The British Isles have seen countless battles, campaigns and wars. But which one affected us the most?
This year is rich with the anniversaries of significant battles – Waterloo, Gallipoli and Agincourt.
But during the past 2,000 years, the British Isles has been riven by conflict, being remembered with the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the recent reburial of Richard III and the upcoming 950th anniversary of Hastings.
So which is the most important battle ever fought here? A clash of arms that produced not only a winner and a loser but perhaps changed everything that came after?
So, the BBC are looking for our votes to choose which British battle “changed us the most.” The choices are Boudica’s Revolt, Brunanburh, Hastings, Bannockburn, Bosworth, the Spanish Armada, Naseby, Boyne, and the Battle of Britain. Or: Romans vs Britons, England vs Everyone Else, Normans vs Saxons, Scots vs English, Tudors vs Yorks, English vs Spanish, Parliamentarians vs Royalists, Williamites vs Jacobites, and Brits vs Nazis. Yet it’s apparently us Nats “obsessed with old grievances!”
Chris Cairns gets it in one.
I think an argument could be made for each, but there’s more to them than the BBC cite. I’d love to call myself a master historian, but the truth is I’m just an avid history enthusiast who’s read a lot of books. Yet if I’ve learned nothing else from reading hundreds of books, it’s that history can often be as subjective as anything else.
Boudica’s Revolt – Empire on the Edge
Just 18 years after the invasion, Roman progress in Britain was dealt a huge blow when Queen Boudica rallied native tribes to a devastating rebellion.
Adrian Murdoch, Roman military historian and journalist, said: “Her revolt almost stopped the Roman Empire in its tracks.
“Boudica had reasons to be angry – double-crossed over land and her capital sacked, then beaten and her two daughters raped.”
After the destruction of the best part of a legion and three major towns, the Roman army made its stand.
“Double-crossed over land” is understating it: the Iceni allied with Rome during Claudius’ invasion in return for their independence. Boudica’s husband, Prasutagus, left the kingdom to the joint rule of her daughters and the Empire. The Romans did not recognize the female line of inheritance, and so annexed their kingdom outright.
Mr Murdoch said: “The fate of the province was in the balance – with the emperor Nero considering abandoning the island. But thanks to superior military discipline, the Romans won. Classical authors claim 80,000 Britons died to 400 Roman losses.
As with Mons Graupius, the Battle of Watling Street is likely greatly exaggerated in favour of the Romans by those classical authors. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we’ll know exactly how many Britons or Romans died, not least because it isn’t even clear where the battle took place.
“Had Boudica’s revolt worked, the English Channel would have been as much of a barrier between barbarism and civilisation as the Rhine.”
You know, I can’t help but think there’s another barrier between the “barbarism” of indigenous peoples and the “civilisation” of the Roman Empire, one that’s also in the general vicinity of Britain, but I can’t quite put my finger on it…
Boudica became a “national” hero for the United Kingdom during the English Renaissance and Victorian Britain for her resistance against imperial ambitions. Yet even then, the UK establishment can’t help but admire the conquerors:
“Britain would have lost the enduring influence of 350 years of Roman rule, its culture, building and commerce. And while she lost, Boudica became a personification of Britannia, complete with a statue outside the Houses of Parliament.”
Ah, well that’s alright then – have your family murdered, your people massacred and your culture destroyed or co-opted by imperial invaders, but at least you’ll get a statue outside the establishment who idolise your family’s murderers! It’s a common thread with the British Establishment giving pre-eminence to battles in which the previous “Britons” or “English” were conquered: the Romans conquered Britain, then the Anglo-Saxons conquered the Romano-British in Æthelstan’s conquests, then the Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxons at Hastings, then the Welsh Tudors conquered the English Plantagenets, then the Dutch William supplanted the British James… You almost wonder if Brits would have ended up celebrating the Germans invading Britain in World War II.
While Boudica’s revolt undoubtedly put a hell of a spanner in the Romans’ works, ultimately it still resulted in 350 years of Roman occupation in Britannia. There was another revolt a few decades later by the Brigantes, but it too was unsuccessful. But Britannia in those days was not only the name of the island itself – it was the name for the southern half. The northern half was Caledonia, and its peoples were a bit more successful keeping the Romans out – mostly because invading mountainous countries is rarely a good idea. Just ask Switzerland.
