Friday, 14 October 2016

The Battle of Stirling Bridge, 1297

The Battle of Stirling Bridge was fought on 11th September 1297. It was the first of the two major battles fought by an army led by Sir William Wallace, who has gone down in history and legend as “Braveheart”. The 1995 movie starring Mel Gibson presented some of the facts 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.

William Wallace’s revolt

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 King Alexander III in March 1286. Edward 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. His origins are obscure, although it would appear that he was from Elderslie (west of Glasgow). However, this is not certain, and he could have been from Ellerslie in Ayrshire, depending on which Wallace family he belonged to. However, either way it is clear that he was not a Highlander as depicted in “Braveheart”. It is also not disputed that he had a relatively modest background, his father being a local landowner at best and not a member of the Scottish nobility.

Wallace was able to draw many followers to his side, based on his unshakeable conviction that he could defeat the English, which nobody else seemed able to do. He also seems to have had a considerable personal presence, being over 6 foot 6 inches in height and strongly built, so that when he told people that he could lead them to victory, they tended to believe him. Where his military know-how came from is a mystery, but he was able to train and discipline an effective fighting force, particularly in the deployment of “schiltrons”, which were formations of tightly-packed soldiers armed with spears which thus resembled giant hedgehogs.

Wallace was not the only general at Stirling Bridge, as he fought alongside Andrew Murray, a nobleman’s son with more conventional credentials as a soldier, whose troops had already captured a number of English-held strongholds further north in Scotland.

King Edward’s response

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. These were John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Hugh de Cressingham. After Edward’s conquest of much of Scotland he had headed south late in 1296 to deal with more pressing matters, leaving Warenne as governor and Cressingham as treasurer, although neither saw any need to actually stay north of the border.

When it became clear that a sizable force was being massed against the English, Warenne and Cressingham led an army northwards, reaching the safety of Stirling Castle on the south side of the River Forth, while the Scottish forces were arrayed on the northern side on top of Abbey Craig, which is a rocky prominence that is now the site of the impressive Wallace Monument. From there, Wallace and Murray had an excellent view of the English manoeuvres.

Manoeuvres prior to the battle

The problem faced by the English was that there was only one bridge across the river, this being a narrow wooden structure that could only take three horses abreast. Warenne therefore first tried diplomacy, liaising with two Scottish noblemen whose loyalty was more with the English but who might be able to strike a deal with Wallace and Murray.

On the morning of 11th September Warenne got off to a bad start by oversleeping. By the time he had got out of bed and had some breakfast he found that some of his troops had already crossed the bridge but then returned on realising that he was not there. When Warenne was ready they crossed a second time, but then the two intended go-betweens turned up and Warenne supposed that they had come back with a deal agreed with the Scots, so the men were recalled once more.

However, Warenne was mistaken, and no deal had been struck. Instead, he sent over a couple of Dominican friars to try to arrange a settlement, but Wallace was in no mood to make peace, sending them back with a message that left Warenne and Cressingham in no doubt that there was no alternative to doing battle.

The English were quietly confident that their forces were superior to those of the Scots. Although the opposing forces were similar in number, the English were far better armed and trained. It should however be made clear that many of the “English” troops were in fact Welsh, having being forced to fight for King Edward after their own country had been conquered. It was, indeed, partly fear of the prospect of ending up fighting Edward’s foreign wars that had convinced the Scots that they must fight back against the invaders and succeed where the Welsh had failed.

Warenne’s confidence in victory was so strong that he ignored advice that there was a safe crossing point a mile or so upriver that the cavalry could use to outflank the Scots. Had he taken this advice, the outcome might have been very different. However, he gave orders to advance across the bridge.

With the bridge being so narrow, it would have taken half the day to get all the army across. As it was, the horsemen could only cross in such small numbers that they would always be vulnerable to a sudden attack. Added to this difficulty was the fact that the land on the northern side of the river was boggy and totally unsuitable for mounting a cavalry charge. Even worse, the river swung about in huge meanders, and the bridge led straight into one of these.

The first horsemen to cross were led by Cressingham, who was a very fat man, not built for speed, and who was recognisable at a considerable distance. He soon realised that any plans for deploying the cavalry would have to be revised. This would only be possible if they advanced on to drier land, which was only reachable via a narrow bottleneck between two sweeps of the river. There was no way back, because of the press of troops still coming across the bridge.

Battle is joined

Wallace and Murray advanced when they saw that about half the English army was now trapped between the bottleneck and the bridge, surrounded by a deep and wide river.

The result was butchery. The horses panicked and threw their riders, and other horsemen were pulled down and despatched. These included Cressingham himself, whose body was later skinned, the skin being used to make a sword belt for William Wallace. Some of the English troops tried to swim the river but many drowned in the attempt.

Warenne did not cross the bridge but made good his escape together with that part of the army that been lucky enough not to be involved in the slaughter. In all, some 100 English mounted knights and 1000 foot soldiers were killed, with very few Scottish casualties. It was an overwhelming victory. However, although William Wallace survived unscathed, and was knighted for his efforts, Andrew Murray did not. Although it is not clear exactly what happened to him, it would seem that he died of his wounds within a few weeks of the battle.

The Battle of Stirling Bridge had several consequences. One was that it angered King Edward to such an extent that he was determined to have his revenge on Wallace, which he eventually did. Another was that the Scots were given a new self-belief that convinced them that they could resist the English and regain their independence. Although Edward was able to reverse this defeat by victory at Falkirk the following year, he then lost interest in what he now knew would be a difficult cause to win. The defeat of King Edward II at Bannockburn in 1314 was made possible by the spirit engendered in the Scots at Stirling Bridge in 1297.

John Welford