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Robert The Bruce's Decisive Victory At Bannockburn

Many people no doubt remember the movie 'Braveheart', about Scottish rebel leader William Wallace. But what really happened at Bannockburn?

Many people no doubt remember the movie ‘Braveheart’, about Scottish rebel leader William Wallace.

The final scene of the film consists of a climactic battle narrated by director and star Mel Gibson:

“In the year of our Lord, 1314, patriots of Scotland, starving and outnumbered, charged the fields of Bannockburn. They fought like warrior poets, they fought like Scotsman and won their freedom.”

This overlays footage of brave Scots wearing (anachronistic) kilts and blue face paint following a leader that has, by that point, assumed the mantle of the now dead Wallace – Robert the Bruce, or Robert I, King of Scotland (played by Angus Macfadyen).

The Battle of Bannockburn, which took place on June 24, 1314, is hugely significant in the history of Scotland because what the film says about it is basically true.

Outnumbered and outmatched Scots did defeat an English army that was there to subjugate them.

Even if the battle failed to end the Wars of Scottish Independence, Bannockburn would always stand out as an example of valiant defiance. 

The end of Braveheart depicts the Battle of Bannockburn happening on an open field; it actually took place near a brook

But the film also misrepresents the battle in several ways, as well as the key events leading up to it.

That’s because, as is so often the case in historical films, the plot is a truncated version of the real thing.

This, of course, aids storytelling but is misleading about the true pace at which things unfolded.

Viewers of Braveheart will recall that a large part of this was taken up by William Wallace’s rebellion against the English, which predated Bruce’s. 

The real Wallace was apparently not a 5’9” Australian/American playing a Scottish commoner from the Highlands.

Rather, he was reputed to have actually been 6’4”, or perhaps 6’7” - at a time when the average Scotsman was about 5’6”.

He’s also said to have been born in Elderslie, or perhaps elsewhere in Ayrshire (which is not the Highlands) to a low-level nobleman.  

As for the great battle that made him legendary, the Battle of Stirling, it was not so much the fight on an open field portrayed in the film, but the Battle of Stirling Bridge, which took place in 1297.

Events that led up to this clash of English and Scots armies were, as mentioned, considerably more complicated than their film representations. 

Essentially, what set the stage for everything shown in Braveheart was a multi-year succession crisis.

It was triggered by the death of the Scottish king, Alexander III, in 1286.

England’s Edward I, known as ‘Longshanks’ (he was 6’2”), had exploited the situation by offering to arbitrate between contenders for the crown.

John Balliol was the man chosen, and once in place, Edward wasted no time in ruffling his feathers.

The English King did this by continuing to allow and encourage judicial questions within Scotland to come to and be settled by him.

This would have been okay while he had played the role of ‘helpful’ overseer, but now it was different - Balliol was on the throne and the buck should have stopped at him.  

A statue of Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn (image: Kim Traynor)

Yet here was Edward, refusing to relinquish the authority he’d had during the transition period.

Colm McNamee’s book ‘Robert Bruce: Our Most Valiant Prince, King and Lord’ reveals that part of the justification for this lay in the prejudice the English had for the Scots’ coronation ceremony.

Since it didn’t include a formal crowning of the new king, this led them to think that a Scottish monarch couldn’t possibly be held in equal esteem to an English one. 

Of course, this seems ridiculous today, but as McNamee reminds us:

“Life in the Middle Ages was dominated by ideas and assumptions that no longer exist in quite the same way… ‘The past is another country’ and one should not go there without a guide, however brief, however sketchy. To do otherwise is to risk infecting the past with the assumptions of the present age, creating anachronisms and investing historical personalities with attitudes and assumptions that they could never have embraced.”

Indeed. These very different assumptions had a huge impact on politics, and not only where the crowning (or non-crowning) of kings was concerned.

Independence and nationality, he says, were two concepts that did not fit well with medieval thinking, which might explain how the political spheres of Scotland and England became so entangled in the first place.

Admittedly, this differs somewhat from Simon Schama narrative in the BBC’s ‘History of Britain’.

He focuses on the strong sense of, at the very least, cultural distinction, that was held by Scotland, Ireland and Wales – distinct, that is, from England.  

