Longsword by David Pilling

Monday, 27 April 2015

The Battle of Dunbar

Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Dunbar, one of the lesser-known battles of the Scottish Wars of Independence. It was also the first pitched encounter between the English and Scottish forces, and the only battle to be fought in Edward I's invasion of 1296. It's a while since I 'celebrated' an anniversary on this blog, so thought I would give my take on it.

Clang, hack, slay...
First, some context. Edward's invasion of Scotland was the end result of years of haggling to and fro over the rightful claimant to the vacant Scottish throne, which ended in John Balliol being installed as King of Scots in return for acknowledging Edward as his feudal overlord. Balliol's own countrymen considered him something of a nonentity, and nicknamed him 'Toom Tabard' or the Empty Coat, mocking him for being a spineless puppet of the English king.

In fact Balliol seems to have been used by both sides: when Edward started demanding Scottish troops to aid him in his war against France, a council of twelve Scottish nobles took the decision out of Balliol's hands, refused to supply Edward with soldiers, and instead signed a treaty of mutual aid with the French.

Edward's reaction was predictably furious. Having ordered a huge army to assemble at Newcastle, he led his host up to the castle of Wark on the Tweed, where news reached him that the Scots were getting their retaliation in first: on Easter Monday a Scottish force made an unsuccessful attack on Carlisle, while bands of outriders ravaged the border with fire and sword. One English chronicler claimed that the Scots committed a particularly heinous act of savagery at Hexham, rounding up a hundred schoolboys and burning them alive in a church. The tale might have been exaggerated or plain invented as useful propaganda, but on the other hand such incidents were by no means uncommon in medieval warfare.

John Balliol or 'Toom Tabard
Edward didn't seem worried by these events. When he received a message from Balliol, in which the Scottish king formally renounced his homage, he smiled and remarked: "What folly he commits. He shall have no need to come to me, for I shall go to him."

Any Scottish atrocities were soon eclipsed by the horrors of Edward's sack of the town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Seven hundred years on, this incident is still clouded by contemporary propaganda and modern nationalist sentiment - much like the later sacks of Drogheda and Wexford in Ireland. Trying to see through these mists is difficult, but what seems to have happened is that Edward initially offered the town terms of surrender. These were scornfully rejected, and a number of his sailors were killed by the people of Berwick when his ships ran aground near the harbour.

Edward, who from boyhood onward had displayed a streak of cruelty when roused, lost control of himself.  He unleashed his shock troops on the town and personally led the cavalry charge on his war-horse, Bayard: it says something for Berwick's pitiful defences that his horse was able to leap the dyke and gallop into the streets.

Three days of bloody massacre followed. It's unclear whether Edward ordered the general extermination of the citizens, or of the men of the garrison. Either way, many thousands of innocents died, and Berwick was reduced to a gory, reeking shambles. Accounts vary of what finally persuaded Edward to put an end to the bloodshed: one story claims that a group of priests appeared before him, bearing the Host and begging on their knees for him to show mercy. Another says that Edward was violently sick after witnessing a soldier run his sword through the belly of a pregnant woman, and cried out 'Laissez! Laissez' - "Let be, let be!" as the signal to halt.
Arms of John de Warenne

Whatever the state of Berwick after this orgy of destruction, the crucial port town on the Tweed was now in Edward's hands. He followed up by sending his lieutenant and drinking crony, the Earl of Surrey, to secure the castle of Dunbar, a few miles up the Tweed. Surrey, a typically hard-faced baronial ruffian who had once waved a rusty sword under the noses of Edward's lawyers when they started asking difficult questions about his ancestral rights, duly sped off with a strong body of mounted knights and men-at-arms.

A note on warfare in this era. Descriptions of medieval campaigns can sometimes come across as a bland recitation of dry facts - King Wotsit marched over here and took this castle, then this town, and then marched back again. It's difficult for us modern, civilised, 21st-century types to imagine the smell and the stench of it, the hardship and the suffering of soldiers and civilians as oversized, indisciplined feudal hosts straggled up and down the country, often in appalling weather and over bad roads, all the while losing men to guerilla attacks, disease and desertion.

