ROBERT THE BRUCE AND BANNOCKBURN
The Battle of Bannockburn, fought in 1314 on the outskirts of Stirling, when Edward II and his army were soundly defeated and sent home to England, is perceived by many Scots, as one of the greatest achievements in Scottish history. Historians, however, have questioned whether this battle actually achieved anything and some have even argued that to have fought it at all, was a mistake. Did Bannockburn have any long-term influence on the claim of English Overlordship, the civil war against King John and his supporters, or on the rise of a Scottish national identity? In 1314 only Stirling, Bothwell and Berwick Castles were still held in English hands and it has been suggested that Stirling as a fortress, at this point was really only symbolic rather than of strategic importance.
Until Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce had never faced the English in a pitched battle, in fact, he had always avoided one. His highly successful tactics were those of Wallace and Moray – hit and run, scorched earth and the dismantling of any castles he captured. That he chose to fight this battle, not part of his usual military strategy, seems to have been a battlefield decision in which he took advantage of his superior position on the field and thereby achieved victory. This confirmed his military prowess not only in guerrilla warfare, but also on the battlefield. Bruce had claimed the throne through a coup détat and had been crowned at Scone in 1306, 6 weeks after he had murdered John “Red” Comyn, one of his chief rivals. By committing this murder in a church, Bruce had been excommunicated. Despite this, however, by defeating the English in battle Bruce proved, in the eyes of the Scots, that God, who favoured the “just cause”, had granted him victory and was therefore on his side. Bruce had shown himself to be capable of holding Scotland by military might. Given the papal refusal to lift the excommunication as well as to grant coronation rights, particularly that of anointing, the importance the Scots placed on the victory should not be underestimated. After the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert I, with God on his side, was now in complete control of the authority of the realm. Intense wealth for Scotland resulted from the battle. The amount from the battlefield, baggage train and Stirling Castle alone was estimated at £200,000 and the sums received from prisoner ransoms were said to be incalculable. In terms of the immediate impact, Robert I had secured his position as king, he was now seen as God’s anointed. He had defeated the English on the battlefield as well as by using guerrilla tactics, and he had brought civil war to an end.
What of the English? Edward II had rather reluctantly answered a call to arms to relieve Stirling Castle. However, in doing so he had sustained a humiliating defeat and as a result had lost much of his credibility at home. This must have played a large part in his own political and financial problems, and together with the rise of Queen Isabella and her lover, Mortimer, must be taken into account when considering the reasons behind Edward II’s own abdication. Although defeat at Bannockburn engendered considerable shock and a desire for revenge in England, this one battle did not change the major issues. England did not retract their claims of Overlordship of Scotland, nor did they recognise Scotland’s independence. Bannockburn did not change the balance of power between the two countries, England was still the stronger, but an impasse had been reached. The English withdrew to the south, their stronghold, and therefore out of reach of the Scots. It was 1319 before Edward II again brought an army to Scotland. The English defeat at Bannockburn did, however, bring about a change in English military tactics particularly in the use of archers, which contributed to the devastating defeats of the Scots by the English at Dupplin (1332), Hallidon Hill (1333) and Neville’s Cross (1346). The English withdrawal south also had a considerable impact on the north of England as the Scots continued to keep up military pressure on Edward II by raiding and plundering the now defenceless north.
Given exceptions such as the Douglases, Murrays and William Wallace, it has been suggested that in the early 14th century there was a Scottish national identity starting to develop. Scots were starting to focus on the Kingdom not the King. Undoubtedly, however, after Bannockburn a new nationalist theory had developed which resulted in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, the idea being that Kingdoms were independent and a King was there to defend it. But in Bruce’s bid for the throne his motives were neither “national” nor “nationalist” but rather had become enmeshed with concepts of a national identity along the way. Originally his motives were motivated by a number of issues – acquisitiveness, self-preservation and revenge. Scotland, however, had suffered greatly in the struggle for control of the throne and undoubtedly after Bannockburn attitudes had changed and the concept of loyalty to the Kingdom had overtaken that of loyalty to the King as evidenced by the Declaration of Arbroath.
In terms of the immediate impact and influence on Edward III and England, the Battle of Bannockburn had no effect on the major issues of Overlordship and recognition of Scottish Independence or on the balance of power between the two countries. In the longer term, forfeiture of lands created in the Disinherited, a political pressure group directly responsible for re-opening the Bruce/Baliol civil war in 1332, and the major Scots defeats at Hallidon Hill and Dupplin, re-fuelled Edward III’s claim of Overlordship. Bannockburn ensured the kingship of Robert I, who was now seen as a warrior king, supported by God, who had proved himself capable of dealing with the English. It had also brought about the cessation of the civil war in Scotland. Robert I now used land grants from the forfeited estates to control Scotland by the rule of “divide and conquer” thus ensuring the continued loyalty of his supporters. The impact of these grants on the balance of power between the Scottish nobles and the Scottish Crown cannot be over-estimated. They affected Scottish history for the next 100 years. Having secured the country from the English and now under a strong king, Scotland determined, that the good of the “Nation” and its dependents was paramount, not the political and personal ambitions of powerful men and kings. Whether influenced by self-interest or otherwise, after Bannockburn, the concept of a Scottish national identity had taken a step forward. It is not suggested, however, that other issues, such as the attitudes of the Papacy or Robert I’s ambitions were unaffected by Bannockburn.
Not only did the Battle of Bannockburn have a significant impact on the course of the civil war in Scotland, the most immediate impact in the longer term, was the chain of events set in motion by the redistribution of land grants. This cannot be over-estimated. In addition, what had been a rather fragile concept of a “national identity” took on a much more solid form after Bannockburn. It could, therefore, be said that the impact and influences of the Battle of Bannockburn were of profound significance in the unfolding of Scottish history.