Three new takes on the Battle of Bannockburn

ALISTAIR Moffat gives his book the sub-title, “The Battle for a Nation”, Angus Konstam’s is “Scotland’s Greatest Battle for Independence”. James Robertson’s lavishly illustrated biography of Bruce is sub-titled only King of Scots”.

One of Jill Calders illustrations from Robert the Bruce showing the ignominious end of Sir Henry de Bohun at the hands of Bruce


by Angus Konstam

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Aurum Press, 247pp, £18.99

Robert The Bruce

by James Robertson; illlustrated by Jill Calder

Birlinn, 64pp, £12.99


by Alistair Moffat

Birlinn, 224pp, £12.99

Robertson’s short book is written for children, though he never talks down to them, and eschews over-simplification. Adults will find it rewarding too.

All three sub-titles are to the point, but Moffat’s is the best. Bannockburn certainly was what Konstam calls it, but Moffat’s “The Battle for a Nation” invites reflection. Was the victory at Bannockburn an expression of national feeling or did Bannockburn and the Wars of Independence create the sense of Scottish nationhood?

Neither question can be answered with any certainty. Admittedly people already spoke of the Scots and the English, and in doing so recognized differences. The two kingdoms had been more or less distinct for centuries, even if the frontier between them shifted from time to time. Yet one of the most obvious facts about the wars is that the leaders on both sides belonged to the same class of Anglo-Norman (or Scoto-Anglo-Norman) nobility. As Moffat writes: “Anachronistic attitudes often skew perceptions of the past and even the phrase ‘the patriotic party’ is almost inappropriate. For the elite, personal and family advantage rather than patriotism is what drove decision-making in the early 14th century”.

Medieval society was stratified horizontally, by class and occupation, rather than being divided vertically by nationality. The first language of the barons either side of the Border was Norman-French, not English, Scots or Gaelic.

The crisis came about because of the untimely deaths of Alexander III and his granddaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway. Had she lived, the two countries might have been united by the marriage between her and Edward I’s son, Edward. Her death meant there was no clear heir to the throne; it was disputed by descendants of David I, the youngest son of Malcolm Canmore and his Anglo-Saxon wife Margaret (later canonised) The two chief competitors were John Balliol and Robert Bruce, Earl of Carrick, grandfather of the future king. Both had estates in England as well as Scotland, Balliol in France too.

Edward I was invited to adjudicate, and immediately made it clear that he regarded himself as the overlord, or feudal superior, of any King of Scots, and that whoever he nominated must accept this. Both Moffat and Konstam explore the complicated question lucidly. One might add that Edward had some reason to revive this old claim. William the Lion, King of Scots 1165-1214, had agreed to become Henry II’s vassal in the Treaty of Falaise (1174). But that submission was made under duress, William being then Henry’s prisoner, and was rescinded after his release.

Edward selected Balliol and soon made it clear that his overlordship was no mere formality – something that might have been acceptable. Balliol resisted and made an alliance with the King of France. Edward responded by invading Scotland, defeating Balliol, stripping him of his regalia, and sending him to England as a prisoner. His occupation of southern Scotland and the rapacity of his tax-collectors provoked further resistance, led by William Wallace, a Renfrewshire knight, and Andrew Murray. When they defeated the English at Stirling Bridge, Murray being killed in the battle, Wallace became Guardian of Scotland, while still acknowledging John Balliol as his king. Wallace’s defeat at Falkirk (1298) ended what Edward, reasonably, saw as a rebellion.

Which brings one to Robert Bruce (or de Brus). His position was ambivalent. As long as there was any prospect of Balliol’s return, he had little interest in resisting Edward. As Moffat writes, “his first loyalty was to his family and its interests.” His first enemy was less Edward than Balliol’s family supporters, the Comyns, and it is clear that for some years he hoped that Edward would make him (vassal) King of Scots in place of Balliol. He was certainly ready to do homage to him. It was only when he realized this wasn’t going to happen, and learned that Edward had come to distrust him and was about to arrest him, that he fled England. He arranged to meet Sir John Comyn, (the Red Comyn) in Dumfries, presumably to try to form a united front. A quarrel broke out and he murdered his rival. It was the decisive moment of his life, from which there was no turning back.

Hurriedly and perhaps irregularly crowned king, he raised the standard of resistance. His chequered past behind him, he was on the way to becoming “the hero king”. Surviving defeats and forced into hiding – hence the agreeable myth of the spider – he had an early stroke of fortune when the warrior-king Edward died while preparing a new invasion to subdue Scotland once and for all. Both Moffat and Konstam recount the years of struggle fairly and vividly, both noting how at different times almost all the Scots nobility switched sides, according to their understanding of their immediate interests. Among those who did so was Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray, perhaps (though it’s not clear) Bruce’s own nephew, later one of his commanders at Bannockburn.

