The Battle of Bannockburn

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Podcast Transcript

In June of 1314, Scottish forces under the command of Robert the Bruce squared off against an English army led by King Edward II.

The battle was the culmination of years of English intervention in Scotland after a succession crisis.

Despite being vastly outnumbered, the Scots won the day, earned their independence, and firmly established Robert the Bruce as king of Scotland.

Learn more about the Battle of Bannockburn and its role in Scottish history on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Before you can understand the Battle of Bannockburn, you need to understand the political situation in Scotland and England in the years before the battle took place. 

Scotland and England had shared the island of Great Britain for centuries. Despite being neighbors, they had very different histories. 

Before the Roman invasion, both England and Scotland were populated by Celtic peoples. After the Roman invasion, life in England changed dramatically. 

England became the Roman province of Brittania, and it came under the heavy cultural influence of Rome. Many people from Rome and around the Roman Empire migrated to Britain.

However, the Romans never conquered Scotland. It wasn’t for a lack of trying, but they eventually gave up as it was too difficult and the terrain too rugged.

They simply built some walls spanning the width of the island and tried to keep the Scots at arm’s length. 

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, invaders from Denmark and Germany settled in England, most famously the Angles and Saxons, from which England got its name. 

These Germanic invaders left most of Scotland alone, with the exception of some low-lying areas in southern Scotland. 

As England evolved and grew, there were certainly battles between England and Scotland, but they were mostly border skirmishes or clashes over land in the south of Scotland and north of England. 

There was a 15-year period in the 12th century where Scotland was legally a vassal of England, but that was due to William I of Scotland being held captive by Henry II of England, however, that story is for another episode.

Everything changed, however, in the late 13th century.

For the purposes of this episode, there were two major events.

The first of which was the ascension to power of King Edward I of England in 1272. 

Edward was an expansionist. Between 1277 and 1283, he conquered Wales and absorbed it into the English crown. 

With Wales under his control, there was only one part of the island of Great Britian that wasn’t under his rule, Scotland. 

Edward’s big opportunity with Scotland took place on March 19, 1286, when King Alexander III of Scotland died. His only heir was his granddaughter Margaret, Maid of Norway.

Margaret was the daughter of Eric II of Norway and Margaret of Scotland, the daughter of Alexander III, and when she ascended to the Scottish throne, she was only three years old.

Margaret of Scotland had died in childbirth when Margaret, Maid of Norway, was born. Had she been alive, she would have been the heir. 

The decision was made for Margaret, the new three year old queen, to remain in Norway for the time being because of her age. However, while she was there she was bethroed to the five year old Edward of Caernarfon, the heir to the English throne.

Just as an aside, had this union actually taken place, the Scotish and English crowns would have been united over 300 years earlier before they actually were. 

Because she was too young to rule and wasn’t even in Scotland, a small group known as the Guardians of Scotland were elected to serve as regents. 

Finally, in 1290, when she was seven, she was sent to Scotland to be formally crowned queen. However, along the way while she was in the Orkney Islands, the young queen died. To be honest, there has been a great deal of debate as to if Margaret was in fact an actual queen because she was never crowned.

This created a huge problem for Scotland because there was no clear heir to the Scottish throne. 

Because nature abhors a vacuum, claimants started coming forward to be the new king. No fewer than thirteen people came forward with a claim on the Scottish throne. 

The best two claims to the throne tied their claim to William I, the grandfather of Alexander III. They were John Balliol and Robert de Brus. 

There was concern that a civil war was going to break out, so the guardians asked Edward of England to be an arbitrator to determine who should be king.

Edward saw this as a golden opportunity to get his hooks into Scotland. 

When he was asked to arbitrate, he insisted on concessions. He wanted to return Scotland to being a vassal of England like it was under Henry II. 

Edward wasn’t given exactly what he wanted, but most of the guardians did, in fact, recognize Edward. 

Ultimately, Edward presided over a group of 104 auditors. Twenty-four were appointed by Edward, and forty each by John Balliol and Robert de Brus, who was known as “Robert the Competitor.”

In 1292, the auditors finally settled on John Balliol as king, based solely on claims of primogeniture. 

John Balliol was not a very good king, and he was known as the “Empty Coat.” After only four years, in 1296, he abdicated under pressure from Edward.

Edward then used this opportunity to invade Scotland, which began the First Scottish War of Independence. If you’ve ever seen the movie Braveheart, it was set in this period. 

The name First Scottish War of Independence was actually applied retroactively after the American Revolution.

Despite having no king during the period, there was widespread resistance to English rule, even though many Scottish nobles had personally pledged their loyalty to Edward. 

The Scottish resistance had some success, such as the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297, but also some major defeats, such as the Battle of Falkirk in 1298. 

However, as the war dragged on, two people vied for the Scottish throne: Robert the Bruce, the grandson of one of the two major claimants to the Scottish throne, Robert the Competitor, and John Comyn. 

