Sunday, March 08, 2009
Bannockburn: The Triumph of Robert the Bruce
Academic in firing line after rewriting battle victory
2 March 2009
The historic victory of Robert the Bruce over Edward II at the Battle of Bannockburn is celebrated as one of Scotland's proudest moments, a rout by bravehearts determined to teach their southern masters a lesson after centuries of subjugation.
An English academic has claimed, however, that the conflict ended with a whimper rather than a bang, with Edward's soldiers fleeing after just one hour and the Scots wasting precious time by looting corpses instead of chasing those who escaped.
According to David Cornell, the author of Bannockburn: The Triumph of Robert the Bruce, the English troops were so exhausted and demoralised after two days of marching that they abandoned the battlefield at the first sign of a Scottish victory.
The academic also maintains that the Scots missed a golden opportunity to crush the English by stealing trinkets and body armour from Edward's troops when they could have been pursuing those who escaped. Although some were captured for a ransom, others regrouped in England and were back on active service within a couple of months, he alleges.
His account yesterday prompted a cross-border war of a different kind after leading Scottish historians accused Cornell of "making it up", and described his book as "less than impressive".
Geoffrey Barrow, Emeritus Professor of Scottish History at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of many books on both medieval Scotland and Bruce, revealed that he had been asked to provide a "blurb" for Cornell's tome, which he believes was dropped because it was too critical.
He said: "Yale University Press asked me to write a blurb which worried me because the author had let his imagination run riot a bit. I wrote a critique and communication was cut off because it wasn't what they wanted." Professor Barrow, who is also honorary president of the Saltire Society, and a former vice-president of the Royal Historical Society, said: "I was not tremendously impressed by the author. We have a lot of contemporary evidence that the crucial battle was on the second day but I don't think the Scots infantry would have been able to push a sizable English cavalry into muddy ground in a short while; it would have gone on a long time. There is no contemporary evidence that the Scots spent time looting English troops, nor any evidence they had anything valuable on them. All that is complete surmise."
Fiona Watson, a senior historian and broadcaster, said: "I don't think anybody has been brave — or foolish — enough to say how long the battle lasted. The main bit of the battle wouldn't have taken that long. It would have been over when Edward II left the field and how long it took to get to that point nobody knows. Perhaps it was nearer to one hour than five, but after that you are just making it up." Dr Watson said that it was "strange" to suggest that Scots soldiers wasted the chance to go after the English.
"Edward is the only person they failed to get; all historians agree if they got him the game would have been over," she said. "He was on a big warhorse and the Scots were on ponies, but James Douglas followed him to Dunbar, so they tried as hard as they could. As for the rest [of the English] they did try because they got a ransom for catching them and they wanted to make some money."
The victory at Bannockburn on June 24, 1314, established Bruce as king of Scotland, and paved the way for independence 14 years later. The triumph was the sweeter because the Scots were vastly outnumbered by their English foes.
Cornell, who has spent years researching the wars of independence, said that contemporary accounts undermined suggestions that Bruce's army killed 30,000 Englishmen.
"The image of the second day of the battle is that it was a prolonged engagement in which the English were gradually slaughtered and suffered horrendous casualties, but if you look at the sources it doesn't really suggest that. It suggests that the English broke apart and the morale and the exhaustion of the marches of the previous days really contributed to that. The real importance of Bannockburn is that it has taken on these epic proportions, it's identified with Robert the Bruce and it's identified with Scottish independence."
Ian Scott, chairman of the Saltire Society, said: "None of this diminishes the importance of the Battle of Bannockburn. It brought an end to the threat to Scotland for a generation. Many of the English may have retreated, and had they stayed it may have been a closer-run thing, but the victory in itself was enough for the Scots."