Thursday, June 23, 2011

June 23rd, 1314 - Bannockburn, Scotland

Six hundred ninety-seven years ago today, just south of Scotland's Stirling Castle, King Robert the Bruce led roughly 8,000 desperate, war-weary Scots against an English army of nearly 20,000 seasoned, well-equipped soldiers in the most decisive battle of Scotland's War of Independence. All but four of England's nobles joined King Eward II to form the most massive army to ever assemble anywhere on the British island, before or since.

While the Scots were outnumbered and far outmatched, a dramatic prelude to the battle illustrated differences between the opposing armies that would prove critical to its ultimate outcome.

Well-placed Scottish forces and strategically staged ambushes maneuvered the English into a dangerously cramped position: cavalry, pike men, bowmen, and infantry crowded awkwardly onto a rough carse pockmarked by steel traps and three-foot pits filled with stakes and covered by brush. The English were surrounded on three sides by the River Forth, the Bannock Burn, and treacherous marshy swamps, and on the fourth by an unusually enthusiastic Scottish Army.

Before the battle began, as the English moved into position on the carse, an English noble and long-time nemesis of Robert the Bruce spotted the king astride a small palfrey. King Robert was inspecting his troops, and not yet armored for battle. The Englishman, Henry de Bohun, was impulsive and hungry for glory, and caught up in the bickering among the English commanders for leadership positions on the field. De Bohun's ambition and his contempt for the Bruce overtook him. He broke formation and siezed the opportunity to kill the Scottish king himself. He intended to win the battle single-handedly before it even began, and earn his immortal place in the annals of English history.

Henry de Bohun couched his lance, lowered his visor, and spurred his mighty war horse toward King Robert. As he bore down on Robert, gaining speed, the king sat calmly astride his little palfrey holding only the battle axe that he had taken from its sheath. As de Bohun charged, the Scottish army froze in the horror of impending disaster.

The Englishman leveled his lance at the Bruce's chest and drove toward him. Just before the lance made contact with the Bruce's jacketed chest, the king turned his palfrey deftly aside, twisted his torso to avoid the blow, and lifted his battle axe high above his head. He brought the axe down with all of his considerable might, splitting de Bohun's helmeted head in two. De Bohun died instantly, to the ecstatic roar of the Scots.

The Scots were buoyed, and the English aghast. King Robert's calm defiance of superior power, and his stunning victory over it, set the tone for the rest of the battle.

This prelude to the battle of Bannockburn illustrates fundamental differences between the Scottish and English armies of the day. The English had always relied upon the heavy charge, superior weaponry, and brute force; the Scots had of necessity practiced patience, cunning, and agility. The English who arrived at Bannockburn that day were confident, fractious, and reckless. The Scots demonstrated patient resolve, and the keen awareness that this battle was crucial to their desperate bid for an elusive, cherished treasure: their freedom, too long gone.

The battle raged for two long days, and it won the Scots their freedom. Brilliant planning and battlefield tactics propelled them to decisive victory. The battered remnants of the English army retreated and fled to England, leaving behind them a proud new nation, bloodied, war-weary, and free.

Happy Anniversary, Scotland.

NOTE: Estimates of the sizes of the Scottish and English armies at Bannockburn vary widely, from as many as 100,000 English vs. 30,000 Scots (In Freedom's Cause: a Story of Wallace and Bruce, by George Alfred Henty), to the numbers I've used here (20,000 English vs. 5,500 Scots - from If Freedom Fail, by Moray McLaren.) In any event, by all accounts, the Scots were outnumbered by three or four to one.