. Grey’s horse was mortally wounded and he was pulled off it and captured whereas Deyncourt was killed outright. Seeing their comrades fall, Clifford and de Beaumont engaged the Scottish spearmen only to find themselves unable to get near the men because of the length of their pikes. Nevertheless, the onslaught was persistent and at one point, when it appeared that the English cavalry was winning out, Douglas asked Bruce if he could go to Moray’s aid. Bruce, ever the cool commander, told him to hold back for a while, and sure enough, the English attack was soon repulsed.  In frustration de Beaumont and Clifford’s knights hurled every weapon they had at their enemy: lances, axes, swords – but it was a fruitless and wasteful gesture. Defeated and exhausted, the English were forced to flee the field, some towards Stirling but most, including Clifford and de Beaumont, back the way they had come, back to the main army.

The Carse of Balquhiderock

It was already early evening when the two commanders and their men returned to the main body of the army to discover that Hereford and Gloucester had also been put to flight. With night coming on, it was imperative that the large English army found somewhere to camp that was relatively secure from any night-time guerilla attack from Bruce, somewhere where the horses cold be watered and where the men could rest and eat after their long march. The only suitable spot, maybe seen earlier by Clifford and de Beaumont was the low lying ground beneath Balquhiderock Wood, known as the Carse of Balquhiderock. Bounded by the Bannockburn and the Pelstream, it offered water and also it was felt that the burns provided protection against any attacks from the rear or flanks. In that way, at least, it was a sound decision – no-one considered that the streams could also be a trap, but that is because no-one thought the Bruce would fight a pitched battle against an English army (he always avoided such conflicts), especially across open ground where the English cavalry could operate, as at Falkirk.

Day 1

In other respects the Carse was not the pleasantest of places to encamp an army: it was boggy in places and full of ‘polls’ (pools), over which the English had to manouevre themselves, horses, carts and equipment (including, it must be supposed, the tents of the king and his commanders). The Brus has this to say about that evening:

So they lodged there that night down in the Carse, and had everyone clean and make ready their equipment before morning, for the battle*. And because there were streams in the Carse, they broke [into] houses and carried thatch to make bridges over which they could pass.

And so the mighty host of one of the best-equipped and trained armies in Europe was forced to spend an uneasy night in a fairly unpleasant place, being bitten by the voracious Scottish midges and fearful of a surprise attack at any moment. Many chose to drink the night away in a forced show of stout-heartedness. It is doubtful that more than a few got any sleep, Edward included.

* There is no evidence to say that the English were actually expecting a full scale battle at this point, although it does seem that they prepared just in case of some sort of attack from the Scots, especially after Bruce’s aggression that day.

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