The Battle of Stirling Bridge
………..and What Led To It.
An original historical composition written exclusively for the Scot-Celt-Medieval list.
Included on the Clan Wallace Society Internet site with permission.
The situation leading up the confrontation of loyal Scots under the command of Sir William Wallace against the powerful Anglo-Norman Army of Edward I’s Northern English forces at Stirling Bridge is a bit complex.
After a prosperous and relatively peaceful reign under King Alexander III, Scotland was enjoying economic success and some degree of peace with it’s southern neighbor England. With Alexander’s tragic death in 1286 AD, all of the old problems and new ones came crashing down on Scotland leading to what is now called the “First war of Scottish Independence”.
Background: Scotland, 1286 AD
Edward I of England had only recently completed phase one of his conquest of Wales by defeating the forces of Prince Llywelyn. Edward, for all of his disreputable characteristics, was indeed one of England’s most powerful and effective rulers….particularly in his military campaigns. At the time, Anglo-Norman England commanded the most powerful, best equipped and armed military forces in all of Europe.
Edward had shown his military tactics in battles in Wales, England and France, to be very effective, if not cruel and ruthless. He was indeed an enemy to be feared.
It was Welsh misfortune to choose to fight with one of England’s most powerful rulers. Like other medieval kings, Edward had problems to settle in France, but throughout his reign these were overruled by his determination to increase English influence in Britain. Such a focus of attention, backed up by high military expertise, was bad news for the island’s Celtic realms. For, after Wales, Edward set his sights on Scotland. In 1286, against the desires of his advisors, Alexander III, king of Scots, went for a midnight ramble to Kingdom to see his new, young bride. “Neither storm nor floods nor rocky cliffs, would prevent him from visiting matrons, virgins and widows, by day or by night as the fancy seized him”, said one contemporary. But it appears this night, Alexander was intent on being with his young bride. He, in the dark, steep mountains, plunged over a cliff and was found with a broken neck.
Alexander’s heirs, his daughter and wife had died before him, and no direct adult heir was available to fill the now vacant throne of Scotland. Chaos and confusion reigned in Scotland now, instead of a rightful king or queen. Alexander’s only direct heir was his grand-daughter, Margaret, an infant child known as the “Maid of Norway”, the daughter of King Eric of Norway and Alexander’s own daughter Margaret. Alexander’s untimely death couldn’t have come at a worse time for Scotland. It marked the end of a period of peace and prosperity during which country’s borders, always a shifting affair, had been defined and the differing tribal “stew” of groups in the lowlands of Celt, Saxon, and Norman had to some extent, finally grown into one recognizable nation.
The Highland and the Isles continued to be a land of Celtic and Norse people, but the lowlands from where the Scots king ruled, was a veritable mix of ethnic groups and Gaelic was beginning to become a secondary language to English and , in places, Norman French or Latin still prevailed.
Edward Becomes Involved in the Political Situation
Edward cleverly sought to arrange a hasty marriage of his son, the Prince of Wales, and the little Margaret, “Maid of Norway”. In what can only be said to be , at best, bad judgment on the part of the Scots Nobles, agreement to the marriage of young Margaret and Edward of Caernarvon was signed into treaty, called the treaty of Birgham.
However, fate again dealt a cruel blow to Scotland as little Margaret took ill on her voyage to England from Norway and died of fever in the Orkney Isles. Now the throne to Scotland and her future laid in the hands of 13 claimants for the empty throne.
At the request of Scottish, Norman blooded, Bishop Fraser a letter was urgently sent to Edward asking him to arbitrate the increasingly volatile Scottish situation. Anxious to utilize this new opportunity to unite the whole Island of Britain, Edward readily agreed to arbitrate and hoped to bring all of Scotland under his sovereign control.
Acknowledging his feudal and military superiority, the Scots regents allowed Edward to decide who should rule Scotland. The front runners were John Balliol and Robert the Bruce the Elder. Both these lords were descendants of knights of William the Conqueror. For, by this time, Scotland, especially the lowlands, was dominated by Anglo-Norman landowners ruling estates throughout the realm. Also in consideration was Sir “Red” John Comyn.
