In 1303, a Scots army defied all the odds to defeat the English at the battle of Roslin. It ended as the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil, but remains largely forgotten. The Midlothian village of Roslin has one very obvious claim to fame with its chapel and the links to Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code. Tourists come and visit the ruins of nearby Roslin Castle in large numbers every year. But the area bears an even greater historical distinction
Roslin Chapel was begun in 1446, its foundations took at least four years to build. The Chapel itself took some forty years to build. It required a large number of workmen and it is thought that the village of Roslin grew up to house them.
In the thirteenth century Scotland although an independent country, suffered from a feudal system that crippled its economy, reducing the country to a series of warring states due not only to Clan battles for land and wealth in the North, but continual oppression by the English in the Lowlands. Scotland, was divided into the Highlands north of Perth, and the Lowlands from Perth to the border, mostly garrisoned by the English army or Scottish lords who had been forced to give their allegiance to Edward the first, the English King. After the tragic death of King Alexander at Kinghorn, Edward the first, always cast an avaricious eye towards Scotland, his chance came after the demise of the little Maid of Norway.
No fewer than thirteen noble claimants to the crown of the northern kingdom had come forward; the land was threatened by vicious civil war. Edward I, also known as Longshanks or 'The Hammer of the Scots’, in the absence of an obvious heir to the Scottish throne, the disunited Scottish magnates invited Edward to settle the dispute. He insisted on their acceptance of his authority, Edward had sought and obtained recognition from the rival claimants as the 'sovereign lordship of Scotland. Back in November 1292, Edward and his 104 assessors gave the whole kingdom to John Balliol as the claimant closest to the royal line; Balliol duly swore loyalty to Edward and was crowned at Scone. But Edward used the opportunity to assert his feudal superiority over Scotland. The Lords of Scotland appealed to Edward that he might graciously arbitrate, he accepted, with gilded crown and chain in hand; the Lion would now adjudicate the Unicorn. Edward as regal bearer of this self-sought Scottish manacle, was more than willing to apply it; he demanded that on the 10th of May 1291, at his castle at Norham, that the Lords of the north attend him. Edwards's final favour fell upon his dependent John Balliol, and crowned the puppet king at Scone on November the 30th, 1292.
However, when a marriage was arranged between Balliol's son and the Count of Anjou's daughter, one of Edward's French enemies, Edward was infuriated. Edward sent an English force into Scotland in 1296. Berwick was the first town in Scotland, Edward hung over 10,000 of its inhabitants from their own doorframes to show what he was capable of, giving a clear message to all that might oppose his will. His army then moved to Dunbar to defeat a Scottish army and capture most of its leaders, which included Sir John Comyn, Sir William St.Clair of Rosslyn, Sir Simon Fraser of Neidpath, Sir Gilbert Hay of Borthwick, and Sir Edward Ramsay of Dalhousie. Edward made the captured Scottish nobles swear Fealty and allegiance to the English crown before they were released, this they did with tongue in cheek, and were allowed to return to their lands.
King John Balliol or Toom Tabard as he became known, was forced to abdicate. Again, Scotland was left without a king.
The battle of Falkirk in 1298 was lost due to the abandonment by many Scottish nobles and their forces believing that Wallace had designs on the vacant Scottish throne. The battle of Falkirk was the epitome of Scotland at this time, jealousy and divisionism ruled. Wallace had lost many close friends and allies at Falkirk; his reaction was to give up his title of Guardian of Scotland.
There were nine years between Falkirk and Robert the Bruce being crowned King of Scots in 1306, and in that time the Scots had inflicted possibly the biggest and most stunning defeat of all on the English invaders. So what happened after Falkirk? Well, Edward put his English henchmen into the castles and positions of power, and he went back to London, but again Scottish resistance movements fell into place. This time the key leader was John Comyn. The Scots' resistance had been attacking English garrisons, overthrowing English sheriffs and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Then Edward Longshanks struck a truce with the King of France, this freed him up to send a secret punishment force to subjugate Scotland.
But even after his victory at the Battle of Falkirk, King Edward could still not completely subdue the Scots, even without their figurehead William Wallace. Since his defeat at Falkirk, Wallace resigned the guardianship of Scotland. But the Scots were still determined in their quest for freedom, and Scotland's new caretakers were two men from royal backgrounds. These two men were John Comyn and Robert Bruce, the ambitions between these two men was so intense as both men saw themselves as a potential King of Scotland, were kept in check by the efforts of William Lamberton the Bishop of St. Andrews who was appointed as a third Guardian
With these three men aappointed a new guardians of Scotland, they managed to secure a truce with Edward until 1302.
