King Edward II had infuriated his barons by his refusal to consult with them or take their advice and instead was influenced by his coterie of hangers on such as Gaveston and Despenser. Revolt and open defiance of his rule was spreading throughout the old nobility and was to result in a crushing English defeat at the hands of the Scots.
Taking advantage of the unrest, Robert the Bruce of Scotland had not been idle and was gradually retaking the castles captured and garrisoned by Edward’s father and by 1313 only Stirling castle remained in English hands. The Scots besiegers were led by Edward, the brother of Robert Bruce.
Edward Bruce arrived at a compromise with the English governor Sir Phillip Mowbray and agreed to a year’s truce on condition that if the castle was not relieved by 24th June 1314, it would surrender.
Robert Bruce was furious with this arrangement, he realized that the English king would not let strategic Stirling drift into Scottish hands and that he would have to face an invasion and a pitched battle. Edward assembled an army which included over 1,000 heavily armed knights and more than 20,000 infantry and archers and marched north, ordering these forces to muster at Berwick on 10th June. On 12th June, the king continued northwards together with the Earls of Pembroke, Hereford and Gloucester.
It is recorded that behind his army trundled 110 supply wagons and 106 four horse carts. The English arrived in Edinburgh on 21st June and replenished their supplies with provisions unloaded from the fleet and moved on to Falkirk by 22nd June. Meanwhile, the Scottish army of around 500 cavalry and possibly as many as 10,000 infantry camped at Torwood and then moved on to a wooded plateau fronted by the marshy Bannockburn just two miles from Stirling and prepared for a defensive battle.
This English army was not the cohesive disciplined force of Edward I. The young king lacked the ruthless control of his father and there was much squabbling over precedence between the Earls. Edward was then contacted by Mowbray the keeper of Stirling castle, who asked for a force to be sent to relieve him. Edward’s plan was to split his forces and send Hereford and Gloucester straight up the Stirling Road and drive straight at the Scottish force while another force of 500 knights led by Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Henry Beaumont were sent up a bridle path, hidden from the Scots that led to Stirling.
Unfortunately they were spotted and Bruce sent Randolph, Earl of Moray and his spearmen to intercept them. Hereford and Gloucester meanwhile, moved off still at loggerheads, made worse by the sight of the foppish Henry de Bohun, a nephew of Hereford’s, prancing in all his finery 50 yards in front of the army. This young knight saw another horseman some way ahead who, upon closer inspection, rode “a grey palfrey, little and joly”and wore a gold circlet on his helm. This rider was Bruce himself checking on his troops hidden in the woods and seeing de Bohun bearing down on him, lance at the ready and not wishing to retreat from a challenge in full view of his troops, Bruce waited his moment and as de Bohun charged close, swerved his smaller more nimble horse and swung at his opponent with his battleaxe,” cleaving de Bohun to the brisket”.
The second English force under Clifford and Beaumont had ridden to the east, crossing the Bannock Burn lower down to reach the bridle path and outflanking the Scots. They then sighted the Scottish infantry under the Earl of Moray advancing on them from the woods. An argument broke out between Clifford and Beaumont as to whether they should delay attacking the Scots until more of them were in the open .The Yorkshire knight Sir Thomas Gray disagreed strongly and urged that the attack be made before the Scots could form up behind their pikes in the schiltron formation.
Beaumont angrily accused Gray of cowardice and without another word, Gray charged the Scottish line which by now had formed their squares and perished on the enemy spears, together with his friend Sir William Deyncort who had bravely tried to rescue him. The English, secure in their military superiority, charged the Scots who formed into the defensive schiltron hedgehog with their 15 foot spears pointing outwards. The schiltrons held and the English knights died on the points of their spears. Seeing the confusion, the Scots did the unthinkable and charged the cavalry and sent the remainder retreating back to the main force, leaving more than 100 dead on the field.
Edward decided that a frontal assault was too risky and moved his forces across the Burn to camp for the night, breaking up the nearby Bannockburn village and using doors and thatch to cover the “evil deep wet marsh”.
Meanwhile Bruce had turned his forces to face the new English position, dividing the troops into four divisions under Douglas, Moray, Edward Bruce and Bruce himself. Bruce knighted some of the squires in his force and the Abbot of Inchaffray gave the soldiers absolution as they muttered the Pater Noster. Edward, on seeing the Scots kneeling, joked that they were begging for mercy, but was reminded that, though they prayed, it was not to him. Bruce then gave the order to advance.
The English had also completed their formations, the front consisting of nine cavalry squadrons of about 250 men each, with the infantry massed behind. A further squadron, the vanguard, was stationed on the English right. Gloucester and Hereford continued to argue, this time about who should command the vanguard and the king, silencing them accused Gloucester of cowardice. Gloucester rode back to gather his troops and without waiting to don his surcoat, flew at the Scottish lines and died on the spear points of the schiltrons.
The four Scots divisions moved closer together as they neared the English line and this was the signal for the English cavalry to hurl themselves at the oncoming Scots. The chronicler of Lanercost records “The two hosts came together and the great steeds of the knights dashed into the Scottish pikes as into a thick wood, there arose a great noise from rending lances and dying horses, and they stood locked together”. Behind this clash the English infantry stood idle, some archers made an effort to shoot on a low trajectory over the heads of their own cavalry, but, as one chronicler reported “they hit some few Scots in the breast, but struck many more Englishman in the back”. Other archers rushed to the side and began to shoot into the Scottish flank so well that Bruce feared that they could turn the battle. He ordered his cavalry to scatter the archers who, without spearman to protect them, retreated.