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Scottish War of Independence
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 Scottish War of Independence
  Battle of Dunbar (1296)
  Battle of Stirling Bridge (1297)
  Battle of Falkirk (1298)
  Battle of Methven (1306)
  Battle of Loudon Hill (1307)
  Battle of Bannockburn (1314)
  Bruce Invades Ireland (1315-1318)
  Battle of Dupplin Moor (1332)
  Battle of Halidon Hill (1333)
  Battle of Neville's Cross (1346)
  Treaty of Berwick (1357)
The Bruce, Bannockburn and Independence
The Bruce, Bannockburn and Independence
June 1314 - June 24, 1314
by Lori M. Barrett

Most historians agree that the most pivotal event in Scottish history is the battle of Bannockburn fought with the English in 1314. While this event is probably the most famous and well-known battle in Scotland's war of independence, it represents to the Scottish people a large victory over the English -- proof that they could win. Have historians placed too much emphasis on Bannockburn? Was it really the turning point in creating an independent Scotland, overlooking the less famous events, but truly important in their own right, the battle at Falkirk in 1298 and the succession of King Robert the Bruce in 1306? Most importantly, it is the leadership and perseverance of Robert the Bruce that gave Scotland her independence and fulfilled William Wallace's dreams of an independent nation.

After the monumental battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, Wallace was knighted and proclaimed guardian of the kingdom. Ruling in John Balliol's name, Scotland was left alone for the next year as Edward I become entangled in difficult relations with France. The tension with France had been ongoing since 1230 and in 1337 would thrust England into the Hundred Years War. In 1298, realizing that matters in the North could not be avoided; Edward planted his armies at York in preparation to deal with William Wallace. The English army was formidable as they marched northward, advancing up the East Coast to meet Wallace and his armies at Callander Wood near the town of Falkirk.

Wallace has been criticized for deciding to fight at all, knowing his enemy to be superior in numbers with an advantage in heavy cavalry. Nevertheless, Scotland could not allow the English to continue, as they would lose their gain in position over the last year. John Sadler describes, in his essay on Falkirk that "Wallace had chosen the battleground with care: his troops disposed on the southern flank of Callander Wood, the foot covered by the fast-flowing burn which, where it met another stream running down from Glen village, spread wet and miry, a morass which, from their position, the English could not detect" (p.42).

Unfortunately, most of Wallace's troops were volunteers who came to the ranks with little or no military training or experience. At the foot, Wallace formed spearmen with twelve-foot iron-tipped spears with the first row of men kneeling and a second leveling over their shoulders. "As further protection," Sadler notes, "the men were encircled by a line of stakes, chained or roped together creating a makeshift palisade".

The English began to deploy toward the Scots in battle order but their steady advance was halted by the unexpected softness of the ground and Edward was forced to move his troops to the left. An unexpected row ensued between leaders of the two sets of English troops and thus forced the heavy cavalry to push forward. The Scots resisted with the fury of despair, hundreds dying beneath the English cavalry. Wallace and his remaining men were forced to flee and as Sadler chronicles, "whilst his army and his hopes died around him" (p.44). Edward had won the battle but not yet the war. Though further resistance appeared pointless, Wallace never contemplated surrender and reverted to the life of bandit and in Sadler's word "...enough to keep the tiny flame of defiance alive" (p.44).

Unfortunately, Wallace was never able to recoup from the battle at Falkirk and his whereabouts until 1305 are unknown. Some say he never left Scotland, although there is some evidence to support that he traveled to France to secure support. It is mystifying why Wallace did not gather an army in the seven years following the battle at Falkirk but this might suggest the after effects of the battle had a rather traumatic effect on his self-confidence. Possibly this is what caused him to resign his guardianship over Scotland after Falkirk which was succeeded by Robert the Bruce and Sir John "the Red" Comyn.

In 1303, Edward's ongoing war with France ended as Pope Boniface VIII interceded between the two countries and Edward was forced to abandon his campaign. With peace made with France, Edward was once again free to pursue his attack on Scotland, successfully capturing the town of Stirling and its fortified castle.

