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  The Strategy and Tactics of the Scottish Armies 1296-1314  

The Struggle for Independence (1286-1329) - Summary

Ewan J. Innes, MA(Hons Scot. Hist.) FSA Scot


Synopsis:  This essay is a short summary of the period from 1286 to 1329.

Please see my copyright policy if you wish to cite any part of this essay.

With the death of Alexander III, in 1286, his Granddaughter Margaret 'The Maid of Norway' who had been acknowledged as Alexander's heir in 1284, became Queen of Scots.

In her absence six Guardians were appointed to rule in her name. However Robert Bruce , Lord of Annandale (who asserted that Alexander II before the birth of Alexander III had recognised him as next in line to the Throne of Scotland.)was stirring up trouble in the South West in support of his claim.

In May 1289 Eric of Norway sent Ambassadors to England in order to discuss the position of Margaret as Queen of Scotland. In October Edward asked the Guardians to send representatives to join the discussions which were to lead to the signing of a Treaty - the Treaty of Salisbury - in November 1289.

The treaty provided security for Margaret in England until the trouble within Scotland had died down and it was safe for Margaret to live there.There were many references within the treaty to Margaret being 'free of Contract of Marriage' in order for the treaty to be binding.However unknown to the Scots Edward had already applied to the Pope for dispensation for the marriage of his son Edward (later Edward II) to marry Margaret, the dispensation being granted only ten days after the signing of the treaty of Salisbury.

This was to lead to a new treaty which was signed in the July of 1290 and would seem to be a move towards greater union between Scotland and England.The treaty guaranteed the 'rights, laws and liberties of the Kingdom of Scotland'. However Margaret never reached her Kingdom as she died either in or en route to the Orkney Islands. This led to a serious problem as the decision in 1284 had never looked beyond Margaret. Who was now the rightful claimant to the Throne?

Robert Bruce clearly thought that he should be and so he marched to Perth with a large following to put his case. The Earls of Mar and Atholl were also collecting their forces and it was beginning to look as if Civil war might be breaking out. All of these happenings were reported to Edward in a letter sent by the Bishop of St. Andrews. In the letter he also dropped some hints as to John Balliol's suitability as King especially as he would be likely to follow Edward's counsel.

The Magnates of Scotland were unable to decide the succession to the Throne and asked Edward for help. Edward subsequently asked the Scots to meet him at Norham on 10th May 1291 and his Northern levies to meet at Norham on 3rd June. When the Scots assembled they were informed that Edward as the 'Superior and Lord paramount of the Kingdom of Scotland' had come to do Justice to all. However before he could do this there was one small problem. The Scots had first to recognise his position.

The Scots were taken by surprise and were granted an adjournment to 2nd June. The Scots' reply was simply that they had never heard of such a claim and they could not accept Edward's claim as they had no King.

The Scots were however forced to acknowledge Edward's claim and by the 6th June 13 'competitors' had acknowledged Edward's claim and agreed to stand by his decision. In the end there were only three main contenders for the Throne (Balliol, Bruce and Hastings) even after a year's postponement due to a claim which would have ruled out all three competitors. The claim was however discounted. The decision in favour of Balliol was made with reference to the direct line of descent from Earl David of Huntingdon even although Balliol was one 'further back' in line than Bruce.

Balliol was crowned in November 1292 and one of his first acts was to release Edward from all promises made to the people of Scotland. This included the safeguarding treaty of Brigham.The result of this was that Scotland was now declared a vassal state.

Events began to move to a crisis when Edward demanded military service from Scotland in order to supplement his army preparing for the defence of Gascony. Balliol was faced with an impossible dilemma. On the one hand he had the stiffening opposition of the people of Scotland to Edward's overlordship while on the other hand he faced the wrath of Edward. In the end Balliol refused and arranged an alliance with Philip of France, Edward's enemy.

Faced with this opposition, Edward marched North in 1296 in order to remedy the situation. The Scottish leaders - without Balliol - gathered their forces to meet him. Edward entered Scotland on the 28th of March and took Berwick by storm on the 30th. The Scottish army was then utterly defeated at Dunbar on the 27th of April.

Edward then marched throughout Scotland in a massive show of strength and received Balliol's abdication on July 10th. He then carried on in his march through Scotland during which he removed both the 'Stone of Destiny' and the 'Black Rood' , from Scone and Edinburgh respectively, and took them South to Westminster.