However, it may be more correct to say that both these versions of the past are true, in their own ways.

The hammer blows that rained down during Edward I’s multiple wars almost certainly transformed England’s neighbours; movements that had begun as nascent Scottish, Irish and Welsh identities were no doubt galvanised and changed into full-blown rebellions and wars for independence, particularly in Scotland’s case.

At the start of this period though, McNamee points out that those living in England and Scotland both saw themselves as sharing the same island, one that was part of a larger papal union - Christendom. 

Edward I (left) and II (right) receiving his crown

The royal households intermarried and it seemed natural to therefore interfere in each other’s business.

Aristocrats in Scotland and England owned estates in both places.

England though was richer and more populous, having about 2.5 million inhabitants compared to Scotland’s 500,000. 

This dominance in economics and population combined with the issue of cross-ownership and it became the norm for Scottish kings to visit the English monarch to pay homage.

He was, after all, looking after their property for them.

As the years went on though, it became increasingly unclear if this homage was being paid out of reverence (as the English were prone to interpret it) or simply as an expression of good manners. 

At first, the ambiguity engendered peace, but then Edward I came along and insisted on a narrow interpretation, his interpretation, being forced on the Scots. 

This self-righteousness also lay behind another point of contention that would emerge between him and King John Balliol - namely, the expectation that Balliol, and several of his nobles, would serve as military vassals to Edward whenever he required them.

Vassals were commoners who worked for a lord who were granted land to live on in exchange for their toil, or their military service when needed.

That time came during England’s next war with France, which coincided with a Welsh rebellion (Edward had, by this point, already subjugated Wales). 

Balliol, already bitter over Edward’s meddling in his judicial affairs, refused the call to service.

Not only that, he signed a defence pact with the French. 

Whether Edward’s next move was motivated more by cynical political opportunism, or by genuine anger at Balliol’s ‘insult’ is unclear.

The man was certainly prone to bullying and to fits of apoplectic rage, though he was also a cunning politician, so perhaps both were factors. 

Either way, Edward’s response was to go to war. In 1296, England invaded Scotland.

Simon Schama’s ‘History of Britain’ describes one massacre that occurred early on in the conflict:

“First to fall was Scotland’s wealthiest city port, Berwick-upon-Tweed (now part of Northumberland). The siege lasted only hours, the massacre that followed days. ‘The king of England spared no one, whatever the age or sex, and for two days streams of blood flowed from the bodies of the slain so that mills could be turned round by its flow’.”

By the end of this swift and brutal campaign, many more lay dead and Balliol had been captured.

The royal standard was ripped from his coat and he was imprisoned in the Tower of London; the Stone of Scone, which the Scots used during their ceremony to officially recognise a new king, was carried off to Westminster.

Satisfied he’d subdued the ‘upstarts’ in the north, the English King headed back to London and left a garrison behind to rule Scotland in his stead. 

Stirling bridge, as seen from same side as Stirling Castle - Abbey Craig, where the Scots formed up during the battle, is in the distance (image: Janfrie1988)

But once the dust had settled, the Scots would rally around a new leader – William Wallace.

Thought to have then been about 27 years old at the time, Wallace was likely at the peak of his military career.

He may have had prior service with the English during their campaign to conquer the Welsh, and he probably participated in the 1296 war on the Scottish side. 

Teaming up with Andrew Murray (or Moray), another noble, Wallace led an uprising against Edward’s men at Stirling Castle.

Fortunately for them both, the English garrison foolishly underestimated them, and showed no signs of alarm when the Scots began deploying below a nearby hill.

The English began filing across Stirling bridge, a narrow path spanning the River Forth just below the castle. 

They were expecting to be allowed to get across, and then for both sides to line up nicely before battle commenced, as was the convention.

Their larger force was sure to beat the Scottish underdogs, which is precisely why Wallace and Murray bucked the trend. 

Waiting for the most opportune moment, they unleashed their forces after a portion of the English force (a third, or perhaps half) had made its way over the river.

The ambushed men were instantly cut off from their comrades on the opposite bank and, shoved into a bend in the Forth, they were either cut down or drowned. 

