The Battle of Bannockburn

Freedom! Today marks the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, one of the decisive battles of the First War of Scottish Independence.

The battle started after King Edward II gathered an enormous force and marched north to relieve Stirling Castle, a strategically important post and the site of several significant battles during the War of Independence. King Robert the Bruce, with his own large force, waited for Edward to come to him just south of Stirling, at the Bannock Burn, concealing his soldiers in the thick forests.

The area had one road that would be able to handle the heavy cavalry the English had brought with them, so naturally Robert had it boobytrapped. One of the English captains, Sir Philip Mowbray, got wind of it and tried to persuade Edward to abandon the battle but Edward persisted, and at any rate, other captains sent ahead were already en route and could not be recalled.

Those captains, the earls of Gloucester and Hereford, attacked, and Hereford’s nephew, Henry de Bohun, went after Robert, who was armed only with a battle-axe to de Bohun’s lance. Not for nothing is Robert the Bruce a legend—he stood up in his stirrups and split de Bohun’s skull in two with the axe, and then later complained about having broken the shaft.

Emboldened by this, Bruce’s forces rushed out to engage the English, who were eventually forced to retreat.

Realizing it wasn’t safe to approach Stirling by the most direct route, Edward ordered his army to cross the Bannock Burn, which brought them right into the wall of Scottish soldiers hiding in the woods. The English, weighed down by heavy armor and equipment, were far less mobile than the Scots, who forced them into disarray. The battle quickly became a rout. The English saw how things were going and started to retreat. Some drowned trying to cross the River Forth; others were crushed in the stampede of men trying to get back across the Bannock Burn. Edward turned and ran, accompanied by his bodyguard and leaving his remaining army without a leader. He eventually reached Dunbar Castle and caught a ship to England. Many of his men were killed on the 90-mile retreat to England. It’s estimated that less than a third of the footsoldiers returned to England, which would mean about 11,000 casualties. Scottish casualties, by comparison, were incredibly light.

The battle didn’t guarantee Scottish independence, but it did make Bruce’s place on the throne more secure. Today, a statue of him stands on the battlefield, which has been inventoried and protected by Historic Scotland.

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