Battle of Falkirk

The Battle of Falkirk

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© Copyright 1997 RMG *


 

Edward Marches Against Wallace

King Edward, in the month of June 1298, reviewed at Roxburgh his army, which consisted of 80,000 infantry, English, Welsh, and Irish, besides a body of splendidly mounted and disciplined cavalry, the veterans of his French wars: 3,000 of these rode horses completely armed from head to crupper, and 4,000 light cavalry. In addition to these were 500 Life Guards from Gascony, nobly mounted and magnificently accoutered. Edward Marched forward to crush as he called it “the rebellion of the Scots”, his term for Scottish resistance of invasion by England.


Wallace’s Peasant Army

Wallace, indefatigable and undismayed, had meanwhile collected from amid the peasantry, of whom he was guardian, and to whom he was an idol, a resolute force of 25,000-30,000 men. With these he moved to Falkirk, in west Lothian, where, with great skill, he chose a strong position, having in its front a morass impassable for cavalry, and his flanks covered by breastworks of palisades driven into the earth and bound together by ropes. Provisions became scarce in Edward’s camp at Kirkliston; the fleet from Berwick was anxiously looked for. The surrounding country had been many times wasted by fire and sword (by Wallace) ; the soldiers complained bitterly of their scanty provender, and a change of quarters to Edinburgh was contemplated. A small supply was received; but on the great body of the fleet being still detained by adverse winds, a dangerous mutiny broke out. Under his banner Edward had 40,000 Welsh, led by their chiefs, whom he had recently subjected to his stern sway. The famine was allowed, by the English, to be pressed hardest on the Welsh before the English. A supply of wine sent to them brought on a crisis. During the ride north, Edwards new Welsh archers, got into a killing fight with the English soldiers, and nearly broke up the whole invasion force In a sudden Paroxysm of national antipathy, they (the Welsh) turned upon the English in their tents at night. Edward’s trumpets sounded promptly to horse, and charging the Welsh he slew more than eighty of them, and eventually restored order. Exasperated and sullen, the Welsh chief now openly threatened to join Wallace. “Let them do so” said Edward scornfully; “let them go over to my enemies. I hope soon to see the day when I shall Chastise them both” Wallace had heard of the troubles in Edwards Army and had planned a night attack upon the English camp, but two ignoble peers, jealous of his power, went to the English King’s side and warned him. These traitors, unnamed, told Edward where Wallace was encamped in the forest near Falkirk and told of Wallaces position and intended tactics. “Thanks be to God, who hath hitherto extricated me from every peril!, exclaimed Edward. “I shall go forth to meet them”.
While camping one night, Edward’s horse was startled by something , and the charger trod heavily upon his royal master breaking three of his ribs.
On St. Magdalen’s day, July 22, the army came in sight of the Scot’s position. Edward proposed to refresh his soldiers, but, confident in their overwhelming numbers, they clamored to be led against the Scots. Edward consented, “in the mane of Holy Trinity”, and the English advanced in three columns, each of 30,000 men.
The first was led by Earl Marshal, the second by the Bishop of Durham, and the third by Edward himself.
Wallace had drawn the Scots up in three columns of less than 10,000 men each, These were composed entirely of peasantry; for jealous of his increasing popularity, few knights and still fewer barons joined him. Under this, however, there served as leaders Sir John Stewart of Bonhilll Sir John the Grahame of Abercorn and Dundaff; Duncan MacDuff, 11th Earl of Fife and John “Red” Comyn, son of the Lord of Badenoch.
While the Bishop of Durham had been celebrating a Mass upon the hill for the English, the same sacrament was performed in the Scottish ranks; then all awaited steadily the advance of the foe.


The Battle

Led by Earl Marshal the first English column came rapidly on; but not having reconnoitered the ground, their leading files rolled into the morass, where horse and man, the English and Gascon alike, were exposed to the arrows of Scottish (short or regular bow) Archers. After some damage , the English advance swerved a little to the left, found firmer ground, and closed their files, charged.

“Now” , exclaimed Wallace, with pleasant confidence, to his soldiers, ” I haif brocht ye to the ring — hop (dance) gif ye can!” , and at that moment the heavily-mailed English cavalry of the first line fell with a tremendous shock on the charged spears of the Schiltron units of the Scots. Many young English knights were impaled or, rather, their horses were impaled by the speared schiltrons and hundreds were pulled from their horses and beaten with mace and war hammer to the death. Perceiving the mistake made on the right flank, the second column , under the bishop of Durham, avoided the morass and wheeling to the right fell upon the Scottish left, while the Earl Marshal assailed their right. At that very moment, to the bewilderment of Wallace, “Red” John Comyn, a rival of Robert the Bruce, drew off 10,000 of his vassals (mostly light horse and infantry) , and with the utmost deliberation quitted the field.

Wallace had been betrayed in the midst of combat, Whether or not this was the work of Edward I is unknown. Wallace, showing no dismay to his men, stood firm, though he now had only 20,000 followers to face 90,000 English heavily armed troops and cavalry. Scottish archers had been removed (killed) from the field by now by the English cavalry and only Wallace and his infantry were left. He did all a brave man could do to inspire his men, fighting in the front ranks with his large two-handed sword.


Victory and Defeat

The schiltrons had been a successful new tactic employed by Wallace against the English heavy horse attack. Many more English horse knights fell that day than Edward had ever expected. This new tactic, first employed here at Falkirk, not Stirling, was to make a hugh impact on future methods of fighting for both infantry and cavalry. Indeed, a similar process was used , with success, by the Fetish Pikemen against the cream of the French chivalry (horse-warriors) in 1302. However, with the betrayal of Red Comyn, and the new English tactic of using the Welsh longbow in mass units to shower deadly arrows at great range at the enemy finally took its toll on the Scots.