This glittering success would see Wallace appointed Guardian of the Kingdom of Scotland (Moray died of wounds sustained in the battle), but his time in the office would be brief. 

The following year, in 1298, Edward I led an army against Wallace’s at Falkirk, not far from Stirling.

This time the Scottish spearmen, so lethal against surprised English cavalry and footsoldiers, were caught in the open and decimated by archers, then stampeded by cavalry.

As everything collapsed around him, Wallace fled the field. 

For years, he managed to evade his enemies, but in 1305 he was captured and taken to the Tower of London.

There a terrible fate awaited him, one that Moffat tells us would also be considered for the hero of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce:

“Routinely brutal and utterly ruthless, the English king would have convened a court of peers in the Tower of London and instructed a guilty verdict. In turn that would have brought in its wake the horrific death of a traitor. Like William Wallace… Bruce would have been stripped naked in the Tower, tied to a hurdle harnessed to a horse and dragged through the streets to the scaffold at Smithfield. This was to allow the crowds to inflict the dreadful humiliation of spitting and tipping pots of urine and faeces on the convicted traitor. Wallace suffered worse, being whipped, beaten and pelted with refuse and rotten food.”

Wallace (top) and Bruce (image from ‘The Scottish and Welsh Wars’ by Christopher Rothero © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

And that was just the start of the ordeal:

“On the scaffold the naked prisoner was first hanged by his neck from a beam. As he retched, choked and involuntarily defecated, his executioners watched carefully and let the victim crash to the ground moments before he was asphyxiated. Sometimes a bucket of cold water was thrown to revive those who had lost consciousness.”

Keeping the prisoner awake for as long as possible was, after all, the aim of the whole exercise:

“At that point, and this would certainly have been done to Robert Bruce (as well), the traitor was emasculated, the cutting off of his testicles symbolic of the end of his treacherous line. The blood-soaked handful was held up for the jeers and cheers of the crowd. More appalling agonies waited for those still conscious when the executions took a butcher’s cleaver to slice open their abdomen from neck to groin so that they could ‘draw’ out the steaming entrails. Often they were burnt on a brazier and reports exist of men being conscious and able to witness this barbarity. At that point the prisoner was dragged to the block for the merciful release of beheading. And then the body was chopped with the cleavers into quarters and distributed for display. This dreadful ritual was unhesitatingly meted out by Edward I’s busy executioners.”

The quartering of a body at the end of an execution (this depicts an execution that happened in 1683)

Edward I’s lethally efficient cruelty may have proved unbeatable, but it also had a shelf life.

Knowing this, when he died in 1307, on route to another war in Scotland, Edward may have tried something truly outlandish to get his military prowess to outlive him.

As Schama has it: 

“One story says the King left orders for his bones to be boiled away from his flesh and carried before his son’s army, believing that as long as his bones marched north, the Scots would never be victorious.”

His son, Edward II, would need the good Omen. Although tall and athletic, like his father, Edward II was not a military man.

He ruffled feathers of his own, though not by being cruel and conniving, like Edward I, but rather by simply being himself.

As a gay man with a longtime male companion, Piers Gaveston, Edward II was already viewed with suspicion and held in wide contempt.

It didn’t help that Gaveston had the audacity to insult several of Edward’s nobles. 

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Peter Armstrong informs us that he not only didn’t concern himself with military or political affairs (the ‘manly’ pursuits of the era), but also seemed to be predisposed to ‘un-princely things’ like thatching, hedging and horse shoeing.

This didn’t just demean the man, it degraded the high office of the land by associating the king with activities that were below his station.

Conversely, the man he might one day meet in battle, and whom his father had been pre-emptively trying to defeat, was none other than Robert the Bruce.

King of Scotland since 1306, the Bruce was “the most politically intelligent and militarily successful figure in medieval Scottish history”, according to Schama.

Born on July 11, 1274, most likely at Turnberry Castle in Ayrshire, the Bruce was a magnate (high nobleman) of Anglo-Norman descent.

His ancestors had come over to England and formed the new English aristocracy along with William the Conqueror in the wake of the Battle of Hastings. 