Desertion in particular was a serious problem for Edward I in his Welsh and Scottish campaigns. The majority of his infantry were made up of badly armed and trained feudal levies - conscripts, essentially, townsmen and peasants, often armed with little more than knives. To counter the problem, Edward supplemented his forces with large numbers of Basque and Gascon mercenaries, and after the conquest of Wales was able to call upon the services of thousands of tough Welsh archers and spearmen. Rather than starve in their own lands and be treated as second-class citizens by English immigrants, many of the Welsh chose to enlist in the armies of their conqueror.

By 1296, then, Edward's army was a pretty formidable beast, hardened by years of campaigning in Wales and France. The king's grasp of logistics could be pretty tenuous - he once sent out orders for 60,000 infantry to be raised, when there was perhaps a third of that number of able-bodied men in the whole of England - but he knew how to lead and direct an army. The same went for Surrey, another veteran of the Baronial wars and Welsh campaigns.

The Scots, by contrast, had nothing like the same degree of warlike experience to call upon. Scotland had largely been at peace for the past century, bar a couple of minor battles against the Norwegians and the Manx, and poor old Toom Tabard wasn't blessed with military genius. Balliol was camped at Haddington with the main body of the Scottish feudal host when urgent messages reached him from the garrison at Dunbar, warning that the English were on the move.

Balliol despatched his own knights, probably led by the Comyns, to meet Surrey. The two forces came in sight of each other near the castle, and for a while engaged in a staring contest. The Scots held the high ground, and may have expected Surrey's men to withdraw rather than risking attacking such a strong position. Instead he led his men down into a gulley and across a river called the Spott Burn.
Dunbar Castle today

As they struggled across the river, the ranks of English knights started to break up. Seeing the enemy host apparently dissolve into chaos, the Scots launched an all-out charge. It must have been a pretty rare and glorious spectacle, hundreds of mounted knights streaming downhill, pennons waving, lances couched as the earth quaked under the racing hoofs of their destriers.

Alas, they were deceived. Old Surrey was something of a general as well as a hooligan, and had deliberately ordered his men to feign indiscipline when they crossed the burn. As the disorderly horde of Scots thundered down towards them, the English knights suddenly closed up again and launched a counter-charge, a difficult manoeuvre that Napoleon's cavalry might have been proud of.

It was all over in minutes. After a brief fight the Scots panicked and fled westwards to the refuge of Ettrick Forest. They probably didn't suffer many casualties: one English source boasted that ten thousand of them died, but in reality only one minor Lothian knight, Sir Patrick Graham, was slain, and a hundred Scottish lords, knights and men-at-arms taken prisoner.

The blow to Scottish arms, however brief and bloodless the actual fighting, was devastating. Berwick and Dunbar knocked the fighting spirit out of the Scots, at least for a time, and the remainder of the campaign was little more than a promenade. Edward swaggered about the country, taking castles, towns and prisoners as the fancy took him, and sent hundreds of Scottish nobles south to England as captives.

Toom Tabard, needless to say, was one of them. After having the royal arms of Scotland torn from his body in a humiliating ritual at Stracathro near Montrose, he was packed off to the Tower of London for safe keeping. Edward eventually let him go to France, where he ended his days on his family's ancestral estates in Picardy: a far more pleasant fate than most of Edward's enemies.

In the long run, Dunbar was not the decisive blow it may ave appeared at the time: a year later Surrey was embarrassed by William Wallace and Sir Andrew de Moray at Stirling Bridge, and Edward spent the rest of his life leading one army after another across the border, determined to hammer them into submission. Eventually the hammer ran out of steam, and it was left to Edward II, he of Piers Gaveston and red-hot poker fame, to finish the job of conquering Scotland. Let's just say it didn't turn out too well for him...


  1. Fascinating post, David! How many battles were actually won thanks to feigned retreats... Impossible to estimate, I guess. Although I am not sure if the term can be used to describe the tactics employed by Surrey. His men were to pretend they encountered troubles when crossing the river - do I get it right? But they were "retreating"?

    1. Thanks Kasia :) I believe the Vikings were the masters of the feigned retreat - and the Mongols of course, on their tiny little horses...