Unfortunately, Edward's desires of conquering Scotland were soon boosted by Robert Bruce's submission to him as Robert became disillusioned with the independent cause and to protect his vast lands as well as his family he gave homage to Edward with one of the most prominent Scottish leaders back under his thumb Edward felt confident invading Scotland once again.
When the Anglo-Scottish truce expired on 30 November 1302, and the English prepared for a fresh invasion of Scotland, with John Segrave as the king's lieutenant in Scotland. King Edward I ordered Segrave to carry out a large-scale reconnaissance as far as Kirkintilloch. Under the threat of English invasion, the people of Scotland have learned how to turn adversity to advantage. When 'The Hammer of the Scots' began to beat against the Anvil of Scottish Freedom at the Battle of Roslin, Scottish independence began.
It is on record that the Scottish army was alerted to the approaching danger by a monk Prior Abernethy, located close to Roslin.
The English invading forces had managed to get fairly close to their objectives, before the news reached Prior Abernethy of Mount Lothian who dispatched riders to alert important leaders such as Sir William Wallace near Paisley, Sir John Comyn near Glasgow, Sir Symon Fraser of Neidpath, Somerfield of Carnwath, Simon of the Lee, The Flemming of Cumbernauld and the Knights of the Hospital at Torphicen urging them to muster at Biggar with all speed. Prior Abernethy, who was the Cistercian Prior of Mount Lothian, the western outpost or gate of Balentradoch, the Templar headquarters in Scotland. Abernethy may have been a Templar knight before becoming a Cistercian Prior.
However, by the afternoon of the 23rd of February 1303 some 8,000 Scots had rallied to the call of arms.
In the early months of 1303, Segrave had snuck across the Scot's border at dead of night at the head of 30,000 men. Seagrave had recruited an estimated at 30,000 troops 10,000 of which were mercenaries the rest consisted of Scots that had pledged loyalty to Edward and his cause as well as a few thousand English Knights. He avoided detection until reaching Melrose in the middle of February 1303. He divided his force into three divisions. One division, led by Sir Robert Neville, was to take Borthwick castle, which was in the hands of Sir Gilbert Hay, a friend and ally of Henry St. Clair. 10,000 men commanded by Sir Ralph Confrey,
The monks riding on horseback were sent to raise the alarm and warn the Scots of the danger facing them. Sir John Comyn was found near Glasgow, Sir William Wallace near Paisley, Sir Simon Fraser at Neidpath, and Somerfield of Carnwarth, Simon of the Lee, Flemming of Cumbernauld and the Knights of the Hospital at Torphichen were all alerted, along with Sir Henry St. Clair. The Scots mustered hastily at Biggar by the night of 23 February, assembling a force of 8,000 men, not soldiers but tinkers, tailors, farmers all common men who had to face 30,000 troops, the closest thing that Europe had to a professional army.
William Wallace was offered the command. He refused for his failure at the Battle of Falkirk weighed heavy on his confidence. Wallace suggested Sir Simon Fraser, and Fraser was selected.
Sir John Comyn, Guardian of the Realm assumed overall command. They moved to 16 kilometers north of Roslin Glen to Carlops village. Under the cover of night he guided the army closer to the approaching first detachment of Segrave's divided command. With 3,000 men under Comyn's command hid themselves in the wood to the west of the English camp while Fraser led the remaining 5,000 around them to close in from the east. In the dark the Scots fell upon the English while they slept, capturing Segrave and several others. Sir Robert Neville led his division towards the action. The English eventually freed Segrave, but the English paymaster Manton was killed. Those English who were not killed were driven into the forest, where they met Comyn's force. Segrave threw himself upon Wallace's mercy to prevent his men's extermination. The pale winter sun rose on the 24th to witness the stench, blood and gore of battle joined scattered across Roslin Glen. The Scots had won this first engagement almost without cost to themselves; the women and servants of Sir Henry St Clair tended the few wounded Scots on the grounds of Roslin castle.