Brunanburh – The Birth of England?
If you thought Watling Street was mysterious, Brunanburh is even more mysterious. But while Watling Street is romanticised with qualifications – “yes, it’s a shame the Britons were conquered and massacred, but we just can’t get enough of those Romans, am I right?” – Brunanburh is practically a foundation myth for the Kingdom of England. Given that it’s another battle where historians can’t agree on the location, combined with the “English vs everyone else” narrative, it isn’t hard to see why.
As Roman power faded, warring tribes and invaders competed for supremacy. After the successes of Anglo-Saxon King Alfred the Great against the Vikings in Wessex, his grandson Æthelstan extended his influence north and east, gradually cementing the concept of one “Angle-land”.
But this development sparked fear and rivalry in neighbouring kingdoms and an alliance was formed to crush it.
Professor Michael Livingston, editor of Brunanburh: A Casebook, said: “Brunanburh may well be the most important battle in English history that you’ve never heard of.
“King Æthelstan faced an allied force that included at least five foreign kings, including those of Dublin, Alba, and Strathclyde — an alliance whose united purpose was to destroy the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that would become England.
Note the use of “foreign” in reference to Scottish and Irish. The BBC goes on to state the “cause” of the battle as “existence of independent English kingdom,” presenting the impression that the mere existence of England was reason enough for incurring the ire of those terrible foreigners from Ireland and Scotland, who ganged up together to crush this emergent kingdom out of fear and jealousy.
Yet the other kingdoms had pretty good cause to fight Æthelstan, who didn’t “extend his influence north and east” through sheer popularity. They had already acknowledged him as King of the English in 927, and were at peace with him and his kingdom for several years. What changed? Æthelstan invaded Scotland in 934. While the reasons behind the invasion are unclear – the 12th century chronicler John of Worcester suggested Constantine broke his treaty with Æthelstan – his actions following the battle made it clear Æthelstan was not content with ruling only England. Thus, the kings of Alba, Strathclyde and Dublin “agreed to set aside whatever political, cultural, historical, and even religious differences they might have had in order to achieve one common purpose: to destroy Æthelstan.”
Æthelstan was the victor and his rivals fled, only the damage meant he could not press home his advantage. But Alfred’s legacy had been saved and a unified, independent Anglo-Saxon kingdom would have time to take root.
By “press home his advantage,” the BBC mean that Æthelstan did not go forward with his imperial ambition, and indeed, some historians argue that this Phyrric victory may have ended up fortuitous for the northern kings:
Although a number of early commentators – though by no means all, as several sources refer to the battle without mentioning its outcome – state that the English won the day at Brunanburh it will be argued that these verdicts were only in the strict sense of holding the field and that there are grounds for arguing that the battle may be seen as a strategic victory for the northern kings. The war of 937 had calamitous consequences for the West Saxon imperium and lead directly to the disasters of 939-40 and the profound adjustment in English policy towards the other rulers in Britain witnessed in the reign of Athelstan’s successor, his half-brother, Edmund.
Even so, the cultural importance of the battle has solid foundation:
The lasting significance of Brunanburh has been questioned and few historians would now accept without serious qualification Sir James Ramsay’s verdict that “the question as to which Power in Great Britain should rule the destinies of the Island was put and settled once and for ever.” Doubts have been expressed as to both the longevity of the subsequent political settlement and the practical extent of West Saxon rule beyond the Humber but, as D.N. Dumville has pointed out, none of this detracts from Athelstan’s political and military achievement in creating an English monarchy, or his status as the “father of medieval and modern England.”
Hastings – The Last Invasion
Excellent comic interpretation of the battle.
Murky politics and ruthless ambition led Duke William of Normandy to face Anglo-Saxon King Harold on a hillside in Sussex.
Harold’s men were exhausted from a forced march of about 500 miles (800km) to York and back, William had the smallest toehold on English soil.
Each was a hardened warrior, each claimed the throne of England, each knew no mercy would be shown.
Julian Humphrys, development officer of the Battlefields Trust, said: “The English fought doggedly on foot, their shields held closely together to form a solid wall but the relentless attacks of William’s archers, foot soldiers and mounted knights eventually wore them down.
“King Harold and much of the Anglo-Saxon leadership fell that day and with them died England’s best chance of repelling the Normans.
