The Background to the Battle of Bannockburn 1314 and for Scottish History


The Battle of Bannockburn 1314 is frequently mentioned in the Scottish Independence debate. Indeed there is a major celebration to mark its 700th anniversary this year.  While most people know of the battle as a defining moment in Scottish history few know anything at all about the general  background to this important event. Bannockburn was the decisive encounter in the Wars of Independence which themselves were the greatest crisis in Scottish history. Marking as they do  the ending of many previous historical and social developments and the beginning of many others. It is simply not possible to imagine the course of Scottish history if this crisis triggered by the death of Alexander III in 1286 had not occurred.

The Battle of Bannockburn fought over the 23rd to the 24th June 1314 should  be seen as very much the exception to the rule of a war marked by manoeuvre , guerrilla tactics and small-scale engagements. It was essentially caused by the Anglo-Norman leadership of the invading English army positioning themselves in a hopeless tactical position on their arrival before Stirling on the day before the main battle on the 23rd June. Prior to this it had been the intention of King Robert the Bruce (I) to withdraw before the powerful army advancing on Stirling as had been the custom of most Scottish leaders since the beginning of the war in 1296 when there had been an initial series of three battles; Dunbar in that year when the Royal army of Scotland was routed and King John Baliol captured by Edward I. William Wallace and Andrew Moray’s great victory the following year in 1297 at Stirling Bridge and William Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk in 1298. Since then Scottish leaders including Robert Bruce had studiously avoided pitched battles until the extraordinary chance fell to Robert Bruce before the fortress of Stirling in 1314. To appreciate the reasons for this and for the nature of the actual battle it is necessary to understand the type of  terrain surrounding Stirling and the tremendous importance of the fortress because of this. Before the area surrounding Stirling was drained during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was heavily water-logged with extensive marsh lands inter spaced  by large areas of dense woodland. Contemporaries described it as being practically like an island with one old Roman road running through the passable terrain making it the only practical land route to the lands north of the Forth estuary. Hence its critical importance for the control of Scotland in this period..

The second reason that brought the battle about was the unwise decision by Robert Bruce’s brother Edward to offer an agreement to the Governor of Stirling castle that if the castle was not relieved from his siege by mid-summers day 1314 that it would be surrendered to Edward Bruce . As Stirling was the last major fortress left in English hands in Scotland this was bound to provoke even the lethargic and distracted Edward II to attempt its relieve it and this is what duly happened leading to the of the Battle of Bannockburn on the 23rd and 24th June 1314.