In February 1306, John Comyn was murdered on the orders of Robert the Bruce, and the next month he was crowned king of Scotland. 

After a loss at the Battle of Methven later in 1306, he went into hiding for a year. One of the things that brought him out of hiding was the death of Edward I in July 1307. 

Edward II was now on the throne in England, and he was not the leader his father was.

Robert the Bruce continued to increase his power over the next several years, winning several decisive victories. In 1313, Robert finally made an ultimatum to all the Scottish nobles to pledge their loyalty to him or forfeit their lands. 

This resulted in Edward II invading Scotland with the largest army ever to enter the country. Over 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry entered Scotland to put an end to the rule of Robert and also break the siege of Sterling Castle. 

Things came to a head on June 23, 1314, when the English army under Edward II met the Scottish forces under Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn. 

Strangely enough, historians aren’t sure exactly where the Battle of Bannockburn took place. They know the general area where the battle was fought, somewhere near Sterling Castle, but they don’t know the exact spot.

The Scots were vastly outnumbered. In comparison to the combined 27,000 English infantry and cavalry, the Scots only had 6,000 footmen. 

For the English, the battle was an opportunity to end the resistance to English rule in Scotland. 

For the Scots, it was a chance to break free of England and for Robert the Bruce to legitimize his rule through a victory on the battlefield.

In addition to sheer numbers, the English had the premier weapon of the day, heavy cavalry. 

The battle began on June 23, a rare battle from this era, lasting two days. 

On the first day, an English knight, Henry de Bohun, charged Robert the Bruce when he saw him on the field. Robert counter-attacked by riding up to him and splitting his head open with an axe. It was a rare instance of a medieval king engaging in one-on-one combat. 

On the second day, the defection of a Scottish lord in service to England named Alexander Seton turned the tide for the Scots. He brought Robert the Bruce information about the English army, including how low morale had fallen.

When the sun came up, a large contingent of Scottish soldiers walked out from the fortified position with their pikes. 

This confused Edward because before they marched across the field, they all knelt down. Edward assumed that this meant that they were about to surrender to him. That, however, was not the case. 

The English lost one of the best commanders, the Earl of Gloucester.  After being accused of cowardice, he led a small contingent of cavalry into the Scottish lines and was immediately cut down. 

The rest of the English cavalry couldn’t maneuver freely because of the wet condition of the ground and the position of the Scots. 

Likewise, the English archers were neutralized because they couldn’t fire at the enemy without a high risk of hitting their own men. 

Eventually, the English knights saw the writing on the wall and forcefully had to evacuate the King. Their first goal was to get to Sterling Castle, but they were turned away by the leader of the English garrison in the castle, who was about to turn over the castle to the Scots because the English couldn’t break the siege. 

The end result was the English army trying to flee approximately 90 miles or 140 kilometers to the border. The fleeing English soldiers were picked off by Scottish soldiers as well as Scottish people living in the countryside as they passed through. 

The results of the battle were incredibly lopsided. Historians estimate that the Scots lost only about 100 troops, only two of which were knights.

The English, however, suffered staggering losses. As many as 11,000 infantry were killed during the retreat and an additional 700 mounted knights. Five hundred knights were captured and held for ransom. 

The Battle of Bannockburn was a resounding success for the Scottish. It gave the Scottish de facto independence and eliminated English involvement in Scotland. 

It also solidified the rule and legitimacy of Robert the Bruce as King of Scotland. 

While the Battle of Bannockburn eliminated English meddling in Scotland, the English wouldn’t formally recognize Scottish independence for another fifteen years. 

Scottish raids into northern England and Ireland made a treaty and recognition of Scotland a high priority. 

In 1327, Edward II was deposed in favor of his son Edward III, and in 1328, under pressure from English nobles, Edward III signed the Treaty of Edinburgh–Northampton, which finally recognized full independence for Scotland and removed all English claims. 

The Battle of Bannockburn went on to become one of the most important moments in Scottish history. Culturally, it has become a symbol of national pride and freedom for Scotland. It is celebrated in Scottish folklore and literature, including in the patriotic song “Scots Wha Hae” by Robert Burns, which imagines Robert the Bruce addressing his troops at Bannockburn.

Perhaps more importantly, the Battle of Bannockburn was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of Great Britian. If the battle had gone the other way, the last 700 years of British history would have looked very different. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener ??DPK1267 over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Please read this on an episode

I love this podcast. Please read this on the podcast episode. Also, how many languages can you hold a conversation in just curious. Also, do you just take vacations every once in a while, or are you always traveling.

Thanks, DPK1267! I can realistically only hold a meaningful conversation in English, although I know a smattering of other languages such that I can order food or get a hotel room. 

I haven’t taken a real vacation since I started the podcast. I have gone to business conferences, and I did take a few days to see the most recent eclipse, but that’s it. Also, I’m not traveling full-time anymore. That ended with the pandemic. I now spend most of my time working this podcast. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.