Stirling Castle has changed beyond recognition since it formed the backdrop to one of the most famous battles in British history. Nothing now remains above ground of its buildings as they were in 1314. But even today, a simple look from the castle ramparts brings home just how crucial the place was for control of the country. Guarding an important crossing on a major river, Stirling was one of the most strategically important sites in medieval Scotland.
Robert I, better known as Robert the Bruce, had been fighting to rid his kingdom of enemies, foreign and domestic, since seizing the throne in 1306. By the time of Bannockburn, he had managed to bring most of the kingdom under his control. Bruce surely hoped to retake Stirling without a major confrontation. But with the English king, Edward II, marching his army north, it seemed almost inevitable that the two forces would meet in pitched battle. This was something Bruce had been careful to avoid.
We don’t know the exact size of the opposing armies who met on 23 and 24 June 1314. The best estimates suggest that Bruce’s forces were made up of around 6,000 infantry and spears, with only a few heavy horse. The English army, by contrast, had nearly 3,000 cavalry, around 14,000 infantry and 2,000 archers. The day was not going to be won for the Scots by weight of numbers.
Nor can we pinpoint the precise location of the battle. Archaeological evidence is limited and we have to rely on written accounts, which are often unreliable at best. The main Scottish source is The Bruce, an epic poem by John Barbour, which wasn’t written until 60 years after the battle.
Sources do seem to agree that the landscape played a key part in Bruce’s victory. The terrain was not suited to the cavalry charge usually deployed by the English. The cavalry’s manoeuvres were limited, so the English infantry could not get through to engage the Scots forces.
Bruce’s tactics also reduced the effectiveness of the English cavalry. The Scottish king organised his forces into schiltrons. These were hedgehog-like formations of spearmen, designed to resist cavalry charges. William Wallace had used similar formations at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.
Unlike Wallace, Bruce kept his schiltrons mobile, allowing them to respond to attacks more effectively. Significantly, Bruce was also popular with his troops. By contrast, Edward II was only just recovering from a period of strong opposition from his lords. He had also appointed an experienced military commander, the 8th Earl of Gloucester, to lead some of his forces. But rather than follow the earl’s advice, Edward accused him of cowardice, and insisted on a cavalry charge before the English archers could unleash their full power on the Scots.
We have no definite statistics regarding casualties, and no skeleton of a Bannockburn victim has ever been positively identified. The closest we have to a Bannockburn soldier is the male skeleton recovered during excavations at Stirling Castle. Radiocarbon dating places him in the 1200s or 1300s. There is no evidence to place him at the battle, but he had certainly sustained wounds in his lifetime of a kind suffered by those on the field.
Everyone knows that the Scots emerged victorious from Bannockburn, so they probably suffered fewer casualties than the English. But while Bruce won the day, he hadn’t yet won the war. It may have been a different story if he’d been able to capture Edward II before he fled to England: the English king would have been a valuable hostage.
As it was, it would be another 14 years before the English acknowledged Bruce as king of Scots. And the peace agreed in 1328 was short-lived. Bruce died in in 1329, and in 1332, war broke out again, with Edward III supporting a rival claimant to the Scottish throne. The Wars of Independence would continue for a further 25 gruelling years.
Dr Nicki Scott
Cultural Resources Advisor