Battle of Dunbar (1296)

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Scottish Independence

The Battle of Dunbar was the only significant field action in the campaign of 1296. King Edward I of England had invaded Scotland in 1296 to punish King John Balliol for his refusal to support English military action in France.

Contents

Background

After the sack of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Edward rushed to complete the conquest of Scotland, remained in the town for a month, supervising the strengthening of its defences. On 5 April, he received a message from King John renouncing his homage, to which he remarked, more in contempt than anger, O foolish knave! What folly he commits. If he will not come to us we will go to him."

The next objective in the campaign was the Earl of March's castle at Dunbar, a few miles up the coast from Berwick. March was with the English, but his wife, Marjory Comyn, sister of the Earl of Buchan, did not share her husband's political loyalties and allowed her fellow Scots to occupy the castle. Edward sent one of his chief lieutenants, John de Warenne, 7th Earl of Surrey, John Balliol's own father-in-law, northwards with a strong force of knights to invest the stronghold. The defenders sent messages to King John, bivouacked with the main body of his army at nearby Haddington, asking for urgent assistance. In response the army, or a large part of it, advanced to the rescue of Dunbar. John, who was showing even less skill as a commander than he had as a king, did not accompany it. The campaign of 1296 was now to enter its final phase.

Battle

There is little evidence to suggest that Dunbar was anything other than an action between two bodies of mounted men-at-arms (armoured cavalry). Surrey's force seems to have comprised one formation (out of four) of the English cavalry; the Scots force lead in part by Comyns probably represented the greater part of their cavalry element. The two forces came in sight of each other on April 27. The Scots occupied a strong position on some high ground to the west. To meet them, Surrey's cavalry had to cross a gully intersected by the Spot Burn. As they did so their ranks broke up, and the Scots, deluded into thinking the English were leaving the field, abandoned their position in a disorderly downhill charge, only to find that Surrey's forces had reformed on Spottsmuir and were advancing in perfect order. The English routed the disorganised Scots in a single charge. The action was brief and probably not very bloody, since the only casualty of any note was a minor Lothian knight, Sir Patrick Graham, though about 100 Scottish lords, knights and men-at-arms were taken prisoner. According to one English source over ten thousand Scots died at the battle of Dunbar, however this is probably a confusion with the casualties incurred at the storming of Berwick. The survivors fled westwards to the safety of Selkirk Forest. The following day King Edward appeared in person and Dunbar castle surrendered. Some important prisoners were taken: John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and the earls of Atholl, Ross and Menteith, together with 130 knights and esquires. All were sent into captivity in England.

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