For as long as Scotland and England have existed as neighbours, the relationship between the two has often been a volatile one, characterised by struggles for power and independence.
In more recent times such struggles have been political ones – ‘wars of words’ rather than those waged with sword and shield. It is one of those earlier armed encounters which we remember today, and which took place on April 27th in the year 1296.
The Battle of Dunbar was the first ‘field action’ in a series of conflicts later called the First War of Scottish Independence. Spanning an 18-year period from 1296 to 1314, it was a time in which England tried to enforce authority over its northern neighbour while Scotland fought to break free of English rule.
The conflict began, as so many between England and Scotland do, in the disputed border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. At that time it was part of Scotland, just north of the border with England, and was the Scots’ most important trading port and a strategic military garrison. Although Scotland was theoretically a separate state with its own king, John Balliol, in truth it bowed to English demands.
The English king, Edward I (known as Edward Longshanks), treated Scotland like a feudal vassal state which was expected to contribute taxes, especially to fund English wars. When he demanded such support for his war against France, the Scots, sick of being bled dry, refused and instead allied themselves to the French.
For Edward, such rebellion had to be punished. Around Easter 1296 he set out to invade Scotland and reassert his authority over the unruly Scots. His first target was Berwick, which his army first besieged and then captured. It was a one-sided victory, but the English sacking of the town was extensive and barbaric, with around 10,000 of its defenders and ordinary townsfolk put to the sword. It was no doubt intended as a message to the Scottish king, rallying his forces further north.
Edward remained in Berwick for a month, with messengers sent demanding a Scottish surrender. Instead John Balliol defiantly renounced his homage to the English throne, prompting Edward to respond: “O foolish knave! What folly he commits. If he will not come to us, we will go to him.”
Heading north, his first objective was the Earl of March’s castle at Dunbar, 30 miles up the coast. The Earl was with the English, but his wife sided with the Scots and allowed them to occupy the castle. The vanguard of Edward’s army was led by John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, who was also John Balliol’s father-in-law. As news of his approach reached Dunbar, its outnumbered defenders sent for urgent assistance from Balliol’s main army, camped some 12 miles away at Haddington.
Balliol sent part of his army, but did not go with it. The fastest moving contingent of both armies were their cavalry, and it was these horsemen who met just outside Dunbar on April 27th. The Scots held an advantage, occupying higher ground, while the English had to cross open ground dissected by a stream before mounting a difficult uphill attack.
As they approached the stream the English ranks began to break in preparation to cross it, but the Scots mistakenly believed their opponents were starting to retreat. With their blood up and anticipating a victory, the Scots launched a single disorganised downhill charge, giving up the high ground. On reaching the valley below they were dismayed to find the English cavalry reformed and advancing in well-drilled order.
The English routed the Scots in a brief and largely bloodless encounter, with far more Scots taken prisoner than killed and the remainder fleeing west for the safety of Ettrick Forest. The next day Edward arrived with the bulk of his infantry and Dunbar Castle surrendered without bloodshed, quickly followed by several other Scots strongholds.
Deprived of the better part of his army, John Balliol fled north pursued by the English before finally agreeing to surrender on June 21st. It meant a series of staged humiliations for the Scottish king, including being ceremoniously stripped of his royal vestments at Montrose, leading to his nickname “Toom Tabard” (empty coat). Both he and his son were sent to captivity in England, with Edward Longshanks also confiscating various symbols of Scottish nationhood including the Stone of Scone, used for centuries in the coronation of Scottish kings.
The brief campaign of 1296 was over, but the war was not and the tables would be turned on the English 18 years later when they met Robert the Bruce at the Battle of Bannockburn.