Throughout the late 13th to early 14th century, Britain and Ireland was the scene of intense bloody conflict. The Scottish Wars of Independence – which saw Robert Bruce ultimately crowned as king of the Scots – were arduous, brutal conflicts that tore the very fabric of medieval Britain.
Scotland had long been prized by the Kingdom of England, which dominated both mainland Britain and Ireland. Although an independent Kingdom, Scotland was vulnerable in its position as the smaller, weaker kingdom. One that had been regularly engulfed by petty rebellion, famine & poverty.
King Edward I is the archetypal authoritarian ruler of the Medieval period. Unrelenting, intelligent and ruthless toward those who oppose him.
He crushed the rebellion of William Wallace, had him hung, drawn and quartered – a frightening taste of his vengeance. His death, however, marks a pivotal moment in British history. His son Edward II was not of the same cloth – often portrayed as a gentile, perhaps weak man, incapable of the strength or cruelty his father possessed.
As Edward II fled the field at Bannockburn in 1314, Scotland appeared to be the up-and-coming kingdom in Britain and Ireland. King Robert Bruce would solidify his rule in Scotland; preparing for any future invasion and implementing a defence network that took advantage of Scotland’s natural barriers.
It’s daunting mountain ranges and glens, perilous waterways and turbulent coastlines would all ensure Scotland was adequately defended.
Securing Scotland’s internal security was not the only part of this plan, however. Rather than prepare for a future defensive war, the Scots would seize the moment and capitalise on English disarray – the Kingdom of Scotland would go on the front foot and expand, with aspirations to be the largest kingdom in Britain and Ireland.
Uniting the Celts
Edward Bruce, under the orders of his brother, King Robert, launched an offensive in Ireland to unite the two regions under the crowns of both Robert and Edward. The former would retain control of Scotland, and the latter would adopt the mantle of High King of Ireland. This bold strategy would have the potential to completely change the dynamic of Medieval politics in the British Isles and forge a kingdom formidable enough to match England and other great powers in mainland Europe.
The reasoning behind this is quite clear; open up a second front against the English, stretch their capabilities and capitalise on the weakness of King Edward II.
Edward II appeared to be completely blind to the reality of the situation he found himself in after Bannockburn. His nobles grew concerned over his ability to rule and with a resurgent kingdom to his north – one that was growing in confidence – he needed to act.
Support for the Bruce proposal in Ireland was welcomed by some in the North. Historically the Bruce family had ties to the Ulster region through their mother Marjorie, the Countess of Carrick. With both Celtic and Norman heritage, the Bruce’s had ample opportunity to create a lasting, cross-cultural dynasty.
However, similar to the cultural self-determination of the Scots, the Irish had long been wary of foreign interference – regardless of shared heritage between both peoples.
In May 1315, after being declared the rightful heir to his brother’s kingship, Edward Bruce landed in Ireland with a force believed to be around 5,000 men.
At this time, Ireland was divided into a series of smaller, petty kingdoms, many of whom initially opposed Edward. However, in June of 1315, King Donal O’Neil of Tyrone swore fealty to Edward along with a dozen other northern kings; proclaiming Edward as King of Ireland.
Irish accounts of the time state: “they consented to him being proclaimed King of Ireland and all the Gaels.”
With this act, Edward had secured a significant foothold in Ireland, ruling much of middle and eastern Ulster. This plunged the English nobility into a frenzy. English control of Ireland had been secure for a number of years and was highly profitable to the kingdom. With such a disastrous defeat a mere 12 months before at Bannockburn, and now the establishment of a united kingdom in Northern Ireland, many in England were losing what little faith they had left in their beleaguered monarch.
After seizing Carrickfergus Bruce marched south to take Dundalk. Bruce laid waste to the town, raising virtually all of the buildings and massacring indiscriminately both the Gaelic and Anglo-Irish inhabitants. Although an act of shocking barbarism, it appears Bruce did so to intimidate the opposing Irish dominions that he would come to encounter. Instilling fear into minds of potential adversaries may oblige them to comply with his conquest. For some, however, it could embolden their desire to resist.
In July, Bruce would face the greatest test of his budding kingship. At Sliabh Breagh, near Ardee, he was faced with two opposing forces. Led by Richard Og de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster and the King of Connacht, Bruce faced a formidable challenge to his advance. The second opposing force, led by Edmund Butler, Earl of Carrick, looked to surround Bruce to hamper his supplies and potential routes of retreat.
Rather than engaging with a numerically superior force, Bruce decided to withdraw, sacking the town of Coleraine during his retreat and isolating De Burgh’s forces after burning the bridge over the river Bann. His second action would be to parlay with rivals to Felim, King of Connacht.