“1066 is probably the best-known date in British history. And rightly so…”
Och, awa’ wi’ ye.
… as William’s invasion not only decided who would rule England but also led to fundamental changes in English society.
“Land ownership was transformed with the replacement of the old Saxon aristocracy by a new Norman elite, our language was irrevocably altered with the addition of so many French words, and most of our castles and cathedrals can trace their origins back to the Norman conquest.
“The battle also changed England’s place in Europe. Before Hastings it was closely linked to Scandinavia – after Hastings it was firmly part of Western Europe.”
Rather honeyed words for “large areas of land were converted into the king’s personal hunting grounds, English was delegitimised, and a culture was destroyed or altered.” This is certainly not unique – one could argue the Angles were just as guilty in their conquest of Britannia, the Scots in Scotland, or any other migrant populations over indigenous tribes. Still, Hastings remains one of those most peculiar oddities in British culture – the celebration of England being conquered as a great moment in English history. Weird.
Bannockburn – The Limit of Power
Oh boy, this should be good!
The English kingdom and Scottish kingdoms had wrestled with each other for centuries but with the aggressive Edward I – “Hammer of the Scots” – it looked as if the southern realm would triumph.
But Robert the Bruce led a fierce resistance and forced the less imposing Edward II to march a huge army to a marshy field near Stirling.
Professor Michael Brown, from the University of St Andrews’s School of History, said: “Bannockburn was the real battle for Britain.
“The two kings on the island, Robert Bruce and Edward II, led their armies in a fight which had a large influence on the nature of Britain. Would it be a single realm, whose character was overwhelmingly English, or would different traditions and loyalties continue to flourish?”
Well, let’s be blunt – Edward did triumph. From about the time of William Wallace’s murder to the return of Robert the Bruce, Scotland did seem to have been conquered… for about 171 days. But get the stats:
23–24 June 1314, Stirling, Scotland
- Between Edward II vs Robert the Bruce
- Forces 20,000 (approx) English knights and infantry vs 7,500 (approx) Scottish infantry
- Cause Scottish independence
- Result Setback for Edward II and touchstone for Scottish identity
… A setback for Edward II? A setback?
… Sure, BBC. A setback. Much like how Platea was a setback for Xerxes. It’s just like how Zama was a setback for the Barcids. And Yorktown, boy did that prove a setback for King George!
Seriously, is this just me being an over-sensitive nat, or is there not something a wee bit imbalanced about the Battle of Brunanburh being fought for the “existence of an independent English kingdom” and resulted in England being “established as political and military entity”, while Bannockburn is reduced to a freaking setback for an English king and a mere “touchstone for Scottish identity?” I would say Bannockburn could be equally described as being fought for the “existence of an independent Scottish kingdom” and resulted in Scotland “remaining as political and military entity.” At the very least.
Edward’s badly-led army found itself out-manoeuvred and unable to break the Scottish spear formations. Over two days of bitter clashes, the English army was worn down and eventually broke.
Prof Brown said: “Robert’s victory meant not just the continuation of the Scottish kingdom but that Scotland would develop separately from the rest of the island for the next 400 years, maintaining and pursuing its own course in terms of government, law, religion and relations with the peoples of Europe.
“The Scottish state and society which grew between 1314 and 1707 could not be subsumed within a united kingdom in the way that high medieval Scotland might have been.
That last sentence is interesting, as it dances close to the “Scotland joined the Union willingly” story most beloved of late 19th/early 20th Century Unionists, who hail Wallace and the Bruce as British heroes for ensuring that Scotland could grow up a little before settling down and getting married, or something. Certainly attempts were made to subsume Scotland in one fashion or another.
“Unlike most medieval battles, Bannockburn is not treated as a remote event.”
“1066 is probably the best-known date in British history. And rightly so…” – THE SAME PAGE.
For 700 years Bannockburn has also been used as a potent symbol of Scotland’s place amongst the peoples of Europe.
“Like other countries more used to defeat against their larger neighbours, Bannockburn has retained a central significance as proof of Scotland’s right to exist. In this way, the battle south of Stirling in 1314 did not simply help shape the past relationships between states, it will continue to exert an influence on the future of these islands.”