During the winter of 1296 there were isolated outbreaks of trouble in Ross, Argyll, Moray and Aberdeen. The trouble slowly escalated during the Spring and by the Summer the country was in a state of turmoil. Even though a Scottish Force, under the joint leadership of the Earl of Carrick, Robert Bruce and James Douglas, had capitulated at Irvine, in the face of a superior English force, the risings still grew. It was becoming clear that the risings were part of a national resistance under the leadership of William Wallace and Andrew de Moray. Soon most of the country north of the Forth was in Scottish hands.

Edward refused to believe the reports coming from his commanders in Scotland, and sailed to France in August 1297, leaving Sir Hugh Cressingham to take command.

Cressingham knew that he had to take action and marched North with a large force. He reached the Forth at Stirling intending to cross but found a force under Wallace and Moray drawn up on the foothills on the other side of the narrow wooden bridge. The English determined to attack. Their men however could only cross two or three abreast. Wallace waited until as many were across the bridge as he thought that he could overcome before giving the order to attack. The result was a glorious victory for the Scots, as those who had crossed were cut off from those behind and were unable to deploy. Cressingham was killed during the skirmish, the English foot on the other side fled, and Stirling castle surrendered to the Scots. Soon the Scots, flush from their success, were over the border raiding England.

The only sad news for the Scots was that Moray was mortally wounded during the battle and died soon after leaving Wallace in command fighting in the name of Balliol. This fact meant that he lacked the support of Bruce and his supporters, as well as those who felt that Balliol was not worth fighting for. Many of the great men in Scotland felt aloof from Wallace as he was only a 'landed Laird'.

The Scots were deserted in January 1298 when Philip of France signed a peace treaty with Edward. Edward could now turn his attention to crushing the Scottish bid for freedom. Edward was back in Scotland by the beginning of July with a large army but with a lack of supplies and with a mutiny in the Welsh ranks looking very likely. These facts may explain the fact that the Scots did not retire using guerrilla tactics but decided to face Edward at Falkirk - only to suffer a disastrous defeat at the hands of Edward's Welsh archers (as it was they who broke up the Schiltrons which had halted the first charge by Edwards Knights.) The Knights were now able to ride in on the Scots and win the day. Falkirk was never a rout, as has been stated, because the Scots stood their ground until they were destroyed.

Edwards subsequent campaign was ineffective and Scotland was still in revolt and unconquered. In the December of that year Wallace resigned as Guardian and his place was taken by two magnates, Robert Bruce Earl of Carrick and John Comyn, the 'Red Comyn', Lord of Badenoch.

After a quarrel in which Comyn seized Bruce by the throat, William de Lamberton was appointed principle guardian. Bruce, who could obviously see that he could not advance his claim to the throne in the face of opposition from Comyn, resigned his position as Guardian and sought Edward's peace, his place being taken by Ingram de Umfraville.

English control was limited to the Lothians and the Borders, and Edward pursued many campaigns in 1300,1301 and 1303 in an attempt to increase his hold over Scotland. The later invasion being reminiscent of his invasion of 1296.

In March 1304 he held a Scottish Parliament at St. Andrews at which most of the Scottish nobility gave their oath of allegiance. At last, in May 1305 Edward captured William Wallace who had been betrayed. Wallace was tried in August and executed as a traitor to a king to whom he had never acknowledged. Edward then approved legislation for a new government of Scotland and, given time, all would be well.

Time however was one thing not given to Edward, as on 10th February 1306 Robert Bruce and his companions slew the Red Comyn in the Franciscan church in Dumfries. Events were now hastened and Bruce was crowned on 25th March. Things were far from rosy for the new king as he now had not only Edward to face but also the feud of the Comyns and their kin to deal with. He was also excommunicated for sacrilege by the pope.

His first tests ended in disaster at Methven and again at Tyndrum. Bruce found refuge in Dunaverty castle for a while but then he disappeared for four and a half months. Bruce's wife and daughters were captured and imprisoned. Other supporters were hanged, including his brother Nigel.

Edward, old and ill, was determined to defeat the Scots once and for all and was carried North on a litter until he reached Carlisle. Due to illness he remained there for six months.

Bruce returned to Scotland in February 1307 and return to his own lands in Carrick. Bruce was forced to head for the hills after his brothers were defeated and executed. However he did maul an English force in Glentrool (May) and then again defeated an English force at Loudon Hill. After these reverses Edward determined to lead his army in person, but he died at Burgh-on-sands on 7th July 1307. His son was no worthy successor of 'The Hammer of the Scots'.

Edward II returned his father's body-against instructions-south and then made a futile advance north before returning south himself. This gave Bruce the chance he needed to defeat his personal enemies and deprived those enemies of English help.