Although most of the Scottish nobles showed fealty to Edward, the English continued to pursue Wallace relentlessly and in 1305, he was captured. Taken to London, Wallace was condemned as a traitor to the King even though he had maintained that he had never sworn allegiance to Edward. He was hanged, disemboweled, beheaded and quartered. His head was impaled on the spikes at London Bridge and his arms and legs were sent to the four corners of England where they were displayed as a warning - the Scots did not heed the warning.

After the execution of Wallace, the role of joint guardianship of Scotland by Robert the Bruce and John "the Red" Comyn, proved to one of murder and intrigue. It all began, as Alan Young states In the Footsteps of Robert the Bruce , that "Robert Bruce approached John Comyn with a kind-hearted plan to end the endless tormenting of the people. Robert gave Comyn the choice of two courses of action: either Comyn should reign, with Bruce gaining all of Comyn's lands or Bruce should become king, with all of Bruce's lands going to Comyn" (p.80). Supposedly, Comyn preferred the latter option and a covenant was made between the two. As Alan Young continues to note "Comyn broke his word, and heedless of the sacredness of his oath, kept accusing Bruce before the king of England...wickedly revealing Robert's secrets" (p.80).

This in turn forms the background to the infamous murder of John "the Red" Comyn. The Bruce confronted Comyn with his treachery in the Greyfriars Church at Dumfries in 1306 stabbing him and leaving him for dead with Bruce's men entering the church to finish the deed. According to Scottish tradition, it is thought that the reason for his murder was due to his treachery. However, English tradition emphasizes that the murder was premeditated so Bruce would become sole ruler of Scotland. However, Young maintains that, according to Scottish legend "it is highly unlikely that the murder was premeditated. Bruce struck Comyn with a dagger and his men attacked him with swords" (p.80).

Six weeks after John Comyn's murder, Robert Bruce was crowned at Scone as King of Scots. The fact that the Bruce's enthronement occurred so quickly reveals that some preliminary planning may have been carried out and the murder had accelerated the plans that the Bruce had already been preparing.

Robert Bruce seems to have picked up where William Wallace left off, leading battles near Perth and at Dalry the same year he was enthroned. Every effort was made by the English to crush any military movement made by the Scots and unfortunately, Bruce was defeated at both battles. With English troops still occupying many castle strongholds in Scotland, Bruce was regarded as a traitor. Robert became a fugitive hiding on a remote island off the Irish coast. His wife and many of his supporters were captured and three of his brothers were executed.

As luck may have it, on his way to reconquer Scotland in 1306 Edward I died. This may be why in 1307 Robert Bruce came out of hiding. In addition to the death of Edward I, the Bruce also found himself fortunate that his weak and ill-prepared son Edward II succeeded Edward. At first, the Bruces main supporter was his brother Edward Bruce, but over the years that followed, he attracted a larger number of followers as well. Upon Edward II's crowning, he intended to carry through with his father's campaign on Scotland. "But," Young notes, "in August of that year Edward abandoned it and was not to become personally involved in the Scottish campaign for another three years" (p.98).

Over the next three years Robert and his brother Edward Bruce, were free to move through Scotland as they pleased as Edward II was dealing with even greater problems than the Scots in his own country. After his coronation Edward II gave the highest offices in the kingdom to his fathers most prominent opponents earning hatred by the barons for granting the earldom of Cornwall to his "frivolous favorite (and possible lover), Piers Gaveston" ( 2). Within four years, a baronial committee drafted a document called the Ordinances, which demanded the banishment of Gaveston and placed restrictions over finances and appointments by Edward.

During the time of Edward's plight, Robert Bruce was able to gather significant forces to overthrow English rule and capture the town of Perth, which was held by English garrisons. What followed were two other coups by the Scots; the capture of Dumfries and an invasion of the Isle of Mann in 1313.

One of the only remaining Scottish strongholds still under garrison rule was the town of Stirling with its fortified castle occupied by the English. Seymour recounts how Bruce, after laying siege to the castle for three months, made a proposition with Sir Philip Mowbray that "...if an English army had not relieved him by midsummer's day, which was then a year ahead, he would surrender the castle" (p.90). According to medieval custom, a castle was considered relieved when the relieving army came within nine miles of it. Historians agree that although the gesture was unwise, it was prompted by the difficulties with the barons that Edward was suffering with at home.

