The Legacy of Bannockburn

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Bannockburn, 1314. Image: Graham Turner/Osprey Publishing
Bannockburn, 1314. Image: Graham Turner/Osprey Publishing

Bannockburn was the decisive battle of Scottish history. Though peace was not concluded until the Treaty of Berwick in 1357, the English never again came so close to the conquest of the northern kingdom. Nor, in the many
future wars between English and Scots, was the continuing independence of Scotland ever seriously in question.

Unlike Wales, which is too small, too easily penetrated, too quickly traversed to sustain prolonged resistance to a determined invader, Scotland enjoys the military advantage of great tracts of wilderness into which the tartan-clad guerrilla fighter can retreat to regroup and rebuild his military strength. It is, in this respect, like Ireland, that other great wilderness within the British Isles that long confounded the ambitions of English empire-builders.

Most of the later Anglo-Scottish wars were confined to the Borders, and even when no collision of great armies was in prospect, local wars of raid and feud often continued here. The Border wars created a distinctive Medieval landscape of rugged uplands speckled with the fortified houses of countless minor Marcher lords.

Even the most determined thrusts by English armies rarely reached beyond the Central Lowlands, and this – as the Romans had discovered, and later Edward I, the misnamed ‘Hammer of the Scots’ – was not far enough. The more determined of the Lowland nobles would disappear with their retainers into the Highlands, there to join forces with equally determined clan chiefs.

The feudal kings of England rediscovered the dilemma that had confronted a Roman imperial governor in AD 84. Successful in bringing the Caledonians to battle and defeating them at Mons Graupius near Inverness on the Moray Firth, Agricola had been left nonplussed when his enemies simply melted away down the glens into their mountain fastness; none of the proud chiefs offered their surrender, and no Roman general wished to follow them across the woods and bogs of the Highlands.

Relations between the two kingdoms were eventually transformed by the 16th-century Reformation and the 17th-century Revolution. The fracture-line was henceforward less between Englishman and Scot, and more between Protestant Parliamentarian and Catholic Royalist.

London, the English towns, and much of the more developed south-eastern half of England supported the Reformation. So did the Scottish Lowlands. Much of the north and west of England, and most of the Highlands, remained true to the Old Religion.

Queen Anne, under whose reign the Act of Union was passed in 1707.
Queen Anne, under whose reign the Act of Union was passed in 1707.

In the Civil Wars of 1642 onwards, English Parliamentarians and Scottish Covenanters made common cause against a Stuart king who favoured Catholics, recruited an Irish army, and plotted to turn Britain into an absolute monarchy like France. The Highlands, of course, later provided the last bastion of Jacobite reaction with the failed rebellions of 1715 and 1745.

By then, however, the merchants and improving landlords of early 18th-century England and Lowland Scotland – united in defence of Parliament, Protestantism, and Property – had brought their two countries together.

The Act of Union in 1707 – ironically, union under a Stuart monarch, Queen Anne, who was daughter of James II, ousted in a military coup in 1688, and granddaughter of Charles I, beheaded in 1649 – had made England and Scotland one.

This, though, was a partnership of equals – something very different from the feudal subjugation threatened in 1314. The Union was itself part of the legacy of Robert Bruce, the master-strategist and -tactician, and of Bannockburn, the battle that secured Scottish independence 700 years ago.

This article was published in the June 2014 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about the magazine and how to subscribe, click here.

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