WHEN talking about Scotland’s Wars of Independence it is important to note that those who fought them did not think they were winning independence, instead they were sure that Scotland was already independent and they were fighting against England to preserve Scotland’s territory. It’s a subtle but crucial difference, one that has a lesson for us today. When the second independence referendum happens we will merely be taking back control, to coin a phrase, of the state of full independence that Scotland enjoyed for centuries.

Most sensible English people of the mediaeval period acknowledged that Scotland was an independent country. As their chroniclers of the time showed, the English referred to the long decades of conflict as the “wars of Scotland” as Michael Lynch accurately notes in Scotland – A New History.’ Nevertheless, while the first war had seen Scotland confirmed as independent after Sir William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn, the Declaration of Arbroath and the Treaty of Edinburgh-Northampton in 1328, it was the second war that would eventually validate Scotland’s independence and this is why it is so important and should be much better understood.

By 1340, Scotland’s army under Sir Andrew Murray and then Robert Stewart as Guardians of Scotland and the forces that were loyal to King David II had removed most of the English occupiers of southern Scotland as well as the troops of the “disinherited” nobles who had joined Edward Balliol in an attempt to get back their Scottish lands. As we saw last week, the English invasions of Scotland, which were really to preserve Edward III’s possessions here, were not always successful, especially when the English army came up against doughty fighters like Black Agnes of Dunbar.

READ MORE: How the brave Black Agnes of Dunbar kept the English at bay

In any case, Edward had a much greater conflict to fight as he attempted to recover English possessions in France at the start of The Hundred Years’ War in 1337.

In one of the early conflicts of that war, David II, Scotland’s true king in exile and the son of Robert the Bruce, is reported to have made his military debut, taking the field on behalf of the French king Philip VI, who had been his host ever since David and his English wife Joan had fled from Scotland after the disastrous loss at Halidon Hill in 1333.

As the Scottish resistance grew in the late 1330s, Edward III was preoccupied with mainly naval encounters across the English Channel, which culminated in the Battle of Sluys in 1340, a major victory for England which is mystifyingly never given the prominence in English history that it deserves. France lost nearly all its fleet, and though Edward III was wounded by a crossbow bolt in the thigh, he returned to England as a complete victor and started planning his invasion to take back Gascony after Philip VI had confiscated it.

Even after that reverse, it is notable that Philip continued to support David II’s forces in Scotland with men and munitions. He clearly saw that Scotland could play a vital role, if only to distract Edward. At the age of 17, David II returned to Scotland and took up his throne in 1341. Though in truth his 25-year-old cousin Robert Stewart – the product of his father Walter’s marriage to Robert the Bruce’s ill-fated daughter Marjorie – was still very much in charge. At first, David’s personal reign went swimmingly. He was young and healthy and loved nothing better than jousting and other chivalric pursuits. The absence of royal charters and decrees shows that he didn’t actually do much ruling, but he did repair the governance of Scotland and brought in much-needed revenues.

His time in France had given David a taste for war, and in furtherance of the Auld Alliance he led several raids into northern England from 1342 onwards. In the summer of 1346, Edward III was in France and burning his way to Paris when Philip VI led the French army – approximately double the size of Edward’s force – to Crécy-en-Ponthieu in the Somme area of the country.

The English archers inflicted massive damage on the French, and fierce hand-to-hand fighting followed all that day of August 26, 1346, when Crécy became the first major land victory for the English in the Hundred Years’ War.

David II had already led a couple of raids into England earlier in the year, but in October, directly as a result of a plea from Philip VI, the King of Scots gathered together an army and headed over the Border. Carlisle paid a ransom to avoid being sacked and the army turned east, destroying the land as they went. Hexham Abbey was sacked before David and his army fetched up at a place called Neville’s Cross near Durham.

David had been persuaded by Philip that the north of England would be lightly defended since Edward III had the best of his forces in France. It just wasn’t true – Edward had allowed all those counties north of the Humber to keep their armed troops at home in case of just such an invasion from Scotland.

The Battle of Neville’s Cross on October 17, 1346, was a disaster for Scotland. It began with an early morning skirmish in which William Douglas, the Lord of Liddesdale, and his force was repulsed. The Scots took up a defensive position in the heavy mist, only to find their ground was badly chosen when the mist lifted.

In mid-afternoon, the English archers let fly and the battle was joined. The English army was under the command of the Archbishop of York but he had two hugely experienced fighting officers doing much of the work – Lord Ralph Neville and Lord Henry Percy.

