On this day in 1296 the first Battle of Dunbar was fought between the Scottish forces of King John Balliol and the invading English army of Edward I. The battle was a crushing defeat for the Scots and left the field open for Edward to brush all further opposition aside and advance into central Scotland where he was able to force John’s surrender.
Edward launched his invasion of Scotland in early 1296 in response to the Scottish forming an alliance with France, who were at war with England at the time. The Scots also launched a raid on Carlisle, though this was easily repulsed. Edward had placed John on the Scottish throne in 1292, following the succession crisis caused by Margaret, Maid of Norway’s death in 1290. A condition of Edward’s arbitration was to establish himself as overlord of Scotland and so he treated the country like a feudal vassal. John’s actions were therefore not only seen as an act of war but an act of treachery too.
The opening salvo of what would become known as the First War of Scottish Independence occurred when Edward sacked and captured Berwick-upon-Tweed in March. The English then moved north along the east coast to their next objective, Dunbar Castle. Edward sent one of his chief lieutenants, John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey, John Balliol's own father-in-law, northwards with a strong force of knights to invest the stronghold. The castle, whose garrison was small and no match for the English sent out a call for help, finding John and his army camped at nearby Haddington. In response the army, or a large part of it, advanced to the rescue of Dunbar. John, who was a weak king and an even weaker commander did not accompany it. Instead he placed John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch (Red Comyn) in charge.
The Scottish forces arrived on the morning of April 27th and formed up on Spottismuir - a ridge of high ground overlooking Dunbar. Seeing this, Surrey left his infantry to maintain the siege and moved his mounted forces to engage the Scots. To meet them, Surrey's cavalry had to cross a gully intersected by the Spott 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 quickly 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. The survivors fled westwards to the safety of the Ettrick Forest. The following day King Edward appeared in person and Dunbar castle surrendered.
The remainder of the English campaign was little more than a grand mopping-up operation. Key castles - most notably Roxburgh and Stirling - being handed over without a fight. John fled north to Perth but, perhaps influenced by the fate of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd in the earlier Wars of Welsh Independence, King John capitulated confessing to rebellion and prayed for forgiveness on July 2nd. The final humiliation came at Montrose on July 8th. Dressed for the occasion John was ceremoniously stripped of the vestments of royalty. Antony Bek, the Bishop of Durham, ripped the red and gold arms of Scotland from his surcoat, thus bequeathing to history the nickname Toom Tabard (empty coat). He and his son Edward were sent south into captivity. Soon after, the English king followed, carrying in his train the Stone of Scone and other relics of Scottish nationhood.
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