John Balliol ran vast estates in France; Robert the Bruce the Younger owned land in Essex. This conquest of Celtic Scotland had been achieved through court politics, (notably the Canmores and David I), intermarriage, and peaceful settlement. In the North, there were still many Scots landowners and clansmen who were of direct Celtic or Celtic/Norse descent, but increasingly the politics of the day was being handled by warlords of Norman or partial Norman blood. Some state that the ensuing Anglo-Scots war was therefore more a power struggle between Anglo-Norman dynasties and not an international war of Scot versus English or Celts versus Normans, as was more true in Wales and Ireland. However, this author and historian sees it as a mixture of both. Clearly in the lowlands, this was true, but the highlands of Scotland , not to mention the fiercely independent Isles, the Celtic and Celtic/Norse people were not ruled by Normans. So the confrontations to come were truthfully a mixture: a clash of Norman dynasties and a Celtic and English war, for the independence of Scotland. That said, the common people of all Scotland and many of the lower aristocracy, the clansmen, were Celtic and still spoke Gaelic. It was these people, rallying to the cause of their Scots Norman masters, who may have envisaged their battle against the English invader as a national or Celtic struggle for independence. As it turns out, they were correct.
Edward wanted to Dominate Scotland. If he couldn’t become it’s king, then he would choose the most malleable contender. He selected John Balliol, (although according to Celtic customs — Robert the Bruce had a stronger claim). The elderly Robert Bruce passed his family’s claim onto his son, Earl of Carrick, Robert the Bruce. The Bruce’s refused to do homage to the new king. Tiring of his humiliating role as frontman for Edward’s ambitions, King John Balliol renounced his allegiance to the English king and renewed the Auld Alliance with France, preparing the way for war with England. Robert the Bruce refused the call to arms for various reasons. At the time, loyal to Edward, it seemed now that Balliol might be displaced in favor of the Bruce claim. Much politics was in play on the part of the Bruces and his indecision which appears to make him weak, was actually a carefully played plan to eventually be on the throne of Scotland.
Balliol was in his forties, not very intelligent and rather weak- willed. Edward treated him with brutal contempt, using him merely as a feudal puppet to carry out English policies in Scotland. Finally, tired of this constant humiliation, Balliol renounced his oath of allegiance and opposed Edward. The English King, deeply embroiled in a bitter war with France in Gascony and confronted by yet another Welsh rebellion, stormed north to deal with Balliol and his followers.
Although involved in a war in France and Wales, king Edward rode north with an army of English Knights and Welsh archers. It may, incidentally, be thought remarkable that the Welsh should form such a major part of Edward’s army so soon after their own defeat at his hands. But the defeat was against the Welsh Celtic Nobility, whereas the ordinary Welshman was happy to fight for money and food, due to famine, on any side. For many of the Celtic nobility, however, Wales had ceased to be their homeland and several Welsh nobles served abroad as mercenaries. The French chronicler Froissart, for instance, mentions an Owain of Wales who offered his services to the French King during the Hundred Years War.
The English army arrived outside the town of Berwick at the end of March 1296 to find the citizens and castle prepared for a long siege. So confident were the inhabitants of Berwick that they jeered at the English army over the battlements. But the experienced English troops, now wild with rage, and at the very urging of their king, captured the town nearby in a bloody matter of minutes and then spent the rest of the length of the day slaughtering it’s citizens, men, women and children all under the direct orders of Edward I “Hammer of the Scots”. It is said that so many townspeople were killed, that the stains of their blood could be seen, like a watermark, on the walls of the city for decades. Seeing the horrifying result of resistance to Edward, the castle opened its gates and surrendered that evening.
But Edwards bloodlust was not assuaged yet. With Berwick in his hands, he sent his most senior lieutenant, John de Warrenne, to take Dunbar. De Warrenne’s detachment consisted of the best cavalry, numbers of Welsh bowmen, and a good force of infantry raised in the northern levies. On arriving at Dunbar, 29 April 1296, de Warrenne found this castle also prepared for a siege, and the main Scottish army outside its walls at a place called Spottsmuir. It was commanded by John “Red” Comyn, Earl of Buchan. De Warrenne ignored the castle and offered battle to the main body of Scottish troops. The Scots, not lacking in courage but ill disciplined, broke ranks and hurled themselves at the English troops, only to be showered by thousands of Welsh arrows. Broken and confused, they were trampled into the ground by de Warrenne’s cavalry, who rode among the Scots slaughtering even the few remaining survivors with sword, lance, ax and mace. De Warrenne totally routed the Scottish army killing over 10,000 men, many of whom were injured and lying helpless on the field.
