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Medieval Britain

Bannockburn's Secret of Success

by Ralph Moffat, The Scotsman, 15 June 2005

The victory at Bannockburn helped secure Scotland's independence - and Robert the Bruce's crown.

Bannockburn and Robert the Bruce are inextricably linked in Scottish history. Bruce's battles against the English for nearly two decades are epic, but there are some perceptions that are not always based on historical investigation and can be misleading.

It is true that Bruce and his forces were severely outnumbered when Edward II sent some 25,000 men north to crush the Scottish insurrection once and for all at Stirling, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn on 23-24 June 1314. However it is not the case that the smaller force was ill-equipped and unskilled.

Writing in the 1370s, the Archdeacon of Aberdeen, John Barbour, explained why the English archers fled from the Scots contingent of horse at the battle of Bannockburn:

And against armoured men to fight
May naked [unarmoured] men have little might

What kind of armour was available to the combatants on both sides, and why were the Scots popularly believed to be a poorly equipped rabble?

An English chronicler noted of the Scottish foot soldiers that "each was furnished with light armour, not easily penetrable by a sword". More detail about this kind of armour comes from an arming act passed in 1318. It states that anyone owning 10 worth of property (yeoman farmers) should either have a habergeon (mail shirt) or a good sufficient "acton, a basnet & gluffis of playt". The acton (from Arabic kotyn, or cotton) was a heavily padded jacket stuffed with material.

London regulations from 1322 order this to be "olde lynnen or new cotton". The bascinet is a simple round or conical helmet and "gluffis of plate" is the Scots term for gauntlets. It is of note that a similar English arming act demands almost exactly the same equipment for foot soldiers in the king's army.

Dr David Caldwell, curator of medieval armour at the Royal Museum of Scotland, has highlighted the significance of the terms of the act as they "indicate precisely the minimum requirements of soldiers of that time".

John Barbour, in his poem The Brus (circa 1375-1377), describes an English knight as clad in "armys gud & fyne". University of Glasgow professor Archie Duncan, in his version of the poem, mentions the unlikelihood of knights having plate armour at this time as the "mail hauberk was still universal". The hauberk and its short-sleeved diminutive - the habergeon - would continue in use, but it is clear that additions to this protection were being acquired by those who could afford them.

Edward I, the "hammer of the Scots", must have been wearing something more substantial than just mail when a crossbow bolt stuck in his armour at the siege of Stirling in 1303. It may well have been a "pair of plates", a kind of flack jacket made up from many pieces of metal. This is evidenced by the increasing number of seals and tomb effigies that display chains attached to the torso to which weapons can be attached.

An English knight, writing in captivity at Edinburgh Castle, recounted how an enemy of the king "struck the said Bruce with a sword in the chest, but he, being in armour, was not wounded".

The same year as Edward's experience with the crossbow bolt, his son, the fashion conscious prince of Wales, sent his armourer into London to do some shopping for the forthcoming Scottish campaign. Helms of various types were acquired as well as "two crests of gilt copper painted with the prince's arms" and thigh-pieces embroidered with the same in silk. Along with these were purchased a pair of "plate quisses, poleyns and sabaters" - armour for the thighs, knees and feet. He also bought gauntlets and white leather shammies for polishing the breastplates.

The armour of the English knights would prove a hindrance as the tide of the two-day Bannockburn clash turned against them. According to an English source, the headstrong Earl of Gloucester, who was killed in the fray, was so "borne down by the weight of his body-armour he could not easily arise". An idea of the weight of armour can be found in a bulk order made by the French king in 1384. He requested habergeons weighing 25lb or more. A Yorkshire knight, according to the poet Barbour, even hid his armour in a bush so that he could make his escape.

A contemporary Latin poem speaks of the English knights glorying in their horses. Barbour's allusion to "trappyt" horse is suggestive that they were armoured too. Another chronicler's verses on the battle include this line about the river near the battle: "Forth buries many men well-equipped with arms and horses."

The battle was undoubtedly a rich haul for the victorious Scots. Barbour describes how the corpses were stripped naked of clothes and armour. Successive English kings tried to institute an arms blockade through foreign diplomacy and decrees and inquests to punish unscrupulous arms dealers.

The Scots were not poorly equipped before the battle and their supplies were certainly improved by its outcome.

 

 

     
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