On this day 700 years ago, the army of Edward II was soundly beaten by that of Robert Bruce at Bannockburn, just outside Stirling, some 40 miles north-west of Edinburgh. For Edward, it was a humiliating defeat: hundreds, perhaps thousands, of his soldiers died on the battlefield; he saved himself only by ignominious flight. For Robert, it was a stunning victory, all the more glorious for being unexpected.
To ask what lessons the battle holds for 2014, the year of the Scottish independence referendum, may seem positively obtuse. Who can resist seeing it as representing the struggle between two ancient nations, England and Scotland, whose final (and thankfully peaceful) resolution is now within the latter’s grasp, if the autumn’s referendum goes the way Holyrood hopes it will?
Intentionally or not, that is the interpretation promoted by the new Bannockburn heritage centre that opened earlier this year, in good time for the anniversary (and for the referendum), and whose strap-line provides this blog’s title. Thanks to 3D glasses and impressive computer animation, you can stand in the middle of the battle, English and Scottish arrows whizzing past your nose. Then you can take command of English or Scottish units on a digital screen, to test what would have happened had you been in charge. So the museum’s heart is, somewhat surreally, a never-ending re-enactment of the battle, repeating several times a day – a kind of Bannockburn Groundhog Day.
What the centre doesn’t do, however, beyond a few nods to court politics, is explain the wider context of the battle. In some ways, that’s entirely understandable. Background information can be tedious. And just concentrating on indisputable ‘facts’ might seem the safest option in politically sensitive topics. History, however, is by its nature difficult to make politically inert. And nowhere is this clearer than in the implications of the centre’s decision to skirt round the question of what King Edward II was actually doing in Scotland in the first place. Relieving an English garrison, yes; but what on earth was an English garrison doing in Stirling?
Not addressing this question makes Bannockburn seem a basically inexplicable act of English aggression: England bullying its smaller neighbour, and for once getting its come-uppance. But this narrative is over-simplistic. It is of course true that for most of the Middle Ages, Scotland and England were separate kingdoms. But we should be careful not to project modern nations, and modern notions of sovereignty, anachronistically back in time. To understand what Edward thought he was doing, and thus to understand Bannockburn properly, we need to think about medieval Britain.
It’s perhaps little appreciated these days that the concept of Britain was not just a convenient political fiction dreamt up by spin-doctors for the accession of King James VI/I in 1603. It was an authentically medieval idea, too. In the words of the great historian Rees Davies, “The idea of Britain exercised a powerful hold over the medieval mind. It had a depth, a resonance, a precision and an incontestability which did not belong to its imprecise, contestable, and Johnny-come-lately competititors – England, Scotland, Wales”. 1
And from an early date, the idea took on a political dimension, defining an aspiration for the island’s most powerful kings. Already in the tenth century, English kings claimed unambiguously to be kings of Britain: rex totius Britanniae, as coins of King Æthelstan declared. 2 In the late thirteenth century, Æthelstan’s successors even commissioned historical research to prove that they were the lineal descendants of ancient kings of Britain, above all Arthur.
The claim of English kings to supremacy over the entire island was intermittently acknowledged by other rulers, who recognised the king of England as in effect a kind of ‘high king’ – a kind of (very) loose, federal structure. Of course, the practical implications of this recognition were unclear and contested, and sometimes the idea was rejected wholesale by rival elites. And understanding the importance of the ideal, or idea, of a united Britain – a political concept just as old as the the nations of Scotland or England – is not the same as justifying Edward’s invasion. Even as medieval kings go, Edward II is pretty hard to rehabilitate.
It is though to bring into question the black-and-white, cut-and-dried judgement of an event some 700 years ago. Our ideas of ‘sovereign independence’ simply don’t fit the medieval past, where authority was often exercised in overlapping and nested ways (above kings there were emperors, and of course popes) 3, and where political ethnicities, in any case not then the most important kind of self-identification, were often overlapping too. To pretend otherwise is to simplify, and thereby distort, the past to suit modern politics.
At a basic level, Bannockburn was indeed a battle between English and Scots. Considered in the full historical context, though, the only ‘lessons’ it offers for today are that power and identity have long been fought over on this island, that heavy cavalry doesn’t do well on boggy ground, and that war, no matter in what country or century it takes place, is usually a tragic and regrettable business.
Charles West lectures on Medieval History at the University of Sheffield. You can read Charles’s other History Matters blogs here and find him on twitter @pseudo_isidore. You can also read about his new Turbulent Priests project here.
- Rees Davies, The First English Empire. Power and Identities in the British Isles 1093-1343 (Oxford, 2000), p. 35. ↩
- As his latest biographer puts it, “Æthelstan’s court announced and finessed an ideology about Britain as a single political unit and about this king as ruler over the whole of that polity, equivalent to the geographical island of Britain”.: Sarah Foot, Æthelstan. The First King of England (New Haven, 2011), p. 226. ↩
- At the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, for instance, the German emperor attempted to assert his supremacy over England – he failed, but it’s fascinating that he tried ↩