Scottish historian John of Fordun wrote a description of the fight: ...there never was so desperate a struggle, or one in which the stoutness of knightly prowess shone forth so brightly. The commander and leader in this struggle was John Comyn, the son... But John Comyn, then guardian of Scotland, and Simon Fraser with their followers, day and night, did their best to harass and to annoy, by their general prowess, the aforesaid kings officers and bailiffs... But the aforesaid John Comyn and Simon, with their abettors, hearing of their arrival, and wishing to steal a march rather than have one stolen upon them, came briskly through from Biggar to Rosslyn, in one night, with some chosen men, who chose rather death before unworthy subjection to the English nation; and all of a sudden they fearlessly fell upon the enemy. — John of Fordun, Chronicle of the Scottish Nation
John the Red Comyn so known for his red hair, Lord of Badenoch, was also a nephew of John de Balliol. Red Comyn was the son of John Comyn, Lord of Badenoch, otherwise known as the Black Comyn. As one of the Competitors for the Crown of Scotland, he based his claim on his descent from King Donald III of Scotland, his grandmother, Hextilda, who married Richard Comyn, was the daughter of Uchtred, Lord of Tynedale, and Bethoc, the daughter Donald III. John's mother was Eleanor Balliol, the eldest daughter of John I de Balliol and Margaret the parents of King John Balliol. Margaret was the daughter of David, Earl of Huntingdon, the grandson of King David I. The Red Comyn thereby combined two lines of royal descent, Gaelic and Norman
On receiving news of the calamity that had befallen Segrave, de Confrey immediately abandoned his siege of Dalhousie to advance upon the Scots militia, who would now have to face the wrath of a professional English army bitten by the mighty midge but not subdued. The Scots no longer possessed the help of the bolt from the blue, surprise. From the Prior's knowledge of the terrain, John Comyn deployed the Scots on a ridge with a crag at its north end and waited for the English progress. The English closed in but their uphill charge was wrecked by volley upon volley of Scottish arrows. They turned northwards unaware of the precipice. The outnumbered Scots closed on their southern flank and drove them towards the rocky face. The slaughter at the rock face was horrendous. De Confrey died embroiled in the battle as news of the advance of the third division of English soldiers reached the Scots. About to be pressed by yet another numerically superior force the Scots spared only those could be ransomed. The rest were systematically and brutally murdered.
The battle weary Scots were exhausted and had misgivings as to whether they could inflict a third defeat on the English that day. They had marched all the night before, battled desperately all day, and were near the point of collapse.
Sir Robert Neville's force proceeded from Borthwick ignorant of the destruction of de Confrey's forces. They followed the cart road through Roslin Glen. The Scots waited until the English were between themselves on the higher ground of Mountmarle and the precipices in the glen, and launched volleys of arrows upon them before charging.
The fighting was desperate with the English once more pressed hard against a precipice and the carnage was so great that Sir Symon Fraser called on his troops to give quarter. The annihilation of the English army was almost total.
The third battle had been the fiercest yet, both sides knowing that the choice was simple; victory or death. All the horrors of medieval battle that had already taken place were mere entrees to this main course. When the Scots triumphed a third time, we can't say for sure how many were dead, but some reports, however accurate, said that only three thousand of the thirty thousand English punishment force returned across the border. A small force, outnumbered almost four to one, had ridden overnight then fought three battles, each progressively more bitter and insurmountable, with no rest by in between, and they'd prevailed.
The English defeat can in part be attributed to the stupidity of the English commander, Sir John Segrave, who was later ransomed, had divided his numerically superior force knowing little about either the terrain or the disposition of his enemy. Scottish victory at Roslin was achieved through tactical genius; splendid utilization of the terrain.
In response to this victory the Scottish magnates, engaged in diplomatic efforts in Paris, wrote to Comyn to encourage the Scots, on 25 May 1303, saying "Be of good heart.. If the English king harden his heart, like Pharaoh, and refuse a truce, then, by the mercy of Jesus Christ, defend yourselves manfully and stay united, so that by your manful defence and with God's help you will prevail, or at least receive stronger support from us. For God's sake do not despair. If ever you have done brave deeds, do braver ones now. The swiftest runner who fails before the winning-post has run in vain. And it would gladden your hearts if you could know how much your honour has increased in every part of the world as the result of your recent battle with the English.”
Sir William Wallace was betrayed in 1305. Sir Simon Fraser was captured in 1306, taken to London, drawn and hung until he was dead, then was beheaded, his headless corpse then was hung again and his head set on a spike on London Bridge next to Wallace’s.
Sir John Comyn submitted to Edward. He would later die on hallowed ground deceived during a quarrel with Robert the Bruce. It is estimated that 35,000 men lost their lives, which, if accurate, would make Roslin the bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. Despite the huge death toll, the battle appears to have faded into obscurity and is often omitted from school textbooks. It still doesn't sit well with our modern eyes that the Battle of Roslin never received the recognition it deserved, maybe the rivalry between the Comyns and the Bruces was such, that after Robert the Bruce finally came to power, he wanted to suppress the success achieved by John Comyn, the man that he murdered in a church on his way to the throne. Was that because it was part of the whitewash?