It’s August 23rd, 1305, in London, England.
The city bakes in the summer sun. Crowds watch as a horse trudges slowly through the filth of the streets. It drags a crude wooden sled carrying the naked, chained body of Scottish leader William Wallace.
The onlooking Londoners pelt the 35-year-old Scotsman with stones and rotting vegetables. Wallace turns his head away from their mockery, but the crowd just laughs. The bleak parade winds through the streets of London for four miles until it reaches a large open field just beyond the city walls.
There, an even larger crowd awaits.
From the sled behind the horse, Wallace stares up at the sky and the grim silhouette of the gallows above him. A bird perches on its beam. Soon, Wallace knows, it will be him hanging there instead. He can hear the crackle of a fire burning nearby…
It’s there his entrails will be burned after they’ve been cut out and shown to him. And only then will the executioner finally end Wallace’s suffering by cutting off his head.
A great crowd has come to watch Wallace die. They roar with excitement as the Scotsman is dragged from the sled and shoved toward the gallows. His execution is about to begin.
England and Scotland were once completely separate countries, with their own kings, churches, and laws. But in the late 1200s, the Scottish throne fell vacant and England invaded. The English king, Edward I, was obsessed with controlling Scotland – he thought that England would never thrive if it had to constantly defend itself against a hostile neighbor to the north. He wanted to make Scotland a province of England.
But many Scots weren’t as keen on the idea and, in 1297, a knight named William Wallace began an uprising against the English occupation. After Wallace was defeated on the battlefield though, the rebel leader was betrayed by a fellow countryman, taken to London, and put on trial for treason.
With Wallace’s grisly execution, King Edward hopes he has put an end to Scottish dreams of independence. But north of the border a new leader will soon emerge. A nobleman named Robert the Bruce will crown himself King of Scotland and take the fight to the English once again. His campaign will be a long one. But Robert the Bruce will finally secure his reign as King of an independent Scotland at the Battle of Old Byland on October 14th, 1322.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
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Today is October 14th, 1322: The Battle of Old Byland.
Act One: Independence
It’s March 25th, 1306 in the Abbey of Scone in central Scotland, seven months after the execution of Scottish hero William Wallace.
Robert the Bruce, a 31-year-old Scottish nobleman, sits on a throne at the center of the great vaulted church. Banners and flags hang from the stone columns around him. An elderly bishop, wrapped in thick robes, steps forward, holding a simple crown in his gnarled hands.
In the months after Wallace’s execution, the English seized complete control over Scotland – their elderly king, Edward I, is set on absorbing the whole country into England. Most of the Scottish nobility, hoping to protect their families and their estates, reluctantly cooperated with the new English rulers. But the desire for Scottish independence did not die with William Wallace.
Outwardly, Robert the Bruce may have seemed like just another nobleman grudgingly giving his loyalty to the English. But in private, Robert was plotting to seize the Scottish crown. In the spring of 1306, his ambitions were betrayed though, and Robert realized he had to make a choice – either flee before the English could catch and punish him for his defiance, or follow through on his ambitions and become King of Scotland.
Robert chose to stay and fight.
Today, Robert is reaping the reward of his efforts. The bishop raises the crown into the air and prays for God’s blessing, before placing it on Robert’s head and declaring him King of the Scots.
Following his coronation at Scone, Robert gathers forces to drive the English out of Scotland. Far away to the south, the news of a brewing rebellion reaches Edward I. He gives orders for his men to stamp it out immediately, and no mercy is to be shown to the new King of Scotland or to his followers.
On June 19th, 1306, the English launch a surprise attack on Robert and his small army in central Scotland. The battle is a chastening defeat for Robert, but he lives to fight another day and soon begins a vicious guerilla campaign against the English. Each successful attack encourages more Scots to join Robert’s rebellion. And as his army grows in strength, the Scottish king makes plans to sweep the English from his country once and for all.
By the summer of 1314, Robert’s liberation of Scotland is almost complete. Aside from a few isolated castles scattered across the country, the English only retain control over a handful of towns in the southeast, close to the border.
But the English have not given up their fight either. Although Edward I, the so-called “hammer of the Scots,” is now dead, his successor, Edward II, shares his father’s attitude to Scotland – he thinks that England cannot be successful unless its northern border is secure. And the only way Edward sees to gain that security is through occupation.
So, Edward raises an army and marches north. His plan is eventually to subjugate all of Scotland again, but the first priority is to relieve Stirling Castle. The Scots have been besieging the fortress there for months because of its enormous strategic importance – the castle sits on the main road through the country and controls the route to the Scottish Highlands. If the English can reach the stronghold, King Edward will have a staging post for his massive army to dominate central Scotland.
But Robert the Bruce is determined to not let that happen. Quickly, he gathers thousands of his troops in fields near the Scottish town of Sterling. On June 23rd, 1314, after celebrating Sunday mass, Robert announces that a battle is coming. He tells the soldiers that any man whose heart is not in the fight, who is not prepared to win or die as God wills it, has leave now to depart.
The ground shakes as the Scottish soldiers shout back: none of them will go.
The Battle of Bannockburn, as this conflict will come to be known, lasts for two days. The English forces outnumber the Scots by as much as four to one. But King Edward’s troops are exhausted – he’s force-marched them for miles to get here and they are in no fit state to fight. The chaotic battle turns into a rout, and though King Edward himself fights bravely on the front lines, he barely escapes with his life.
It will be a famous triumph for the Scots. But Robert the Bruce’s reign will still not be secure. Edward II will flee south, but he will return with an even greater army, determined to avenge his loss at Bannockburn, defeat Robert the Bruce, and impose English rule on Scotland forever.
Act Two: Invasion
It’s early August 1322, two months before the Battle of Old Byland.
