The anonymous author of the Vita Edwardi Secundi provides one of the best accounts of the reign of Edward II. This includes his description of the battle of Bannockburn in 1314, where the Scots under Robert Bruce defeated Edward and his army.
About the beginning of Lent messengers came to the King with news of the destruction of the Scottish cities, the capture of castles, and the breaching of the surrounding walls. The constable of Stirling came, too, and pointed out to the king how he had been compelled by necessity to enter upon the truce. He persuaded the king to lead an army to Scotland, to defend his castle and the country. When the king heard the news he was very much grieved, and for the capture of his castles could scarcely restrain his tears. He therefore summoned the earls and barons to come to his aid and overcome the traitor who called himself King. The earls replied that it would be better for all to meet in parliament and there unanimously decide what ought to be done in this matter rather than to proceed so inadvisedly; this moreover would be in accord with the Ordinances. But the king said that the present business was very urgent and he could not therefore wait for parliament. The earls said that they would not fight without parliament, lest it should happen that they infringed the Ordinances. Some counselors and household officials therefore advised the king to demand their due service from all, and set out boldly for Scotland. It was certain that so many would come to his aid that neither Robert Bruce nor the Scots would resist. What of the Earl of Gloucester, the Earl of Pembroke, the Earl of Hereford, Robert de Clifford, Hugh Despenser and the King’s household and the other barons in England? All these would come with their knights: there was no need to worry about the other earls. The king therefore demanded due service from all, and ordered the necessary stores to be provided. The Earl of Pembroke he sent ahead with a force of knights, to seek out the ambushes of the Scots, and prepare the king’s route into Scotland.
When all the necessaries had been collected, the king and the other magnates of the land with a great multitude of carts and baggage-wagons set out for Scotland. When the lord king had reached Berwick, he made a short halt there to await the arrival of the army. But the Earl of Lancaster, the Earl Warenne, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick did not come, but sent knights equipped to do their service for them in the army. On the sixth or seventh day before the feast of St. John the Baptist, our king with all his army left Berwick and took his way towards Stirling. The cavalry numbered more than two thousand, without counting a numerous crowd of infantry. There were in that company quite sufficient to penetrate the whole of Scotland, and some thought if the whole of Scotland had been gathered together, they would not have stayed to face the king’s army. Indeed all who were present agreed tat never in our time has such an army gone forth from England. The multitude of wagons if they had been placed end to end, would have taken up a space of twenty leagues.
The king therefore took confidence and courage from so great and so distinguished a multitude and hastened to the appointed place, not as if he was leading an army to battle but as if he was going to St. James’s. Brief were halts for sleep, briefer still for food; hence horses, horsemen and infantry were worn out with toil and hunger, and if they did not bear themselves well it was hardly their fault.
The Earl of Gloucester and the Earl of Hereford commanded the first line. On Sunday, which was the vigil of St. John’s day, as they passed by a certain wood and were approaching Stirling Castle, the Scots were seen straggling under the trees as if in flight, and a certain knight, Henry de Boun pursued them with the Welsh to the entrance of the wood. For he had in mind that if he found Robert Bruce there he would either kill him or carry him off captive. But when he had come thither, Robert himself came suddenly out of his hiding place in the wood, and the said Henry seeing that he could not resist the multitude of Scots, turned his horse with the intention of returning to his companions; but Robert opposed him and struck him on the head with an axe that he carried in his hand. His squire, trying to protect or rescue his lord, was overwhelmed by the Scots.
This was the beginning of their troubles! On the same day a sharp action was fought, in which the Earl of Gloucester was unhorsed, and Robert de Clifford disgracefully routed, and though our men pursued the Scots, many were killed on either side. The day being spent, the whole army met at the place where it was to bivouac that night. But there was no rest; for they spent it sleepless, expecting the Scots rather to attack by night than to await battle by day. When day came it was abundantly clear that the Scots were prepared for the conflict with a great force of armed men. Wherefore our men, the veterans that is, and the more experienced, advised that we should not fight that day, but rather await the morrow, both on account of the importance of the feast and the toil that they had already undergone. This practical and honourable advice was rejected by the younger men as idle and cowardly.
The Earl of Gloucester counseled the king not to go forth to battle that day, but to rest of account of the feast, and let his army recuperate as much as possible. But the king spurned the earl’s advice, and, growing very heated with him, charged him with treachery and deceit. “Today,” said the earl, “it will be clear that I am neither a traitor nor a liar,” and at once prepared himself for battle. Meanwhile Robert Bruce marshalled and equipped his allies, gave them bread and wine, and cheered them as best he could; when he learned that the English line had occupied the field he led his whole army out from the wood. About forty thousand men he brought with him, and split them into three divisions; and not one of them was on horseback, but each was furnished with light armour, not easily penetrable by a sword. They had axes at their sides and carried lances in their hands. They advanced like a thick-set hedge, and such a phalanx could not easily be broken. When the situation was such that two sides must meet, James Douglas, who commanded the first phalanx of the Scots, vigorously attacked the Earl of Gloucester’s line. The earl withstood him manfully, once and again penetrated their wedge, and would have been victorious if he had had faithful companions. But look! At a sudden rush of Scots, the earl’s horse is killed and the earl rolls to the ground. Lacking defenders, and borne down by the weight of his body armour he could not easily arise, and of the five hundred cavalry whom he had led to battle at his own expense, he almost alone was killed. For they saw their lord unhorsed, they stood astonished and brought him no aid. Accursed be the chivalry whose courage fails in the hour of greatest need!
