Sir William Wallace, from his Monument.
............and what led to it.
The situation leading up the confrontation of loyal Scots under the command
of Sir William Wallace against the powerful Anglo-Norman army of Edwards I's
Northern English forces at Stirling Bridge is a bit complex.
After a properous and relatively peaceful reign under King Alexander III,
Scotland was enjoying economic success and some degree of peace with it's
southern neighbour England. With Alexander's tragic death in 1286 A.D., 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 A.D.
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 charateristics, 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 force 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 Kinghorn 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 went out in the dark, steep mountains, plunged over a cliff and
was found with a broken neck the next day.
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
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 judgement 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 utilise 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 landownders 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 landownders
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
That being 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 favour 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, seemingly 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
But Edwards bloodlust was not assauged 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, axe 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 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. Also stolen were all of
Scotlands historical records (which have never been recovered) and the Holy
Rod of St. Margaret. 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
Sword of Sir William Wallace.
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?
In Part two we shall briefly look the the man, and the battle itself.