The remains of Turnberry Castle (image: Walter Baxter)

The family had since relocated because, in 1124, David I of Scotland, who owned feudal lands in England, “encouraged Anglo-Norman settlement north of the Border” to “transform Scotland from a backward Celtic society into a modern European state”.

The Bruces had settled in well and got stuck in protecting Scotland from raids made by the people of Galloway, an area that had been resisting absorption into the Scottish kingdom.

The Bruce family also became bigtime players in the game of Scottish politics, which involved complex manoeuvres that tested familial and national loyalties, and sometimes pitted the two against each other.

This is why Robert Bruce VII (he was one in a long line of them) had sometimes sided with the English during the various conflicts of the period.

Though we might call this ‘collusion’ today, it was normal at the time and would not have prevented further social advancement (i.e. from noble to king).

This is because social rank was seen as more or less innate, so a noble that might seem ‘treacherous’ in modern terms was always more likely to become a king than a ‘loyal’ and patriotic commoner, even if the noble in question had previously fought against his country.

As McNamee puts it:

“Gentillesse or nobility could only be conferred by breeding; one had to be born a gentleman, noble or aristocrat to possess the appropriate manner, speech and air. Gentillesse also implied landed wealth, an estate sufficient to maintain a noble household. It was not enough just to have money; at this period very few rich townsfolk – if any – made it into the charmed circle of gentillesse. It was nevertheless a broad social category, and stretched from the king and the highest aristocrats in the land (such as the Bruces of Annandale) to poor knights and squires with only a manor or two to their names, such as the family of William Wallace.”

Although ranking existed within the nobility (earls outranked barons, and kings outranked everybody), there was also a certain amount of give and take.

Kings were expected to consult their nobles when making important decisions.

A king also had a say the marriages of the children of his lords, but he was discouraged from ‘disparaging a widow’, meaning that it was not the done thing to marry her off to a man of a lower social caste.

There were also other complexities:

“Besides the interplay of lords and vassals, there were other dimensions to noble society. The market in land allowed an earl to hold land of a knight where it was desirable, knights to rent royal demesne (estates) from the king, and monasteries to let out their lands to nobles of all ranks for profit. Noble relations then resembled a network, rather than the familiar feudal pyramid of the school history books.” 

A reconstruction of the actual face of Robert the Bruce (as a young man, left, and an older man, right) based on a reproduction of his skull (image: Facelab, Liverpool John Moores University)

But the feudal stereotype did apply somewhere - the ‘churlish peasants’ were widely looked down upon, their lot in life to toil away and live modestly so as to pay rent and provide labour, including in wartime.

They were at the bottom of a feudal pecking order that saw nobles like Robert Bruce serving as “tenants-in-chief of the king”.

These magnates “controlled lesser baronial or knightly families through grants of land and other bestowals of patronage.

As the king demanded taxation and knight service from the Bruces, so they in turn demanded food or money rents and (in time of war) knight service, ship service, castle-guard and other assistance from their noble dependents”. 

While today we question and are sometimes offended by gross inequality, in medieval Europe it was the duty of nobles like Bruce to live the high life, to be the gentlemen they were meant to be, essentially.

This involved keeping various retainers – servants – who could attend to their every need as they moved between their various estates (the Bruces’ main seat was at Lochmaben); it also meant ostentatiously consuming the best food and wine and enjoying tournaments and ballads about courtly love and Arthurian literature. 

No doubt, Bruce’s good stock and diet contributed to his hardiness and reputation for being, as Peter Armstrong notes, “one of the three best knights in Christendom”.

6’1” and muscular, he was every bit the equal of Wallace and Longshanks.

Still, the mighty Bruce had competitors. The Comyns, McNamee says, excelled at the social game more than the Bruces and had “built up a powerful network of castles, estates and interests across the kingdom”.

They had first supported Balliol’s claim to the crown, and now that he was gone, Bruce’s chief competitor was Sir John Comyn, a prominent member of that clan.

This competition came to a head in 1306 when Bruce stabbed Comyn to death in front of the altar of Greyfriars Church (located in Dumfries) and then crowned himself king of Scotland six weeks later. 

