A Narrow Sea - Episode 09
The Bruce Invasion
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
The Stone of Destiny - the traditional Coronation stone of Scottish kings - was not at Scone when Robert Bruce was crowned there as King of Scotland in 1306. It had been seized by Edward I of England at Edinburgh ten years before to show the Scots that he, and no other, was their King.
King Robert soon encountered the might of the English Crown. Three of his brothers were slain; his queen, Elizabeth, became Edward’s prisoner; and Robert himself was forced to spend the winter of 1306-to 1307 in a cave, almost certainly on Rathlin Island.
Edward I died on campaign by the Solway Firth in July 1307.
Burdened by his father’s debts, Edward II was slow to renew the war with Scotland. Secretly returning from hiding to Ayr, King Robert kept to the countryside, patiently building up his forces. When Edward II eventually brought his army north in June 1314 Robert was ready. His army was only half the size of the English King’s but, in front of Stirling Castle, he had chosen his ground with care. Edward’s English knights came to grief as their horses floundered in a bog and fell into deep spiked trenches, dug and camouflaged by Bruce’s men. Those who got through could not break up the ‘schiltrons’- battalions of disciplined Scots foot soldiers packed tightly, shoulder-to-shoulder, with long spears pointing in every direction. This decisive victory at Bannockburn secured Scotland’s independence for centuries to come.
The following year, on the 26th of May 1315, a formidable Scots expeditionary force, commanded by King Robert’s brother Edward Bruce, disembarked at Larne. But why had the Scots come to Ireland? The English lordship in Ireland had regularly supplied the Crown with men and money: Robert was determined to cut that supply line. In any case, King Robert owed much to his surviving brother, Edward Bruce: he had been unflinching in his loyalty and brave and accomplished in battle. His reward would be a crown, to be King of Ireland.
Much bloodshed and suffering ensued. The Annals of Connacht record Edward Bruce’s arrival -
Edward came to Ireland, landing on the coast of north Ulster with the men of three hundred ships, and his warlike slaughtering army caused the whole of Ireland to tremble, both Gael and Foreigner. He began by harrying the choicest parts of Ulster… killing their inhabitants. He then … took hostages and lordship of the whole province without opposition, and all the Gaels of Ireland called him King of Ireland.
The native Irish may have been pleased to see the English get a bloody nose but they were appalled by the manner in which the Scots were devastating their land. Richard de Burgo, Earl of Ulster, was in Connacht attending to his vast estates there when he got news of the Bruce invasion. He did not hesitate to march against the Scots even though his daughter, Elizabeth, was Robert the Bruce’s queen. The Earl’s advance left more destruction and death in its wake:
He brought a great army from all sides … and … went wasting and ravaging across Ireland from the Shannon in the south to Coleraine and Inishowen in the north … Now Edward and his army threw down the bridge of Coleraine to hinder the earl
As John Barbour, the Archdeacon of Aberdeen, recorded:
The Bane, that is ane arme of the se
That with hors may nocht passit be,
Was betuix thame and Ullister.
But with the help of a notorious pirate, Thomas Dun (‘a scummer of the se’, according to Barbour) the Earl got his army across the River Bann and, the annals continue,
he followed them up and encamped opposite Edward; and between them they left neither wood nor lea nor corn nor crop nor stead nor barn, but fired and burnt them all.
The two armies finally met in battle by the Kellswater at Connor. There on the 10th of September 1315 at the Battle of Tawnybrack (JB has never heard of this, he says it’s usually known as the Battle of Connor), the Scots spearmen completely overwhelmed the Earl’s feudal host. Close to Connor, the royal castle of Carrickfergus held out. The garrison was reduced to eating hides as the Scots attempted to starve the castle into submission. A parley was arranged in June 1316; the defenders then treacherously seized the Scots negotiators, and later eight of these men were killed and eaten by the garrison. Finally, after a siege lasting more than a year, Carrickfergus surrendered.
Meanwhile Edward Bruce was sweeping all before him. King Robert joined his brother in December 1316, but though they won many victories they were not winning the war. Lacking siege engines, they failed to take Dublin. Above all, the invaders were running out of food. The Laud Annals assert that the Scots
…were so destroyed with hunger that they… were reduced to eating each one another…
King Robert returned to Scotland in May 1317. Then, in the summer of 1318, reinforced by fresh contingents from England, an army marched up from Dublin and defeated and killed his brother, Edward Bruce, just north of Dundalk. In the opinion of the Annals of Connacht, ‘never was there a better deed done for the Irish than this’.