In the run up to September’s Scottish independence referendum, we’re publishing a series of blogposts on the relationship between England and Scotland over the centuries. We start with a guest blog from Dr Andrew Spencer of Christ’s College, Cambridge, who marks the 700 year anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn…
‘The earls said they would not come to fight without parliament, in case they infringed the Ordinances.’ [Vita Edwardi Secundi, 1314]
One of the most important of the many reasons why the English lost the battle of Bannockburn 700 years ago was that they were chronically disunited, and the role of parliament in regulating the behaviour of the wayward King Edward II was central to that.
Bannockburn was not the battle that won Scotland’s independence. Instead it was confirmation of the independence that Robert Bruce had already largely achieved over the preceding seven years. When Edward I died in July 1307, he held all the major Scottish castles, while Bruce’s support was confined largely to parts of the Lowlands outside English control. By the time of the battle of Bannockburn in June 1314, Bruce had systematically captured all the English castles in Scotland save Berwick and Stirling, had driven his leading enemies out of Scotland, and had his claim to the kingdom recognised by the French at a parliament at St Andrews in 1309.
Bruce’s remarkable military skill was partly responsible for this astonishing turnaround but just as significant was English neglect. Whereas under Edward I there had been major English military campaigns in Scotland in nine of the twelve summers after 1296, Edward II came north only once between 1307 and 1314. That campaign was more to escape his domestic enemies than to attack the Scots.
Edward launched his 1309-10 Scottish campaign to shield his great favourite, Piers Gaveston, from the wrath of the English barons who hated him for his control over access to the king’s person, his Gascon birth, and for his insolence towards them personally. Twice Gaveston was banished from the king’s side and twice Edward had brought him back. The crisis over Gaveston dragged on for five years and crippled both Edward’s kingship and the English position in Scotland.
In 1311 a group of powerful barons known as the Lords Ordainer sought to expel Gaveston once and for all and also to put a number of restraints on Edward’s exercise of power. This in itself was not new. The English baronage had sought to deal with inadequate kingship at various points in the thirteenth century by restricting the king’s rule, starting with Magna Carta in 1215. For the first time, however, parliament was given a prominent role in providing advice and assent to important policy decisions. The Ordinances of 1311 gave parliament the final say over all major grants of patronage, the appointment of all major crown officers, regulating those allowed to give counsel to the king, oversight of the exchequer, changes in the coinage, oversight and clarification of Magna Carta and, most importantly for a discussion of Bannockburn, the decision over when and where to go to war. The placing of these matters in the hands of parliament, rather than simply a small council of leading barons as had happened previously, was a sign of the growth of political society in the second half of the thirteenth century and a recognition of the importance of the gentry and England’s prosperous towns who made up the commons in parliament.
Unsurprisingly, Edward II tried to escape from the restrictions imposed by the Ordinances. His attempts to keep hold of Gaveston, however, ended in disaster in May 1312 when the Gascon was captured, tried and executed by a group of barons headed by the earls of Lancaster and Warwick. It was not until the parliament of September-November 1313 that Gaveston’s killers were pardoned, in return parliament granted Edward a tax for a new Scottish campaign. Finally, then, it seemed as if a united English military effort would at last be made in Scotland in 1314.
Things were not so simple, however. Agreement over the fate of the Ordinances had been postponed to an unspecified date while the next parliament, scheduled for April 1314, was cancelled because of the upcoming campaign. Four earls, including Lancaster and Warwick, used this as an excuse not to go on campaign, claiming that it had not been sanctioned by parliament as the Ordinances required. This was a transparent excuse as the grant of taxation in the previous parliament had clearly been intended for new expedition into Scotland, but they were keen for the Ordinances not to be forgotten. They were also probably frightened of what might happen to them during or after a campaign, knowing as they did that Edward had neither forgotten nor forgiven their part in Gaveston’s death.
The earls’ absence from Bannockburn, prompted by Edward’s cancellation of parliament, was an important factor in Edward’s defeat and Lancaster and Warwick took advantage of the catastrophe to try to reimpose the Ordinances at the next parliament in September 1314. Although Edward confirmed the Ordinances he was again soon able to avoid observing them fully. The next sixteen years were among the most miserable in English history. An agricultural crisis caused by a combination of appalling weather, cattle disease and overpopulation led to a population fall of perhaps ten per cent, while political stalemate between Edward and Lancaster left the Scots free to raid the north of England with virtual impunity for years. Edward defeated Lancaster in 1322 and finally repealed the Ordinances. A bloody purge of his enemies followed his victory, leading to four years of tyranny which ended only with Edward’s overthrow in 1326 by his wife, Isabella, and her lover, Roger Mortimer. Further tit-for-tat political killings followed for another three years before Edward III took personal control in 1330 following a daring coup d’état against Mortimer. Only then was some order imposed on England and war with Scotland resumed once more.
Bannockburn will rightly be celebrated by Scots as a great victory that ensured their continued independence, but while we remember the consequences of victory for Scotland we should not forget the costs of defeat for England.
Andrew Spencer has recently published ‘Nobility and Kingship in Medieval England, the Earls and Edward I, 1272-1307’, available here from Cambridge University Press.
Keep following for the next in our series on England and Scotland, to be published in a few weeks’ time.