The result was a total English victory and the loss of Scottish men, women, children and Scotland’s pride. Aside from the dead, John “Red” Comyn, three other Scottish Earls and more than a hundred of Comyn’s most important followers were captured. Edward followed his victory at Dunbar with a triumphant march through Scotland, taking his army further than any previous ruler of Britain since the Romans.
Balloil’s Fall from Power, Scotland now under English Domination
Parading in triumph through Scotland, Edward demanded the abdication of Balliol. At Montrose, the two kings confronted each other. In front of both English and Scots courtiers, Balliol’s coat of arms was ripped from him and thrown on the floor. His humiliation was complete. But Edward’s arrogance had further heights to reach. Through fear alone, he received the homage of the Scots magnates. At Perth, he commanded that the sacred Stone of Scone (pronounced Skoon) — upon which generations of Scots Kings had been crowned — be removed and delivered to Westminster Abbey. Ignoring the Bruce claim, Edward appointed an English viceroy over the Scots. Scotland it seemed was now part of the English Empire. As Edward I returned over the border, a chronicler recorded his rude parting comments of Scotland : ” It is a good job to be shot (rid of) of such shit (Scotland).”
A Hero Emerges from Scotland
This was far from the end of the conflict between the two countries, however. In the spring of 1297 the whole of Scotland, with the possible exception of Lothian (long an Anglo-Saxon area) was in a state of armed insurrection. At Lanark a complete garrison of English troops were massacred by troops loyal to what is described as a giant of a man named William Wallace, son of a minor local landowner and knight from Ellersie, near Paisley. He quickly became a symbol of Scottish resistance to the English occupation of Scotland. But just who was this William Wallace?
William Wallace – a Brief Look at the Man
Recovering from Edward’s blitzkrieg, a few Scots warlords set about to reclaim their dignity. Foremost among these was the Gaelic-speaking William Wallace. A man of whom the facts are truthfully few. A man of low status or minor status and called by some an outlaw or bandit, it may have been that Wallace was being used by more powerful Scots aristocrats as a cover for their rebellion so they could be seen not to break their feudal vows of homage to Edward. In the “Lanercost Chronicle”, (a north English chronicle), William Wallace is called “Willelmus Wallensis” — Welsh William — perhaps as a reference to his Celtic tongue or more likely his descent from the Britons of Strathclyde (A Celtic people strongly related to the Welsh).
Harassed by English tax collectors and hiding in the forests of Selkirk, Wallace gathered around him a band of rogue and common warriors (called outlaws by some English accounts). According to the legend, one evening he made a dash to see his wife or lover. Surprised by an English patrol, he retreated into his woman’s house and disappeared out the back door. Frustrated by his continual escape, the Englishmen set fire to the house and slaughtered Wallace’s lover/wife and family inside. The tall, angry Scotsman vowed vengeance. He had little time to wait. He and his retainers caught up with the guilty English patrol that night and cut them to pieces.
This blow against the English encouraged several Scots aristocrats to raise their banners in rebellion. Among them were Sir William Douglas, the former commander of Berwick and witness to the slaughter of Scots men, women and children at the hands of Edward I. Also there was James Stewart, a major Scots landowner. And perhaps the most important, and most often overlooked, was Sir Andrew de Moray (later called Murray), who was on the other side of Scotland raising his own forces against the English much as Wallace was doing.
That Sir Andrew de Moray, a minor noble, and Wallace would meet and become the best of friends and allies was inevitable. They did, and Wallace and Moray became fast friends and worked in unison remarkably well.
King Edward I of England, “Longshanks” or “Hammer of the Scots”, hoped to settle the insurrection with his Scots allies and sent Robert the Bruce from his base in Carlisle to capture the Douglas Castle. But Robert was none too sure of the righteousness of his order. His mother was Celtic and his deep feelings for the country of Scotland (something for which he is rarely given credit), ran contrary to his family’s political friendship. Besides, the Bruces had been used before with the promise of kingship and Edward had always failed to deliver. At the castle of Douglas, Robert the Bruce made the vital decision, one that would show in his character later in his life. He would not fight his countrymen, not against them.
