The Battle of Roslin
Every student of medieval British history has heard of the Battle of Bannockburn on 23rd and 24th June 1314. Led by Robert the Bruce, 7,000 Scots defeated 20,000 English soldiers commanded by Edward II.
The English king fled from the field and did not venture into Scotland again. Bannockburn was the decisive battle of the War of Independence, though the peace treaty was not signed until 1328.
Roslin or Rosslyn?
Rosslyn is now the accepted spelling for the chapel, while Roslin is used for the battle, the village and the castle, though in the past the spellings were interchangeable.
The Battle of Roslin 11 years before Bannockburn is less famous. Indeed, many visitors to Rosslyn* Chapel are unaware that they are on a battlefield.
The War of Independence began in 1296 because the English king Edward I was trying to assert his right as overlord to appoint his chosen candidate to the vacant Scottish throne. The Scottish nobles were arguing with Edward and amongst themselves as they jockeyed for power and influence.
The English were looking for an excuse to invade Scotland and late in 1302 Lady Margaret Ramsay of Dalhousie provided them. Sir John Segrave, the English governor of Edinburgh Castle, was expecting to marry her, but she agreed to marry the Scottish baron of Pentland and Roslin instead. His name was Henry St Clair.
When Segrave heard that he had a rival for Lady Margaret’s affections, he was on the English side of the border at Carlisle. Perhaps because he was jealous, perhaps because his planned marriage to Margaret Ramsay was politically important to his king, Segrave asked for permission to lead an army into Scotland. Edward I gave it readily.
In February 1303 Segrave led 30,000 men across the border. At Melrose he divided his army into three, sending one group to Dalhousie Castle to ‘protect’ Lady Margaret, and another to attack Borthwick Castle, which was held by one of St Clair’s friends. The third he led to Roslin to deal with St Clair personally.
The Battle of Roslin
The Scots mustered an army of 8,000 men at Biggar, about 16 miles southeast of Roslin. Led by the Red Comyn and Sir Simon Fraser, the Scots marched through the night and crept up on Segrave’s force early in the morning of February 23rd.
The Scots won this first phase of the battle fairly easily, injuring Segrave and capturing him, his son, his brother and many of his men. Then they heard that a second English force was coming from Dalhousie Castle to Segrave’s aid.
The Scots were ruthless enough to kill all the English prisoners who had no ransom value before they could be rescued and rearmed.
The flattish land around Roslin is split by the River North Esk, which flows through a narrow, steep-sided gorge. The Scots used their knowledge of the ground to drive the second enemy force over the cliffs to perish in the glen below.
Then the victorious Scots heard that a third English force was on its way from Borthwick, Again they took the horrible decision to kill all the prisoners without ransom value and again they used the terrain to their advantage. The third force was trapped between the Scots and the edge of the cliffs and cut to pieces.
Of 30,000 English, only one in ten survived the Battle of Roslin. It was an emphatic victory for the Scots.
One reason why it has not been highlighted in the history books is because it did not accomplish much beyond the marriage of Henry St Clair and Margaret Ramsay in March 1303. Later in the year, Stirling Castle fell to the English and Comyn, along with many other Scottish nobles, had to pay homage to Edward I.
The second reason is that Comyn was one of the leaders of the Scots army while Robert the Bruce was away in Ireland. Bruce and Comyn had served together as guardians to the Scottish throne and both had some claim to it. They had no love for each other even before Comyn made his peace with Edward I in 1304. Either Bruce or one of his supporters stabbed Comyn to death in a church in Dumfries in 1306, and Bruce was crowned as king of Scots. It was hardly in Bruce’s interests to celebrate the greatest military success of his dead rival.
A third reason why the Battle of Roslin languishes in the footnotes of history concerns the deliberate killing of English soldiers after they had laid down their weapons. Tactically wise, it was also vengeful, as in 1296 Edward I had ordered the slaughter of the citizens of Berwick-on-Tweed. Nevertheless, even in the 1300s, soldiers surrendered in the expectation of being allowed to live. Killing them was an offence against the chivalric code and not something to remember with pride.
There is a story about an English soldier who was allowed to live because he could be ransomed. Allegedly, the unnamed Englishman suggested to St Clair that the promontory just above the River North Esk would be a good site for a new castle.
Henry St Clair’s successors followed the advice. Roslin Castle can still be seen beside the river and Rosslyn Chapel now stands where in 1302 the old castle stood.