The Lanercost Chronicle describes them: “Sir Henry de Percy, like another Judas Maccabeus, the son of Mattathias, was a fine fighter. This knight, small of stature but sagacious, encouraged all men to take the field by putting himself in the forefront of the battle. Sir Rafe de Neville, an honest and valiant man, bold, wary and greatly to be feared, fought to such effect in the aforesaid battle that, as afterwards appeared, his blows left their marks upon the enemy.”

Once again the dominance of England on the battlefield was shown. Scottish troops used to fighting guerrilla wars were not able to withstand the volleys of arrows shot into them. The English cavalry, reportedly under the command of Edward Balliol, then smashed into the flank of the Scottish army and the division under the command of Robert Stewart broke in disarray and fled the field.

The National: David II had developed a taste for warfare during his time in FranceDavid II had developed a taste for warfare during his time in France

The Scottish schiltrons began to disintegrate and after fighting bravely, David II was himself badly wounded, taking two arrows in the face. He escaped from the battlefield but was later captured while hiding under a bridge over the River Browney – his reflection in the water was seen by English soldiers. One John de Coupland captured the king, but paid for it by having some teeth knocked out by David II – Coupland lived on the tale for many years afterwards and was given a pension for his feat. Around 2000 Scots, maybe more, died at Neville’s Cross, including many of Scotland’s military commanders such as the Earls of Moray and Strathearn and Niall Bruce, illegitimate son of Robert the Bruce.

After treatment for his wounds – the king lived for the rest of his life with an arrow tip in his head – David II and William Douglas were taken to the Tower of London where Edward III kept them and other Scottish nobles instead of ransoming them as was the usual practice. He had John Graham, Earl of Monteith, hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor, the earl having previously sworn allegiance to Edward.

We don’t know too much about the state of Scotland after David’s capture. Maddeningly the best chronicle of the time, Lanercost, runs out in 1346. Its last lines give an idea of what happened next: “After the aforesaid battle of Durham, my lord Henry de Percy being ill, my lord of Angus and Ralph de Neville went to Scotland, received Roxburgh Castle on sure terms, patrolled the Marches of Scotland, exacting tribute from certain persons beyond the Scottish sea, received others to fealty, and returned to England, not without some losses to their army.”

READ MORE: Back in the Day: The myths behind the Second War of Independence

In other words the English went back into Scotland and met resistance, and cross-border raids by both the English and the Scots would continue for a couple of years while Edward III held David captive.

Then death on an unprecedented scale intervened. There are many theories as to how the Black Death arrived in Europe, the latest being that it was brought in by fleas carried by gerbils rather than rats. No matter how it came from Asia, the Bubonic Plague wreaked utter havoc across continental Europe before it arrived in England in 1348. It was inevitable that it would spread to Scotland but with a sparse, spread-out population, the effects here from 1349 onwards were not as devastating as they were in England, where towns and cities were reduced to the status of little more than charnel houses.

Scotland’s plague was pneumonic rather than bubonic, and some of the first victims were Scottish soldiers gathered at a camp near Selkirk, who died in their hundreds within 24 hours of contracting it – much quicker than bubonic plague. The plague rendered warfare redundant, and even though over the next four years Scotland lost between a fifth and a quarter of its entire population, the coming of the plague at least meant a break from war with the English.

It lasted until 1355, when William, the Earl of Douglas, led a raid on Norham Castle in retaliation for the depredation of Douglas lands. The Battle of Nesbitt Moor saw the Scots ambush and defeat an English army with several knights captured. That defeat brought Edward III briefly into Scotland on a raid known as the Burnt Candlemas. The Earl of Douglas agreed to lead a Scottish force to serve in the army of King John II of France. Thus it was that on September 19, 1356, Scots fought against the English army of Edward III at the Battle of Poitiers and suffered in the defeat which saw Douglas narrowly escape with his life. Edward III decided he would have to get the Scots off his back once and for all. Several times during the course of his 11-year captivity, the childless David II was asked by Edward III if he would name one of his sons as heir to the throne of Scotland. David was not averse to the idea but the Scottish Parliament was – and the king knew it.

The book of Pluscarden records what happened in 1356: “At length the king of England took counsel and sent him over, appointing Northampton to accompany him. They treated long on this matter but could come to no agreement.

“A covenant was made: they agreed upon hundred thousand marks sterling (about £60m in today’s money) at terms of 14 years immediately following and that during that time a strict truce would be observed between the kingdoms ... and as security for the said payment, manifold nobles, earls and barons were given as hostages for the king and commend captive 11 years in the custody of the English.”

It was all agreed in the Treaty of Berwick of 1357. The Second War of Independence was over. David went back to ruling a Scotland which everyone now agreed was an independent country.