Edward II made preparations as the deadline of surrender approached. Several troops were gathered from Ireland, as well as the Midland counties in England. Since the death of Gaveston several more barons rallied to the King's side placing the English troops at roughly 20,000 men, of which 2,000 were heavy cavalry. In comparison the Scottish army, under the command of Sir

Robert Keith, had pikemen that numbered no more than 7,000 and that there were 500 horses, smaller and carrying lighter armor than their English counterpart. (Seymour p.92).

The English army traveled the route originally taken by Edward I before the battle at Falkirk. Unfortunately, this allowed the English too little time in which to move such a number of men to reach Mowbray within the allotted time. As the English were reaching Falkirk, Bruce ordered his troops to assemble in Torwood, a forest that stretched west of Falkirk almost to the Bannock burn. (Seymour 92). Bruce assembled his troops here in thought that the trees would hamper the attack by the English. His Brother's division was stationed on rising ground to the left of him, with the Bruces' other three troops led by Douglas, Keith and Moray stationed to the right of the Bruce. (Sadler p.48).

According to Seymour, Sir Philip Mowbray joined Edward II pointing out to him that "technically the army had relieved Stirling Castle and that not only was there no need for the garrison to surrender, but in all probability Bruce, whose force was very small, would not risk a fight" (p.93). Nevertheless, the King of England would not stand for it - he was there to fight and squash the Scottish rebellion.

According to legend, "the Battle of Bannockburn opened with the English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, tilting his lance at Robert the Bruce" (Seymour p.94). Bruce, with the smaller and more nimble horse, was able to side step the thrust.

Soon Edward's troops crossed the burn entangled with the Bruce's army and that led by his brother Edward Bruce. Even in the face of repeated charges, the pikemen remained steady. Day one of the battle ended at nightfall and the English returned to their lines while others made way for the castle. The Scots were clearly the victors.

The Bruce with his brother Edward Bruce, knelt down in prayer, as the second day of battle was about to commence. The armies of Moray and Douglas joined Edward Bruce and were brought in front of the King's army, who would act as reserve forces.

The English king realized that a full frontal attack would not work. His army would have to cross the burn and its tributary the Pelstream, even though the banks were steep. When they crossed the burn, there was no place the English could break through and the Scots stormed them. Some of the English began the difficult escape across pools and the burn. The King's men that were held in reserve marched forward. Edward, having no wish to desert his army, was told to make haste for the safety of Stirling Castle. Unfortunately, when he arrived there, Sir Philip Mowbray refused him sanctuary because he could no longer hold on to the castle. With some of his troops as escort, Edward made his escape from Stirling heading back to England. (Seymour p.101). The Scots had won the battle.

In the aftermath of the battle, it is rather ironic that Sir Philip Mowbray, after relinquishing Stirling Castle, changed sides and followed the Bruce. Little is known of the number of casualties suffered by the Scots, but the ratio of men killed to the number of men in battle would be much smaller than that of the English army. As Seymour notes, "Certainly the Bruce had won Scotland by the sword, but until his sovereignty was recognized by all, his task was not complete" (p.104).

The Pope and Edward II refused the Bruce recognition and his great victory at Bannockburn had yet to be consummated. As soon as the Scots heard of this news, the Bruce delivered quite regular raids to the northern areas of England, bringing back with him treasure and the like. The Irish, just as unenchanted with the English as the Scots, saw the battle at Bannockburn as a victory for them as well, and sought to remove the English from Ireland. Over the next several years, Edward Bruce and his troops joined the Irish in several campaigns to expel English armies from Ireland only to be killed in battle in 1318. Robert continued with his raids in northern England, recapturing the town of Berwick in 1319.

At this time, some attention needs to be paid concerning the Catholic Church and the role of the Pope during the Middle Ages. The Vatican was the most powerful and influential power of the known world and monarchs "paid heed to its orders - except with respect to Scotland" (Ross 110). It is sad to say that the Pope did not accept Scottish independence from England, perhaps partially because Robert the Bruce was excommunicated for murdering his rival John Comyn in 1306. However, the Bruce knew that one thing would have an effect on England and that was the influence of the Pope.

