It is right and fitting to remember that battle not to glorify war and the inevitable bloodshed which war entails but as a constant reminder that Scotland was once a free and independent nation and many ordinary Scots were prepared to give their lives to secure and defend that freedom.
Scotland’s unofficial national anthem is called Flower of Scotland and was inspired by the Battle of Bannockburn of 1314. It was written in the mid-1960s by Roy Williamson of the famous Scottish folk group, The Corries, and was first performed publicly in 1967. The song recalls the famous battle in powerful lyrics which pay homage to those who defended Scotland from a huge invading army from England:
O Flower of Scotland,
When will we see
Your like again,
That fought and died for,
Your wee bit Hill and Glen,
And stood against him (against him?),
Proud Edward's Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tæ think again.
That first verse refers to the leader of the English invading force, Edward II. But some background to the Bannockburn battle is necessary. The Wars of Scottish Independence between England and Scotland began in 1296 and initially the English were successful under the command of Edward I, having won victories at the Battle of Dunbar (1296) and at the Capture of Berwick (1296).
The capture of Berwick in the South of Scotland on 30th March 1296 was the first significant battle in the First War of Scottish independence and it was followed up four weeks later by the even more significant Battle of Dunbar of April 30th when English troops crushed inferior Scottish numbers on the battlefield.
Since 1291 England had ruled Scotland from afar after Edward I had ordered all Scots to pay homage to him in person or at a designated centre by 27th July that year. However, the failure of Scottish King John Balliol to support English military action in France infuriated Edward I and he chose to invade to punish Balliol and humiliate Scotland further.
Now under actual military occupation instead of being ruled from afar many Scots rebelled against excesses of power and subjugation imposed by English troops who acted with brutality confident that no reprisals would be forthcoming.
One man who emerged to organise and unite those willing to fight was William Wallace (1272-1305). His life is immortalised in the Hollywood blockbuster Braveheart and although it is a work of fiction it did manage to capture many of the abuses of power practised by the English occupying force and the characteristics of bravery, boldness and fighting skills which Wallace undoubtedly possessed.
Against all the odds Wallace led his loyal band of rebels to victory at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on 11th September 1297 but within a year it was Wallace himself who was routed when Edward I used superior numbers and equipment to decisively crush him at the Battle of Falkirk on 22nd July 1298. Wallace survived and fled to the hills to try and re-group and continue the fight for freedom from English subjugation but his small army had been decimated.
Unwilling to compromise, William Wallace refused to submit to English rule, and Edward's men pursued him for many years until August 5, 1305, when they captured and arrested him near Glasgow. Wallace was actually betrayed by a Scottish Knight loyal to Edward I. His name was John de Menteith.
He was taken to London and condemned as a traitor to the king and on 23rd August 1305 in Westminster Hall, he was tried for treason. When asked for his response to the charge of treason Wallace was defiant, courageous and dignified when the 33 years old rebel declared:
"I could not be a traitor to Edward, for I was never his subject".
Unsurprisingly he was found guilty and condemned to death. But his death sentence was to be an exceptional one. Edward I despised Wallace and the spirit of rebellion he embodied. He wanted to kill him and send a warning to any others who dared to defy his rule.
After the trial, Wallace was taken from the hall, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hanged, drawn and quartered–the most terrible execution in English law.
It meant he was strangled by hanging but released while he was still alive, his body cut open, and his bowels burnt before him. Then he was beheaded, and his body cut into four parts. His preserved head (dipped in tar) was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of the brothers John and Simon Fraser, who had been colleagues of Wallace.
Wallace's limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Aberdeen.
As far as cruel Edward I was concerned the public and barbaric state murder of William Wallace and the display of his severed limbs would frighten others from ever daring to rebel against him or his English rule again.
He became known as The Hammer of the Scots and Edward Longshanks. By 1304 Scotland had been fully conquered. He was anxious to deter any future rebels. He never lived to witness it fully but his heirs and acolytes soon learned an axiom of life later expertly articulated by Martin Luther King Jr several hundred years later:
“You can kill the dreamer, but you can’t kill the dream.”
Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) soon lifted the banner of freedom and would eventually meet with more success than Wallace. Initially he paid homage to Edward I but perhaps inspired by the rebellions led by Wallace, the injustice of English rule, personal ambition to rule Scotland or a combination of all three motivations he withdrew his allegiance and by 1306 declared himself King of Scotland with the support from some in both the highlands and lowlands of the country. Edward I was furious and swore vengeance but he died in 1307 and the English Throne passed to his fourth son Edward II.
