Archive for the ‘Bannockburn’ Category

It was a hot and muggy July in 1314 at Stirling Castle on the eastern coast of Scotland. Good King Robert, the Bruce, had just won a great victory at Blàr Allt a’ Bhonnaich  or the Battle of Bannockburn, sending England’s Edward II, his pride and his army crushed, home to think again. But at Stirling Castle within sight of the battleground, midges swarmed around hundreds of men, sweat-drenched as they tunneled under the walls and fired the supports. Great billows of smoke rose in columns. Walls and towers crashed to the ground.

Well, that’s how I imagine it anyway.

It was not the English who were destroying the huge Scottish castle which had surrendered to the Scots on June 25, the day after the battle. The English needed castles to try to control the Scottish countryside and its stubbornly independent people. Instead, King Robert the Bruce was slighting the last of the great Scottish castles as he had been doing for the past six years. There was only one way to deny the English those strongholds. Destroy them. (Slight is used in the old sense of “to level with the ground” and is the common term for leveling a castle)

The English built the great castles of Wales to suppress the Welsh people. Scotland already had great castles such as Berwick, Stirling, Edinburgh and Roxburgh which the English could use for that purpose. The early days of the Scottish War of Independence had proven to King Robert that he could not hope to hold the castles against the overwhelming numbers the English could bring against him. The English needed castles them to hold Scotland. The Scots didn’t. It was their home.

The Scots fought a different kind of war as explained in a famous verse called Good King Robert’s Testament:

On foot should be all Scottish war.

Let hill and marsh their foes debar

And woods as walls prove such an arm

That enemies do them no harm.

In hidden spots keep every store

And burn the plainlands them before,

So, when they find the land lie waste

Needs must they pass away in haste

Harried by cunning raids at night

And threatening sounds from every height.

Then, as they leave, with great array

Smite with the sword and chase away.

This is the counsel and intent

Of Good King Robert’s Testament

Earlier in 1314, Sir James Douglas, Lord of Douglas had captured Roxburgh Castle, one of the largest in Scotland, after one of his infamous sneak attacks, and the king sent his brother with an entire army to slight it. Not wishing Douglas to get one up on him, for they were well-known for competing with each other, Sir Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, captured Edinburgh Castle which was also promptly slighted on King Robert’s command.

However, this wasn’t new, but a longstanding policy of King Robert’s. The first of the castles that I know of to be destroyed was James Douglas’s own Douglas Castle which Douglas first burned, probably in 1307, and then completely slighted a year later after the English had rebuilt it.

This policy became a fixture. In the north of Scotland, castles could be strongholds for King Robert’s domestic enemies, the Comyns and their allies, so those were destroyed. In the south of Scotland,  castles were essential to English war policy. That was where most of the great royal castles were and capturing them took much longer. But captured they were, one by one. After the Battle of Bannockburn, only Berwick Castle remained standing until 1318.

By the end of 1314, Scotland, in effect, was a kingdom without castles.


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About J.R. Tomlin:

 

Born in the US, in Texas to be specific, to a Scottish father and American mother, J. R. grew up spending time both in Texas and Scotland, mainly in  Edinburgh where her grandparents lived. Her first memory of writing is a poem in the second grade, and she long had an ambition to be a poet, which was given up when she realized that her poetry was pretty bad. Instead she went into journalism. She attended the University of Texas at Austin and now lives in the rainier clime of the US Pacific North West. Her historical novels of Scotland include Freedom’s Sword and A Kingdom’s Cost.

 

 

 

 

The first Valentine’s Day thoughts, as we know them weren’t sent until hundreds of years after the death of the Good Sir James.  Nonetheless, it seemed a good title for a piece on how James spent February 14, 1316.

He spent it fighting what he later called the hardest fight of his life, the battle of Skaithmuir (SKAY-mur), near Coldstream in the Borders region of Scotland.  It becomes a scene in The Minstrel Boy, Book 2 of the Blue Bells Trilogy.

Setting the stage for Coldstream, we’d have to back up to 1286, the year when Alexander III ended his peaceful reign over what many see as a golden age of Scotland, by dying without a clear heir.  (Ironically, as if an author had foreshadowed James’s destiny, James was that same year.)  Into this void stepped Edward I of England, claiming his right to be overlord of Scotland.  On March 30, 1296, after his failed attempt to rule Scotland through a puppet-king, John Baliol, who didn’t dance on his strings quite the way he’d expected, Edward attacked Berwick, thus launching the revolts led by William Wallace.  This fight against the English invasion culminated, or should have culminated, in the great Battle of Bannockburn on June 24, 1316, in which Robert the Bruce’s small army routed the much larger might of England. 