The murder of John Comyn

But Scotland was embroiled in civil war, and Bruce couldn’t simply click his fingers and make everyone obey him, as much as the new king must have wished to. 

He ended up on the run, and the apocryphal tale of the spider and the cave was born.

In it, Bruce is said to have watched a spider spinning a web whilst he was hiding in a cave, and been impressed by the creature’s tenacity in completing this difficult task.

This story helped make the Bruce legend, that of a determined underdog patiently biding his time until the right moment to strike.

Surely it was meant to put him in the same league as past warrior kings like Alfred the Great, who retreated into the cover of marshland to plan and gather his armies before his fateful showdown with the Vikings at the Battle of Edington (although this story is probably true). 

Bruce would also come to be the hero in a true story of his own.

By 1314 he was, at least as far as his country was concerned, secure on the Scottish throne. His greatest threat now came from the English. 

Just as he had in 1296, Edward I had taken Stirling Castle, the lynchpin between northern and southern Scotland, and left a contingent of troops inside in 1304.

They’d been there ever since, something that made a mockery of Scottish sovereignty.

So Robert Bruce sent his brother, also named Edward, to besiege it. 

Knowing supplies of food would eventually run low, and unable to fight their way out, the garrison sent word to the now king of England, Edward II, to send reinforcements.

When he got word Edward’s forces were coming, Robert Bruce brought his own army down to meet them.

From the outset, it looked to be a rather unfair fight. Bruce had roughly 7,500 infantry (with 1,500 archers) and 350 light cavalry.

Edward II would bring 2,000 Heavy Cavalry, 250 Light Cavalry (these horses were smaller and less armoured) and 11,450 infantry (including 6,000 archers).

A map showing the English route in red and the Scots’ route in blue (image from ‘Bannockburn 1314’ by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

The battle also looked like it might be over before it even started when, on June 23, the English nobleman and knight Henry de Bohun was leading a portion of Edward’s force up from an area called Torwood, giving chase to the Scottish reconnaissance escaping ahead.

Then, out of an area called New Park, came part of the Scottish army, where it started to form up.

At this time, both English and Scottish armies were generally subdivided into three or four units known as ‘battles’.

The vanguard, or ‘fore-battle’ would be at the front and would be commanded by the most trusted commander who was known as the ‘constable’.

In the case of Edward’s army it was so large that it was actually further divided into 10 divisions of infantry with about 1,000 men each (though archers might be taken out to deploy separately – at least, that was the plan). 

The vanguard of Scotland’s army was drawn from Moray, Inverness and other towns of the far north and north-east of the country and it was led by the nobleman Thomas Randolph.

Edward Bruce, the King’s brother, commanded the centre battle made up of men from Buchan, Mar, Angus, the Mearns, Menteith, Strathearn, Lennox and Galloway while the King himself was in charge of the reserve battle which had men from Carrick, the lowlands and the south as well as some contingents that came from Aryll and the Western Isles.

In other words, the army of Robert the Bruce was laid out as Scotland in reverse, with men from the north closest to the English and men from the south in the rear.

Bruce defeating de Bohun, an illustration from a children's history book

But when de Bohun stumbled across Bruce’s army on June 23, he couldn’t believe his luck.

Both armies were disorganised and, after an initial encounter, would be pulled back to fight properly the next day.

However, in the chaos, de Bohun noticed a lone knight off to one side and wearing the royal colours – it was King Robert the Bruce, and he was there for the taking. Armstrong’s book relays what happened next:

“De Bohun, sensing that his moment of glory had come, wheeled his charger and spurred towards the king with an arrogant taunt on his lips. Bruce set his horse towards his challenger, who bore down full-tilt. As they closed Bruce swerved his nimble horse aside to avoid de Bohun’s lance and, standing in his stirrups, struck him such a blow with his axe that it cleaved through the English knight’s helmet and bit deep into his brain. The axe shaft shattered with the impact and De Bohun crashed from the saddle, dead before he hit the ground.”

After a brief attempt to get around the Scots and relieve the garrison at Stirling had failed, the English were forced to settle down for the night.

