Sunday, June 24

At Bannockburn

In an effort to relieve the besieged Stirling Castle, England’s King Edward II, the effeminate son of the cruel Longshanks, sent troops northward into Scotland--a land that had been in constant rebellion against his sovereignty for more than a decade. First there was William Wallace and his ragged corps of Highland warriors. Now there was the loyal army of the presumptive king of an independent Scottish nation, Robert the Bruce.

Though the great castle overlooking the wide plain of Bannockburn had thus far been able to resist Bruce’s assault, Edward knew it would not be able to hold out much longer. The taking of this fortress was an achievement of which Edward was prouder than of anything else he had done in his invasion of Scotland--in the royal annals, he made it of far greater moment than even his victory over Wallace at Falkirk.

The time and the place of the inevitable battle were thus fixed by an obdurate necessity, on this day in 1314; The English were bound to relieve Stirling Castle; The Scots must prevent them. If the invaders were not met and fought at Bannockburn, they might outflank the Scots and reach the castle. And if the Scots did meet and fight them there, it was not likely there would be any other favorable field for a pitched battle anywhere in the whole of the land. The battle, therefore, would of necessity, be under the walls of the castle. Nevertheless, the odds were against the Scots--they were outnumbered by at least three to one. They would have to rely on strategy--and Bruce had a brilliant strategy.

At daybreak they met the fierce charge of the English armies. A detachment of English archers quickly wheeled around the Scottish flank and took up a position where they could rake the compact clumps of Scots spear men. But the lines held just long enough for a host of decoys--actually just a group of camp-followers--to appear along the horizon of a neighboring hill. The women and children were mistaken for a fresh army of the Scots--just exactly what Bruce had hoped. The confused English lines began to scatter. Scottish pikemen were then able to confine the English to a small land mass between the Bannock Burn--the Gaelic name for river--and the Firth of Forth. With little room to maneuver effectively, the massive English were forced into flight by a final charge of fewer than 2,000 Scots swarming down from Gillies Hill--on that hill today stands the William Wallace Memorial.

The end was rout, confused and hopeless. The pitted field added to the disasters; for though they were able to avoid it in their careful advance, many of the English were pressed into it in the retreat, and floundered among the pitfalls. Through all the history of its great wars before and since, never did England suffer a humiliation deep enough to approach even comparison with this. Besides the vast inferiority of the victorious army, Bannockburn was exceptional among battles by the utter helplessness of the defeated. There seemed to have been no rallying-point anywhere. It was as if the Scripture had been fulfilled, “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” At last, Scotland was free.


oldfatslow said...

Josephus used a fake navy (boats filled with the old, women and children) to put down a rebellion on the Sea of Galilee. I wonder how many other times that tactic has been used.


Kathryn Warner said...

Could you explain exactly how 'Scotland was free' after Bannockburn? In which way was it free, and how does this freedom relate to the Treaty of Northampton of 1328? Who exactly was free from whom? I confess that I'm a bit confused by that statement.

And how exactly was Edward II 'effeminate'?

gileskirk said...

Allanore: Obviously, your own blog is an attempt to revise history's judgment of Edward II. Typically, I am a great advocate of such efforts, whenever the facts warrant.

To be sure, Edward has been much maligned by mainstream historians--including a goodly number who count him as a man notorious for his homosexual appetites. I have yet to see substantial evidence to the contrary on that count--though it must be admitted that the perverse promiscuity of courtly life in the 14th century was hardly unique to the palace at Westminster. As Barbara Tuchman famously pointed out, those raucous days were in fact, a kind of "distant mirror" to our own.

As for the "freedom" issue, it is commonly understood that Bannockburn paved the way for the Declaration of Arbroath, which in turn went a long way toward articulating not only Scottish independence but the principles of covenantal and personal liberty that would later flower in the West.

Kathryn Warner said...

Hi George,
Thanks for answering. I do agree that Bannockburn was a very decisive battle in the Scottish Wars and paved the way for later events, as you say - I just wouldn't go as far as to say that 'Scotland was free' because of the battle. As England hadn't been ruling Scotland prior to the battle, I don't see how the country could have become 'free' afterwards. Free from whom? And I do wonder how relevant Bannockburn really was, short- and long-term, to the people of Scotland - apart from the joy of winning a great victory over an English army, of course. :-)

As for Edward's sexuality and attitudes towards it, I don't have the space to go into all that here. It was all infinitely more complex than it's usually portrayed in modern times. Far from being some kind of gay icon, Edward fathered an illegitimate son and was accused by a chronicle of 1325 of having an affair with his own niece. There's no direct evidence that his male favourites were indeed his lovers (though they probably were), and as for the accusations of sodomy made against him - these were common political accusations in the early 14C, also aimed at the Knights Templar and the Pope. Plus, what did 'sodomy' mean then, anyway? It had a myriad of meanings.

And I'd also like to ask: even if Edward was homosexual - which is itself a modern understanding of sexuality, as are heterosexual and bisexual, not medieval - why did this make him 'effeminate'? Edward was famously interested in outdoor activities such as rowing, swimming, thatching, digging, wall-building, etc etc. All the contemporary 14C chronicles agree that he was a big, strong, fit and healthy man. All modern historians agree that he was a big, strong, fit and healthy man. 'Effeminate' was one thing he most emphatically was not.

gileskirk said...

Alianore: Your point about the differences between what it means to be "homosexual" in our day and what it meant to be a "sodomite" in Edward's day is precisely what I was trying to say when I mentioned "the perverse promiscuity of courtly life in the 14th century." There was an almost omnisexual appetite expected of the the rich, powerful, and well-placed in that day (though again, Tuchman's "distant mirror" idea remains apt degree if not in definition). As far as my use of the description "effeminate," I certainly was not implying that Edward was weak or frail, but rather that his sexual proclivities compromised his strength and undermined his "pose" as a "warrior-king." I do not mean to imply that he was "gay" in the modern sense. Not in the least.

In terms of the "actual" effect of Bannockburn, I suppose I would make the same argument for it that other historians have made for the Battle of New Orleans at the end of the War of 1812. The fact that the peace treaty had already been signed and the war was actually over meant that technically the battle was a meaningless loss of life and a waste of effort. In fact though, it proved to be a turning point in Anglo-American relations and a symbol around which the entire age (later known as the Age of Jackson) turned. Bannockburn had that kind of emotional, symbolic value. Thus, its significance cannot be measured in simple geo-political or military-strategic terms.

I would argue that it was, like the Battle of Tours, the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Gettysburg, and the Battle of Nations, one of those rare instances when the paradigm shift of worldview far outweighed the actual outcome on the field.