Weekly Story: Valor Goes to Those Who Earn It

Weekly Story, Democratic Thinker

During the battle at Bannockburn Sir James Douglas, upon seeing his friend Lord Randolph Murray sorely pressed by a large body of English cavalry, asks leave of Bruce to go to his aid.

“Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Let us do, or die!”

—Burns, “Bannockburn.”

Bannockburn, 1314

TO meet this force, Bruce could only muster 40,000 men, poorly armed, and few of them mounted, and those on small rough mountain steeds, utterly incapable of withstanding the shock of the huge Flemish chargers ridden by the English knights. The fatal power of the English long-bow was likewise well known to the Scots; but Bruce himself was a tried captain, and the greater part of his followers had been long trained by succession of fierce conflicts. They had many a wrong to revenge, and they fought for home and hearth; stern, severe, savage, and resolute, they were men to whom defeat would have brought far worse than death, unlike the gay chivalry who had ridden from England as to a summer excursion.

The army met in the Torwood, near Stirling, and were reviewed with cheerfulness by King Robert. He resolved to compensate for the inferiority of his cavalry by fighting on foot, and by abiding the attack in a field called the New Park, which was so covered with trees and brushwood, and broken by swamps, that the enemy’s horse would lose their advantage; and on the left, in the only open and level ground near, he dug pits and trenches, and filled them with pointed stakes and iron weapons called calthorps, so as to impede the possible charge of the knights.

The little burn, or brook, of Bannock, running through rugged ground covered with wood, protected his right, and the village of St. Ninian was in front. He divided his little army into four parts: the first under his brother Edward; the second under Douglas and young Walter, High Steward of Scotland; the third under Randolph; and the fourth body, the reserve, under his own command. The servants and baggage were placed on an eminence in the rear, still called Gillies Hill.

By this time it was the 23d of June, and early on Sunday morning the soldiers heard mass and confessed as dying men, then kept the vigil of St. John by fasting on bread and water. Douglas and Sir Robert Keith rode out to reconnoitre, and came back, reporting to the King that the enemy were advancing in full force, with banners displayed and in excellent array; but warily spreading a rumor among the Scots that they were confused and disorderly.

In effect, Edward II. had hurried on so hastily and inconsiderately, that his men and horses were spent and ill-fed when he arrived in the neighborhood of Stirling. Two miles from thence, he sent 800 horsemen with Sir Robert Clifford, with orders to outflank the Scottish army, and throw themselves into the town. Concealed by the village of St. Ninian, this body had nearly effected their object, when they were observed by the keen eye of Bruce, who had directed his nephew to be on the watch against this very manœuvre. Riding up on his little pony to Randolph, he upbraided him, saying, “Thoughtless man, you have lightly kept your trust! A rose has fallen from your chaplet!”

Randolph at once hurried off with a small body of his best men to repair his error; but presently his little party were seen so hotly pressed by the English, that Douglas entreated to be allowed to hasten to his rescue. “You shall not move,” said the King. “Let Randolph free himself as he may. I will not alter my order of battle, nor lose my vantage of ground.”

“My liege,” cried Lord James, as the heavily-armed knights and horses closed in on the few Scottish foot, “I cannot stand by and see Randolph perish, when I can give him help! By your leave, I must go to his succor!”

Robert sighed consent, and Douglas hastened off; but at that moment he beheld the English troop in confusion, some horses rushing away masterless, and the rest galloping off, while the Scots stood compactly among their dead enemies. “Halt!” then said Douglas, “they have won; we will not lessen their glory by seeking to share it.”

—Charlotte Mary Yonge, Cameos from English History (1868).