The Battle of Dunbar was fought on the 27th of April, 1296.
There have been two battles called 'The Battle of Dunbar' and to distinguish between them, they are referred to as 'Dunbar 1' and 'Dunbar 2'. The second is also referred to as “Cromwell's greatest victory” and could perhaps be called “Leslie's greatest defeat” and the first, which concerns this post, could also count amongst a list of someone's 'greatest defeats' – the Scots didnae win!
The history of battles is never impartial, with omissions and exaggerations being rife, especially in contemporary reports. The historic record often depends on whether the winners or the losers wrote the report. If the losers left anyone behind capable of writing up the events, that usually means some truth can be gleaned from studying both versions. However, a common misconception concerning Dunbar 1, namely that Robert the Bruce fought on the side of the Norman-English on the 27th of April, 1296, has nothing to do with partiality. The error derives from
mischievousness as there is no evidence Bruce did fight. Nevertheless, both Robert the Bruce's father and the man himsel' were on Edward's side in that 1296 campaign.
The road to Dunbar began with two events. One was the conclusion of the Treaty of Paris, which was sealed between the French and the Scots, represented by their King, John Balliol, and many of his nobles, on the 23rd of February, 1296. Apart from that treaty, which effectively lasted 300 years, the other was Balliol's refusal to concede to the demands of Edward I of England. Longshanks, considering himself Balliol's overlord, had demanded Scottish troops be raised on his behalf in support of his campaign in Gascony. Balliol's twofold salute served only to annoy Edward, who promptly ordered his feudal army to assemble at Newcastle-upon-Tyne for the 1st of March, 1296.
The army of the 'Hammer of the Scots', said to number 35,000 men [25,000-30,000 infantry and 5000 cavalry], marched on Berwick-upon-Tweed, then in Scottish hands. Edward had reached Wark Castle by the 25th of March 25, where he paused for Easter and received oaths of fealty from some Scottish-based nobles loyal to his cause, including both Bruces and the Earl of Dunbar and March. While Edward had been storming northwards, a strong Scottish force, assembled near Selkirk on the 18th of March, crossed the border and struck the first blow. Led by the Earl of Buchan and John 'the Red' Comyn, the Scots attacked Carlisle on the 26th of March, but were unable to breach the town's defences, which were held for Edward I by Robert the Bruce's father.
The English sacked Berwick, then a rich Scottish burgh, on the 30th of March, slaughtering over 7,000 [11,000 in one account] of its 12,500 [11,000-16,000] inhabitants; men, women and children. Edward paused at Berwick for the better part of a month, despite Balliol further winding him up by sending a message renouncing his homage. Edward's contemptuous response to that message, received on the 5th of April, has been recorded as; “Oh foolish knave! What folly he commits. If he will not come to us, we will go to him.” Meanwhile, in retribution for Berwick, the Scots, moving south and eastwards after their failed attempt on Carlisle, raided deep into Northumberland. By the 8th of April, the Scottish army had burned villages and abbeys in Tyneside, Redesdale and Coquetdale. Then, turning back into Scotland, the leadership sought refuge and respite at Dunbar Castle.
The castle of Dunbar belonged to the Earl of Dunbar and March, another Scot who was with Edward's army, but his fortress was opened in welcome by his wife, Marjory Comyn, sister of the Earl of Buchan, who displayed some of the gumption seen later from 'Black Agnes'. With possession of castles being an obsessive medieval tactic, Edward sent John de Warenne, the 7th Earl of Surrey, who was, incidentally, John Balliol's father-in-law, to take the castle. As the English approached, a large part of the main Scottish army, under the command of the 'Red' Comyn, left its encampment at Haddington and marched east towards Dunbar to occupy a position on high ground west of the town.
Arriving on the field on the 27th of April, the English force, numbering 10,000 [10,000-12,000], advanced against the Scots. As they were crossing a gully and a small stream known as the Spot Burn, the English ranks appeared to Comyn to be in disarray. Whether or not Comyn actually thought they were retreating, he could be forgiven for taking his chance in the circumstances. Unfortunately, by the time the Scots' downhill surge closed on the enemy, Surrey's lines had managed to reorganise and reform on Spottsmuir. A disciplined counter by Surrey's cavalry drove off its Scottish counterpart and somehow, his infantry was able to withstand the Scottish attack and, in an all too repeated cliché, force it into ill disciplined flight in the general direction of Selkirk Forest.
Sir Walter Scott refers to “the disgraceful flight of the Scottish cavalry without a single blow” and the Lanercost Chronicle states that they “ showed their heels so readily.” In 'Robert Bruce's rivals: The Comyns, 1212-1314' Alan Young refers to Fordun, who says the Scottish Earls “fled scathless from the field” because of their loyalty to Robert the Bruce, the Earl of Carrick. That's very likely to have been retrospective propaganda by a Bruce apologist. The truth has got to be that the Scots force was far less than the 40,000 mentioned elsewhere as, significantly, the followers of those Scots nobles 'loyal' to Edward wouldn't have been present. Without those men, Scotland couldn't field anywhere near that sort of number. Actual numbers were probably fairly even, but the English had far more cavalry and that surely won Surrey the day.
Casualties at Dunbar 1 are not known with certainty, albeit the English sources claim over 10,000 Scots died. We do know that Sir Patrick Graham stood and fought to his death. Amongst those sent into captivity in England were the 'Red Comyn' himself; the Earls of Atholl, Mentieth, and Ross; and about 130 lords, knights and esquires. Dunbar Castle was surrendered and Edward was soon in control of Roxburgh, Edinburgh, Stirling, and Perth. Thanks to the man who would be King, Lochmaben Castle was also captured, notionally on behalf of Edward Longshanks.
Balliol effectively surrendered at Kincardine Castle on the 2nd of July and was forced to hand over 'the keys to his kingdom' at Montrose, on the 8th of July, 1296. John Balliol and his son Edward were also sent south into captivity. Soon after forcing Scotland's major nobles and churchmen to swear allegiance, Longshanks departed, leaving de Warenne and Sir Hugh Cressingham in charge of Scotland and infamously carrying in his baggage train a second 'Ragman's Roll' – and the 'Stone of Scone'.