“More used to defeat”against England is selling Scotland a little short:
Battle of Brunanburh: Defeat
Battle of Carham: Victory
Battle of Alnwick: Defeat
Battle of Clitheroe: Victory
Battle of the Standard: Defeat
Battle of Alnwick: Defeat
Capture of Berwick (1296): Defeat
Battle of Dunbar (1296): Defeat
Raid of Scone:Victory
Battle of Stirling Bridge: Victory
Battle of Falkirk (1298): Defeat
Battle of Roslin: Victory
Action at Happrew: Defeat
Siege of Stirling Castle: Defeat
Battle of Methven: Defeat
Battle of Turnberry: Victory
Battle of Loch Ryan: Victory
Battle of Glen Trool: Victory
Battle of Loudoun Hill: Victory
Siege of Roxburgh Castle: Victory
Battle of Bannockburn: Victory
Siege of Carlisle (1315): Defeat
Battle of Skaithmuir: Victory
Capture of Berwick (1318): Victory
Battle of Myton: Victory
Battle of Old Byland: Victory
Battle of Stanhope Park: Victory
Battle of Dornock: Defeat
Battle of Halidon Hill: Defeat
Battle of Boroughmuir: Victory
Battle of Neville’s Cross: Defeat
Battle of Nesbit Moor (1355): Victory
Battle of Duns: Victory
Battle of Otterburn: Victory
Battle of Nesbit Moor (1402): Defeat
Battle of Humbleton Hill: Defeat
Battle of Yeavering: Defeat
Battle of Baugé: Victory
Battle of Cravant: Defeat
Battle of Verneuil: Defeat
Siege of Orléans: Victory
Battle of the Herrings: Defeat
Battle of Piperdean: Victory
Battle of Sark: Victory
Capture of Roxburgh (1460): Victory
Capture of Berwick (1482): Defeat
Battle of Flodden: Defeat
Battle of Haddon Rig: Victory
Battle of Solway Moss: Defeat
Burning of Edinburgh: Defeat
Battle of Ancrum Moor: Victory
Battle of Pinkie Cleugh: Defeat
Sieges of Haddington: Victory
Raid of the Redeswire: Victory
While massive English victories like Falkirk, Flodden and Pinkie Cleugh give the impression that Scotland was indeed “more used to defeat” in its 54 major engagements with England over the centuries, in strict win-loss ratios and inclusion of smaller actions and sieges, Scotland actually has a pretty good 29-25 score. Even if you exclude the raids, captures and sieges, as well as the four Hundred Year War battles fought in France, it’s still a most respectable 21-16. Not bad for a “feeble little country,” eh Mr Starkey?
Apropos of nothing, Bannockburn’s inclusion on the list is easily as worthy as the others, not only because of its importance in Scottish history, but in England’s too: the English army learned from their experiences, and eventually not only counteracted the Scots’ tactics in subsequent campaigns, but also utilized them. The spear-wall formations at Bannockburn contributed to an infantry revolution in the Middle Ages, where heavily-armoured knights were no longer all but invulnerable on the battlefield; a revelation cemented at Crécy 22 years later. This was a paradigm shift in Medieval warfare, and would see the rise of infantry as the backbone of the army again.
Bosworth – Twilight of the Middle Ages
Philip James de Loutherbourg’s gorgeous, if fanciful, painting of Bosworth
Chris Skidmore, author of Bosworth: Birth of the Tudors, said: “The fact that Bosworth was the last battle in which an English king died on a battlefield at home, together with it marking the end of the Plantagenet dynasty and the birth of the Tudors, does, I believe, mark it out as a seismic event in English history.
“A watershed between the medieval and early modern worlds, in which the death of a king represents more than the end of Richard III, but also the dying values of chivalry.”
Mr Skidmore added: “The dawn of the Tudor era brought an end to decades of instability that had scarred the 15th Century. From now on, the English monarchy would only grow in strength as the state established itself above the factionalism and infighting of the nobility.
“Within 50 years, England’s kings controlled not only their subjects’ bodies, but also their souls after Henry VIII enacted the break with Rome and the dissolution of the monasteries. The fabric of medieval life would be irrevocably torn forever.”
Here’s a thing about Bosworth: it’s an important battle in English history as the concluding chapter of the War of the Roses. It’s the last battle in which an English king died on the field (but not the last British king: that was the Scottish James IV, in the Battle of Flodden 28 years later), and marks the dawn of the Tudors and the dusk of the Plantagenets. The other thing about Bosworth is it’s been the source of a huge amount of propaganda, not least due to Shakespeare’s dramatisation: much like the battle of Dunsinnan and the life of Macbeth were heavily spun by the Bard of Avon.
