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Sites & Memories of "Battles Long Ago"

The subject of this chapter is the historic battles of Britain which are not dealt with in other sections, e.g. the Wars of the Roses, the Civil War, and the battles of The '45, all of which have separate chapters devoted to them.
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Nowhere, perhaps, do history and archaeology meet and blend more entirely than on the field of battle. The echo of ancient trumpets raises the deep music of chronicle to a crescendo which awakes the more vivid attention of the reader lagging under the dreary political argument. He beholds the coloured shadows of old banners and the sparkle of armour which has long been rust. The momentum of military action, even when transferred to the printed page, excites observation.

The engagements briefly described in the present chapter are such as are not separately and specifically dealt with in other pages of this work. The battles of the Wars of the Roses and of the Civil War, together with the battles of the Boyne and Culloden, are dealt with elsewhere. The excuse offered for bringing together a number of British battles which have little or no historical connexion is that of a common romantic interest as well as the desire for completeness. A battlefield is as surely an archaeological site as that of Stonehenge or the Lake Village at Glastonbury. It is a trace of the past, and even though no outward vestiges of human tempest remain on its stage, is there not always in the very atmosphere of such fields as Flodden or Bannockburn the sense of that vast quiet which hangs about the deserted theatres of the drama of man? And does not the mind people these now deserted heaths with rushing battalions of mailed shadows under a woodland of spears?

The fight of Evesham of August 4, 1265, conjures up for us such a panorama of brilliant historical action. It was the last stand of a courageous but unprincipled leader battling to the death against terrific odds, and even in shame and defeat justifying the prowess of the English warrior. Its last act was played out on the Green Hill, a slight eminence to the north-west of the town, and now marked by a memorial obelisk, where the usurper Leicester and his more worthy son, Simon de Montfort, died beneath the swords of the justly incensed followers of Prince Edward, afterwards Edward I, who had so lately escaped from the arch-rebel's clutches. Edward, advancing against Leicester's castle of Kenilworth, was met by the insurgent earl with a much inferior force, which included the prince's captive father, King Henry III.

Leicester's object was to cut his way through the royal army and gain the Kenilworth road, by which he hoped to escape. But, deserted by his Welsh followers, he lacked weight in numbers to penetrate Edward's serried ranks, and was compelled to take up a position on the Green Hill. The mound in question was the scene of a desperate conflict in which no quarter was given. In the melee King Henry was unhorsed and would have been despatched had he not revealed his identity. In the event, both Leicester and his son, Sir Simon, fighting like paladins, were beaten down and slain, and his small force, lost in a sea of steel, was practically demolished, no fewer than 180 barons and knights falling beneath the swords and maces of the avenging Royalists. Sir Simon was buried in Evesham Abbey, and the site of his interment is marked by a modern granite cross, while a small column in the grounds of the abbey manor house, situated to the north of the town, indicates the spot where he fell fighting beneath the whirlwind blades of his foes.

Nothing in the grim saga of the disastrous wars between England and Scotland is more striking than the manner in which the leaders of the northern nation failed to profit by the repeated demonstrations of English superiority in the use of cavalry and the long-bow. And in no instance was this pre-eminence more marked than at the battle of Falkirk, fought on July 22, 1298. Edward I, alarmed by the elevation of Sir William Wallace to the Guardianship of Scotland, and by the repeated reverses which his lieutenants were experiencing at the hands of the national hero, resolved to march against him in person, and for that purpose collected a large army, with which he encamped at Kirkliston in the county of Haddingtonshire.

Meanwhile, Wallace had taken up a strong position near Falkirk, guarded in front by a morass and strengthened by palisades. The English, advancing across the heights of Callender, saw before them the vast oak forest known as the Torwood stretching away to Stirling. Immediately in front, and midway between Falkirk and the river Carron, lay the army of the Scots, with its canopy of spear-blades glinting in the sun, and drawn up in the form of schiltroms or phalanxes, square formations in which the long lances overlapped each other, seeming, says Langtoft, "like a castle of steel."