It was their choice of ground that would spell doom for them the next day.

This showdown had been a long time coming, and two prior models of battle existed in the minds of commanders.

Stirling had been a rout for the English and a victory for the Scots, brought about by dividing and then crushing a superior English force against unfavourable terrain. Falkirk had been the opposite – a more open battle in which the English had been able to deploy properly and make full use of their superior military machine.

Archers first shot up hapless and exposed Scottish infantry and the English cavalry stormed in to finish them off. 

The question on everybody’s lips on June 23 was whether the following day’s battle would resemble Stirling or Falkirk. 

Moreover, English commanders had to worry about the possibility of an ambush that night.

The Scots were renowned guerrilla fighters, and so finding a position that reduced this threat made sense. They settled on some lowlands, buffered by the bends of nearby rivers.

This allowed them to water their horses, and it meant they had natural barriers on two or three sides of them that would stop the Scots attacking.

Now they only had to worry about the enemy coming at them from one direction.

But there wasn’t going to be any guerrilla attack. During the night, a man named Sir Alexander Seton, who was a Scottish knight serving with the English, disappeared and went to join Bruce. 

He informed the Scottish king that the English army was lacklustre - internally divided, and in a poor position.

To begin with, Edward was not getting on with his nobles.

One of these disagreements centred on him giving command of his main division, or battle, to two of his nobles simultaneously.

This was bound to cause friction, division, and confusion. 

Without realising it, Edward had also placed his men in a vulnerable position

 While the natural barrier of the adjacent river bends would prevent attacks from those directions, they also hemmed in the English and would prevent them deploying properly in the event of an open battle.

If the Bruce moved now, he could ensure that Bannockburn would be the rerun of Stirling that he wanted. Even if he had inferior numbers, he could catch the English off-guard and crush them between his schiltron formations (consisting of thousands of men carrying giant spears) and the river.

He rolled the dice.

The BBC’s ‘The Quest for Bannockburn’ concluded that of the two possible battle sites, the one inside the red circle was probably where it happened (image from 'Bannockburn 1314' by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

Coming out of nearby woodland the following morning, Bruce’s men knelt to pray.

The English, surprised to see them, wondered what on earth was going on. King Edward thought they were begging God for mercy before being slaughtered.

A dispute broke out within the English ranks about what to do, and the Earl of Gloucester was accused by the King and others of cowardice for advocating a retreat and regrouping. 

An archery duel may have begun at this point, but at some time early on in the battle, Gloucester, offended and eager to rekindle his reputation, hastily climbed onto his horse and led a cavalry charge straight at the Scottish schiltrons. 

This was lethal for the English, the spears burying themselves in the bodies of any horses or knights unlucky enough to run into them.

Many more knights were flung off their animals, including Gloucester, who, because he wasn’t wearing his royal clothes, was dragged into the Scots’ lines and butchered. 

Alistair Moffat describes this incident in all its gory detail in ‘Bannockburn’:

“As horses were stabbed and wounded, they went down squealing their death agonies, their metal-shod hooves thrashing wildly. Their riders were unhorsed, jabbed at by spearmen or perhaps killed by shooters who ran out from the ranks, their axes and dirks (daggers) ready. Lances snapped and splintered as the fallers in the front rank of the English charge badly impeded those behind and momentum died. As the Lancercost Chronicle put it: ‘They remained without movement for a while.’ Unidentified, lacking his surcoat and its coat of arms, the Earl of Gloucester became isolated from his retinue, and in the ruck of the fighting, he was dragged off his destrier (war-horse) and hacked to death. Capture and a lucrative ransom would have been much preferable but the spearmen did not know who he was.”

The disastrous English cavalry charge stopped by the Scots’ schiltrons (image from ‘Bannockburn 1314’ by Peter Armstrong © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing)

At this point the Scots then moved forward in their giant formations, like huge porcupines, marching straight for the English with their spears out. Because of the cramped conditions, the English were totally unable to utilise their numbers – in fact, if anything, this became a disadvantage.

They fell over each other; archers and cavalry were unable to form up and deploy properly. They were soon crushed and in headlong retreat. 