What surprises me is the lack of attention given to the vital Welsh forces on Henry’s side:
From Dale, Henry and his troops proceeded up the coast of Cardigan Bay to the Aberystwyth area. Henry then turned eastwards and stopped at Mathafarn, the home of a loyal poet Dafydd Llwyd. He then continued eastwards towards Welshpool and Mynydd Digoll (Long Mountain). It was here that substantial contingents from all parts of Wales joined him, thereby doubling the size of his army. The largest contingent was that of Rhys ap Thomas from south west Wales. But there were other significant forces: William Gruffudd led a force from the north west, Rhys ap Maredudd led the men of Hiraethog, while Richard ap Hywel led men from the north east. Supplies poured in with ‘fat animals, oxen and cows’ coming from north Wales. Gwyn Alf Williams states that in this ‘highly risky venture’ Henry Tudor ‘depended utterly on a Welsh rally to carry him through to his supporters in England’.
Nevertheless, by the time he had reached the vicinity of Bosworth Field on 21 August 1485, he still had only a small army of 5,000 men, while Richard III’s forces probably numbered 10,000-12,000. One important question was whether he had the support of the Stanley brothers, Lord Stanley and Sir William Stanley, who exercised so much influence in north-east Wales and north-west England. The Stanleys were notorious for changing sides and it is clear that the strength of their force could win the battle.
The battle was hard fought and it was a Welshman Rhys ap Maredudd – Rhys Fawr (Rhys the Mighty) – who picked up Henry’s Red Dragon banner when the standard bearer fell. It has been suggested that, seeing his troops in danger of defeat due to the size of Richard’s forces, Henry rode towards Stanley to appeal for help. It was at this point that he was spotted by Richard who launched a direct attack on him. Richard lost the battle, it is argued, partly due to this fateful decision, but Henry’s success was also due to Sir William Stanley’s decision to join the Lancastrian cause on the battlefield.
There was also a significant Scottish presence according to some chronicles:
While this included the 500 Englishmen who had joined Henry in exile, it is likely that there was also a substantial number of Scottish mercenaries, led by Sir Alexander Bruce. The Scottish chronicler Pitscottie, writing in the late sixteenth century, stated that there were 1,000 men-at-arms ‘called the Scottish company which had to their captain a noble knight which was called Sir Alexander Bruce of Ershall’ and ‘a born man of Haddington’. Pitscottie’s source for this information seems to have been the history of John Major, published in 1521, which recorded how, ‘inasmuch as the Earl of Richmond had been long a dweller in France, Charles VIII granted him an aid of 5,000 men of whom 1,000 were Scots, but John, son of Robert of Haddington, was chief and leader of the Scots’.
You’d think this would be hailed as another “Better Together” victory, of the Welsh and English joining together with Scottish support to establish the Anglo-Cymric House of Tudor as the ruling dynasty of England.
Spanish Armada – Faith, Fate and firepower/politics of God
That Loutherbourg’s not half bad.
Europe’s superpower, Catholic Spain, viewed Elizabethan England as a practical and ideological threat. Its armies fought against them on the Continent, its ships raided trade from the New World and it fostered the heretical Protestant faith.
The plan was for a fleet, the Armada, to take Spain’s European army and land it in England to impose King Philip’s power.
Robert Hutchinson, historian and author of The Spanish Armada, said: “This campaign of 1588 changed the course of European history. If it had worked the future of Elizabeth I and fledgling Protestant England would have looked very black indeed.
“If his battle-hardened troops had managed to storm ashore near Margate in Kent, they could have been in the streets of ill-defended London within a week.
“England would have reverted to the Catholic faith and there may not have been a British Empire to come. We might be still speaking Spanish today.”
Don’t worry, Mr Hutchinson, I’m sure if that happened we’d be celebrating as a Great Moment in English History, like all the other times England was conquered by an invading force.
Naseby – Destruction of Divine Right
In 1645, after three bloody years of fighting, both sides in the English Civil War still seemed evenly matched. That would change at Naseby.
Martin Marix Evans, author and Naseby expert, said: “At its heart the Civil War was a clash of fundamentally opposed ideologies – belief in absolute monarchy against an embryonic sense of democracy.
