A battle which begins with the Oath of the Swans and ends with a full commitment to guerrilla tactics: this is the Battle of Methven, a disaster in the short run for Robert the Bruce, but perhaps a learning experience for him that eventually led to much greater disaster for England.
On February 10, 1306, Bruce killed John Comynbefore the altar of Greyfriars Kirk. (To be absolutely accurate, he struck the first blow, but his followers went in to finish the job.) In a race against time, he sped to Scone to be crowned King of Scots before messengers could reach the Pope and the Pope’s ex-communication decree could reach Scotland. This was vital, as an ex-communicated man could not be crowned King. Thirteen days after the event, word of the murder reached Edward I at Winchester.
Within two months, on April 5, 1306, Edward I, now 67 years old, suffering partial loss of use of his limbs, and unable to lead his army himself, appointed Aymer de Valence, a major English player in the Wars of Independence and later Earl of Pembroke, as his representative, with full powers, to Scotland, including the power to ‘raise the Dragon Banner.’ The dreaded raising of the Dragon Banner meant that no quarter would be given.
On May 20, Edward held a banquet at Westminster, in which two decorated swans were served to the King and 250 new knights, including the Prince of Wales. Edward vowed ‘by the God of Heaven and these swans’ to avenge the death of John Comyn, and what he called the treachery of the Scots. Each of the 250 new knights took a similar oath. (A note here that other sources put the number at 300 new knights.)
By summer, de Valence had his army in Perth, north of Stirling and Edinburgh, where friends of the murdered John Comyn joined him in waiting for Bruce to come from the west. When Bruce arrived with 4,500 men, still ready to fight by conventional standards, he challenged Valence to battle. Valence refused, saying the night was too far gone, but that they would fight in the morning.
Bruce took his army several miles away to the woods of Methven to camp for the night. Valence, however, had not planned on meeting Bruce in conventional battle, and what happened next can only be accounted for by Bruce implicitly trusting the word of his enemy that battle would occur the next morning. Rather, before dawn on June 19, he attacked Bruce’s camp. (History of Scotland, published in 1841 by Patrick Fraser Tytler, reports that Valence attacked in the evening while Bruce’s men were making their dinner.)
Valence’s army, according to Tytler, outnumbered Bruce’s by 1,500. Other sources state that it was the Scots who outnumbered the English by that number. The battle was nearly a rout from the start. Bruce went straight for Valence, killing his horse, but afterward, was unhorsed three times himself, and nearly captured by Philip de Mowbray. Sir Christopher Seton, Bruce’s brother-in-law, felled de Mowbray, and got Bruce back on his horse, thus saving his life.
The men rode from the field, to Loch Doon Castle. There, the commanding governor, Gilbert de Carrick, handed Seton over to the English. Christopher Seton, like many Scots in the aftermath of Methven, was hanged, drawn, and quartered.
Bruce and his brother Edward, the Earl of Atholl, James Douglas, Gilbert de la Haye, the historical Niel (or Nigel) Campbell (as opposed to Niall Campbell of The Blue Bells Trilogy), Sir William de Barondoun, and some 500 men escaped. Many of Bruce’s close friends and loyal followers were not so fortunate. Sir David Berklay, Sir Hugh de la Haye, Sir Alexander Fraser, Sir John de Somerville, Sir David Inchmartin, and Thomas Randolph, Bruce’s nephew, were all captured. Despite orders from Edward to execute them all immediately, Valence did not do so. Thomas Randolph was pardoned and for a time deserted Bruce. (He would later return to Bruce’s peace and become one of the heroes of Bannockburn, fighting for the Scots.)
Bishops Lamberton and Wishart, the great Scots patriots and fighting prelates, were seized after this battle, and taken to England in chains. Their status in the Church saved them from hanging.
Bruce himself fled into the Highlands. One source says they were guided by monks sent by Abbot Maurice of the Inchaffray Abbey. For a time, he and his few surviving followers were reduced to living in the caves of Deeside, Atholl, Breadalbane, and Argyll, finally making their way to Rathlin Island, where the story continues.
Methven was one of Bruce’s first battles as King of the Scots, occurring just three months after his crowning at Scone. It was perhaps the most disastrous of his career, and a great encouragement in future to use William Wallace’s methods of warfare, what we now call guerrilla warfare. He succeeded from that time in fighting the English with ambushes, surprise attacks, scorched earth policies, and destroying enemy strongholds–and avoiding pitched battle until the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.