By 1313 Robert the Bruce had organised his troops to liberate nearly all the Scottish Castles held by the English. One last remaining fortress was the strategically important Stirling Castle as it controlled the existing routes to the Highlands of Scotland. By early 1314 the English occupiers of the Castle were warned to leave or face forcible eviction. Edward II was incandescent with rage at the insolence of Robert the Bruce. He resolved to raise the largest army ever assembled and invade Scotland to deal with the rebellious Scots once and for all.
Recruiting soldiers from Ireland, Wales and throughout England, a massive invasion force under Edward II marched north to vanquish the Scots. By June 22nd the battle lines had been drawn and Robert the Bruce positioned his troops on high ground in and around Bannockburn to try and claim some strategic advantage. On the morning of the first day of the battle, it became clear that the English army outnumbered the Scots by up to three to one and were much better equipped with both better armoury and many longbow archers. It seemed inevitable that the insubordinate Scots would soon be slain.
On the morning of the first day of battle, June 23rd, a legendary confrontation took place which probably influenced the eventual outcome of the ferocious fight. Sighting a group of Scots withdrawing into the wood, the English vanguard, made up of heavy cavalry, charged. As they clashed with the Scots, an English knight, Sir Henry de Bohun, spotted Robert Bruce.
If de Bohun had killed or captured Bruce, he would have become a chivalric hero. So, spurring his warhorse to the charge, he lowered his lance and bore down on the king. Bruce didn't panic. He was by now an experienced and skilled warrior. He mounted his own horse and sped towards the advancing English knight with his large lance pointed towards Bruce’s heart. Bruce dodged the deadly lance and simultaneously brought his battle axe down on de Bohun's helmet, striking him dead. Elated, the Scots forced the English cavalry to withdraw.
The engagements that followed were inspired by that early individual duel involving Robert the Bruce. He was a warrior leading from the front. He wasn’t asking his troops to risk their own lives without first of all risking his own. His soldiers were vastly outnumbered and much less equipped than the English forces but their spirits were lifted by the Bruce victory and they forced the English cavalry to retreat on that first day of battle.
According to witness stories passed down through the years there was an equally significant event on the eve of the 2nd day of the Battle of Bannockburn.
Overnight a Scottish Noble on the side of the English decided to defect to the Scots. Perhaps he feared he was on the wrong side after the success of Bruce’s troops on the first day. Whatever the motivation was the defecting Noble brought with him detailed accounts of the number, nature and positioning of the English troops which enabled Bruce to organise his forces accordingly. This information was extremely helpful.
At dawn, the Scots ate their breakfast and advanced out of the wood to face the larger English army. Medieval battles were seen as the judgement of God; it was important to have the saints on your side, and so, in the midst of the Scots schiltroms, which is the description given to the Scots troops as they joined into compact groups wielding their spears, Abbot Bernard of Arbroath carried their ancient lucky talisman, the Breccbennach (or Monymusk Relquary), which held the relics of St Columba.
Bruce himself made a speech invoking the power of St Andrew, John the Baptist and Thomas Beckett.
Then, according to the chronicler Walter Bower:
"At these words, the hammered horns resounded, and the standards of war were spread out in the golden dawn."
Abbot Maurice of Inchaffrey walked out in front of the army, led mass and blessed the Scots as they knelt in prayer.
On seeing this, Edward II is reputed to have said:
"Yon folk are kneeling to ask mercy."
Sir Ingram de Umfraville, a Balliol supporter fighting for Edward, is said to have replied:
"They ask for mercy, but not from you. They ask God for mercy for their sins. I'll tell you something for a fact, that yon men will win all or die. None will flee for fear of death."
"So be it", retorted Edward.
By the end of the battle, it was Edward II who was forced to flee with his defeated and broken troops following behind him. Despite the overwhelming odds and better-equipped foes the Scots troops under Bruce’s leadership triumphed and laid the ground for the declaration of Scotland’s full independence which was formalised and recognised 14 years later in 1328. Robert the Bruce himself will now be immortalised on screen with the exciting new film named after him and launched at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the next few days.
Another war for independence was fought and won between 1332-1357 but the Battle of Bannockburn serves as a reminder that for many hundreds of years ordinary Scots have possessed a desire for freedom which has been passed down from generation to generation.
We are lucky today in that we only have to raise a small lead pencil to secure our freedom not a battle axe. To those who assemble in Bannockburn on Saturday, I salute you and the memories of the giants whose footsteps we follow. Scotland was a free and sovereign nation for many hundreds of years before its sovereignty was signed away in a secret and grubby Act of the Union deal in 1707. We will be a free and sovereign nation again soon. As the final verse of our national anthem says:
Those days are past now,
And in the past
they must remain,
But we can still rise now,
And be the nation again,
That stood against him (against him?),
Proud Edward's Army,
And sent him homeward,
Tæ think again.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.
The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.