Negotiations were successful and Connacht’s rival factions swiftly invaded the kingdom, forcing Felim to withdraw and suppress the rebellion at home.
After crossing the river Bann, fresh with supplies and troops, Bruce defeated De Burgh near Connor in September.
English control of Ireland was on the ropes. Could Bruce be defeated? Was this the beginning of the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the heralding of a new dominant kingdom?
Prophetical tales claiming Robert Bruce to be King Arthur reborn began to circulate around England. Edward II went so far as to execute those who were proliferating these ‘prophecies’.
The idea of this is particularly interesting. Dating back centuries, the tale of King Arthur points toward a resurgence of the subjugated Celtic people’s in the British Isles. The deposition of the largely Saxon & Norman-based culture now prevalent on mainland Britain and the ascension of Celtic culture would completely alter history as we know it.
For the English, the situation was becoming very dangerous. If Ireland were to fall entirely into the hands of The Bruce’s, then there was potential for Wales to follow suit. Additionally, England lay claim to Irish holdings through Papal Decree – if the Papacy decided to abandon this in favour of Edward Bruce then the outcome was bleak.
This exact scenario almost came to fruition in 1317. After two years of tentative but successful campaigning in Ireland, supporters of Edward Bruce requested that Pope John XXII delegitimise the English claim to Ireland in support of Edward. Fortunately for King Edward II, this request was ignored.
This proved to be the perfect opportunity for Edward II to re-establish his rule and begin repairing a reputation in tatters. He called upon the Anglo-Irish Council – an institutional method of regional control – to begin preparations for a joint effort against the Scots-Irish alliance. Reinforcements were dispatched to Ireland in light of recent losses, which saw a joint force defeat Edward Bruce and sack Kells.
After wintering in Loughswedy, Edward Bruce began preparations to move further toward his ultimate goal. However, by this point, support was beginning to dwindle.
The denial of Pope John XXII dented his pride and legitimacy. Furthermore, Edward’s supply system was beginning to irritate the Irish population; depleting food reserves are a surefire way to infuriate a population already caught in the middle of a conflict.
A continual supply chain from Scotland was not viable at the time and so they resorted to pillaging and plundering the regions through which they travelled. With their logistics strained, Edward failed to completely control the regions he had previously conquered and his reputation deteriorated further
History is often cruel, the events that would unfold across Europe were out of anyone’s control. From 1315 to 1317, Europe suffered through what became known as the Great Pan-European Famine, and Ireland shared in this turmoil. With a lack of food, no army can survive, and as disease and disorder spread, numbers will dwindle over time.
Edward, it seems, fell victim to the tumultuous nature of a more primitive era, His forces fragmented and support dwindling among the Irish population, he was finally defeated and killed at the Battle of Faughart in 1318.
Not much is known of the Battle of Faughart other than that Bruce was the architect of his own defeat. He may have been over-confident in his ability to outwit the Anglo-Irish forces he faced. His Irish allies are said to have refused to engage with the enemy outside Dundalk, and as such he placed them at the rear, choosing his Scottish troops to lead the vanguard.
In addition to this, he decided not to wait for reinforcements from home. Scottish chronicler John Barbour, as well as the Annals of Clonmacnoise both suggest Bruce reacted in an impulsive manner:
[He was] “anxious to obtain the victory for himself, he did not wait for Sir John Stewart’s brother.”
Contrary to these accounts, English chronicles of the time point toward an apparent level of naivety and incompetence among Bruce and his commanders.
“The Scots were in three columns at such a distance from each other that the first was done with before the second came up, and then the second before the third, with which Edward was marching could render any aid.
“Thus the third column was routed just as the two preceding ones had been. Edward fell at the same time and was beheaded after death; his body being divided into four quarters, which were sent to the four chief quarters of Ireland.”
This crushing defeat signalled the end of the Bruce family master plan for a united Celtic kingdom. Scotland’s security was assured to a degree, yet the spectre of English vengeance would linger for several decades to come.
Scotland did have successes on mainland Britain in the years following Edward Bruce’s death. In 1322, the Battle of Byland in Yorkshire lays claim to Scotland’s most significant victory over England since Bannockburn, albeit on a smaller scale. In the centuries to come, peace was never concrete and clashes throughout the border regions of both respective kingdoms were a common feature.
One must ponder the impact upon British and European history this would have had. The combined area, population, wealth and might of Scotland and Ireland may have proven a buffer against English expansion and aggression during the period.
It is possible that success in this endeavour may have destabilised England further and developed a new political dynamic in Britain and Ireland.
A weakened England may have been unable to effectively engage with the French on mainland Europe, and the British Isles may have seen a dominant military, political and cultural force in the form of the Scots-Irish Kingdom, rather than Anglo-Norman.