The English army, 100,000 strong, advanced in three divisions, turned the morass in front of the Scottish position, and rushed pell-mell to the attack. The Scottish army, which numbered about 30,000, was deficient in cavalry, and such as it could boast of was led by Norman nobles, many of whom owed allegiance to Edward for lands in England, and who incontinently fled. But the schiltroms stood their ground doggedly, and at first repulsed the repeated charges of the English horse.

But Edward, whose tactical eye was of the keenest, quickly discerned that he might reap a greater advantage by withdrawing his squadrons and harassing the Scottish phalanxes with his archery. Flight after flight of cloth-yard shafts and stones from the Welsh slings were now directed against the schiltroms, which, unable to retaliate, wavered and broke at length. At this juncture the heavily armed English cavalry was once more loosed upon them. A wild stampede followed, and Wallace, with only the remnant of his army, succeeded in gaining the refuge of the Torwood, leaving several thousands dead on the field.

The site of the great battle of Bannockburn (1314), one of the decisive conflicts of the world, is as well marked topographically and has been quite as closely surveyed as that of the battles of Marathon or Waterloo. Almost overhung by the grey fortalice of Stirling Castle, from which it lies southward scarcely a couple of miles, and having its site bounded on the south by the villages of Bannockburn, St. Ninians and Whins of Milton, its central and most important point is marked by the great boulder known as the Bore Stone, which traditionally indicates the place where King Robert the Bruce's standard was reared.

The romantic situation of this storied field, in what is still known as "the King's Park," still bears slight traces of the titanic struggle which raged over its dark heath for two days. To the west lies the Gillies' Hill, whence the camp-followers of the Scottish army made so timeous an attack on the flagging Southern invaders, and not far to the south-west of the Bore Stone are numerous indentations which local tradition stoutly avers are the remains of those deep pits among which the Bruce intended to decoy the English cavalry - "intended," for although digged and filled with pointed stakes, they were never actually made use of, as recent research has substantiated.

The numbers of the forces involved on either side have undoubtedly been greatly exaggerated, nor is the account of the battle as generally accepted at all within the bounds of probability. Recent research has made it plain that the true cause of the English defeat was the rash manoeuvre by which, at the close of the first day's fighting, Edward II pitched his encampment on the marshy ground formed by the meeting of the river Forth and the Bannock burn. By this ill-advised movement he placed himself in an angle between the two streams and so fell into a natural trap, whence escape was virtually impossible. Cooped up in this narrow space, about three miles in length by two in breadth, the English forces could not deploy or re-form, and when their cavalry was encountered by the Scottish schiltroms or spear-phalanxes, the heaps of slaughtered horses in the front ranks made it impossible for their mounted rear ranks to advance. It was, however, comparatively easy for the Scottish spearmen to advance over the prostrate knights and horses, and by dint of their long spears to slay the English mounted men beyond almost without without fear of retaliation. But so narrow was the front that only a comparative few could engage on either side, and the English rear ranks kept pressing on their foremost files, pushing and embarrassing them. Edward's army was, in fact, a helpless mass jammed in a death-trap, and thousands never had the chance of striking a blow.

At last they broke and plunged into the water on either side. Those who crossed the Bannock fared better than the crowds who attempted to swim the Forth. Thousands were drowned, and those who succeeded in crossing swarmed up the Castle rock of Stirling. The slaughter of fugitives was enormous. A vast treasure, estimated at nearly three million pounds of our present currency, was taken in plunder, and enriched Scottish abbeys until the days of Mary, Bothwell actually being tricked out after his marriage to her in a suit of cloth-of-gold made from material taken at Bannockburn.

The battle in which David II, the son of Robert the Bruce, at Neville's Cross sustained heavy defeat in 1346 was not on the same scale as the victory of Bannockburn, but was disastrous for Scotland. The passionate and headstrong young Scottish king lacked the sagacity of his heroic father. Almost immediately before his ill-advised incursion into England a two years' peace had been cemented with that country, but a raid by the Douglases into Cumberland once more precipitated hostilities. David raised a large army at Perth and, entering England, put the garrison of Durham to the sword, and carried rapine and slaughter southward. But the great northern barons had risen to repel the invader, and an array of 30,000 men hastened to meet him. It surprised an advance body of the Scots at Ferry Hill, and pressing onward, encountered the main army, which had encamped at Beaurepair, now Bear Park, less than two miles north of the city of Durham.