“But while the king’s court and generals had squabbled, the Parliamentarians, including Oliver Cromwell, had been building the New Model Army.
“This was centred on loyalty to the nation rather than region and based promotion on ability rather than birth.”
Despite initial successes, the king’s forces were worn down and eventually cracked in the face of better co-ordination and discipline.
Mr Marix Evans said: “Hundreds were killed and thousands captured. The loss of so many veterans and their equipment meant Charles’s defeat became a matter of time.
“The battle ended centuries of autocratic monarchy and set Britain on a course of democratic evolution which continues to this day.
“Other battles decided which king ruled the people, this one decided how the people were ruled.”
Probably wise they didn’t bring up Oliver Cromwell:
Some of the garrison and many townspeople had escaped over the town’s north wall, but most of the Royalist soldiers were dead, many of them executed after they had surrendered. The heads of the Royalist officers were bought back to Dublin where they were put on pikes lining the roads into the city Those who were spared were sent into indentured servitude in Barbados.
All the Catholic priests found in Drogheda were clubbed to death, or ‘knocked on the head’ in Cromwell’s phrase. As for the civilians, it has never been established how many died in the sack of Drogheda, but it seems clear the number of non-combatant dead ran to several hundred. Cromwell limited himself to concluding that the death toll included, ‘many inhabitants’ of the town.
– The Siege of Drogheda
On the afternoon of 11 October, the gunners succeeded in opening two wide breaches in the castle wall. With the breakdown of the main negotiations, Captain Stafford, the commander of the castle, agreed to surrender it before an assault was launched. When Cromwell’s troops appeared on the castle battlements and turned its guns on Wexford, the Royalists guarding the south wall of the town lost heart and fled. The Parliamentarians launched an immediate attack, scaling the abandoned walls, opening the gates and storming into the town. The Royalists made a stand in the market square, but they were quickly overwhelmed. Cromwell and his officers made no attempt to restrain their soldiers, who slaughtered the defenders of Wexford and plundered the town. Colonel Synott was among those killed. Hundreds of civilians were shot or drowned as they tried to escape the carnage by fleeing across the River Slaney.
Angered at Synott’s last-minute attempt to change the terms of surrender, Cromwell expressed no remorse for the massacre of civilians at Wexford in his subsequent report to Parliament. He regarded it as a further judgment upon the perpetrators of the Catholic uprising of 1641 and also upon the pirates who had operated out of Wexford harbour. His principal regret was that the town was so badly damaged during the sack that it was no longer suitable as winter quarters for the Parliamentarian army.
– the Sack of Wexford
Immediately after the battle, Cromwell’s forces rounded up around 5,000 Scottish prisoners and embarked on the ‘march of shame’. You will hear little about this in the history books probably because it marks a profound disgrace in the annals of English military history. The battle weary Scots were brutally forced on an 8-day, 118 miles march south to the English cathedral city of Durham with virtually no rest (the first 28 mile stage to Berwick being undertaken non-stop through the night) and with no food or water, other than what could be scavenged. Of the estimated 5,000 who started the march only around 3,000 were left at the end when they reached their destination on 11 September.
Of the survivors, Durham Cathedral and Castle were used as a makeshift prison and an equivalent disgraceful episode commenced. The condition the Scots were kept in were utterly appalling. Records indicate that the Scots died at an average of 30 a day between 11 September and 31 October and it seems this reached over 100 a day with virtually no food, clean water or heat and the linked spread of disease and infection.
By the end of October 1650, approximately 1600 Scots had died horrible deaths in Durham’s much-revered House of God and Durham Castle. This was a desecration of the holy Cathedral. The military leader appointed by Cromwell to take charge of the prisoners (Sir Arthur Haselrigge, Member of the English Parliament for Leicester) later claimed in a letter to the Parliament that adequate food, water, bedding and fuel for heating had been provided, however the facts speak for themselves that this was merely an attempt to excuse his own conduct during the horrific weeks in September and October 1650. The Scots in a desperate effort to create some heat and reduce the death toll stripped the Cathedral bare of all wooden items, including pews and the organ for the making of fires, save for one item – a clock embossed with a carved Scots Thistle, which remains to this day.