It was not the culmination because, although Edward II failed to inherit his father’s military skill, he more than made up for it with a double dose of the stubborn gene.  Though soundingly and humiliatingly defeated, he refused to give a peace treaty agreeing to Scotland’s very mild terms which were, essentially, to acknowledge Scotland as the independent nation it always had been, and Bruce as her rightful king.  In short, a promise to leave Scotland alone.

Thus, the First Wars of Scottish Independence continued. 

Scotland, lacking the wealth and large armies of England, chose instead to launch a series of guerilla-style strikes into Northumbria.  These raids, led most often by the Good Sir James (or The Black Douglasas the English called him) and Bruce’s nephew, Thomas Randolph, the Earl of Moray, served the dual purpose of harrying England into accepting a peace treaty and collecting money to fund the continued fight, which Edward II’s refusal to treat made necessary. 

In the winter of 1315-1316, Douglas besieged Berwick, still held by the English.  Heavy rains the previous spring and summer had already led to the beginning of the Great European Famine.  Throw in a little siege, and Maurice de Berkeley, the commander of Berwick, was reduced to begging Edward II for help by October 1315.  Few rations could get through the Scots’ blockade, however.

Finally, on February 14, 1316, a company of Gascon soldiers decided they would go get food for themselves.  Under the leadership of a Gascon noble, the knight Sir Edmund Caillhau (or Raymond,  in many sources), this company ventured into the rolling farmland along the River Teviot.  They spread out, looking for cattle. 

One Sir Adam Gordon saw some of them and raced to Douglas to report that there were a few cattle raiders out and about.  Douglas accepted the report and went to intercept them.  Instead of a few cattle raiders, he found a host of well-armed fighting men. 

There are relatively few accounts of this battle to be found on the internet.  The most detailed account I have found comes from David R. Ross’s wonderful book James the Good: The Black Douglas.  He reports that the incident happened at Skaithmuir (SKAY-mur) a few miles north of Coldstream.  Douglas came upon Caillhau’s brigade in the flat, open country of the Merse, perfect for cavalry, but with no natural defenses.  Just the sort of situation James Douglas typically avoided. 

With only seconds to decide whether to retreat or attack, he made the decision he would not run on Scottish soil, on his own marches, of which he was warden.  His men were seasoned fighters, having spent the previous ten years and more fighting the English, and he had great faith in them.  He stationed his men behind a small ford before unfurling his famous white banner with the blue band and three white stars, signalling his intent to fight.

The Gascons charged.  They no doubt expected to easily overcome this small group.  John Barbour, in The Brus, tells about the fight:

The Scotsmen bravely fought them back
There one could see a cruel fight.

And strokes exchanged with all their might

The Douglas there was full hard pressed

But the great valor he possessed

So lent his men courageousness

That no man thought on cowardice.

The Border Magazine, Volume 12, 1907, adds the picturesque touch that old tales say so much blood was shed in the battle that the river ran red for three days afterward. (The author of the piece seems to doubt it, but it is interesting that such stories would continue for centuries.)

John Barbour, interviewing men who knew Douglas, says Douglas later called it the hardest battle he ever fought.  But, like Bannockburn, it resulted in sound defeat for the larger English force with amazingly few losses at all on the Scots’ side.  Douglas himself fought his way to, and killed, Caillhau.  With their leader dead, the Gascons lost heart, and were quickly beaten.  James himself learned a lesson from this, and from that time on, always went for the leader of the opposing armies. 

Most reports on Skaithmuir say there are no records of the size of James Douglas’s force, except that it was significantly smaller.  David R. Ross says that Caillhau had 80 to Douglas’s 40.   Maurice de Berkeley reported four days after the event that twenty men-at-arms and sixty foot soldiers were missing.

In the wake of Skaithmuir, James Douglas disappeared back into the Ettrick Forest, but afterwards, the tale was told by Englishmen of how he fought and won against overwhelming odds, and he was spoken of with awe. 

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sir James!