Outside the city of Newcastle in northeast England, a vast army encampment stretches over the hills and fields.
Riding on a magnificent war horse, King Edward II parades through the camp. Once again, he’s mustered an army to wage war on the Scots. The English soldiers line up to hail their king. There are 20,000 infantrymen here, and more than 3,000 cavalry. It’s a huge army, far larger than any the Scots will be able to gather in response. Edward hopes it will be enough to finally crush the rebellion.
After the disastrous defeat at Bannockburn in 1314, Edward II’s reign tottered from disaster to disaster. Cold winters and torrential rains decimated English agriculture. The bad weather ruined several harvests and killed livestock. As a result, the country’s lucrative wool trade collapsed and food prices skyrocketed. Many of the poorest in England simply starved.
To some, these misfortunes were punishments from God – and they believed the king himself was to blame. Since then, the country has become increasingly unhappy and divided over Edward’s rule. And last year, these tensions erupted into civil war in England. A group of barons and noblemen revolted against King Edward’s rule. But after a year of fighting, the rebellion collapsed. In March 1322, Edward won a resounding victory over the noblemen.
Having reasserted his grip on power at home, Edward turned his attention north. Robert the Bruce has succeeded in his long-held dream of ending the English occupation and liberating his homeland. But Edward II has no intention of recognizing Robert as King of Scotland. He still seeks revenge for his humiliating defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn. And, today, Edward thinks his large army is finally ready to re-establish England’s dominance over its neighbor.
As he admires the size of his forces at Newcastle, Edward gives the order for his army to embark. The soldiers are to march north and begin a new invasion of Scotland, one which Edward hopes will finally bring the rebellious kingdom to heel.
For the next few weeks, the invaders march deeper and deeper into enemy territory. But no Scottish army advances to meet them. The lands which the English march through are deserted. All the crops have been burnt and there’s no sign of any livestock. According to one account, the only food or plunder the invading army finds in all of southern Scotland is a single lame cow. The Scots have fled and left nothing behind for the English army to forage.
But King Edward and his advisers are prepared for this. After many years fighting the Scots, they are well-familiar with their enemy’s tactics, and preparations were made to counter this scorched-earth policy. Before leaving Newcastle, Edward dispatched a fleet of thirty ships, loaded with supplies, to meet the army in Edinburgh. As long as the English fleet and the army can successfully reach the Scottish capital, Edward’s campaign has a chance.
But when the King arrives in Edinburgh and looks out across the waters of its harbor, he doesn’t see a fleet. Instead, Edward sees just three English ships waiting for his army. He needs to know what’s happened to the others, and soon, a rider is dispatched to the port to investigate. Soon the bad news is confirmed.
The other ships in the fleet aren’t coming. On their journey north, many of them were attacked by pirates or forced to change course by bad weather. This is a devastating blow to Edward's plans. Without the supplies from the fleet, Edward’s army can’t feed itself, and starving soldiers can’t fight.
It becomes clear the invasion is over before it’s begun; Edward has no choice but to order a humiliating withdrawal back to England. But as his bedraggled and starving troops march back south, Robert the Bruce strikes. Scottish forces harry the retreating English using the guerilla tactics they’ve honed over many years of fighting.
The Scots chase the English all the way to the border. And in early September, just a month after King Edward’s army left its camp in Newcastle, his dejected soldiers creep back into England.
But they will not be safe there either. Robert the Bruce will have no intention of stopping at the border. Instead, he will order his raiding parties to continue into England. There, they will ravage towns and cities, burning and pillaging, until Edward II is forced to accept that his ambitions north of the border are at an end and that Robert the Bruce is the one true King of Scotland.
Act Three: Battle
It’s late on October 14th, 1322 in the county of Yorkshire in northern England.
Horses thunder down a dirt road. King Edward II and a small retinue of his closest allies ride hard, their fiery torches streaking through the darkness of the fields and forests. They’re heading east toward the coast as fast as they can.
Normally, Edward would travel in a great convoy of soldiers and officials, with wagons following behind filled with fine clothes, food, and the king’s various treasures. But all that has been left behind. Tonight, the King of England is fleeing for his life.
After his withdrawal from Scotland last month, Edward thought that hostilities were paused. He didn’t believe the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, would be so bold as to come this far south. But he was mistaken. Edward was lodging at an abbey in Yorkshire when he heard the news that Robert’s armies had advanced rapidly into England and were just 15 miles away.
Edward scrambled to mount a response. A small English army engaged the Scots outside the village of Old Byland. They were outnumbered and outsmarted by the forces of Robert the Bruce. It was another stunning victory for the Scottish King.
When word of the defeat reached Edward at the abbey a few miles away, he rode off into the night to avoid capture.
Fleeing across the Yorkshire countryside, Edward manages to reach the coast and escape the rampaging Scots. But the defeat at Old Byland is a blow to Edward’s authority from which he never recovers.
While the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314 had been calamitous for Edward, it at least took place deep in enemy territory. This reversal at Old Byland, almost a hundred miles inside the borders of England, is an even greater humiliation.
And it’s not long before Edward’s reign collapses. Five years after the defeat at Old Byland, Edward II is forced to give up the crown. The following year, his successor finally signs a treaty that confirms on paper what had been won on the battlefield: recognition of Scotland as an independent state with Robert the Bruce as its king.
That treaty won’t end the wars between England and Scotland forever. But it will secure Scottish independence for the rest of Robert’s reign. It will be a diplomatic triumph that perhaps would be impossible without the stunning military victory at the battle at Old Byland on October 14th, 1322.
Next onHistory Daily. October 17th, 1933. Albert Einstein arrives in the United States after fleeing antisemitic persecution in Nazi Germany.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by William Simpson.
Produced by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.