Tuesday, 15 March 2016

The Battle of Falkirk, 1298

The Battle of Falkirk, on 22nd July 1298, was the second and final battle fought by an army led by Sir William Wallace, who has gone down in history and legend as “Braveheart”.

Sir William Wallace

The 1995 movie “Braveheart”, starring Mel Gibson, presented some of the facts concerning the Battle of Falkirk correctly, but by no means all, and it is not safe to rely on the Hollywood version as a true account of what really happened.

In 1297 William Wallace rose in rebellion against the overlordship of Scotland by King Edward I of England. Edward had taken advantage of a power vacuum in Scotland that had existed ever since the death of Alexander III in March 1286. He had demanded the fealty of all the claimants to the Scottish throne (there were 13 of them) in exchange for his help in sorting out the succession, but had been greatly angered when the Scots made alliance with the King of France. Edward’s response had been to invade Scotland, showing no mercy to the towns and people in his way.

Of those who sought to fight back against the English, William Wallace was certainly the most effective. He was no saint, in that his behaviour towards the English was no less cruel than Edward’s was towards the Scots. Although he was clearly a man of violence he also had the good sense to make his attacks where they would be most beneficial, such as raiding the English-held treasury at Scone to give himself a fighting fund.

King Edward was at first dismissive of Wallace and his citizen army, and he dispatched an army, led by two trusted lieutenants, to deal with this minor inconvenience. The armies met near Stirling Castle on 11th September 1297 at what became known as the Battle of Stirling Bridge.

Victory for Wallace was made easy by the crass stupidity of the English, who walked into a trap of their own making and were promptly slaughtered. Whatever the reason for the victory, it was remarkable and overwhelming, with the result that Edward’s war machine, which had enjoyed victory after victory against both the Welsh and the Scots, was brought to a grinding halt by a bunch of amateurs led by an unknown warlord.

In Scotland, the victory gave fresh heart to the rebellion and considerable kudos to Wallace, who was lionised and knighted, thus joining the ranks of the nobility.

Edward fights back

However, King Edward was now determined to rid himself of this thorn in his side. As the “hammer of the Scots” he was embarrassed by this reverse and would not stop until he had his revenge. This had to wait for a while, due to having to fight a war in France, but as spring turned to summer the following year he was ready to get the job done properly, leading a huge army northwards into Scotland. One important feature of this new army was the inclusion of longbowmen, which were to prove decisive in English military tactics for centuries to come.

The progress of Edward’s army was not a smooth one, due partly to Wallace having laid waste vast areas of southern Scotland in a bid to deny food and supplies to the invader. Another problem was dissension in the ranks between the English and Welsh elements of the army. However, just as it seemed as though Edward would have to withdraw from his base near Edinburgh, he learned that Wallace’s army was at Falkirk, only 20 miles away. The opportunity for a pitched battle was one that Edward could not resist.

The Battle of Falkirk

As dawn broke on 22nd July 1298 the two armies were able to see each other for the first time. Wallace had formed several huge schiltrons (defensive formations of tightly packed spearmen that resembled giant hedgehogs) with archers between them. His lightly-armed cavalry patrolled the area, ready to be deployed where most needed, and particularly useful as protection for the archers.

The English cavalry, mounted on much larger and heavier horses than the Scots, were held at bay for some considerable time by Wallace’s schiltrons and were targets for the Scottish archers. However, the stalemate was broken when the Scottish cavalry suddenly decided to desert the field. The reason for this desertion can only be guessed at, and accusations of treachery have been made, but it turned out to be the factor that turned the tide of battle.

The English cavalry could now charge at the Scottish archers who had lost their protection, and they were promptly cut down. The English archers then let fly on the schiltrons, from a distance of several hundred yards, and caused carnage in the Scottish ranks. Having no means at their disposal to fight against the archers, the Scottish spear-carriers could do nothing to save themselves apart from running away, which is what they did. The Battle of Falkirk was over, being as complete a victory for Edward as the Battle of Stirling Bridge had been for Wallace.

The fate of William Wallace

Wallace himself escaped from the battle and turned to diplomacy rather than warfare in his attempt to save Scotland from domination by England. He travelled to France to try to persuade King Philippe to come to Scotland’s aid, but Philippe was not interested.

Edward was not particularly interested, either, in continuing to hammer the Scots. He had got what he wanted at Falkirk, namely revenge for Stirling Bridge, and he was prepared to leave matters at that, apart from one thing, namely bringing Wallace himself to book. This he did eventually when Wallace was captured on 3rd August 1305 and taken to London.

After a short show trial by a kangaroo court, Wallace was condemned for treason and executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Although Falkirk was a crushing defeat, it served to make the Scots determined to fight for their independence. This they were able to do after King Edward died in 1307 and was succeeded by his far less able son. The Scots, under Robert the Bruce, were able to repeat the success of Stirling Bridge at Bannockburn in 1314 and this time there was to be no Falkirk to reverse the result.

© John Welford