In the meanwhile, Wallace is said to have fought in the name of deposed king “Toom Tabard” or empty coat, John Balliol, although several of my sources state otherwise — that in fact Wallace fought purely for Scotland and only invoked the name of Balliol to get much needed aid and support from certain nobles. Whether or not Wallace actually fought to restore Toom Tabard to the throne is moot, since it cannot be proven or disproven I shall accept is as such — historical supposition.
William Wallace was a man born to be a leader. Of the little known facts we have of Wallace, the one that comes across the clearest is that he inspired and led his men with efficiency, sometimes barbarously, in a guerrilla war against the English fueled by his passion for vengeance and his love for Scotland. He quickly became the leader of a loyal army which traversed huge distances across the barren landscape, striking at unsuspecting English outposts. To terrify the enemy, Wallace made it a point of principle to kill every Englishman who argued with him, and his continual intimidation and at times brutal harassment of the local civilian population (those who were loyal to the English), made it impossible for the English appointed treasurer to Scotland, Sir Hugh de Cressingham, to raise taxes.
The Earl of Surrey and Sussex, Edward’s appointed Regent of Scotland, John de Warrenne, was in England when the orders from Edward came to put down the Scots rebellions. King Edward, who was embarking, again, for France (Flanders) to meet with the King of France, King Philip the Fair, over disputed territory. Edward had supposed the revolts would be easily handled by his northern English levies under Earl de Warrenne and the High Justicar de Cressingham. He didn’t anticipate correctly.
As the English army of heavy cavalry, Welsh archers, men-at-arms and infantry marched towards Stirling castle in September 1297, Wallace got news of their impending arrival and marched rapidly to intercept them. On the banks of the river Forth, the English troops came into sight of Wallace’s men.
The Battle of Stirling Begins
Among the many victories Wallace won, that at Stirling Bridge, on September 11th, 1297, is remarkable. Edward I , busy with continental politics, remitted John de Warrenne, Earl of Surrey and Sussex , and Hugh de Cressingham full power to repress any and all resistance; and for this purpose an army of 50,000 infantry (supposedly) and a great body of horse, under their orders, marched through the south lowlands in quest of Wallace, who was then besieging Dundee with all the men that he could muster, 10,000 in all. He, quitting Dundee, crossed the Tay, and marched to dispute the passage of the river Forth, by which the English alone could penetrate into the more northern parts of the kingdom.
Wallace positioned his men in the hills around a bridge crossing the Forth, north of Stirling. Not all the Scots felt confident about the confrontation. James Stewart approached the English warlord with an offer of peace. De Warrenne refused and his mounted knights began to advance across the narrow bridge. The bridge across the Forth near Stirling was then of timber, and stood at Kildean, half a mile above the present ancient bridge. It is described as having been so narrow that only two persons could pass along it abreast, yet the English leaders proposed to make 50,000 (though this number is disputed by many), foot and all their horse undergo the tedious operation of crossing it in the face of the enemy. Walter de Hemingford, Canon of Guisborough, in Yorkshire, records that a Scottish traitor who served the Earl of Surrey strenuously opposed this measure, and pointed out a ford at no great distance where sixty men could have crossed the stream abreast; but no regard was paid to his suggestions.
Notwithstanding this superior force, Surrey was by no means anxious to meet Wallace, whose success in past encounters had won him a formidable name.
Seeking to temporize, he dispatched two Dominican friars to Wallace, whose force was then encamped near Cambuskenneth Abbey, on the hill so well known as the Abbey Craig; thus both armies were within perfect view of each other, and separated only by a river, which there winds between green and fertile meadows. The request of the friars was brief — that Wallace and his followers should lay down their arms and submit.
“Return to thy friends”, said Wallace, “and tell them we come here with no peaceful intent, but ready for battle, determined to avenge our wrongs and to set our country free. Let thy masters come and attack us; we are ready to meet them beard to beard.”
Enraged by this reply, many of the English knights now clamored to be led on. This was exactly what Wallace and de Moray wanted…to make the English force come to them across the narrow bridge. It is recorded by English chroniclers that this is when the Scottish traitor, Earl of Lennox, said to Earl Surrey, “Give me but five hundred horse and a few foot, and I shall turn the enemy’s flank by the ford, while you, my Lord Earl, may pass the bridge in safety.”
