Wars are won by armies that trust and believe in their leaders. The two Kings in the Battle of Bannockburn Chess Set could not have been more different and therein, lies much of the secret of how an outnumbered, campaign-fatigued gathering was able to meet, repel and ultimately crush the war machine of the Plantagenet.
King of Scots, Robert the Bruce was of far-out royal descent and in early life was even favoured by Edward I of England. He and his brothers attended the Royal Court in London but Bruce became enraged by the tyrannical treatment meted out to the Scots.
Understanding only too well the imbalance of military strength between the two nations, he suffered excruciating restraint in the years leading up to Edward’s assumption of the style of Lord Paramount of Scotland. The savage imposition of Edward’s subsequent rule over the Scots was too much for Bruce and, after much conflict over the possible consequences, he called the Nation to arms.
From 1298 until 1314 the Scots under Bruce fought unequal and desperate campaigns for freedom and independence, often defying the odds by using guerrilla-warfare taught to him by William Wallace, all of this against an enemy that refused to engage him. Until the 23rd of June 1314, that is: when a new chapter - no, a new book - was about to be written.
At that moment, having only just returned from a draining and elongated campaign in the north of England, Bruce was preparing to disperse his fatigued troops. He was sending them home to rest, recover and regroup, only to learn that his warring often foolhardy brother Edward, had challenged the might of England to come north by the 24th of June, or their captive toehold in the heart of Scotland - Stirling Castle - would be surrendered.
On the other side of the table, was Edward II, son of Edward Longshanks, the infamous ‘Hammer of the Scots’, but he was an apple that fell far from that tree. Rather than affairs of the nation and territorial dispute, he found his pleasures at Court and wherever else the notion took him. Only under huge pressure from his own generals and commanders, who recognised only too well the strategic significance of that Castle and its retention, was he compelled to take the road north. As it happened, for one final time.
Edward’s subsequent approach to Bannockburn was riddled with as much self-doubt as his desire not to be there. Almost inevitably, his tactical incompetence surrendered the huge numerical advantage of the English and hastened defeat. On the second day, he fled the battlefield under the protection of Aymer de Valence and Richard de Burgh, father of Bruce’s wife Elizabeth.
Effectively, that was the end for Edward II and further losses at the hands of the Scots during their successful campaigns against the north of England in following years, weakened his monarchy even further. Edward eventually suffered deposition and arrest, and was imprisoned at Berkeley Castle, one of the English rooks in this set. Although he escaped briefly, he was recaptured only to die there in ignominious circumstances in September 1327.
For Robert the Bruce and his astonishing followers, Victory at Bannockburn was not quite the last step on the road to a free Scotland. It was, however, a moment of impending and unstoppable change, as echoed by another feted leader in more contemporary times...
“This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, this is just perhaps the end of the beginning.”
The rest, as they say, is history...