The scene of the battle is, indeed, now a rural suburb of the cathedral town, situated on rising ground about a mile from Durham market-place, and still exhibiting signs of the unfortunate position of the Scottish army, the divisions of which were separated by ditches and enclosures which made it impossible for them to support each other. It is hilly, and in some places so steep towards the river Wear that it must have been well-nigh impossible for masses of men to manoeuvre in such a place. Scarcely were the Scots marshalled in order when they were attacked by nearly 20,000 English archers. Sir John de Graham requested permission of King David to charge them, but this wise plan, developed out of long experience, was set aside.

The English archers attacked the right wing of the Scots, led by the Earl of Moray, and the deadly arrow-hail soon flew thick and fast, taking its toll of Scottish lives. Through the gaps made in the Scottish ranks the English bill-men charged, and its leaders falling, the division took to flight. The English then attacked the centre, commanded by King David in person, the right flank of which was uncovered by the defeat of the right wing. For more than three hours the contest was obstinately maintained, and David, although wounded by two arrows, fought valiantly in the midst of the ever-thinning ring of his nobles. At last a Northumbrian knight, Sir John Copeland, grappled with him, and although David wounded him severely in the face with his dagger, succeeded in disarming the king and making him prisoner. At the fall of the royal banner the left wing of the Scots, commanded by the Steward and the Earl of March, left the field and made good their retreat. Fifty barons and knights were captured, and about 15,000 Scotsmen are said to have been slain. David was carried captive to London, where he remained till ransomed eleven years later. The calamity of Neville's Cross, an earlier Flodden, brought the Scottish crown and nation to the brink of ruin, and had it not been for the exertion of the Steward, who escaped with the left wing of the army, Scotland would assuredly have become reduced to the position of an English province.

Shortly after the battle a cross was erected on the site by Ralph, Lord Neville, who had fought in the action. It remained entire until the year 1589, when it was broken down and defaced, probably as the work of religious reformers. Some authorities believe the cross to have been set up at a period prior to that of the battle.

"The Red Harlaw," as it is known in tradition and ballad, was fought in 1411 about two miles to the north-west of Inverurie, a monument on the banks of the river Ury, from which that town takes its name, commemorating the spot. The contestants were Donald, Lord of the Isles, who claimed the Earldom of Ross on behalf of his wife, and the Earl of Mar, who commanded the Government forces. The strife raged furiously till nightfall, when the Highland host withdrew, leaving the field in the hands of the men of Buchan. This action was certainly one of the most sanguinary and hotly contested in the long roll of Scottish battles.

Flodden field, where befel the greatest military disaster ever experienced by Scottish arms, is situated ten miles north-west of Wooler in Northumberland, and two and a half miles south-east of Branxton station. It is distant only some three miles from Coldstream on the Border, to the southeast of which lies Flodden Edge, the eminence on which the Scottish army, led by its king, James IV, took up its position immediately prior to the battle.

On James's invasion of England on behalf of France, with which Henry VIII was then at war, the Earl of Surrey, in the absence of his king, promptly gathered the forces of the northern English counties and marched against the Scottish host, which, like his own, numbered about 30,000 men.

Flodden plain remains to all intents and purposes practically unchanged since the period of the battle. The field has more than one memorial of the terrific combat which it witnessed on September 9, 1513. A monument, erected a few years ago, and inscribed "to the brave of both nations," marks the spot where, says tradition, King James IV fell. Almost in the centre of the field is Branxton church, a building contemporary with the fight.

Surrey, marching from Wooler, crossed the Till at Twisel bridge, thus cutting off the Scots from all hope of retreat to their own country. The manoeuvre was one which, by all the laws of war, the romantic James would have been justified in checking either by firing on the advancing squadrons with his ordnance, or by charging down on them when half their number had crossed, thus cutting them off from the main body and inflicting almost certain disaster. But, animated by a mistaken sense of chivalry, he delayed till Surrey's forces had crossed in their entirety, then setting fire to his tents, he charged down through the smoke upon the waiting English.

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