So to the decisive battle itself. It was brought on by an agreement made by Bruce’s brother Edward with the English governor of Stirling Castle who promised to surrender if he was not relieved by an English army by midsummer 1314. This agreement was probably not welcome to Bruce, since it invited the pitched battle which he had hitherto avoided.

Moffat’s account of the mustering of the English army and its march north is splendid. He is a master of historical geography and deeply versed in the techniques of medieval warfare: anyone who supposes that medieval battles were merely armed brawls will have to think again. The training and organization of troops were conducted by men whose business was war and who had thought about its requirements. A future knight was schooled in the art of horsemanship from early boyhood when he became a page. One might add that Moffat is also conspicuously fair to the much- maligned Edward II who would fight with great courage at Bannockburn.

Reconstructing the great battle itself is difficult, partly because the geography has changed, partly because there is no contemporary Scottish account. (There are two English ones). The approved Scottish version of the story is John Barbour‘s heroic poem, The Brus. This is usually dated 1375 – that is 60 years after the battle. We don‘t know when Barbour actually wrote it and it is possible that he spoke to some veterans of Bannockburn. But since his date of birth is given as being c.1316, their memories might have been improved by the passage of time. “Old men forget”, as Shakespeare has Henry V say at Agincourt, “but he’ll remember, with advantages, what feats he did that day”. Be that as it may, “the memory”, Moffat writes, “of what happened on midsummer‘s day in 1314 is surely undimmed by gaps in knowledge. Enough is known to understand the tremendous significance of what took place. It was a battle which won a nation.” Konstam comes to the same conclusion – “the period saw the clear emergence of a Scottish identity” – and Robertson agrees: Bruce “forged the Scots into a nation”.

This is why we remember Bannockburn and it is also why in this year of the referendum Unionists, as well as Nationalists, celebrate the battle. Securing Scotland’s independence meant that we were never a conquered nation like Welsh and Irish. Consequently when, almost four centuries after Bannockburn, we entered into a full Union with England , we did so by a treaty negotiated between Scots and English, and approved by the parliaments of both countries.

The intellectual case for Scottish independence was made six years after Bannockburn in the Declaration of Arbroath, addressed to the Pope. One purpose of the letter was to secure the independence of the Catholic church in Scotland from claims to superiority made by the Archbishop of York; another to have the sentence of excommunication imposed on King Robert because of the murder of Comyn in a church, lifted. In the fashion of the time, the argument was buttressed by a rigmarole of pseudo or invented history. For many, today especially, the chief significance of the Declaration is the paragraph which, as Moffat puts it, “in order to avoid the charge of illegitimacy” (arising from the fact that the Community of the Realm had in reality overthrown the rightful king John Balliol, and replaced him with Robert Bruce) the declaration had to enshrine the possibility that Robert or a succeeding king of Scotland could also be rejected by the Community of the Realm and replaced.” Hence comes the modern idea of the “sovereignty of the Scottish people”.

Actually, the notion that kingship was contractual was a mediaeval commonplace, not original at all; the idea of an absolute monarchy belongs to the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages. Medieval kings had to bargain with the representatives of the community of the realm. The Magna Carta extracted from King John by English prelates and barons was such a bargain, a reminder that the King was bound by laws and customs.

These are two very good books, Konstam’s very clear, Moffat’s more deeply immersed in the period and therefore perhaps more enlightening. But both can be recommended, as indeed can Robertson’s, an up-to-date alternative to the relevant chapters in Henrietta Marshall’s classic Scotland’s Story, it has striking, if sometimes lurid, illustrations by Jill Calder.

Happily, neither Moffat nor Konstam has any time for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart nonsense. “Most Scots,” Konstam writes, “don’t need an Australian to tell them their own history, or how to interpret it.” Actually , one wouldn’t mind having an Australian doing that, if he had got it right. A lot of Scots leaned some of our history from the Canadian, John Prebble, after all, while two of the best historians of modern Scotland, Christopher Smout and Michael Fry are Englishmen long domiciled here.

Good history matters because bad history will often lead readers astray and be used to bolster or promote bad politics. The authors of the books reviewed here have all written good, fair and careful history. They recognize that past ages have their own validity and the men of the late 13th and early 14th century are entitled to be judged according to the standards of their time, not ours.

Konstam tells what is a wonderful story with clarity and good sense. Anyone ignorant of the wars of independence might do well to read his book first. Moffat is more demanding, but for those already acquainted with the period, more rewarding. His ability to convey the habits of mind and way of life in the Middle Ages is remarkable, his mastery of detail a constant pleasure.