Again and again the cavalry of the English spurred in furious charges on the Scottish pikes (spears). Stoutly the Scots stood, shoulder to shoulder; and though infantry came up, and showers of cloth-yard shafts were shot point blank into the ranks of Wallace, while with a storm of stones, the Welsh and Irish (they did fight on the English side), slingers plied their missiles securely from behind, they could not penetrate what one old historian called “that wood of spears”.

All around Wallace, his men fell. Sir John the Grahame of Dundaff, the friend of Wallace, and the young Earl of Fife, with nearly all of their vassals (men) , were slain; and now the survivors, disheartened alike by the fall of their three principle leaders, fell into disorder. Already deserted by their cavalry, most of it riding off with Red Comyn, and, after the destruction of their archers, left exposed to a pitiless storm of missiles from the Welsh Longbow and Irish slings, infantry, with their long spears leveled over a breastwork of their dead and dying, made a desperate attempt only to keep their ground. But their numbers were thinning fast, and when the English cavalry once more dashed upon them, with lance and sword, ax and mace, it was all over.


 

Retreat of Wallace

Armed with the great two-handed “early” claymore, long and bravely did Wallace maintain the field; and not until the sun was setting did he begin his perilous retreat by crossing the Carron, near the old Roman ruin, where there was a ford when the tide was low. There, at a place called Brian’s ford near the Carron Iron Works (in 1897), fell the last Englishmen of distinction (nobility) , Sir Brian le Jay, Master of the Templars, who, pressing in pursuit, was unhorsed and slain by the hand of Wallace himself. Wallace’s own horse, covered with wounds and stuck full of spear-heads and arrows, was only able to bear him across the river, when it sank beneath him and died. He continued to fight his was way on foot towards Perth, accompanied by 300 chosen men.

The estimated number of the Scottish slain is 15,000-20,000 men. (Note: the figures of men involved come from Cassells “British land and Sea Battles, 1897”).
Again the Lowlands were overrun by English, and castles were retaken and garrisoned by Edward; and history tells how, after totally failing to corrupt and attach Wallace to his own cause, he induced his betrayal by a friend (Sir John Menteith) , and had Wallace barbarously executed on August 23, 1305.
In 1306 , Robert Bruce had himself secretly crowned King of Scotland and went into hiding. In a few short years, after much trial and near failure, the Scots rose again in arms under Robert I of Scotland and the spirit and resistance to English tyranny taking deeper root.


TACTICS

Additional Information on Wallace and Falkirk: (more on tactics)

Falkirk – In 1298, Edward I, returned to England and led an army north to Scotland to find and destroy Wallace’s army.
Wallace had just adopted a new tactic for fighting heavy cavalry attack. The Scots had lighthorsemen , but not as many as the English heavy mounted knights, Wallace was outnumbered nearly 6 to 1. Wallace’s new tactic was long (12 foot) speared units of massed infantry, formed into box or oval shapes. They fought by using the reach of the spears to impale the charging English knights (they’re horses actually). It was devastatingly effective. They were called “Schiltrons” pronounced Skil-trons.
By a twist of fate of fate, Edward I also came to Falkirk with a new battle tactic. He decided from his experience in Wales, to employ the Welsh archers in mass units to shower the enemy with arrows.

When the battle was met, Wallace looked out over the thousands of English knights and archers and saw his peril. He fought in the front ranks with his men swinging a large two handed sword. He was apparently a very large man. At first, the battle was bad for the English, Edwards I’s younger knights, anxious to prove themselves, galloped full force into Wallace’s Schiltron units, the speared units held and Edward lost many, many young knights that day. Wisely, though, Edward I, saw the danger and called back his mounted knights, and brought up the massed units of Welsh archers. They fired shower upon shower of longbow arrows on Wallace’s tightly packed schiltron units and eventually, the schiltrons were weakened effectively enough for Edwards Knights to charge the enemy. About this time, Some 10,000 of the Scots (mostly the mounted warriors) led by “Red” John Comyn, an enemy of Robert the Bruce, quit the field and led his contingent of 10,000 horsemen and infantry off the field. Wallace had been betrayed. Eventually the combination of Welsh longbows and charging English cavalry were too much for the Scots and they were slaughtered on the field. Wallace managed to escape, and went into hiding for years. He resigned as “Guardian of Scotland” and went into a deep depression. He was generally unseen and unknown by the rest of Britain for the next 6 years, and in 1305 , he was betrayed by a minor noble named Sir John Menteith, who knew Wallace, and arranged for Wallace’s capture while he was sleeping. Menteith captured Wallace, (not Robert Bruce), and took him to England to be executed.

Wallace told the Chief Royal Judge that he had never pledged loyalty to Edward I, so how could he be guilty of treason? Darn good question, but the English didn’t see it that way and sentenced Wallace to be “Hung, Drawn and quartered”. The execution was carried out 23 August 1305.

Wallace was hung by the neck, cut down while still alive, then he was “drawn” which means he was cut open in the abdomen, and disemboweled and emasculated. His intestines were then burnt before his eyes. Then, finally, he was beheaded and cut into five sections. His head was placed on London Bridge to rot. His four body parts were sent to the four major cities in southern Scotland and Northern England.


 

Robert M. Gunn
Author/Medieval Historian: Skyelander@AOL.com
“Aut Pax Aut Bellum”
* – All rights reserved* © 1997 RMG.*
* – No portion may be reproduced , in any form,
*- without prior written consent of the author.

Sources:
1 – Extracts from Cassell’s “British battles on Land and Sea” 1897
2 – Essays by Robert Gunn (Skyelander) Author/ Medieval historian.
3 – Scottish Wars with England by Howard Trupeton 1948
4 – Lanercost Chronicles reprint. (A North English Chronicle)

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