Alas! Twenty armed knights could have saved the earl, but among some five hundred, there was not found one. May the Lord confound them! Some said that the Earl of Gloucester had perished suddenly by reason of his rash attack. For there was rivalry between him and the Earl of Hereford, who should take precedence in the line, and the Earl of Hereford said that this was lawfully his, because he was Constable of England. Gloucester replied that his forbears had always led the van, and therefore this pertained to him by custom. While they disputed in this fashion, and the Scottish forces were approaching rapidly, the Earl of Gloucester dashed forward in disorder, seeking the glory of the first encounter; but see! The earl is met by the onrushing Scots and his horse immediately killed; because when thrown from his horse there was no one to defend him, he was pierced by many wounds and shamefully killed. Alas! Twenty armed knights could have saved the earl, but among some five hundred not one was found to help. May the Lord confound them.
Giles de Argentine, a fighting soldier and very expert in the art of war, while in command of the king’s rein, watched the fate of the earl, hurried up in eager anxiety to help him, but could not. Yet he did what he could, and fell together with the earl, thinking it more honourable to perish with so great a man than to escape death by flight; for those who fall in battle for their country are known to live in everlasting glory. On the same day Robert de Clifford, Payn Tibetot, William Marshal, famous, powerful, and active knights, were overcome by the Scots and died in the field.
When those who were with our king saw that the earl’s line was broken and his men ready to run, they said that it would be dangerous to tarry longer and safer for the king to retreat. At these remarks the king quitted the field, and hastened towards the castle. Moreover when the royal standard was seen to depart, the whole army quickly dispersed. Two hundred knights and more, who had neither drawn their swords nor even struck a blow, were reduced to flight.
O famous race unconquered through the ages, why do you, who used to conquer knights, flee from mere footmen? At Berwick, Dunbar, and Falkirk you carried off the victory, and now you flee from the infantry of the Scots. But whatever others may say, the hand of the Lord was not with you. Thus was Ben-hadad, a most powerful King of Syria, put to flight by the footmen of the princes of Samaria.
Thus while our people fled, following in the king’s footsteps, lo! a certain ditch entrapped many of them, and a great part of our army perished in it. The king coming to the castle and thinking to find refuge there, was repulsed as if he were the enemy; the drawbridge was raised and the gate closed. Wherefore the castellan was thought by many to be not innocent of treason, and yet that very day he was seen in armour arrayed for battle as if to fight for the king. I neither absolve the castellan nor accuse him of treachery, but I think it was God’s doing that the King of England did not enter the castle, for if he had then been admitted he would never have escaped capture.
When the king saw that he was thus repulsed and that no other refuge now remained to him, he turned his steps towards Dunbar, and coming there took ship. He landed with his following at the port of Berwick. Others having no ship came by land. The knights shed their armour and fled without it; the Scots continually harassed their rear; the pursuit lasted fifty miles. Many of our men perished and many, too, were taken prisoner. For the inhabitants of the countryside, who had previously feigned peace, now slaughtered our men indiscriminately, wherefore it was proclaimed by Sir Robert Bruce that they should take prisoners and hold them ransom. So the Scots busied themselves with taking prisoner the magnates in order to extort large sums from them. There were captured the Earl of Hereford, John Giffard, John de Wylyntone, John de Segrave, Maurice de Berkeley, undoubtedly barons of great power, and many others whom it is not necessary to specify, of whom many agreed for their ransoms and paying the money were set free. Cognizances were no advantage there, because ransom was then more difficult. Five hundred and more were thought to be dead who had been taken captive and were later ransomed. Indeed, almost all their misfortunes this at least turned to the advantage of our army, that, while our people sought safety in flight, a great part of the Scottish army was occupied in plunder, because, if all the Scots alike had been attending to the pursuit of our men, few would have escaped. So while Robert Bruce with his men attacked our baggage-train, the greater part of the the English came safe back to Berwick. Indeed I think it is unheard-of in our time for such an army to be scattered so suddenly by infantry, unless when the flower of France fell before the Flemings at Courtrai , where the noble Count Robert of Artois was killed.
O day of vengeance and disaster, day of utter loss and shame, evil and accursed day, not to be reckoned in our calendar; that blemished the reputation of the English, despoiled them and enriched the Scots, in which our costly belongings were ravished to the value of £200 000! So many fine noblemen and valiant youth, so many horses, so much military equipment, costly garments and gold plate – all lost in one unfortunate day, one fleeting hour.
Perchance some one will ask why the Lord smote us this day, why we succumbed to the Scots, when for the last twenty years we have always had the better of them; indeed antiquity offers an example, and acts of the Hebrews clearly provide a parallel. Xerxes, most powerful king of the Medes, when he waged war upon the Greeks with a numerous fleet and stubborn army, ‘was scarcely allowed in defeat to escape with a single ship.’ Israel fighting Benjamin for the crime committed in Gibeah, trusting in numbers and courage, was twice defeated in battle, twice put to flight before Benjamin [Judges XX. 21, 25] Thus our men, who came in pride and insolence, returned in shame and rout. Assuredly the proud arrogance of our men made the Scots rejoice in victory.
This text is from Vita Edwardi Secundi / The Life of Edward the Second, translated by Noel Denholm-Young (London, 1957).