Henry de Bohun: Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

It should have been so easy!  There he was--king of Scots, the Bruce himself!  Riding exposed and almost alone, unguarded, as he rode the lines inspecting his small force on June 23, 1314.  Henry de Bohun, young English knight, no more than 22, and part of the massive English force of some twenty to thirty thousand saw him.  And he saw his own chance for glory!

Bruce was riding a small palfrey, and armed with only his battle ax.   De Bohun lowered his lance.  And he charged.  What could go wrong?

[Well, I hate to give away any spoilers, but have you met my friend Murphy? Well, I guess that's sort of...dead giveaway.]

Let's back up.  Who was Henry de Bohun?  He was a knight in the army summoned by Edward II, King of England, to march north to fortify and hold Stirling Castle.  Grandson of Humphrey de Bohun, 2nd Earl of Hereford.  Nephew (or cousin according to one site) of another Humphrey (VII) de Bohun, the 4th, and current (as of 1314) Earl of Hereford.

We know a great deal more about Humphrey de Bohun VII, 4th Earl of Hereford, than we do about his nephew, Henry, but it helps set the stage for who Henry might have been, traveling in the army with his uncle.  

Humphrey VII was of a family of Anglo-Saxon family from the Welsh Marshes and roughly the same age as Robert the Bruce.  Their family lands of Essex and Middlesex were not far apart.  Given that England and Scotland had formerly been friends and neighbors, they certainly knew one another personally. 

While it is unclear whether they were friends or foes in their earlier years, we do know that their family lands, when Edward I, also known as Longshanks (because One Moniker is Never Enough), took Bruce's lands, many of them, including Lochmaben (which we will see in Book Five, The Battle is O'er) and Annandale, were given to Humphrey.

When Bruce's queen, Elizabeth, was captured in 1306--8 years before Bannockburn--in this all-too-real death-chess match, she was placed in the care of Humphrey and his wife Elizabeth.  Humphrey himself was captured at Bannockburn and perhaps with some irony, was returned to his family in exchange for Bruce's queen whom he himself had held prisoner, Bruce's daughter Marjorie, and two bishops.

Lochmaben was now and again re-taken by the Scots, but was often in the hands of the Bohun family until 1360.

This Humphrey de Bohun was not only brother-in-law to Edward II, but the Constable of England, and by right of that title, should have had command of the army that marched toward Bannockburn.  However, Edward II was still chafing about that whole Executing Piers Gaveston thing in 1312.  Although in younger years he had taken part in tourneys with Piers Gaveston, he later became a staunch opponent of Gaveston and Edward II--something Ed Junior did not forget only two years later in 1314.  As a result, he put his army in the younger and less experienced hands of Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester.

We are told that Henry was the grandson of Humphrey IV--who died on the 24th of September 1275--2nd Earl of Hereford, 1st Earl of Essex, Constable of England, and godfather to Edward I.  This Humphrey had nine children (six sons and three daughters) from two wives, and we are not told which of them was the father or mother to young Henry.  However, we can make some guesses. 

Given his age, Henry must have been born about 1292 to 1294.  Humphrey IV's first wife died in August of 1241--making her youngest daughter at least 51 in 1292: an unlikely candidate for motherhood in that year.  Her youngest son would have been at least 54.  Possible.

Humphrey IV's second wife, Maud de Avenbury, died October 8, 1273.  Her sons, John and Sir Miles, would therefore have been between 19 and 50 in 1292, making them more likely candidates.  Indeed, wikitree has an entry on Henry that tells us his father was John, mother unknown.

This page lists his year of birth as 'about 1277,' making him more like 37 at his death in 1314--which contradicts other accounts that call him young and say he was no more than 22.  My initial reaction is that his charge was the action of a young man, not a 37 year old, who certainly would have seen enough battle and known enough of Bruce to perhaps think twice before doing such a thing.

So this, in the end, is what we know of Henry: not much, except that he was young and charged the King of Scots on the first day of the battle of Bannockburn, hoping to make a name for himself.  [Not that he stopped and wrote down his motivation before rushing in--we are of course presuming.]

What would you do if you were on a small palfrey with only an ax as defense, and an English knight charged you, with a lowered lance, from a much larger horse?

It should have been easy.

However, Bruce did not specialize in making things easy for the English.  He did not turn.  He did not cower.  He waited patiently on his small horse, only at the last minute twitching the reins, standing up in his stirrups, and lifting his two headed battle ax.

In an amazing feat of skill, he smashed the ax down, cleaving in two Henry's helmet--and his head.

You had one job, Henry--one job.  And it went horribly wrong. 

Unless, of course, you're looking at it from the perspective of the Scots.  The Bruce was reprimanded by one of his commanders or lords for taking such a risk--for not turning and fleeing.  Bruce's only comment was a sad, "I haf broken my guid ax."

The incident gave a huge boost of morale to the small Scottish David facing the great English Goliath, and they went on, the next day, to rout the English completely.

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