Only 1400 of the estimated 5,000 men who started the march from Dunbar were still alive less than two months later, when they were sold as slave labour by their captors. Nine hundred were sold to the New World, mainly Virginia, Massachusetts and the Barbados colony in the Caribbean. Another 500 were forced the following spring to serve in the French army and were still fighting seven years later against the Spanish, side by side with a contingent of English soldiers sent over by Cromwell.
– the Battle of Dunbar
This is the man who was voted one of the ten Greatest Britons in 2008.
Boyne – Three Wars, One Battle
James II had been deposed for trying to restore absolute monarchy in the British Isles. His attempt to regain the throne was used as a strategic move in French attempts to dominate Europe, drawing on the religious divide in Ireland to provide support.
James’s Catholic forces met those of the new Protestant king, William III, just north of Dublin and in a tightly contested battle the Jacobite army was pushed back and their king fled the field and the country.
Dr Harman Murtagh, president of the Military History Society of Ireland, said: “The victory consolidated the position of William and his wife Mary on the English thrones, which in practice also represented a further advance of parliamentary control over the executive.”
Without James, the Catholic army was finally destroyed in 1691.
Dr Murtagh said: “The three-year Irish campaign distracted William and his resources from the Continent, which was of considerable assistance to King Louis XIV in his war with the Grand Alliance of his enemies.
“In Ireland William’s success consolidated the dominance of the newer Protestant population over the defeated Catholic majority.
“Catholics were subsequently subjected to penal laws that long denied them political rights and impeded their economic recovery, injustices that have not been forgotten.
“In Northern Ireland thousands of Protestants still march each July to commemorate William’s victory at the Boyne water.”
Speaking as the son of a Protestant father and a Catholic mother…
No comment. Absolutely no comment.
Battle of Britain – The Few
To be frank, I’d be surprised if this one doesn’t win.
Most of Europe had been cowed, the Soviets were at bay, the US undecided. Britain was defiant but wounded. The Nazi war machine was at the Channel and seemed unstoppable.
But the RAF had prepared itself for just such an attack, linking fighter airfields with control centres and radar stations. Armed with the nimble Spitfire and tough Hurricane, the defence would be more potent than any the Luftwaffe had faced before.
Ross Mahoney, aviation historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, said: “Without control of the air Germany would not be able to launch an invasion. Hitler himself ordered the RAF must be ‘morally and physically’ unable to contest a German crossing.
“Herein lies the Battle of Britain’s significance. By denying the Luftwaffe control of the skies over Britain, the RAF ensured during the vital months of July to October invasion was held off and the country was able to build up its strength militarily, diplomatically and politically.”
Over a long summer, the RAF and its multinational pilots did enough damage, and preserved enough of its strength, to remain unbowed.
Mr Mahoney said: “While some historians have recently questioned the traditional ‘narrow margin’ narrative, this ignores the simple fact Britain was the British Empire’s centre of gravity and had the Luftwaffe achieved control of the air then Hitler certainly would have attempted an invasion.
“Had Hitler succeeded it is unlikely that America would ever have joined the war against Germany.
“Simply put, the RAF stopped invasion from ever being a prospect and ensured Britain was the unsinkable aircraft carrier which projected the Allied military power to defeat Germany.”
I have a serious blind spot when it comes to recent history, but it’s probably for the best when it comes to the Second World War, given how emotive and fresh in our collective memories it is. It is most likely its relative recency which will see it gain the top spot, and given the inherent arbitrariness of lists in general (hence how Princess Diana and Isaac Newton can be on the same list of Great Britons). There are a few other battles that could be argued for a place in the top nine: Dun Nechtain, Edington, Towton, Culloden, probably others I can’t immediately think of. But that’s the nature of history: so much of it is up to personal interpretation of sources.
There’s a wee mini-Twitter campaign going on right now asking Scots to vote for Bannockburn – my considered and deeply held response is “eh, if you want.” As of writing, Bannockburn is in the top three, along with Hastings and Britain. It would be rather fun to see, especially given the Beeb’s rather unfair “setback for Edward II” slight. “But it’s not technically speaking the most important battle!” “But the Battle of Britain” had us all united!” “But Hastings had enormous impact on Scotland and Ireland too!” There is no imperical measurement for Most Important Battle. All we can do is choose the battle which means most to us. If lots of people say Bannockburn, then good grief, who are you to argue with that?