Crossing the Bridge
Surrey still hesitated, on which the grotesquely fat Hugh de Cressingham, tax-collector of Scotland for Edward said, “Why do we thus protract the war, and waste the King’s treasure? Let us fight, it is our bounden duty.” Surrey, contrary to good judgment, yielded, and by dawn of the day the English began to cross the bridge; Wallace heard the tidings with joy.
When one-half of the Englishmen were over, Wallace advanced, having previously having sent a strong detachment to hold the ford referred to. The moment the Scots began to move, Sir Marmaduke Twenge, a knight belonging to the North Riding of Yorkshire, who, together with de Cressingham, led the vanguard of horse, displayed the Royal Standard amid loud cries of “For God and St. George of England!” and at the head of the heavily mailed horse made a furious charge up the slope upon the Scottish infantry, while their archers kept shooting fast and surely from the rear, and caused the English forces to waver and recoil.
The battle tested Scots of Wallace’s made a foil downhill charge towards the bridge; while in the meantime a masterly movement was executed by Sir Andrew de Moray, who by a quick detour got in between it and those who had already crossed the river, completely cutting off their retreat. Confusion ensued on the part of the English, and discipline was lost. Wallace, as soon as he saw the movement for intercepting their retreat achieved, pressed on with greater force.
The half-formed columns of the English on the north bank of the river gave way, and many of the heavy-armed cavalry were driven into the river and drowned.
The Old Stirling Bridge
Surrey, sought to retrieve the fortune of the day by sending across, at a moment when the bridge was open, a strong reinforcement with his own banner; but, unable to form amid the recoiling masses of their own infantry, they only added to the confusion and slaughter, being assailed on every side by Scottish spearmen (probably schiltrons).
The schiltrons, (prounounced skiltrons) are agreed by most historians to have been first used successfully at Falkirk not at Stirling, but it is likely that the units, untrained as yet, were already in existence to use against the overwhelming numbers of English mounted warriors and knights. The basic schiltron was a mass of Scottish spearmen wielding unusually long 12 foot spears in tight formations such as oval rings or box shaped infantry units. The oncoming charge of the heavy or light cavalry would not be able to break the tightly packed ranks of spearmen and the horses were usually impaled by the spears. Before long the knight was pulled easily from his mount and slaughtered by the Scots on the battlefield. This ingenious invention is credited to William Wallace himself.
At the moment Surrey’s reinforcement was on the bridge, it parted and crashed into the Forth under the weight and strain of battle. This collapse, of which their are several versions, was a catastrophe to the English, together with the passage of the river by a body of Scots at the ford, when they fell on Surrey’s rear, decided the victory for the Scots. A large number of English were drowned in attempting to cross the stream.
The treacherous Scottish barons who served in Surrey’s ranks — one of whom was the Earl of Lennox — now threw off the mask, and, with their followers, joined in the pursuit, when the flight became, as usual in those days, a scene of barbarous slaughter. It was common for the winning force to try to ride down as many retreating enemy soldiers as possible and to put them to the sword. What we would often think of as “chivalrous” knightly warfare, was in actuality, some of the most brutal and bloody hand to hand combat ever practiced to a high art by men of any era.
Surrey, after making a final attempt to rally his beaten soldiers in the Torwood, on being assailed by Wallace again , resumed his flight to Berwick, and thence sent to his master the news of his humiliating defeat.
It is claimed by several of my sources, that William Wallace supped that night in a grand victory feast with his companions in the castle of Stirling. All except one — Sir Andrew de Moray, Wallace’s most able friend and ally, was mortally wounded and never recovered from injuries he received in the battle of Stirling Bridge. He died weeks later in bed of infection and Wallace was alone in his defense of the realm of Scotland. It is also claimed by several sources that William Wallace was Knighted, by Robert the Bruce , in the forests of Selkirk, and appointed “Guardian of the realm of Scotland” , an office which he held with honour , fidelity and dignity.
By the result of this battle the English were driven out of Scotland, save for Roxburgh and Berwick, in the castles of which two tough garrisons of English maintained a stubborn resistance, till they were relieved by Surrey in January, 1298.
Author/Medieval Historian: Robert M.Gunn Skyelander@aol.com
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