With thousands of them in such a small space, the boggy ground turned into a total quagmire, men getting stuck and sucked into it, slipping over in the mud and tripping over one another.

Many of those that made it to the river drowned in the process of crossing it:

“The passage of thousands had churned the banks of the burn into a sea of treacherous mud and set a trap into which the fleeing mass of men, carried forward by the great press behind, tumbled headlong and perished.”

And, unlike the English archers, the Scottish bowmen were able to spread out and rain arrows down on their fleeing enemies. 

King Edward II was promptly evacuated by his household knights, who headed with him to Stirling. However, when he got there he found the drawbridge up and, fearing capture, fled around King’s Park.

Had he entered Stirling Castle he likely would have been captured along with it after the battle near the Bannockburn was over.

And by this point it pretty much was over, the underdog Scots having prevailed. In the 14th Century, Scotland was a polyglot society in which English, Gaelic, Norse, Flemish, German and Anglo-Norman French were all routinely spoken.

England also had more linguistic variety than it does today, but these cultural, as well as class barriers, were overcome far more effectively by the Scots.

They had rallied around a growing sense of nationalism, whereas the English, under the poor command of Edward II, had fractured.

The victory at Falkirk had been possible because the nobles on horseback had been forced by their commander, the king, to work together with the ‘lowly’ and ‘common’ bowmen who walked alongside them.

These archers were vital for protection from the spearmen opposite.

Without a preliminary round of arrows to break up the schiltron formations, any charge by knights would be doomed the failure. 

An illustration of the battle from the Holkham Bible (image: Ian Bremner)

But under Edward II’s leadership, the social divisions had returned to plague the English army and this too probably hampered them at Bannockburn as they scrambled to form up and fight.

Without being able to work together efficiently, cavalry, archers and other infantry were destined to die apart.

Edward was taken to nearest port and sailed home to England, but Robert Bruce still had unfinished business with the king.

He’d captured the Earl of Hereford during the battle (he, at least, must have been wearing his royal coat) and planned to return him, in exchange for something else.

The Bruce had lost a number of friends and family members in his long-running feud with the English.

This included several brothers who had been killed, but there were still other loved ones who’d been taken prisoner years before. 

In return for Hereford, the Bruce had Edward give back 15 Scots, including Robert Wishart, Bishop of Glasgow (who’d grown old and blind in captivity), and his sister Christina, daughter Marjory and his queen, Elizabeth.

His nephew, David the Earl of Mar, opted to stay behind, having grown quite attached to the English king.

Unfortunately for Edward, members of his family were considerably less fond of him than the Earl of Mar.

In 1327, he was murdered, probably by his queen and her lover.

One story states that he was killed by the insertion of a red-hot iron poker up his rectum, but some historians dispute this.

Perhaps he was just dragged out and beheaded one day, like his former lover Piers Gaveston had been years before. 

As for the Bruce, he’d defied Edward I’s plan for him to be hanged, drawn and quartered but, before dying of natural causes in 1329, he would experience another kind of suffering in his final years: Leprosy. 

England and Scotland would go on to fight many more battles, but Robert the Bruce had at least secured his countrymen an important victory against a considerably more powerful foe – as well as cementing his own legend in the process.

To order Alistair Moffat’s tale of the battle, Bannockburn, at the special price of £6.49 (RRP £7.99) with free P&P within the UK, visitwww.birlinn.co.uk, select the book, and enter FORCES at checkout; or call Booksource on 0845 370 0063, quoting offer code FORCES. Offer runs until July 31, 2017 (ISBN 9781780272795 / Overseas delivery will incur a charge) 

Alternatively, read Colm McNamee’s ‘Robert Bruce: Our Most Valiant Prince, King and Lord’ to learn more about the Scottish king. 

And for a pictorial history of these events, read ‘Stirling Bridge & Falkirk 1297 – 98: William Wallace’s Rebellion’ and ‘Bannockburn 1314: Robert Bruce’s Great Victory’ both by Peter Armstrong, and 'The Scottish and Welsh Wars 1250 - 1400' by Christopher Rothero. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.

Robert the Bruce in battle dress (images: Facelab, Liverpool John Moores University)