Bruce was fortunate in the churchmen of his time. Many of the clergy, according to Ross, "were mainstays of the independence struggle" (p.110). Thus in 1320, in Arbroath Abbey, the Declaration of Arbroath was drafted as a formal

Declaration of Independence. Ross continues to note that "It is not only one of the most outstanding documents of Scottish history, but of world history as well. Even the American Declaration of Independence owes a big nod in its direction" (p.110).

The basic context of the document is a plea to the Pope to see the Scottish perspective and not take the English claim on Scotland seriously. The Declaration of Arbroath states, "we fight not for glory nor wealth nor honors, but for freedom alone which no good man surrenders but with life itself." Although the document is more a cry of patriotism than anything else, a statement of deeds of cruelty, massacre and violence inflicted by the English are written in the text. The document was revealed at a meeting at the Abbey of Arbroath in which eight earls and thirty-one barons added their seals and the document was delivered to the Pope. After delivery of the document to the Vatican, the Pope sent a special envoy to Edward II to inquire about making lasting peace with Scotland. However, prior to the Scots drafting of the Declaration, the English made a major coup in conquering one of Scotland's major castles and Edward saw this as an opening to inflict further damage to Scotland by destroying several of it's abbeys by burning them to the ground, many of the remains which are still standing today.

Towards the end of 1326, civil unrest broke out in England, which would lead them into the hundred year's war with France. Edward's wife, Queen Isabel had Edward assassinated, leaving no wounds so as not to cause suspicion, and had parliament proclaim her son Edward III as King of England. As we might expect Edward II's son picked up where his father left off - dispatching armies to Scotland resulting in more bloodshed.

Ross states in his chapter entitled "Declaration and Intent," that "in 1327 negotiations began at Newcastle to hammer out a final peace treaty" (p.126). The Scottish side of the delegation offered terms that were incredibly magnanimous. All the Bruce desired was recognition of Scotland's sovereignty. The final peace was signed the following year, a year before Bruce's death and was known as the Treaty of Edinburgh. This treaty recognized Scotland as a separate entity and free from English domination. "It was concluded in 1328 and was signed within the monastery of Holyrood, with Bruce lying on his sickbed" (p.126).

Suffering from ill health, the Bruce's final years gave him some relief from the rigors of military life, and fulfilling his role as king. In 1329 the Bruce, a man who had persevered so greatly, accomplishing independence for his country perished from his beloved Scotland.

William Wallace and Robert the Bruce have not been forgotten in their homeland of Scotland, always to be remembered with admiration and gratitude. Their figures immortalized forever in the form of statues and monuments scattered throughout Scotland.

It is the battles at Stirling and Falkirk led by Wallace that serve as a catalyst for this movement of independence and if Wallace had lived to see the battle at Bannockburn, I am sure we would find his name in the history books fighting alongside his King. We can not help but wonder why the Declaration of Arbroath or the Treaty of Edinburgh was not drafted prior to all the bloodshed - this is something we may never know. Maybe it took one final battle, the battle at Bannockburn to prove that they could truly win against one of the greatest military forces on Earth.

Works Cited:

Seymour, William. "The Scottish Struggle for Independence:Bannockburn." Battles in Britain 1066-1746 . Chatham Kent: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 1997.

Young, Alan. "Bruce's Coup and the Death of Comyn the Red." In the Footsteps of Robert Bruce . Gloustershire: Sutton Publishing Limited, 1999.

Watson, Fiona. Under the Hammer:Edward I and Scotland . Edinburgh: Tuckwell Press, 1998.

Tranter, Nigel. The Story of Scotland . Glasgow: Neil Wilson Publshing Ltd., 1987.

Sadler, John. "Not for Glory...But for Freedom." Scottish Battles . Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd., 1996.

Ross, David R. "Declaration and Intent." On the Trail of Robert the Bruce . Edinburgh: Luath Press Limited, 1999.

About the Author:

Lori M. Barrett can be reached at
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Written by Lori M. Barrett
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