Tuesday, 23 April 2013

William Wallace and Battle of Bannockburn

The Battle of Bannockburn is traditionally the struggle which gave Scotland back her independence from England. In truth the Scots had fallen under English domination through the machinations of their own nobles and this situation would remain a source of trouble until a Scottish King eventually sat on the throne of England.

In 1290 the young girl, Margaret, who had inherited the throne of Scotland died. The direct line of descent of the Scottish kings was extinct and several of the nobles were cousins or nephews of the last king, Alexander III. The nobles could not decide among themselves who should sit on the throne, so they turned to King Edward I of England to arbitrate. The three main contenders for the crown were Robert Bruce, Sir John Comyn and John Balliol. After a great deal of investigation into genealogical tables and after consulting the nobles of Scotland, Edward decided on John Balliol. It was a poor choice.

Balliol was a genial, but a weak man. Edward had chosen him because he hoped to be able to wring concessions from him. At first Balliol agreed with Edward, but he soon found that he had more to fear from his own nobles, who were on the spot than from the King of England. In 1296 Balliol agreed to an alliance with France. Edward was furious and marched north to defeat the Scots in a swift, merciless campaign. Balliol was captured and thrown into the Tower of London. In 1302 Balliol was released and given estates in Normandy where he could live in comfort, though he was forbidden to leave.

In Scotland, meanwhile, Edward set up Englishmen in the main government offices and bought off the nobles with gifts of land and impressive titles. The gentry and common folk, however, were subjected to harsh taxes and strict laws. In 1297 William Wallace, the son of an impoverished knight, led a small band of Scots in rebellion against the English governor in Ayr. The revolt soon spread and within weeks Wallace found himself leader of an army which crushed the English occupation forces at Stirling Bridge and drove the English out of Scotland.

It was the Scottish nobles who ensured that independence would not last long. No sooner were the English gone than the nobles fell to squabbling with each other. Edward invaded in 1298 and easily defeated the forces which remained loyal to Wallace. Wallace led a guerrilla war for some years, but in 1305 he was captured near Glasgow, taken to London and executed.

Having defeated Wallace, Edward tried to crush Scottish resistance once and for all. But all he succeeded in achieving was stirring the hostility of the nobles and encouraging them to unite against him. In February 1306 Sir John Comyn was killed in a scuffle by Robert the Bruce, grandson of the Bruce who had earlier claimed the throne. That left Bruce as the only man with a reasonable claim to the Scottish throne and in April he was crowned at Scone.

For some years Bruce enjoyed mixed fortunes and in 1307 he had to flee to Rathlin Island, off Ireland. It is to this period that the legend of Robert the Bruce and the spider belongs. It is said that he was feeling downhearted and was close to giving up the war when he saw a spider trying to build a web. Several times the spider tried to attach a thread to complete its web, only to fail each time. But the spider kept trying and eventually it succeeded, Bruce took the lesson well and went back to Scotland to try again.

The death of Edward I gave Bruce his chance for the new English king, Edward II, was weak and indecisive. Gradually the Scottish king took control of his own kingdom and by 1314 only Stirling Castle remained in English hands. At long last, Edward II decided to do something about the situation and led a massive army north to face the Scots. The two armies met at Bannockburn on 24th June.

The battle opened when Sir Henry de Bohun challenged the Scottish king to single combat. Bohun couched his lance and charged at the king. Bruce sat his pony until Bohun was almost upon him, when he dodged his pony to one side and slashed down with his battle axe as Bohun passed. The blow split the Englishman’s skull in half from top to bottom. The first English attack faltered on the points of Scottish pikes, and while the English were reforming, Bruce led his own attack. The English were pushed back against a bend in the river where they were all killed or captured. Edward II himself managed to flee before the end, and returned to England in shame.

The battle had made Scotland free from English rule. Robert the Bruce was the undisputed King north of the border and he set out to make Scotland impregnable. He built a navy and ensured that his army was filled with trained men, ready to take arms at short notice. Even so, it was not until 1327 that the English recognised Scotland as an independent kingdom.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.