Over the winter of 1307-08 the Comyns were finally defeated and their power broken. Bruce then turned his attention to the South West and with the help of Douglas defeated John of Lorne. Edward Bruce completed the pacification of Galloway over the winter of 1308-9.

Bruce was now secure from attack from his personal enemies and could turn his attention to winning back his kingdom from the grasp of England. He now had the support of the north after helping to take the castles that dominated the area. His support was growing with every new success. This is shown by the fact that Bruce felt able to hold a Parliament in St. Andrews. Scotland north of the Tay was now clear of English troops bar Dundee and Banff while between the Tay and the Firths of Forth and Clyde only Stirling and Perth held out as they could be supplied by sea.

Edward II was unable to pay any attention to Scotland as he was embroiled in domestic problems, and so one by one the castles fell into the hands of the Scots.Each was then razed to the ground in order to prevent them falling into English hands. Edward led a unhappy English force into Scotland but the venture was a fiasco due to bad weather and lack of supplies. Bruce retaliated with a raid into Durham.

Edward's domestic problems came to a head in 1312 when his favourite Piers Gaveston was seized and hanged. With these problems, the north of England was left to the mercy of the Scots. Consequently the north had to buy a truce with Bruce.

Bruce did not however let this take precedence over the matters in hand in Scotland and during 1313 the castles of Perth, Roxburgh, Dumfries and Edinburgh were taken. This left Stirling as the only main Castle in Scotland still in English hands. Edward Bruce made an agreement with the Governor of Stirling castle that the castle would be given up by Midsummer Day unless he was relieved.

This agreement was a foolish action as it gave the English a chance to regain their pride and meant that Bruce would have to face Edward in pitched battle which would bring him face to face with the military might England.

Edward led his army of some 20,000 men including 3,000 heavy cavalry north. The Scots, some 7,000 strong, were already in position in front of Stirling to bar the way. The English spent the night of 23rd June in the wet and marshy conditions of the carse, after a small engagement during the day which the Scots won. The next morning saw the Scots advancing into the attack with the Scots pikemen on foot facing the English cavalry.The English could not manoeuvre in the marshy conditions and the day ended in a complete rout of the English.

The victory at Bannockburn secured Independence for the Scots and also established Bruce as the undisputed king of Scots.The king now set about guaranteeing his security and passed a sentence of forfeiture on those who had fought for England in the previous years and who now did not declare their loyalty to the King.

His next task was to resolve the question of succession to the throne. Bruce had no heir as yet and due to the struggle with England there was no question of his daughter Marjorie succeeding to the throne.The kingship was to be passed to the heirs of Edward Bruce, the lesson of 1291 was not to be forgotten. However Edward Bruce was killed fighting in Ireland in 1318 and left no lawful heir and so the succession passed to Marjorie's son Robert.

The next step was to get recognition from the Pope and from England of Robert I kingship. This led to the Barons' letter to the Pope (the 'Declaration of Arbroath') which made Bruce's position in relation to his people very clear. For it is here that the Barons proclaimed that they fought "not for glory, or riches or honours but only for liberty, which no true man would yield save with his life". Edward II made a failed attempt to invade Scotland which resulted in the Scots retaking Berwick and penetrating as far south as York.

The Scots concluded a new pact with France which, along with increased tension between France and England, and a French Pope ensured that papal support of England's claims over Scotland would be lukewarm.With the abdication of Edward, and the succession of his Queen and her lover, the loss of Scotland was completed with the failure of a campaign against seasoned Scots which almost succeeded in the loss of Edward III. Isabella (Queen of England) then sued for peace, the terms being concluded with a dying Bruce in Holyrood Palace and the Treaty confirmed at Northampton in May 1328.

The Pope finally released Bruce from his Excommunication in October 1328. Moreover he issued a papal Bull on 13th June 1329 authorising Robert I and his successors to be crowned and anointed as Kings of Scotland.

Bruce who had, as stated in the 'Declaration of Arbroath', " cheerfully endured all manner of toil, fatigue, hardship and hazard that he might deliver his people and his heritage from the hands of enemies" had died at Cardross of Leprosy a week earlier, and never knew of the final recognition of his Kingship and, with it, the Independence of Scotland which he had striven for all his life.

His body was buried in Dunfermline Abbey, although his heart was embalmed and taken by Douglas and other Scottish Knights in a crusade. They, only got as far as Spain where, in battle against the Moors, Sir James Douglas and other of the Scottish Knights were slain after being cut off from the rest of the Christian army. Both the heart which Douglas had taken into battle and died fighting over, and Douglas himself, were borne back to Scotland, the former being buried in Melrose abbey and the latter in the parish kirk of Douglas.